It has been an interesting week. District 9 has continued to excite much interesting debate, and so has the damned Huntley affair. I have lately been laid low by a virus – relax, it is neither H1N1, nor something of alien provenance – just a middle-ear infection; but it gave me opportunity for many fevered dreams, in at least one of which I found myself living on a rainy pine-infested landscape, sharing a homestead with Wikus, Brandon Huntley and Caster Semenya, who for some reason appeared to be white. The pine forest referencing not so much Brandon’s (now, it seems, perhaps temporary home) but the book I am reading now, Annie Dillard’s gorgeous novel of North American colonial life, The Living. Which is another kettle of fish entirely.
For now, what want to do is to offer a few more thoughts on that fascinating movie. I have been to see it a second time; I have learned a lot from other reviews and from some thoughtful and perceptive comments on my previous post; I have been trawling the internets with delight and alarm. I’ve also had the occasion of an interesting email exchange with Barnor Hesse, one of the more penetrating observers of racism in these ‘post-racial’ times. I thought I would offer for more general discussion and tearing-apart some of what I wrote to him.
Firstly, regarding the ‘Nigerians’. I think a few things can be borne in mind. Firstly, it is undeniably true that the movie serves up a very in-your-face, stereotyped image of the African racial other, with all the signs and signifiers familiar from hundreds of years of racial stereotyping. The ‘Nigerians’, indeed, are almost surrealistically caricatured: as Belle Prannyshake pointed out in her perceptive comments in this blog and elsewhere, they are ‘cannibalistic, lusty, hot:’ one of them walks around with a python around his neck; I swear that I saw one with a hyena on a leash; and consistently the camera emphasises their brutality, their blackness, their bestiality, etc. It is, indeed, strong meat.
Secondly, it does bear remembering that the movie has its origins in a short film very deliberately and consciously seeking to problematize South African discourse about immigrants and specifically ‘Nigerians.’ Blomkamp’s clip ‘alive in Joburg’ is fascinating viewing; one of the best examples of the Brechtian ‘alienation effect’ (ahem!) I have seen: for the movie, Blomkamp interviewed real South Africans talking about immigrants, and juxtaposed the vox pops with footage of space aliens. The decontextualization effected by the science fiction works powerfully and subversively to highlight the dehumanizing logic of xenophobic discourse. As Belle points out, it is dangerous to get into ‘intentions’ when analysing a text, but I do think that we can at least allow them to complicate our readings.
Thirdly – and perhaps this is another place where foreigners will miss out on some subtleties – the ‘Nigerians’ in the movie are not Nigerians at all. The indigenous medical practices attributed to them are to my knowledge not at all ‘Nigerian’ in character, but much more local in nature. Quite a few times, some of them seem to be speaking what sounds like Swahili. I was powerfully reminded of my days of living in Muizenberg, where I would often hear complaints about the ‘drug-dealing Nigerians’ by local whites… none of whom could explain to me why most of said ‘Nigerians’ spoke French. Same in the movie. The ‘Nigerians’ are in fact named as such only by the whites in the movie. In other words, the movie is careful to give us clues that they are ‘Nigerian’ only in the way that Rwandans, Cameroonians, Senegalese, Somalis and Congolese in South Africa are ‘Nigerian’ – viz. only within a very particularly racist gaze. So it is clear that Blomkamp and co are doing something rather complex – not so much offering a racist caricature, as caricaturing racist stereotypes themselves – which is a different thing entirely.
Fourthly, on seeing it a second time, I had the nagging but distinct sense that although the ‘Nigerians’ are portrayed as brutal, bestial, etc etc, there is also a distinct sense in which they are admirable. They are the only humans in the film who do not react to the aliens with squeamishness. They are uncannily like Wikus in one sense (they want to become the Alien); but they are also like the MNU (they want the weaponry). They are at home in the landscape that most humans regard with distaste, and which the MNU can only occupy and traverse with weapons and armoured vehicles. Most importantly, there is an honesty about ‘Obesandjo’s’ lust for power that contrasts very favourably with the MNU’s heartless machinations.
This is linked to a bigger set of underlying issues, which is that I think the Nigerians are deeply necessary to the ‘representative economy’ of the movie, in that they represent a very particular set of ideas and narrative possibilities. In a way, Wikus, the MNU and the ‘Nigerians’ all represent very distinctly different ways of relating to alienness.
This diagram may look familiar to some of you: it looks a bit like a Greimasian semeiotic square, which is a way of exploring conceptual opposition and contrast in a text or representation. In a Greimasian thinking, the opposition between the concepts ‘human’ and ‘alien’ is one that involves not two terms, but at least four: for example, not only human and alien but also not-human, not-alien.
This helps us understand the nuances of this opposition much more clearly. In the above diagram, the horizontal axis, left to right, relates to the ‘alien’/ not ‘alien’ distinction. On the left are Wikus and the MNU – the side of the ‘us’ in racist discourse, defined in opposition to ‘alienness’, and whatever it is that exists in the expelled, cordoned off terrain of ‘District 9’. On the right is the ‘other’, that-which-needs-to-be-expelled (and expelled ever further; as we learn right at the start of the movie, District 9 is not far enough: the nightmare logic of racism is that District 9 turns out to be too close; it needs to be cleaned up and replaced by District 10). And as is very clear from the movie, this is a terrain that belongs as much to the ‘prawns’ as to the ‘Nigerians’.
But that is not the only axis of differentiation. The vertical axis, the axis of up-and-down, differentiates the protagonists according to the extent to which they are ‘human’ – capable of fellow-feeling, kinship loyalty, and vulnerability. This is what separates Wikus and ‘Christopher Johnson’ from the MNU and the ‘Nigerians’: while the MNU and the Nigerians are ‘inhuman’ and heartless, interested only in power and exploitation, the movie links Wikus and the ‘Prawns’ with themes of sentiment and affection (thus we have Wikus’s love for Tanya, and we also have the classic, almost corny Bill Cosby- style father-son bond between ‘Christopher Johnson’ and ‘his’ alien ‘son’). Most importantly, Wikus and the Aliens have this in common: they want to get ‘fixed’. They want to go home.
So the ‘Nigerians’ are not a simple afterthought or a plot mechanism. They embody the possibility of gutsy human survival and adaptation within the badlands of ‘district 9’. They are clearly preferable to MNU: much less calculating, and also much cooler in a kind of post-apocalyptic, Mad-Max way. There is much, one might think, that Wikus might be able to learn from them, and they from him. But the film maintains the separation between Wikus and them: his heart belongs with his ‘angel’ in the white suburbs; even though he has become an alien by the end of the movie, he cannot ‘go over’ to ‘that other side.’ While Wikus might go home, and while the Aliens might fly away to their distant planet, the Nigerians are the true aliens of the film, comfortabe denizens of the crime and war zone.
Which brings me to my fifth point: I do think that the representation of the ‘Nigerians’ is the one place in the film where the movie falters in its ability to unpick the workings of racist ideology. Because, for all of these interesting complexities, the reality is that the movie does not obviously withdraw or complicate its apparent endorsement of the African stereotypes. There are ironies and complexities — but they are evident only to a fairly sensitive and conscious viewer. In fact, the film actively pushes these complexities in side. The crucial flaw, in fact, lies lies precisely in this: it relies for its narrative drive, for its satisfaction of the ‘adventure’, on the antagonism against (and the extermination of) the ‘Nigerians’. So even though the real villains are all white, and even though the movie subtly mocks xenophobic discourse, many audiences will no doubt identify with this ‘othering’, and will cheer when Wikus’s alien exoskeleton kills them all so picturesquely.
So, as I said, a troubling film. But, I think, important and worth taking seriously for all that. In the end, despite these flaws, the movie works powerfully to raise disconcerting questions about identity and ‘othering’ both inside and outside South Africa. As a South African today, where ‘aliens’ are still routinely deported, I think the film is playing an enormously important role in asking questions and encouraging debate about the way in which xenophobic logic and modernity still interpenetrate in our government today. In those terms, it has been massively successful, at least here. And it has relevance beyond South Africa. As many commentators have pointed out, the alliance of brutal violence and bureaurcratic form that it so carefully depicts is found in Guantanamo Bay as much as it is in Gauteng. MNU’s DNA is that of Blackwater and Halliburton as much as it is that of Armscor and Denel.
And somehow – and this, I think is the genius of the film – it has done so in a way that almost perfectly marries form and content. Why does the film ‘need’ to be a science fiction film in order to make its points about South Africa… and why does it take a South African setting to make a science fiction film which feels so grittily real? The answer is, I think, twofold. Firstly, that the best science fiction has always been ‘news from the present’, focusing on what we are through pictures of what we are becoming. And secondly, I think one can say that postcoloniality is futurity. If the future is now, what country better encapsulates that future than South Africa, with its confluence of violence, race, inequality,technology, regulation, despair and hope?
Warning: spoilers follow!
You have to admit: As a premise for a movie it is pretty unpromising. An alien spaceship comes to rest over Johannesburg. Instead of conquering the planet, the aliens turn out to be in crisis: malnourished and in need of rescuing. They end up living in a local slum, crammed together in a rusty shantytown. When human Joburgers complain, a company is called in to move them – but things get out of hand, and it all escalates into car chases and gun-fights. Stated like this, who would be blamed for deciding to give it a miss? It is hard to figure out what kind of movie it could be. Some kind of half-baked take on District 6, set in the wrong city? An American skop skiet en donder movie, with Parktown Prawns as the baddies? When I first heard about the movie, I dismissed it without a thought; and indeed, even today, with the movie doing well at the box office, some reviewers and commentators seem reluctant to take it seriously.
Well, I’ve been to see it and I personally think it is the best movie I have yet seen about South Africa – and specifically, one of the most pentetrating, disconcerting and subversive meditations on the nature of racism and repression in the post-colonial world. District 9 is fresh and transgressive, hilariously funny and absolutely horrifying: brutal, sly, streetwise and in your face. It’s not a voice from the ghetto – it is, completely and incontrovertibly, a white voice – but is a voice from the postcolonial periphery; a voice speaking harshly, grittily and urgently about the surrealism of racism and the confluence of violence and normality here at the edges of the West’s old empire.
But to whom does it speak? Throughout the film, one of my most recurrent thoughts was: how many people who are not from this country will get what is going on here? So many of its references, points and jokes would make sense only to someone who lived here during the years of Apartheid. To some extent the movie is successful because it works on two levels: an international audience can enjoy it simply as a sci-fi thriller, while at the same time there is another layer of meaning, accessible only to those who share the filmmaker’s cultural and political frame of reference. But the key to the film, its centre, lies in its local subtext – while its iconography and genre conventions would be familiar only to hardcore science fiction aficionados.
In some ways, of course, the film’s insistent local-ness is the first thing most critics have noticed about it. The South African mise en scene is precisely and affectionately realised. It’s all there, and beautifully done: the welter of South African accents, black and white (so thick that the producers give us subtitles much of the time), the incessant Afrikaans swearing and obscenity; the endless local cultural references. The movie has a lot of fun with this, parading its provincial roots with a kind of delighted embarassment. The hero Wikus’s tacky Benoni home; his awful relatives; his fading-beauty of a wife; the earnest academics from ‘Kempton Park University,’ spouting platitudes at the camera in their crap hairstyles and shabby academic clothes… we’ve seen it all a million times before, on Special Assignment and Carte Blanche. All the delights of our own ethnoscape – all the more pleasing because it is done with such a light, subversive touch. No wonder South African audiences love it: at the screening where I saw it, the darkness was alive with ripples of laughter throughout the movie.
But more is at stake here. This is not just a remake of Alien with people shouting fok a lot. The movie’s verisimilitude comes with an agenda, and the reality it seeks to describe is very specific. For what you seeing is not just South Africa, but that South Africa that we think we’ve left behind, that we think we’ve forgotten … until you come across a reminder that brings it home to you so forcefully that you realise you’ve never left: Apartheid South Africa; State of Emergency South Africa; forced removal South Africa. This is at the centre of the extended set-piece that forms the heart of the first part of the movie – the long, chaotic sequence where the hired mercenaries and functionaries of MNU, the firm to which the government has outsourced the task of the ‘clean up’ of the ghetto, have their first encounter with the reluctant, soon-to-be-displaced Alien population. It is a cinematic tour de force; one of the most sustained and brilliant pieces of filmmaking I can recall seeing — but I wonder whether any of the movie’s international audience will even understand a fraction of what is going on here.
As anyone who lived with any kind of political awareness through the eighteen years between 1976 and 1994 in South Africa will immediately see, what the film is doing here is to give you an almost obsessively focussed, insistently detailed account of the workings of the Apartheid state’s repressive apparatus as it existed during the regime’s most conflictual years. Apartheid repression was never just about violence. Instead, it was a strange and carefully composed mix of brutal force, racist anthropology, Foucauldian surveillance, and a curious, bureaucratic obsession with the appearance of due process and the rule of law. Every single thing you see in this scene – the harassed, edgy bureaucrats with their clipboards and their explanations; the ludicrous attempts to get the aliens to sign the consent forms prior to their removal to the tent town; the prowling military thugs; the constant threat of violence, spiralling out of control; the chaos and confusion – all of it is precisely how it all worked. Watching it, I suddenly remembered, with vertiginous clarity: Crossroads. KTC. The Witdoeke. Jeff Benzien. Dolf Odendaal. Some of you reading this blog – you were there too. You know of whom and of what I speak.
What makes it brilliant cinema, of course – what makes it all come together as it does, is not just this accuracy; not even the disorienting, vertiginous, documentary-style way in which Blomkamp renders the almost-out-of-control chaos of the engagement. It is above all, the figure of Wikus van der Merwe, surely one of the most unlikely protagonists that cinema has produced in a long while. One of the high points of a pretty impressive performance on the part of the actor Sharlto Copley is his rendition of Wikus during the forced removal, half the time trying to control the whole mad show, and half the time acting as a kind of crazed, geeky curator, speed-talking at the camera and describing in awful English every aspect of what is going on.
The whole point of Wikus, of course, is that he is such a prat. He is thick as a plank. He is awful. He is as unlike a Bruce Willis or a Samuel Jackson as it is possible to be – and this is at least partly because he is Afrikaans. He is not just Afrikaans, he is a rockspider. He is a doos, a chop, a moegoe. He mangles English with hilarious ineptness. He is cringe-makingly uncool: cheesily in love with his ‘angel’ wife, dorkily clumsy in front of the camera, cravenly obedient to authority, crudely bullying to the aliens that he deals with, and horrifyingly inept in his dealings with his Black underlings, whom he patronizes with cheery ignorance. At the same time, in his earnestness, in his desire to be liked, in his bright-eyed and bushy-tailed eagerness to make a success of this impossible, chaotic, disaster of a job, one cannot but like him.
At one level, the character of Wikus allows the movie to have a huge amount of satirical fun with the stupidity and ignorance of his outlook and what he represents, for of course Wikus’s exasperated encounters with angry, uncomprehending, resistant aliens precisely mimic and pillory the carryings-on Apartheid officialdom at its crude and idiotic worst. One of the funniest standing jokes in the movie is Wikus’s relationship with the alien whom he refers to throughout the film as Christopher Johnson. (‘I cannot do the clicks’). From time to time Wikus will stop, fix the camera with his glowing eyes, and start talking about what ‘the Prawn’ needs; what ‘the Prawn’ should do. That was precisely t way in which Apartheid officials used to pontificate about the nature of ‘the Black man’ or ‘the Bantu.’
But this not all that is going on. For all of its attention to historical echoes, District 9 is not simply an allegory about forced removals, and the aliens in the movie are not black South Africans in disguise. Rather, what is happening here is something altogether more significant and ambitious: the metaphors and tropes of science fiction are being used to engage rather more deeply and disconcertingly with the nature of racism itself – with the way that racist ideology and discourse deals with the feared, hated, despised (and desired!) ‘Other.’
This is the heart of the film. In many ways the most disturbing and unsettling aspect of the movie is the rendition of the aliens themselves, who appear like nothing so much as huge, quasi-human cockroaches. They are ‘prawns’, they are ‘bottom feeders’, they appear to be addicted to giant tins of blue cat food; they live on rubbish dumps, they breed. They are disgusting. And that is the point. For – if I may be allowed to wax academic for a bit – the figures of the aliens are, in a sense, nothing other than the exaggerated, concrete rendering of the way in which racist discourse depicts its objects: the way Nazism talked about ‘the Jew’ and Apartheid ideology talked about ‘Coloureds’; the way present-day white racists in Europe (and black and white xenophobes down here!) talk about immigrants; the way Radio Interahamwe talked about Tutsis. By presenting the aliens to us, not as attractive, noble creatures, by making them half-human and half insect, the film constantly trips us up by making the racist gaze our gaze. It confronts us with our complicity with racism, by making us identify with the perspective of the racist, inviting us to feel the revulsion of the xenophobe – and then pulling the carpet from under our feet.
It is this tension that produces what must be the most toe-curlingly awful moment in the film – the scene where Wikus and his men stumble across the breeding house where the alien grubs are feeding on the decomposing body of a cow, and proceed to torch the place. The shack is in flames; from its interior a gruesome series of popping noises is heard; Wikus speaks delightedly to the camera, stammering in his excitement as he explains that that sound is the noise of the ‘little fellows’ exploding like popcorn. On the one hand, we in the audience share his delighted revulsion in the cleansing of that awful, insectile, maggoty interior – and at the same time, we are disconcertingly aware that we are witnessing a scene of genocide. The film will spare us nothing.
Rather more subtly – but perhaps more disturbingly – the same logic is at play in the film’s treatment of the reviled ‘Nigerians’, who are depicted in much the same fantastical ‘othering’ way as the aliens themselves. Like the aliens, the ‘Nigerians’ are rendered as surrealistically horrendous; in fact part of their awfulness is that they live so close to the aliens, doing business with them, even (or so some of the whites in the film fantasize) having sex with them. And no wonder. For in the racist world view, the most terrible thing about the relation with the Other is that the boundary might break down – that ‘they’ might become like ‘us’, or we like ‘them’.
And that, of course, is Wikus’s fate.
It is here that the movie’s location in the genre of science fiction becomes so crucial. For the modern-day science fiction notion of the alien is arguably one of the ways in which the West can imagine and re-imagine its encounters with those it colonised and racialised. Part of the fascination of the science- fictional notion of the alien is that it allows us to imagine an encounter with an ‘other’ that is both like and entirely unlike us – and who therefore brings the thrilling possibility that ‘they’ might do to ‘us’ what ‘we,’ the whites, the Northerners, have done to blacks, to Indians, to ‘natives’ on so many places of own world. ‘Take us to your leader’ says the tall ambiguous figure… And then? Do they come in peace? Are they wise? Do they bring technology or miraculous medicine? Do they invite us to join an interstellar commonwealth of worlds? Or do they eviscerate us, turn us into slaves, eat our children, take our land?
This is what makes Wikus’s journey so wrenching and profound. The compelling and mysterious thing about the aliens in District 9 is the deep ambiguity that they represent. Are they a culture of superbeings, more advanced than us? Their spaceship, looming hugely over Johannesburg, seems to suggest that. Or are they cockroaches; depraved, subhuman, corrupt; so decayed that even with all their weaponry they are nothing but victims? That question hangs over the whole movie — and nowhere more disquietingly than when Wikus realises that he is physically turning into an alien. What does this transformation mean? At one level, it is a fall into death, it is the body rotting: teeth falling out, nails dropping off, the white skin flaking, sliming, growing black scales. But it also brings with it a strange promise: the possibility of a different relationship with the aliens – and of course, the ability to manipulate all that awesome weaponry.
All this comes together in one of the most inspired moments of the whole film. Wikus and the alien ‘Christopher Johnson’ are in the bowels of the MNU building. They have secured the vial of fluid that they need to effect their escape plan. They are in a firefight: the scene is indescribably chaotic, with junk and destroyed equipment scattered all around, gunshots, bullets flying everywhere. A moment ago, horrifyingly, they stumbled across the lab where the MNU has been torturing and conducting medical experiments uponthe aliens. Wikus protests his innocence – I did not know this was happening, he says – but his protests sound feeble and unconvincing even to us. By now we are used to anthropomorphising ‘Christopher’, and we can see the horror and the pity – and the rage – that we imagine flowing through him as he looks at the ravaged body of his murdered kin. We can see that he would be entirely within his rights to smear Wikus then and there, and go his own way. But he runs across the passage to join him, and together they crouch behind a bulkhead, the room filling with smoke and the thunder of gunshots, firing madly round corners, covering each other as they dash down the passage. And suddenly we are watching … a buddy movie. I thought it was the most thrilling moment in the whole film- not because of the excitement of the action, but because the panache and the knowingness with which the movie draws upon – and re-invents – the genres within which it operates. There are many movies in which the aliens are good guys – but never aliens that look like this. Wikus has crossed over to the other side. And so have we. For the rest of the film, we will look at the humans with fear and distrust, and when the mercenary Kobus Venter finally gets his gruesome come-uppance – he is torn apart alive, eviscerated and eaten by a group of aliens – the audience cheers.
So Wikus at last becomes a man: by ceasing to be one. In the final desparate battle of the film, clad in a giant alien exoskeleton that disintegrates around him, he has has nothing left but his courage. We don’t know whether he will ever find his way back to the human side of the fence again. The last scene shows him, completely transformed into an alien now, crouching among the rubble and debris of the ghetto, fashioning a flower out of scrap metal and tin cans. It is a beautiful image – and ever so slightly cheesy. But that’s Wikus for you. You can take the alien out of Benoni, but you can’t take Benoni out of the alien. Strangely enough, we know that Wikus is now more at home on this blasted, fractured landscape than he has ever been in his life.
So, a strange and disturbing film; disorienting and discombobulating at more than one level. It is thoroughly and utterly South African, but it inhabits its post-human cyborg sci-fi imaginary with knowing Northern familiarity. It is clearly intended to comment and question on racism and xenophobia (it started life as a short movie questioning South African attitudes to, among others, those dreaded Nigerians) but it gets its effects through forcing you, the viewer, time and time again, to be the racist. It is affectionately patriotic, but it frames its local and regional content by consistently ridiculing it. It crackles with life and energy, but the landscape is the landscape of death: decayed, raddled, crumbing, strewn with garbage . The moments of beauty in the film are the lingering shots of shantytown filth, settling gently in the breeze. Above all, it is resolutely non-serious. This is where the film stands head and shoulders above most other attempts to say something about our past. At last we have a film that is not pompous, does not moralise, does not offer lessons. It does not attempt to be blameless. Instead, it parades its own crudeness. This is South Africa, it says. A great place, as I said earlier this week, for trauma. This is how awful we are. This is what we are like. Could you live here?
There’s one last inversion. One of the most abiding images in the film is of the alien spaceship: huge, threatening, enigmatic, hanging over the Joburg skyline. It is ominous, brooding (hanging there like the future, says one friend of mine; like the mines under the surface of the city, says another). And it looks so right that next time I am at OR Tambo international airport, I know that I will reflexively look up to see if it is still there. But the continual presence of the ship forces one more question. Who is it who arrived, uninvited, in South Africa? Who is it who came one day in a ship, and stayed, and did not leave? In Johannesburg: who are the aliens?
I have been stewing away of late, trying to get an angle on the tangled state our current debate – or is it a non-debate? – on race and change in South Africa. The issue has been pretty much in all of our faces of late: the ever-deepening ditch into which our Judicial Services Commission and Judge John Hlope have been digging themselves; the increasing shrillness of the slanging match between Julius Malema and those who seem unable to resist responding to him as his beloved enemies; the horrendous mess that’s been created around the gender status and testosterone levels of Caster Semenya (Zola Budd really feels a long time ago now, doesn’t she); and last but not least, the news that one Brandon Huntley, a white South African now resident in Ottawa, has managed to get himself awarded refugee status on the grounds that, as a white person, he was not safe in his country of origin.
There is not much that is sublime here, and plenty that’s ridiculous. So much heat, so little light, so much obfuscation. The sky is dark, if I may mix a metaphor, with red herrings coming home to roost. Judge Hlope, a champion of transformation, a fighter for the Africanisation of our justice system? Don’t make me laugh. His actions have consistently been grasping and self serving and as a jurist he has been utterly conservative. All this talk about him being marginalised for questioning the lack of transformation in the judiciary is so much obfuscation. Caster Semenya, a latter day Saartjie Baartman? I am sorry, I don’t buy it. Why is the International Association of Athletics Federations racist for wanting her testosterone levels to be tested? Questions about her gender, it appears, were routinely raised by black athletes at home throughout her career, and her coach is an disgraced East German steroid peddler notorious for diddling his charges’ hormone levels; in fact, one of his charges subsequently had to have a sex change to become a man. As for Brandon – well, comment is superfluous, isnt’t it? Though some loons have cheered at this news, most white South Africans actually inside the country have responded with bafflement, irritation and ridicule to his attempt to portray himself as the member of a latter day racially persecuted diaspora. If he absolutely has to go and live in a place where the temperature routinely is 20 below, can’t he apply for a work permit like an normal person? Does he not have any marketable skills? And why does he have to try to portray Mowbray — boring, middle class Mowbray, I ask you — as a latter day Warsaw Ghetto for lahnis?
And at the same time, what space is there for argument? Everything that can be said about this tedious contentiousness is already so perfectly obvious, it is depressing even to have to put pen to paper. If you buy into any of these ridiculous stories, it is doubtful that facts or reason will make any impact; if you see through them, nothing needs to be said, does it?
This morning, however, it all clicked nicely into place. A colleague and I were driving into work. Down Modderdam road, in sleety rain, on the first day of Spring, in his Mazda 3. My colleague was recounting the stories of an acquaintance of his, a medical doctor from the UK, who was down here on holiday. South Africa, it appears is a much sought after destination for UK and European medical students looking for internships. The gruesome reality is that our country, with its legacy of chronic poverty, inequality and violence, presents a young doctor with opportunities for work experience that are simply unavailable in the calmer North. Or as my colleague rather baldly put it, South Africa is a great place for trauma.
A great place for trauma. That should be our slogan. Way back in the mists of time, some bunch of advertising consultants decided that we should be marketed as ‘the world in one country’. Back then, I used to find it odd that you would want to brand and market a country as if it was a detergent. Clearly I was young and naive then. Since then, we have been through many re-brandings. Currently, South Africa’s brand as a country is that we are ‘alive with possibility’. I am sure you will agree that that, not to put too fine a point on it, just sucks. It weak and unconvincing even as far as branding taglines go. It just reeks of focus group. Instead, consider ‘South Africa – a great place for trauma’.
It says it like it is, doesn’t it? In the first place, it puts centre stage our national history of violence and violation. No need for Brandon to argue it to a Canadian court in detailed argumentation. It just says so, right on the label.
Secondly — and this is the point — it’s captures our national discourse to a T. As Colleen says, it’s how we think. Trauma is what we do. Give us a situation, and we will turn it into a story of victimisation. Black people feel like victims. White people feel like victims. Poor people are victims, clearly. Rich people talk like the biggest victims at all, and have the bandwidth with which to whine about it at length, as well. And if you are tired of the victim position, why, there are all these other predictable positions you can occupy. You can be the rescuer, pointing out the marginality and powerlessness of the victim without ever having to confront the possibility of change. Or even more deliciously, you can become a vengeful persecutor, taking out your rage and pain on someone who richly deserves it! We’ve had three hundred years of it – it’s one of our key skills, and it looks like we can go on for a good few years more.
What gets lost, in this cult of trauma, in this identification with the victim, in this rush to be blameless?
A lot, I think.Nuance is lost. Interest is lost Above all, compassion gets lost, and realism, and the ability to make real differences, small as as they might be. The possibility of conversation is lost in the self-righteousness of anger. In this discourse, the enemy of your enemy is your friend, even if he or she is a psychopath or a narcissist, or just a fool. All that is left is the pressure to choose your corner, your predetermined position, and to fight in it.
And most importantly, no-one ever needs to look into the mirror. No-one ever needs to ask, what is my role in all this mess?
And that’s a pity. Because I don’t know how anything can get better, if that question is not asked. If that boring, that irritating, that depressing question is not asked.
Le Guin’s new book is a subtle work, low-key in many ways; presenting itself as a footnote to history, a gloss on another story. It is a slight departure from familiar genres for Le Guin: instead of taking us off to one of her beautifully realised alternative worlds she pays a visit to one created by another storyteller. The storyteller is Vergil, the story the Aeneid, and Le Guin’s story fixes on one of the marginal characters, the all-too-convenient princess, ‘now ripe for a man, now of full marriagable age’, whom the hero marries in the end, but who never gets to say a word herself. Le Guin’s project is to let her speak, to tell the story from her perspective: Vergil’s story still, but from another point of view. A humble work then, in some ways, a tribute by one writer to another, and a little academic – obscure even – for readers accustomed to her marvellous fantasies. But like its central figure, Le Guin’s book is much more formidable than it seems: through the elusive voice that speaks here, shifting and uncoiling like a thread of smoke in still air, Le Guin addresses a wide range of issues – the use of power, the differences (as always!) between men and women, the meaning of war, cruelty and violence; and the nature of the creative and artistic process of storytelling and mythmaking itself. Most of all, as my friend Colleen perceptively points out, it is a reflection on the prehistory of Empire, on how we might imagine a good society: it is an attempt to recover and remember what it is to be virtuous, pious, heroic, a good citizen — not in Vergil’s world but in ours, our Rome, in the day of the current hyperpower.
Letting Lavinia speak is of course not a new thing to do. Le Guin’s book is powerfully reminiscent of Christa Wolf’s devastating Medea, in which the anti-heroine of the original Greek drama tells the story from her side, and reveals who really killed the children. Wolf’s book is a revisionist feminist re-telling of a radical kind: not only does it seek to vindicate Medea, it also seeks to reframe the story of Greece and the start of Western antiquity in the context of the death of the old goddess religions and the birth of the new patriarchal orders. And Le Guin herself has done this before in the Earthsea stories: the brilliance of Tehanu and The Other Wind, of course, lie precisely in their critique of the wizardry of Roke, looking at that masculine world of power through female eyes. Lavinia seems at first glance to be another project of this kind: a rethinking of the ‘his’ in history, that kind of thing.
A few chapters in, of course, you realise that this is not exactly what is happening. (‘I am not the feminine voice you may have expected’, she rather knowingly says early on. ‘Resentment is not what drives me to write my story.’) Lavinia is no Medea, nor does she speak with the radical female anger of an Antigone or a Cassandra. She is a dutiful daughter, a good mother, a loving wife, proud of her son. Her most radical act is not to choose freedom, not to leave the citadel of masculine power, but to enter it, to consent to being given away like a possession by her father to a man she does not know. Most astonishing is the portrayal of Amata, Lavinia’s mother, as a manipulative witch; Amata’s subversive escapade, her attempt to use Dionysian tradition, the ‘women’s religion’, to thwart Latinus’s plans, is rendered as mad, hysterical, irrational, deranged. This is not what you expect from a feminist re-telling: no wonder so many reviews of the book sound a little perplexed.
The second disorienting thing is the mode in which the story is told and the nature of its claims to truth. Early on, Lavinia tells us she knows she is only a character in a story, and time and time again as the story progresses, she reminds us that all this is really happening in a poem. Most interestingly of all, the crucial events in the story pivot on Lavinia’s meeting with Vergil, ‘her’ poet, the man who imagined her. He appears to her in the forests of Albunea— or is it that she appears to him as he lies dying in his ship…? It is all most disorienting, as if Genly Ai were to speak to Le Guin on the ansible, asking her for advice; or as if Frodo were to see Tolkien in Galadriel’s Mirror, writing away in his Oxford study. What is going on?
The answer, of course, is that Lavinia is as much about the process of writing and imaginative creation as it is about Lavinia the woman. In fact, as Le Guin points out, we are not sure whether Lavinia ever existed. After all, she is only a name handed down in myth: she exists only in a story. Vergil invented her. Or did he? He sat down at a table, started to write, and she came to him of her own accord. This is one thing about which Le Guin has always been quite clear: that imaginative storytelling when properly done is a process of exploration, of discovery; not of goal-directed making. To find out who Ged was, who Shevek was, who Tenar was, Le Guin had to let them speak. And if the writer be true to her art, what will emerge will always be something more than she could ever have intended. Now I in you without a body move: through her something more than her will speak, the voice of Story as it comes into emergence. In this way, the true storyteller is not unlike the wizards of Roke, with their powers of naming and their fateful ability to summon the spirits of the dead. Perhaps the most touching passages in the story are the long conversations between Vergil and Lavinia; where the poet at the end of his life is visited by his neglected creation, and says Speak to me! Tell me who you are! But in truth it is Le Guin, not Vergil, who is the summoner here, and through her that Lavinia speaks.
So what does Lavinia have to tell us? What stands out most of all is her voice, her tone. Though the events she speaks about are often terrible, her tone is gentle, elegiac, discursive. She dwells sensually on the lived texture of everyday life; recounts unflinchingly the most brutal events; reflects coolly on men’s and women’s weakensses and flaws; remembers warmly and generously the people she loved. As you listen to her, Lavinia emerges as a formidable woman, fully inhabiting the place allotted to her in her society — fully inhabiting it and more. For as the story makes clear, Lavinia is the shaper of events in this story, the one who changes the course of events. It is she that causes the war, it is through her choices that Aeneas comes to settle in Latium, that a new city is founded, that a new dynasty comes into being; a dynasty that leads to nothing less than the founding of Rome, the creation of a new empire, the unfolding of events that lead to this civilisation, to us, reading and writing here, in the twenty-first century. Through her choices she becomes the pivot around which history turns; and this is so even though her choice, her act, is nothing more (and nothing less) than to accept her fate, to sink her teeth, like Annie Dillard’s weasel, into the throat of necessity as it seizes her in its talons.
This gentle voice, then, if you pay attention, is in truth a formidable one. Like Antigone, like Medea, she does not give way as to her desire; but her radical act is not to leave the city of the patriarchy, but to act within it, to speak (and to speak sincerely!) in the voice of duty, the voice of piety, to speak as the king’s daughter, the hero’s wife, the servant of the gods, the prince’s mother. Following always the path she must go. That is not lightly done, as Le Guin often reminds us: if you seek to follow the Way, you may not know where you will end up. There is a darkness in this story, the source both of its elegiac tone and its moral force; for Lavinia’s voice is the voice of a woman who has accepted death, who accepts pain, who accepts even war and violence; accepts them as part of what the world is, part of what is given; and seeks not to avoid them, but to know how to act rightly within them. Alongside Gifts, it is in some ways Le Guin’s darkest work, most concerned with violence, with unmaking, cruelty and death. Much of the sensual beauty of the story comes from this acceptance of fragility: we are always conscious, as we see the beautiful hillsides and the fertile groves of Lavinia’s Latium, that life exists in the presence of death; that lasting peace always comes after – and ends in—war; that Latinus and Aenas’s kingdoms, reigns of peace and plenty, are doomed to fade; that on Aeneas’s shield Lavinia sees the dark cloud that will rise into the sky in the last war, when the world ends and the very earth burns. An harsh vision indeed, harsh and austere, but it is the ground of Lavinia’s being, and of Aeneas’s too, it is what constitutes their piety, and ultimately, it is, I think, piety that this book is concerned with.
Piety? Even the word seems odd today. “By that word,” says Lavinia, “I meant responsible, faithful to duty, open to awe.’ But what can we moderns do with piety? That is a good question, and it leads, I think, to a consideration of what Lavinia has to tell us who live today. As I have mentioned, my friend Colleen has put her finger on the nub (as she so often does): in Lavinia, le Guin gives us a vision of Rome before it was an empire, and it is indeed significant that she chooses Rome; for when ‘America’, the present hyperpower, the present Empire, chooses to recognise its own imperial nature, it is precisely in Rome that it sees its image. And no wonder: in its grandiosity, its military might, its traditions of masculine heroism and civic virtue, Rome is indeed a flattering mirror in which America can regard itself. And this means that today – as the corrupt empire heaves and struggles in its troubled sleep, as it unleashes death and war across the world, as it erases freedoms in the name of liberty, and crushes livelihoods in the name of enterprise — the critique of Rome might give us food for thought.
I think it is here that Lavinia’s subtle subversion really lies. At a time when the religious right has hijacked the language of morality, of family, of piety and masculine virtue, Le Guin’s act is not to leave the city, not to walk away – this time – from Omelas, but to speak within it: to ask what piety, what virtue, and what heroism in war could mean. She shows us Rome before it was a empire, and what those values were before they were corrupted. And what we see is not the utopia of Anarres, or the wise and patient Taoism of the Ekumen, but a society much like our own: in which violence and cruelty and war exist; one deeply shaped by class and gender hierarchies; a world of kings and slaves and masters. But it is a world in which piety is possible: in which the young woman can speak to her father, and he will listen; in which slave and master are bound not just by coercion but also sentiment and common humanity; in which the armies, in the middle of the fighting, come together in ritual sacrifice; in which farmers are warriors, and warriors farmers; in which humans seek not to conquer the world, but to live within it, part of a larger order, a larger story, in which they are merely a thread.
So. The summoner calls forth the spirits of the dead. Through her, the Empire dreams; the Empire of which she herself, dutiful daughter, is also a part. Like any dream it is brief, evanescent, many-layered, dark, evocative. Like any dream remembered, it will go its own way now, speak in its own voice those who listen. What does it say? I think it says that we are lost. That in seeking to master our fate, in seeking to tell our story as if we ourselves are it sole author, we have lost the way. That we should do what is right to do, not because we will be rewarded, because what follows will be what should follow. That your beloved will be taken from you, but that you must love him nonetheless. That peace is precious; that war always comes. That life is cruel; that life is sweet. That we should offer praise, and ask for blessing, and seek to know our fate. That empires die. A gentle voice, implacable: a voice for today.
OK, so once again I find myself reviewing an animated film based on an acclaimed book I have not read. What’s more, again it is a movie about a young girl’s growing to adulthood. Is this a trend? Oh, well, we will have to wait for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to establish that. For now all I will say is that this appears to be a resonant theme: the power of animation to convey a world rendered fantastical, viewed through a little girl’s eyes. Resonant either for me, or for my culture, or both. I wonder why.
The movie, in this case, is Persepolis, the lovely film based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novels of the same name. It is a very different film, in many ways, from the films I reviewed in my earlier blog: it is not about Wonderland, the ghost world or the hidden world beyond the stairs at all, but about a real country, Iran; and the drama it presents is not a mythopoeic one (connecting with the numinous, encountering sexuality) but political: the impact of war, the risk of imprisonment, the threat to freedom. Perhaps more subtly, while Coraline, Spirited Away and Pan’s Labyrinth are characterised by a deep ambivalence about a femininity which is both feared and desired, in Persepolis it is masculinity which is ambiguous, double edged: the beautiful boys, the brave men, the fatherly God that Marji loves, versus the weak thugs, the bearded fools, the uniformed goons that threaten her world. Conversely what stays with us as viewers (and what saves Marji) is the resilience, the humour, the irreverence of the women, especially that lovely grandmother. But at a deeper level, there are some resonances. Like those three films, Perspepolis pivots centrally around the young woman’s task of growing up (or more precisely, as Le Guin puts it in one of her recent stories, to make a soul); and like them it uses the language of fantasy and animation to to drive home forcefully the way our intentions and imaginations shape our reality, and just how high the stakes are.
In this case, the stakes are life and death. What I found most striking about Persepolis was its evocation of the darkness and fear that becomes part of life when we live with state repression. Well, for me at any rate. I don’t know how a middle-class American or French person would see much of this film, and how they would experience much of the imagery of this film: crowds marching in streets; riot police shooting with live ammunition; government goons balefully patrolling apprehensive citizens; freedom expressed furtively behind closed doors; late night telephone calls with grim, secret news. The stuff of CNN and stories, for those who grew up in the industrialised North (well, for the white, middle class ones anyway) — but all too familiar for anyone who has lived through times of social conflict and authoritarian clampdown. For me the film powerfully evoked memories of the South African 1970s and 1980s. In particular, it reminded me of the surreal reality that takes hold when society is shaped by these issues and conflicts: how war, propaganda, authoritarianism and surveillance impose their unreal, malign normality, depicting a constrictive ideology as the new norm, and rendering everyday things (kisses, boyfriends, visits from uncles) into things contested, fragile, risky, malign, dangerous. And as those who have lived through such times know, what is particularly corrupting about them is how easy it is to start accepting the unacceptable; how easy it is to stop thinking and feeling — and how difficult and frightening to go against the flow.
The artwork is central here. It is not only that Satrapi’s visual language is elegant, sparse, and beautiful; it is not even the way in which she appropriates the Western language of comics and graphic novels and links it to the older traditions of Persian art, German Expressionism and radical political cartooning. It is that the possibilities of animation can take the viewer and the teller into places where live action and photography cannot so easily go. The movie’s visual language – the homeliness and affection with which the family members are drawn; the elegance and ornateness in which its Persian roots will from time to time infuse the frame (the falling jasmine blossoms at the end are in themselves worth a minor treatise!); the stark grimness and anger in the renditions of war, repression and death – is central to a very particular artistic, political and emotional task.
Here the film works very much in the way that magical realism worked in the political protest novels of the Latin American and Eastern European eighties and nineties. In a context where the power of the media, the pressure of conformity, and the closed moral universe of totalitarian thought try to shape the boundaries of what can be imagined, magical realism was a form that could be used to contest that reality, call its bluff, insist on its inherent surrealism, enlarge the space available for the spirit and the mind.
Marji’s experience is similarly at risk. She is is a historical freak: the child (however distantly) of royalty dreaming of socialist revolution; part of a tiny elite social class trapped in a country sliding into war; a young woman exploring her sexuality in a misogynist, real-life Republic of Gilead; an exiled Persian typecast as a savage by the spoilt Philistines she meets in Germany. Indeed, one of the things the film shows particularly clearly is that this is not simply about the fight between authoritarianism and the desire for freedom; or between the values of cosmopolitan modernity versus those of fundamentalism. True: Marji loves heavy metal, and sings along (pretty badly) to the theme song for Rocky. But what she stands for ultimately is not the west, but the cosmopolitanism, the civilisation, the desire for liberty in Iranian culture: an ancient and rich civilisation misunderstood by the west and hated by Iran’s present-day patriots.
There are not many mirrors in the world that can validate such a reality, such a beleaguered experience. And part of the film’s point is its faithfulness to this reality. It gives us the world as she sees it, limned in the authenticity of her projections. For me, much of the value of Persepolis is that it uses animation as form in a way that allows it to insist on the integrity and value of the emotional experience of political reality: the heart’s experience of war, repression, conflict, choice and loss.
I think all these elements come together most effectively in the early part of the film, where we see the last years of the Shah and the first years of the revolution through the naïve eyes of Marji as a little girl. Like the Hernando brothers, (whose Palomar stories this film powerfully reminds me of) the film is particularly admirable when rendering children’s experience. The storyteller can be fiercely in solidarity with the fierce little girl, while still letting us, the audience, see her innocence, her trustingness, the larger threatening world she still does not understand. Above all, she can set up the central problematic of the story: how will Marji make her soul, how will she become a woman of integrity; how can she keep that fierce, indomitable heart while surviving in this treacherous world?
How indeed? How does Marji handle this potent and difficult terrain? Can she succeed in maintaining the integrity of her heart, as her grandmother repeatedly enjoins her to, under these dire conditions? What does she gain, and what does she lose?
The answer is not easy to find. In some way the movie tries to suggest that the story has a happy ending. Marji escapes repressive Teheran; leaves for freedom, as the official synopsis tells us, “optimistic about the future, shaped indelibly by her past”.
But I am not so sure. I think the message the film conveys is altogether bleaker and more grim; and that the story we see is perhaps more about a loss of hope, the impossibility of a certain kind of integrity.
Indeed, my clearest sense in watching the movie, as the narrative went on from its initial, stark beginning, was that it slowly but surely lost steam. The drive and focus of the initial set-up is somewhat dissipated as we follow Marji through the trials and tribulations of early adulthood (she gets depressed; she marries and divorces, a friend dies during a police raid on an illicit party). The young Marji starts off fierce and grandiose; the darling of her radical uncle Anoush’s eye, fantasising that she will be a second prophet, caring for the poor and protecting older women from harm. By the end of the film what is at stake is her personal freedom: the right to drink alcohol, the right to hold a lover’s hand, the right to wear make-up. Now, let’s not disrespect that: such personal freedom is vitally important and eminently worth fighting for, and in any case it is clear that this narrowing of her concern is chiefly an effect of the ever increasing constrictions visited upon Iranian women by misogyny and obtuseness of the priesthood and the regime. But the story shows that even the battle for these tiny freedoms can lead to impossible choices. When the story ends with a second exile, it is an anticlimax, a defeat. Nothing is resolved: Marji escapes repression; but she will never see her grandmother. Freedom, the voice-over sententiously says, always has a price. But the price is greater than that. Marji loses not only her grandmother, but Iran.
It is a harsh and dispiriting message. In the end, the film seems to suggest that the contradictions Marji faces cannot be resolved. The heart cannot hold together all of this: not freedom, beauty, love of family, the desire for justice, love of Persia, and integrity. Something has to give; something, indeed, has to be sacrificed. Marji’s uncle Anoush loses his life. So does the passport-maker’s cousin, raped before she is hanged. Marji, who does not want to die, loses the ground she fights on: leaves for grey, rainy France and the never-ending afterwards of the exile. She cannot dwell in Iran; nor can she dwell in France or Germany. She has to live in Persepolis, an imaginary country, a land that exists only in the space of memory, loss, and desire. A bleak message about bleak times.
The name of this blog, a subtle knife, is of course and most obviously a reference to Philip Pullman‘s wonderful book. In the book, the knife in question is a precious and terrible artifact, a knife forged so finely that it can cut through the very fabric of the universe to open up portals between the worlds: it is not only a weapon and a tool, but a liberator, the opener of pathways.
But Philip Pullman’s knife is, of course, far from new. It has been wielded by many. It is, of course, the the sword of reason, the sword of Theory, the sword of discrimination, the sword of intellect. It is Tenar’s fingernail in Tehanu. (‘Who will asks questions of the dark?’ Moss asks. Tenar splits a reed with her fingernail: ‘I will,’ she says…) It is Socrates’s sword, Marx’s sword, Foucault’s sharp scalpel of unveiling. It is Cassandra’s sword of words: bell hooks’s sword, Tony Morrison’s sword, naming what will not be named.
Ultimately at the end, it is Manjusri‘s sword: the sword that punctures illusion, the sword of discriminating wisdom.
About Manjusri’s sword we are told that it is often pictured as tipped with flame, to show that it severs all notions of duality. Manjusri’s sword exists ‘to cut away delusion, aversion and longing, to reveal understanding, equanimity and compassion.’
In a way this captures for me what I think this blog is about. (You will notice I am not sure. I am not planning this blog. I let my fingers do the writing; often I have no really clear idea what will come out). It’s a blog of commentary about art, literature, current affairs. But in particular, I think this blog is about the stuff I write when my bullshit detector winks on. When I feel myself to be in the presence of lies, blandishments, and ideology. When things feel so comforting that I feel I need air. When there is something else going on, something between the lines, a dark and unconscious intention or agenda: when something is in need of naming.
Those are heavy claims, you say?
Indeed they are. But these are heavy times. Swords are needed.
Quick fix, one-click solutions to poverty… I guess they are like the poor: we will always have them with us.
The latest has come to my attention via Dale Williams’s column in the M&G’s ThoughtLeader blog, in which he extols the virtues of something rather unfortunately called the Broccoli project. This is an incentives/awards scheme for the poor. Drawing in part on the models of conditional cash transfer schemes like those of Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, and partly on awards and incentive schemes for the rich, the programme proposes to create ways in which poor people can be rewarded for ‘socially beneficial behaviours’: “Vouchers received for positive behaviours such as encouraging attendance of skills-development workshops, staying in school, preventing disease and taking medication can be redeemed at a national retailer for food”. Anybody can buy and give vouchers which, Dale Williams says “ guarantees that a handout at a traffic light turns into a basic food staple such as bread, milk, maize meal or vegetables.” This programme recently won the City of Cape Town’s Global Entrepreneurship Competition, the prize of which is a fully paid entry into the World Innovation Summit in Barcelona, at which it in turn won two prizes: the second prize for the competition, and the prize for the project with the ‘most social value.’ An announcement on the project’s website states that as a result of this excellent showing, the project has been nominated as the World Economic Forum’s “Technology Pioneer Candidate for the class of 2010.
It is clear that the project is going places, and that it has captured the imagination of many fine people. I am not exactly how it beat the – no doubt very stiff – competition. I don’t see any evidence that its impact has been in any way assessed; for that matter I don’t see evidence that its real-world impact was even much of a consideration (it may well have been, but there is no information about any systematic assessment). Certainly they are very good at publicising themselves, and they have a website to die for: as slick and smart as any corporate can dream of. Williams also highlights the innovative way in which the project uses fingerprint technology and barcoded vouchers to sidestep the high administrative costs that usually dog targeted programmes of this kind. Other than that, he focuses attention on the fact that the programme treats participants ‘like adults able to make their own decisions about their behaviours.’ This, he says, is a world apart from ‘a handout which has been the traditional way to help the poor’.
Really now? I am not convinced. I have no doubt about the benign intentions of Marc Anthony Zimmerman, the ‘successful social entrepreneur’ who is the brains behind this project. But the more I push and probe at the reasoning behind this project (or at any rate, the reasoning that is available on the website) the more my doubts increase. Clever the project certainly is, but how much water it holds as an effective strategy about poverty is much more doubtful.
For one thing, I am not sure about the impacts it is trying to generate. Do we actually need programmes that ‘reward’ the poor for ‘socially beneficial behaviour’? Clearly ‘socially beneficial behavior’ is Good Thing. Perhaps especially so, in the minds and hearts of some: indeed, the desire for them to behave so is a well established subject of middle and upper class concern. (I am tempted to wonder whether the rich are excused such a requirement. Maybe their behavior is socially beneficial already. Who am I to judge?)
But let’s leave this question aside and look at what the programme tries to do. Essentially, poor people will get incentivized for doing good things such as attending skills development workshops, staying in school, preventing disease, and taking medication. A poor person who takes an HIV/AIDS test for instance, will get a reward voucher that is redeemable for food or even building supplies.
Perhaps this makes sense to you. Certainly, if you imagine that the problem with poor people is that they do not take part in ‘socially beneficial behaviours’, that that they need to be incentivized to do so, and that food stamps are an effective incentive, you might think all of this is a good idea. But the problem is that all three those assumptions are seriously mistaken.
In the first place, South Africa is not a country where poor people need to be convinced of the value of schooling or training. In places where poor people have not been scraped off the land, it is still possible for many of them to believe that it makes sense to keep their kids (especially girl children) at home and uneducated; and in such places, there is no doubt some justification for using social grants as a reward for school attendance. But this is South Africa. Traditional agrarian livelihoods have been pretty much destroyed. Most poor black South African households know all too well that their only possible meal ticket is a household member with a proper full-time job; and many of them believe desperately that their one chance at that meal ticket is to get their kids through school. In all our research among poor black South Africans, my colleagues and I have not encountered one household where poor people who had any choice in the matter were keeping their kids out of school in order to serve as unpaid domestic labour. Where kids are staying out of school it is usually because parents can’t afford to send them, or because all domestic control has collapsed.
For another thing, much of this faith in education and training is a bit misplaced. It is far from clear that poor people will be much helped by doing things such as ‘attending skills development workshops’ and religiously attending school. Perhaps they would, if the skills development workshops or the schools were any good in the first place. But the sad truth is that for the most part they are not: training workshops that actually effectively impart usable skills to poor people are few and far between, and as for the schools – pardon me, where have you been? We live in a country where the biggest problem in the education is not that the kids don’t go to school but that the teachers don’t; and that all too many of those who do, are not sober. Furthermore — and this is the really grim one — even if the training workshops and schools were to work, they will provide pathways out of poverty for only a small number of people. The unemployment problem that is at the heart of South Africa’s poverty problem is not due to a lack of skills. It is structural. It is jobs that are in short supply, not workers. True, there are parts of the economy where more people with skills are sorely needed; but those gaps are actually rather small. If you were to enskill our millions of unemployed, the result would would not be less unemployment, but lots of skilled people without jobs.
There are of course other areas of ‘behaviour’ where choices do matter: getting TB patients to stick to their medication regimes for instance, or encouraging people to know their HIV status. But it is highly unlikely that a rewards scheme could succeed where other programmes have failed. Decisions about compliance behavior with treatment schedules or decisions about HIV testing are driven by complex and intractable psychosocial dynamics. Fear, stigma, race, suspicion, doubt and superstition all play a role. Johnny Steinberg’s Three Letter Plague is in many ways a deeply problematic treatment of this matter, but he highlights how dark, how irrational, how obscure all of us are when lost on this terrain. Will someone who would rather die than know their HIV status be bribed by food vouchers? I don’t think so.
I use the word ‘bribe’ intentionally, for that for me is the real heart of the matter. For the problem of the programme is that it precisely does not treat poor people ‘like adults who can make their own decisions about their behaviours’. Poor people face difficult choices and trade-offs all the time. Their agency is there, but it is tightly constrained. Risks are high and consequences dire. In this context, people do make adult choices, and they make them all the time. The idea that they can be incentivized around life-changing choices by offers of food seems to me to be insulting.
Ultimately, what drives the thinking behind this programme seems to be a set of very particular, and highly ideological assumptions. At the heart of this nest of assumptions is a right-wing antipathy to social grants and social welfare. It is not coincidence that one of the biggest fans of Mexico’s Bolsa programme is the World Bank. A large part of what fuels programmes like Bolsa and its ilk is the notion that ‘the traditional approach to poverty’ – cash grants and cash transfers are best described as ‘handouts;’ that they need to be tightly targeted if they are used at all, and that cash transfers are preferably to be avoided because they create dependency. Now perverse incentives do exist in some welfare states, but there is very little evidence that this assumption holds in South Africa.’ Some of our research at PLAAS emphasises, the highly empowering, socially and economically enabling role played by social grants and cash transfers.
But that is a matter for another blog. What I want to focus on here is one thing. If ‘treating people like adults’ means anything at all, it must mean allowing them the autonomy to make their own choices and decisions. That, in fact, is one of the reasons why cash grants are so effective. It puts money in the hands of people – responsible, grownup people, most of the time – and trusts that they are best equipped to decide as to how that money should be spent. It could be spent on food, or on shoes, or on school fees. It could also be spent on fixing a roof, or buying a chest freezer for a township business, or on paying a debt. It is the recipient who decides.
But apparently, to the designers of the Broccoli award, that’s a dangerous idea. Let’s not give money to the poor. Let’s decide what they need. Let’s give them award vouchers, redeemable at the tills of a major shopping chain. That way you can click on your link, Shoprite or Checkers or who-ever else can pocket the money, a poor person gets a sack of vegetables, and your conscience is salved.
Are you swallowing it? I certainly am not.