It is getting dark, too dark to see

Jeremy Gordin writes to his children on their future in South Africa

A letter to my children

I’ve tentatively titled this article “a letter to my offspring” because – you two being in your twenties – I can’t very well call you “children,” can I?

A word or two about patriotism.

One of my favourite quotations is Samuel Johnson’s “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. It’s been suggested, however, that Johnson’s biographer James Boswell failed to provide proper context for the quote – that the great doctor was in fact attacking the false use of the term “patriotism” and that he spoke elsewhere in favour of what he considered “true” patriotism.

In one of his lesser-known essays, “Notes on Nationalism” (1945) – you have to look quite hard to find it – George Orwell provides a less witty but probably more-thought-out definition as he tries to differentiate between, and to define, patriotism and nationalism.

“By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

Obviously, I “grew up” (i.e. reached the age, more or less, at which you two are now) in environments in which “nationalism” was ladled down my gullet – South Africa 1952-1969, Israel 1970-1975. Hence my dislike for it. 

Now, a word or two about the Jewish diaspora.

I think I realized pretty early on (not a very complicated realization) that one important reason for Jews having survived as a more-or-less cohesive group through thousands of years of persecution was that, ironically [i], they were dispersed [ii] in numerous countries.

If they came for you in Judah, well at least there were Jewish communities spread across North Africa; if they came for you in Spain and Portugal, there were Jews in north Africa, southern France and the Rhineland; if they came for you in Germany and eastern Europe generally, there were Jewish communities in the US.

All of which is to say – as George Steiner wrote in “A Kind of Survivor,” his essay on the mass murder of Jews in Europe – that: “To a man who may be in desperate flight across his own border, whose graveyard may be ploughed up and strewn with garbage, the nation-state is an ambiguous haven”.

It’s also to say that even Orwell’s more beneficent “patriotism” doesn’t smell so sweet to me, that even gentle manifestations of “patriotism” tend to put my teeth on edge; something to do with my DNA perhaps.

But let me bypass for a moment the more horrific episodes from Jewish history and just think about ordinary Jewish people who voted with their feet for what we’d call “economic reasons”.

When it became clear that living in Russian Pale of Settlement in the 19th and early 20th centuries was pretty much sentencing yourself to a life of privation, not to mention the occasional murderous pogrom, people like my paternal and maternal grandfathers and grandmothers decided to get going westwards – to South Africa in the case of my family (and yours).

Among the reasons they prospered here – you both would certainly suggest – was because of the advantages they enjoyed due to their white skins. Okay.

But then came what’s called “the transition to majority rule” – of which I know you two born-frees are fully supportive and of which, by the way, though you don’t always seem entirely to “appreciate” this, your parents and paternal and maternal grandparents were also fully in favour.

But now, let’s fast-forward to 13 October 2022 and consider why I’m feeling so blue today; why, at the risk of being theatrical, the lines “It’s gettin’ dark, too dark for me to see,” from Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, came into my head.

It’s not because, like the guy in the song, I’m preparing to die in a few minutes’ time, but because of this.

The employees of Transnet are on strike. By Wednesday, yesterday, the strike had been on for a full week, with the United National Transport Union (UNTU) and the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) demanding double-digit increases.

This is an unmitigated disaster; our ports are well and truly hobbled; the biggest flow of import and export cargo is through container terminals and if those grind to a halt, a huge amount of cargo flow will stop, as it has. And this affects all exports and imports, from coal and iron ore to grapes and other fruit.

Just about everything you can think of – and a lot of stuff you don’t think of – goes in and out of our ports. To take a tiny example: what it could mean is that when you, J, return from Europe to Cape Town for a holiday in December, a lot of the stuff you might expect to find in, say, Woolworths, will simply not be there.

Various figures are being thrown about as usual; one boffin has said that “early estimates” suggest that the strike could cost the economy between R6 billion and R8 billion each day, and I’ve heard larger rand numbers bruited about. According to Reuters, SA mining companies are losing R815 million ($44 million) in export revenue per day due to the strike. Various other boffins are saying that the economic impact could be worse than the Covid-19 national lockdown.

Talking of which, our economy is already on its knees due to Covid-19, high unemployment, the damage of last year's unrest, flooding in KwaZulu-Natal earlier this year, and the longest and most severe spate of load shedding on record.

But unions are surely allowed to strike if they have grievances, you’ll say, and the employers will just have to talk nicely to them. Yes, to be sure – and if there were “reasonableness” in the air, in the national mood, the strike could maybe be over tomorrow.

But the striking unions are asking for salary increases way above inflation and Transnet is yet another state-owned enterprise (SOE) that is not only damaged by corruption, theft and incompetence, but according to CEO Portia Derby, its salary bill is some 66% of its operating costs, i.e. it has far too many employees and they are paid far too much.

Moreover, one gets the feeling that the union movement is gatvol; in many ways it has been of late pushed to the periphery by the ANC – the party and government has too many problems on its plate to pay much attention to “the workers” even if they’re supposed to be part of the same ruling alliance.

You get the feeling that the average “worker” really wants to stick it to former trade unionist Cyril Ramaphosa, now a billionaire, who allegedly hid millions of dollars in a sofa at his game farm, and offers little but platitudes and pipe dreams; who, along with his colleagues, seems stuck in a state of suspended animation; and who moreover has a minister in the presidency (Mondli Gungubele) who said recently, with a completely straight face that ministers and deputy ministers can’t pay for electricity and water in their private residences because, well, ministers are really struggling to make ends meet. (A cabinet minister earns R2,473,682.00 a year, a deputy minister earns R2,037,129.00.)

I also have little doubt that those running UNTU) and Satawu know perfectly well that the ANC elective conference is around the proverbial corner. Suddenly, I’m not feeling as sanguine as I was a week or so ago that Ramaphosa is going to receive another underwhelming mandate in December.

Meanwhile, as I needn’t tell you, SOE Eskom seems to be constantly short-circuited and now, partially as a result of this, water supplies in Johannesburg are not making it into our taps. And I’ve got a bad feeling about the present heat wave – I think it’s going to continue for longer than anyone thinks.

But it’s nearly so-called load shedding time and my inverter is on the fritz. So let me wrap up without doing any more whining, as your Uncle Joel would call it – and get back to patriotism and having to live in a place that isn’t where you were born.

I know why you guys feel so attached to the beloved country – it’s a beautiful country, nothing like walking in the Cape mountains, the weather is generally wonderful, it’s where you come from, and above all there are some really wonderful people in this country, your friends, the people you studied with, etc. – the ANC hasn’t been able to destroy them (yet).

I’m not suggesting that you’re going to find yourselves in desperate flight across your own border, that your graveyard may be ploughed up and strewn with garbage. But there comes a time when things are clearly falling apart and there comes a time when the general moronicism, greed and lack of care grow really annoying. It becomes as though “It’s gettin’ dark, too dark see.”

And you, who have your whole lives before you (as they say), need to consider seriously going to live elsewhere. We’ve been doing it for centuries, after all.

Your loving Dad.


[i] “Ironically” – because one of the major “forces” or “impetuses” throughout Jewish history has been the desire to return to the “Land of Israel” and “rebuild Jerusalem,” not to be dispersed – and Zionists (if I may generalize) generally frown on thinking of the centuries of dispersal as being in any way positive. Additionally, the Hebrew term for dispersion and exile (Galut) carries with it, as sociologist Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt wrote, “negative religious connotations, explained in terms of sin and punishment. Life in Galut was defined as a partial, suspended existence ...” only to be nurtured in order to guarantee the survival of the Jewish people until the “Redemption”.

[ii] It’s often presumed that the first dispersal of the Jews dates from around 66 CE when the Judean population revolted against the Roman Empire in the First Jewish–Roman War which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. During the siege, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and most of Jerusalem. In 132 CE, Bar Kokhba led a rebellion against Hadrian, a revolt connected with the renaming of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina. After four years of devastating warfare, the uprising was suppressed, Jews were forbidden access to Jerusalem, and many Judeans were shipped to Europe as captives and slaves.

One sometimes forgets, however, that Judahites from the Kingdom of Judah were taken into exile during the 6th century BCE and Israelites were taken into exile from the Kingdom of Israel during the 8th century BCE.