Back in 88 I was locked-up in an upper class northern suburb of the financial and mercenary capital of the one of the most organized and vicious regimes of the modern nation state era. I am referring of course to Johannesburg, South Africa. And Circa 88 it was a shit-hole that beggared belief…still it was better than Chilliwack–so I thought, ringed as it was by native reserves and its own decaying system of apartheid.
Already steeped in political practices that ran contrary to much of what passed for the ameliorative palliatives of the cold war, when I left Chilliwack back in 87 for a sojourn in the dog days of apartheid I did so with a sense that history was on my side in the fight.
South Africa would literally fuck my brain. I mean in Canada, in Chilliwack, there were of course massive injustices but they were papered over enough to give one the sense of a slow and steady progress such that one could be, and inevitably had to be, a reformer. Johannesburg 88 offered no such ontological opiate. Things were literally black and white with a couple of deliberate grey area* experiments thrown in. My public school in Joburg catered to mostly the rich, white, privileged and liberal. We had two Asian students, Japanese in fact. The Japanese had been declared white some time before I arrived. Their whiteness was apparently a function of a) their wealth and b), being on the right (white?) side of the cold war.
Besides a couple of the children of the Chargé d’affaires my school was white as white could be all of course completely backed by legislation which made it so regardless of the liberal sentiments of the students’ parents (which with time I would come to see as pretty thin).
It was a fairly plush campus equipped with a large swimming pool, rugby, cricket and soccer fields on separate pitches: the school even could brag of a couple of national cricketers and one alumni who played for the storied Springboks. Although, we did not have a soccer team as soccer at that time was, and as I understand it still remains, largely a black sport. The school had an interior court yard where we would all assemble for role call, general announcements and prefectury inspections. On Mondays we would assemble in the interior hall where we would be given an address by the Head Master (this title of course made me laugh for reasons I could not explain at the time nor dare I explain here). Usually it was rather jolly good waste of 45 minutes but every once and awhile the Head Master (HM) would announce a roll-call of those who had committed such egregious offences the past week that they would need to take some tea with the HM; with a couple lumps of remedial sugar as it were. The HM would then pass the tutelary reigns over to one of his sub-minions while the HM would lead the tea-party out of the hall to his chamber. Meanwhile the sub-minion would prattle on about some rather drab affair: a visit by the local press; the school play; the prospects of that seasons sports teams. About mid way through what was inevitably a drab presentation we would hear a loud whipping of the willow, bamboo, pine, oak or whatever baguette the HM had in his cache, then a crack, and sometimes, only sometimes, a scream: that would be the lads tacking their lumps of sugar.
What horrified me was not the prospect of the pain but rather the wretched perversity. I grew up in a small town and played sports my whole life, and I had a rather intemperate father (by which I do not mean he had a problem with alcohol), thus the prospect of physical pain was not really much of a threat. What freaked me out was the sadist nature of the spectacle. The whole thing was a spectacle of hierarchy enforced by violence and on display to the naked perceptions. That was SA; nothing was left to the imagination, every act of cruelty and savagery was trotted out into the public space for all to witness.
The game was this. Whether your punishment was warranted; just or not you had to take the pain: to scream was to give the bastards satisfaction and thus confirm your incompleteness as a man. Real men took the pain and shut the fuck-up. All of this was of course impeccable training for life as an adult male in the apartheid state of things: know your place; take your vengeance on those below you; and defer to those above you. It really was quite simple and the beauty was that as a white person even if you were an utter failure at this level of society there were always the coloureds and the blacks to lord-over. And the same went for coloureds and then blacks.
The horrific reality was that within each colour group there was a pecking order that was maintained by an elegant and therefore rigorous system violence. The necklacing of the eighties was really nothing more than this. Each colour retained the right to kill those both within their colour group and those below them that violated the norms. Capital punishment was the logic of Apartheid. What so shocked external North American and Western European audiences was the idea that blacks could do this to blacks. Whites executing blacks was understandable; blacks executing blacks was read as savagery: and this was supposedly the sympathetic liberal white read of things.
Me I never understood either the internal or external white read of things. All of it made perfect phantasmagoric sense.
Against this backdrop there was the world wide amnesty tour in which Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Bruce Springsteen would play Zimbabwe. This song caught my naive sense of what had to be the truth:
In so few years later after my sojourn this song would come to replace the collective sense of progress with an invidious hopelessness: