Sunday, April 30, 2006

Flanagan's cause

What happens when an Australian liberal is confronted by the realities of the new South Africa?

The liberal in question is Martin Flanagan, a good test case as he represents so well that caste of Anglo left-liberals who so thoroughly permeated our culture in the 1970s and 80s.

Flanagan’s visit to South Africa began with a bus trip through Johannesburg. The guide was an Afrikaner, a man who “made it clear that he supported what is called ‘the new South Africa’“.

The Afrikaner guide took Flanagan through Soweto, visiting the school where the Soweto uprising began, and then to Nelson Mandela’s house, as well as various other sites significant to the campaign against the old South Africa. By the end of the day, relates Flanagan,

I had got to know our guide a bit. We were sitting in a cafe at the end of the day when he revealed, in general conversation, that his daughter was shot dead by two black youths in a carjacking in Johannesburg two years before. And this man still believes in the new South Africa.

It seems to me a bitter fate for this Afrikaner. The new, more violent South Africa took his own daughter, yet he works to showcase it for tourists.

Flanagan then considers the story of the Afrikaner journalist, Max du Preez. Du Preez was an opponent of the old South Africa and worked hard to bring about its demise. The new order showed little gratitude. After the transition to black power, he went for a job, failed to get it, and was then,

taken outside by the white who headed the selection panel and told there is something he should understand. The job had to go to a black. “History has turned against you, my brother,” he is told.

Flanagan, then, knows what happens to Europeans when they lose political power. They are subject to greater violence and they are increasingly excluded from work. So what conclusion does Flanagan draw about his South African experience? He writes,

What I do know is that returning to Australia from that country is to be aware that we live in a protected reality. We have gone back to the “lucky country” mentality. John Howard is the leader you have when you don’t have to think or care too much.

I don’t know if I could live in South Africa. You’d need strong nerves. But I do know there is something in what Max du Preez said at the end of his book. South Africa has problems far greater than this country’s, but in South Africa you keep coming across a great invigorating passion for the future that is unlike anything here. We equate nationalism with beating the drum on Anzac Day and playing up sporting wins. They have people like the little man who took us through Soweto.

It is striking that Flanagan objects to living in a “protected reality”. This puts him at odds with the most basic of masculine instincts, which is to protect family and tribe from physical harm. It means, too, that he has little sense of what this task draws forth from men.

He is attracted instead to what he calls the “social adventure” of the new South Africa. It is, it seems, a kind of intellectual attraction he feels, as he doesn’t actually want to subject himself to living there. But the idea of it appeals to him, the idea of the drama of living under more extreme circumstances.

And so he comes to admire the Afrikaner guide, a man who appeared to him initially as a fool, but who reveals himself to be so strongly committed to the cause of the new South Africa, that he will serve it loyally even to the utmost cost to himself.

I can’t help but think that Flanagan’s view is a product of the alienation of liberals from what is significant in everyday life. Liberalism presents us with such a pared down individualism, that the more deeply sustaining aspects of our daily lives and our natural loyalties are lost to us. Some liberals respond by looking for causes to commit themselves to.

And what of Flanagan’s cause? Is the South African social adventure likely to lead to a great humanitarian outcome?

Turning just a few pages of The Age from Flanagan’s piece, you find an article about another southern African nation with a white minority, namely Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe has been pursuing the same kind of adventure as South Africa, but for a longer time. The results have certainly been dramatic and Europeans have certainly lost their protected status, but it’s difficult to see the results as positively “invigorating”.

The economy is shattered. Inflation is over 1000 per cent, life expectancy has fallen to the world’s lowest and food aid is required for 4 million people.

President Mugabe, who recently referred to white farmers as “filth” and “murderous thieves” is now inviting some of them back on long term leases to try and restore food production.

But many will decline the offer. Vernon Nicolle is one such farmer who won’t subject himself to Zimbabwean conditions. He lost his land in 2003 to a Zimbabwe High Court judge (not much point in appealing) and is now farming in the Margaret River region of Western Australia.

He thinks it “stupid and naive in the extreme” for white farmers to accept the offer to return to Zimbabwe. As for claims that white farmers would be welcome as long as they remained loyal to Mugabe, he has the following response:

Sorry to be boring, but we as the Nicolle family produced 24 per cent of the national wheat crop. We fed the nation. We thought we were OK because we weren’t political animals, we were just farmers. And when it suited them (the regime), they chucked us off.

So in reality the experiment of living precariously in southern Africa has not bred in Vernon Nicolle a grand passion for the future of his country. There is no invigoration, no great cause to follow. Just a flight to somewhere else – to a place, in fact, which Martin Flanagan believes we should abandon, a place which is, for the time being at least, a “protected reality”.

1 comment:

  1. What is the moral of Mr Flanagan's essay? That we should artificially open ourselves up to tragedy, for the sake of having a story to tell? That we should look down our noses on the Afrikaner diaspora for having a survival instinct? That we should ignore reality and actually admire Judas figures - like du Preez?

    I had a read of some of Mr Flanagan's other pieces. He seems genuinely interested in "national identity" - but because he asks the wrong questions, he becomes frustrated by the lack of solid ground to stand on. Compared to empty, relatively peaceful civic nationalism, the dramas of the "new" South Africa would seem at least romantic to one in search of identity - albeit a one night stand kind of thing, as Mr Flanagan admits.