"A tempestuous bunch of people on the way to ... who knows where?"

Andrew Donaldson interviews Charles van Onselen over his new book "Showdown at the Red Lion"

DO not get Charles van Onselen started on "nation-building". He finds the notion utterly risible. 

"It's a manipulative term," the historian and author says, when we meet to discuss his new work, Showdown at the Red Lion: The Life and Times of Jack McLoughlin, 1859-1910 (Jonathan Ball). "Was it Lenin or Stalin who said, ‘When I hear the word "culture", I reach for my gun?' When I hear about ‘nation-building', I just go for the exits, because, truly, you are then in the presence of thieves. And the first thing they'll steal is your vote. But they won't stop there. They absolutely won't stop there. You're in the presence of thieves. Nation-building? Every red light should go on."

Actually, it wasn't Lenin or Stalin, but the Nazi playwright and poet Hanns Johst who came up with the line, in his 1933 drama,Schlageter, "Whenever I hear of culture . . . I release the safety catch of my Browning!" (It was performed for Adolf Hitler on his birthday.)

But no matter. In Showdown, Van Onselen, currently research professor in humanities at the University of Pretoria, notes - in a brief aside - that nation-building in the context of our history was something of a Sisyphean task. When I ask him to expand on this, he does so at length.

"South Africa is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, totally diverse situation that emerged from a set of various historical factors, and the overarching organising device of those who control us politically and who continue to control us politically, is nationalism. And it's not only nationalism, but it's racially-predicated nationalism."

When, he says, this racially-predicated nationalism invariably becomes vulnerable, as it did under the Nats, it then gets an "ethnic gloss". So, it was first white nationalism, then Afrikaner nationalism, and then "sometimes, even within Afrikaner nationalism. it was Cape Afrikaner nationalism".

African nationalism has the same broad racial predication. "Then you start getting Nguni nationalism foregrounded. And then, when you want to do the really fine-tuning, well, we know where the fine-tuning exists. And so it gets narrower and narrower."

South Africa, Van Onselen says, is more of a geographical designation than the name of a country and we're trying to "build a nation in a place that doesn't have a name." He suggests the "American analogy", where the prior identity of US citizens are acknowledged - for for example, Irish-American, African-America or Cuban-American and so on.

But, he argues, that device won't work here. "You can't say that you're an Australian-South African. These are oxymorons. It just doesn't fit. So, trying to do nation-building here . . . What is the unit? What is the social unit? What is the geographical unit? What is the political unit? And it's because we're so diverse that we find it's very difficult to find an organising principle or a coherent or fluid or flexible ideology that is incorporative rather than exclusive. 

"And every time we've tried to get control of this tempestuous, difficult, fractured society by class, by race, by language, all these things, we lack the organising principle. It's not even as if we've had, as an overarching group, some terrible experience - like, say, a war - which has induced a sense of solidarity against a neighbour. We don't even have those sets of experiences. 

"So it is the labour of Sisyphus. We're an illusive, tempestuous, fractured, half-baked, semi-literate, poorly-educated bunch of people on the way to . . . somewhere. But we know not where. We haven't even decided where we are, other than that we're in the south of Africa. It's not a great start, is it?"

And it isn't getting any better, it seems.

"What is the underlying truth here? If you get a nationalist regime which insists on placing its own personnel in all the key strategic positions where national and ethnic identity trumps merit, the system starts to leak, because incompetents are placed in positions where they have too much power and too little money and it short circuits and becomes corruption," he says.

"The more nationalist the regime and the more the insistence on filling itself with its own people to the exclusion of considerations of merit, the more the system will be bent. It will become less rigorous rather than more rigorous."

Van Onselen warns of the "serious danger" of ethnic identity playing a more dominant role in African nationalism.

"For example," he says, "if you look at the fastest growing area of the ANC, in terms of numbers of branches, and numbers of memberships, it's in KwaZulu-Natal. You want to tell me this is pure historic accident or people there are much more enthused? No, this is about insiders, outsiders, defining who we are, who they are, how we wish to assemble the state.

"I think there's now such firm control at the centre of who's in control of us and one of the additional problems you'll now get is the state is starting to run out of patronage. So, when that happens and you've got an ethnic bloc, the next thing is factionalism. So, it's not just that I'm Sotho-speaking, or Tswana-speaking or isiZulu-speaking, it's which faction of isiZulu-speaking am I, because you start to define the group a bit more narrowly all the time."


THE Red Lion Beer Hall was located in an easy-going, racially-mixed area of long-since vanished Johannesburg known colloquially as Frenchfontein. It was here, in December 1894 that McLoughlin, a one-armed Irish outlaw, gunned down George Stevenson, a former member of his safe-cracking gang. Following a botched burglary in Pretoria earlier that year, Stevenson had shopped McLoughlin to detectives in a deal to remain out of prison - he was an informer and had to die.

It is this seemingly straightforward murder that forms the basis of a labyrinthine and exhaustive biography that ranges back and forth across the length and breadth of Britain's imperial adventure, from the "dark Satanic Mills" of 1850s industrial Manchester to the Australian outback via the goldfields of the Witwatersrand before a grim conclusion at the end of a rope in the newly-built Pretoria Central Prison.

Showdown, clearly, is a further exploration of the world Van Onselen first introduced to us in his 2010 history, Masked Raiders: Irish Banditry in Southern Africa, 1880-1899

That book, Van Onselen says, is a sort of "idiot's guide" or overview into Irish marginality. "The question that then comes for the intelligent reader is ‘Yes, I can see it in structure and process and how it all came about but who, exactly are these people?'"

Van Onselen sees McLoughlin as a sort of biographical prism through which he can unpack white South African ethnicity. "If you're of my age," he says, "white South Africans were known as either English speakers or Afrikaans speakers. When you start unpacking the Afrikaner element you'll find that there are Dutch, there are French, there are German components to the thing. 

"And so it's the case with this funny thing of the English speaking South African. It's Irish, it's Scottish, it's American, it's Australian, it's New Zealand, it's . . . . there are all sorts of people involved in this thing. You know, where did all these people come from? What made white South Africans?"

As with much of his work, there are disquieting parallels between the past and the present. When reading of these 19th century desperados - McLoughlin, say, or Joseph Silver, the syphilitic psychopath whose criminal career Van Onselen detailed in 2007's The Fox and the Flies - it is difficult not to think of Radovan Krejcir, George Louca, Vito Palazzolo and others.

This is no accident. "In my particular case," he says, "I've long been interested in the transactional zone between crime and politics. One of the things that characterises South African history is crime as politics - and politics as crime."

It's a theme he'll be exploring more fully in a forthcoming book on the Jameson Raid, which he describes as "the big daddy of politics-as-crime projects" in South African history. It will, he adds, be "an upside-down version" of the Raid.

Traditionally, there were two narratives about Leander Starr Jameson's botched adventure into the Transvaal Republic in 1895. 

"Firstly, it's looked at by Marxists who say, well, there's purely an economic motive here; these are the deep-level mine-owners, they're unsatisfied by the state and the economic arrangements in the South African Republic, they wish to squeeze out more profits, they then conspire to overthrow the state. And of course, there's a large amount of truth in this.

"On other hand, you get the classic imperial historians, saying this is the British empire, it's Rhodes, it's this propensity to expand, they wish to incorporate this place, they wish to subjugate it and thread it into an emerging greater South Africa. So those are the two schools of thought."

But here were leading industrialist-capitalists "turning criminal" and staging a coup d'tat - which was not a "mainstream part of the British imperial repertoire," he suggests. 

"So, whose idea is this? Where do these ideas come from? Who does the actual planning behind the Jameson Raid? What are the models that are informing them. How did they think, if this thing succeeded, they would continue to operate? Those are questions for a social historian, because they go to a social consciousness, predisposing experiences, and when you start doing that, just trust me, you can turn this thing absolutely upside down. 

"It doesn't mean the other interpretations are not valid or all the rest of it, but they are substantially modified when you start asking those questions."


VAN Onselen's regular readers will be aware of his dismay with the curatorship of our yesterdays. As South African print journalism vanishes, so too, it seems, does its past. He writes in Showdown, "Mine will be the last generation of South African historians who can meaningfully offset the archival record (itself in serious disarray) against the everyday experiences of the majority of the population as recorded in the newspapers of the day. The greater the edifice of ‘heritage' in a country, the greater the rot in its real sources of history."

"Johannesburg", it would seem, is such an edifice. The city - the economic hub of the continent - owed its existence only to gold and was otherwise "a completely artificial contrived kind of place", Van Onselen says.

"One of the things that you'd think would be quite well preserved would be [the site] where the original gold was first discovered. That site is just a complete industrial wreck today. Every time they put something up there, it's poorly constructed, it's inadequately managed, it's vandalised. If you were setting up an historical tour of Johannesburg, one of the must-see mandatory points would be here at Langlaagte. An original mining press. A mining stamp. 

"But there's nothing. We don't even have an industrial history in a sense of you could trace the development of the mining machinery over time. We don't even respect that. Now some of it is just about rapacious economic development. You know, the place is not happy unless you've flattened it and built something new. Sandton or whatever."

When I ask about this negligence - disdain, even - we're back with "nation-building".

"For it to be wilful and deliberate would mean some forethought and intelligence and application, albeit to an undesirable outcome," he says. "I think that's beyond us in national terms, we're just not that sort of folk. I think because we don't know who we are, in a corporate, collective sense, and we're always ‘nation-building'. Your history is not mine, and so I'm concerned about mine, or I say I'm concerned, but I'm not concerned about yours. 

"No-one's taken psychological ownership of the past because the past is contested, as is the present. Every government that says it's nation building, says it's keen on history, it's keen on heritage. It's absolute bullshit. Absolute rubbish. They're not concerned. They're not interested. The resources never get put into it. And we're uncertain who we are and whose history it is. And it falls between the cracks."

Showdown at the Red Lion: The Life and Times of Jack McLoughlin, 1859-1910 by Charles van Onselen is published by Jonathan Ball

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