The rot quietly deepens

Jeremy Gordin's reflections on wandering the leaf-strewn Parkview streets

As I made my way through the streets of Parkview this morning, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” came into my head – the first line of “To Autumn” by John Keats (or, if you like, “Junkets,” Jun-kets, as my friend Robin Malan has named his small publishing house in the Cape).

The famous 1819 poem was inspired by a stroll Keats took near his home, allegedly trying to escape the sound of his landlady’s daughter practising the violin. Only 24, Keats knew he had tuberculosis of which his mother and brother had already died – and he perished about 18 months later. Hence, as attested to by various buffs, the poem’s sense of “melancholy” and “mortality”.

Keats wrote to a friend about his walk – “How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it ...”. So, I assume, whatever else might be “found” in the poem, that in the first place Keats enjoyed the walk, just as I relished the quiet and leaf-strewn Parkview streets.

But some of the forementioned experts have also cogently argued that underlying the poem (if one knows where and how to look) was Keats’ engagement with contemporary politics. One boffin has written that the poem has “a direct connection” to the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819.

At St Peter's Field in Manchester, 18 people were killed when cavalry of the Manchester Yeomanry charged into a crowd of around 60 000 protesters demanding reform of parliamentary representation. Luckily, the Yeomanry did not carry R5 rifles or, as at Marikana, double that amount of people might have died.

Well, I’m older than 24, no one in my house is practising the violin or even the ukulele, and my various maladies are not, I’m reliably told, fatal – though as TS Garp pointed out, we are all terminal cases.

Still, as a Seffrican, I certainly can’t enjoy autumn in an unalloyed way, can I? Hard as one might try, there’s no escaping “politics” in this place, is there? This reminded me, on my walk, of another quote.

It comes from Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country: “In the deserted harbour there is yet water that laps against the quays. In the dark and silent forest there is a leaf that falls. Behind the polished panelling the white ant eats away the wood. Nothing is ever quiet, except for fools.”

Let me “give you a small forexample” of what I’m talking about, as my grandmother might have said. Last Saturday, during the Easter weekend, I settled down on Saturday afternoon to watch Toulouse play Munster, the former team including Cheslin Kolbe, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, and the latter CJ O’Stander and Damian de Allende.

In other words, a clash of the some of the best in the rugby world, one I’d been awaiting with growing excitement. About 20 minutes in, the power went off.

These days it happens all the time in Joey’s. And when the fault is, say, a trip at the Parkhurst substation, the connection still can’t be quickly repaired because as a result a breaker (for example) goes wrong somewhere else. We know this; we’ve read Gareth van Onselen’s Joburg is Dying; and we soldier on.

But here’s the thing. Sixteen hours later, on Sunday morning, the power was still off. Ta-ta to whatever easily perishable food we’d stocked up on for the weekend; and possibly ta-ta to my insulin.

What had happened? I couldn’t make this up (and I’m not bad at making things up). In the words of our local and long-suffering ward councillor, “apparently the contracts to provide City Power vehicles and fuel were only signed on 1st April [the Thursday before Good Friday]”.

I’ll translate, if I may: the technicians had no fuel to come out to fix the outage, so they simply didn’t come out, nor did they bother to tell anyone, such as the councillor.

Back to my walk. On Tyrone avenue, I encountered the books table belonging to The Old Limpopo Curiosity Shop, a local book nook, where I found The Foundations of the South African Cheap Labour System (1982) by Norman Levy.

Now, if you look up Levy, you’ll find, among other things, the following. “Born on 7 August 1929 in Johannesburg ... Norman Levy and his twin brother, Leon ... were the youngest of four children. ... [Norman] became an activist in his early teens, joining and participating in the Young Communist League and, by 1946, in the Communist Party”.

I’ll stop there and put the rest in an endnote below [1]. But you get the picture, yes? And, if you’re like most Politicsweb readers, perhaps like most people, you probably won’t care much for that picture and you might well say that people must take responsibility for what they choose to do (Levy would probably agree with that) – and that what Levy and others “worked for” hasn’t, to put it mildly, worked out well at all – a point to which I’ll return in a moment.

I don’t know him personally, but I feel as though I do via certain family members and from what I’ve read about him – there was a great piece about Norman and his brother in the Sunday Times in July 2020 by Jonathan Ancer, which, if you can winkle it out from behind the ST’s pay wall, can be found here.

The article begins: “Leon to the left of me, Norman to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with Zoom. I sing this ditty to remind me which Levy twin is which, but Norman has never been ‘to the Right’ and, with the exception of Marx and perhaps Trotsky, very few people have ever been to the Left of the Levy brothers.”

Norman Levy is, by all accounts, a charming and cheerful 91-year-old – my 22-year-old daughter told me he was “sooo cute” – who has been very hospitable to my sister and brother-in-law and who lives alone now in a Cape Town flat where he keeps abreast as far as possible with political events, reading (at least some) articles from Politicsweb with interest.

Which is why, though I’m not much interested (not this week, anyway) in the foundations of SA’s cheap labour system, I bought Levy’s book. But besides me being a romantic and sentimental sort of fellow, there was another reason too.

Musing on the South Africa in which we now live – being without electricity for 16 hours is but a tiny symptom – I must believe that there must surely be people, such as Norman Levy and others I know and like, who must be at least slightly embarrassed about where we’ve come to in this country. 

And I feel sorry for them – not in a deprecating way, but empathetically – as I do for myself. Instead of the brave new world to which we looked forward in 1994, we have what RW Johnson has correctly called an “almost indescribable mess”. And, as Johnson said, one does feel as though one is listening to the labourer in the Irish story who, asked the way to Dublin, says: “Well, you can’t start from here”.

As for those who think everything is fine and dandy, well, they are the fools for whom everything is quiet, who’ve forgotten that behind the polished panelling the white ant eats away the wood.

I guess one has to rid oneself of hearing melancholy colonialist voices such as John Keats. On a happier note, though, I recently came across an anecdote about another colonialist, author Robert Conquest.

After the opening up of the Soviet archives, detailed information was released that Conquest argued supported his conclusions about Russia and Stalin; and when Conquest’s publisher asked him to expand and revise The Great Terror, Conquest is said to have suggested the new version of the book be titled I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.


[1] “... Levy also became prominent in the campaign for the Congress of the People in 1955 at which the Freedom Charter was adopted. ... In December 1956, Norman ...was detained with 154 others prior to what became known as the Treason Trial. ... He was acquitted ... Levy was arrested on 3 July 1964 under the 90-Day Detention Law.

He spent 54 days in solitary confinement at Pretoria Local Prison where he was repeatedly interrogated over three sessions of “standing torture” lasting 102 hours. ... In April 1965, Levy was sentenced to three years imprisonment. ... [Later,] Levy was forced to take his family and go into exile to the United Kingdom.

In England he lectured at the Bromley College of Technology and in 1972 became a lecturer in history at the Middlesex Polytechnic (later renamed Middlesex University) where he taught until his return to South Africa in 1991. In the interim, he was awarded a United Nations fellowship for study at the London School of Economics and earned a PhD in Economic History. ... Levy was appointed by Nelson Mandela in 1996 to the influential Presidential Review Commission (PRC) for the Transformation of the Public Service ....” Etc. etc.