Ann Heinrichs. South Africa. New York: Children's Press, 1997. 48 pp.p. $6.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-516-26176-8.
Patrick Ryan. South Africa. Plymouth, Minn.: The Child's World, 1998. 32 pp.p. Price not reported (cloth), ISBN 978-1-56766-373-0.
Reviewed by Peter Midgley (Department of English, University of Alberta)
Published on H-AfrTeach (August, 1998)
Disappointing Research Reveals Stereotypes
Both these books attempt to provide information on South Africa in a friendly, easy-to-read format. In this sense both books succeed: the pictures are cheerful and the layout is appealing. Ann Heinrich's book starts with an overview of the climate and the people before briefly discussing the social and political history of the country. The book ends with sections on arts and culture and the economy. A short glossary and an index complete the book.
Patrick Ryan's book in the "Faces and Places" series fixes the geographic location of the country globally before talking about the history and the people. What I particularly liked about the Ryan book was the initial section "Country Facts," which provided a one-page summary of the country--its population, size, capital, currency, etc. Both books are aimed at readers around eight years of age and the information is provided in straightforward language.
On the surface, then, these appear to be excellent books. My concern lies with the content, which provides a rather skewed view of the country and its people. My overall impression is that neither of the authors visited the country itself; even if that is not the case, these authors failed to present its subtle intricacies. Heinrich's geographical discussion is informative and largely accurate, but I did have a slight problem with the inclusive use of the word "veld." She describes the interior geography of the country as follows: "The central region is a large plateau called the veld, meaning grassy plain." This is not entirely accurate, for the interior also consists of large arid, semi-desert areas and bushy savanna in addition to the grassy plains. The term "veld" is a general reference to large open tracts of land. The confusion probably stems from the fact that a portion of the escarpment is divided into Highveld and Lowveld--Highveld being the highlands and Lowveld being the lowlands.
Her discussion of the country's cultures reveals either a lack of understanding or a naive approach to her sources, as is evident from the use of the Boer Nation homepage as a reference. More about this later. Ultimately the interpretation of the sources leads to misrepresentation. While it is true that about half the white people in South Africa are Afrikaans-speaking, I have a problem with the way in which she uses the term "Afrikaner." She presents them as a hostile, conservative people who remain true to a European history and ancestry. That may be said of a small right-wing portion of white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, but it is untrue of the majority. To call their language, Afrikaans, a "form of Dutch" is overly simplistic. While the language does have distinct resemblances to Dutch, it has developed under the influence of indigenous African languages as well as Malaysian and various other colonial languages.
Also, Afrikaans is hardly the exclusive language of white Afrikaners. It is the most widely spoken language in the country (although not spoken by the most people), and is spoken by more Coloured people (people of mixed race) than whites. The slave origins of the language are also reflected in the fact that it was originally referred to as "kitchen kaffir," or the language of the slaves. The first written Afrikaans is a translation of the Quran written in Arabic script and reflects its use by the Muslim community. It is therefore a language that is very much rooted in the historically-oppressed communities of the country, despite the fact that it later became the instrument of colonial domination. A small fringe of white Afrikaners like to see themselves as the sole owners of this language and its traditions, but to call this representative of Afrikanerdom is wrong.
This conservative picture of white exclusivism is further reflected in the only picture of "Afrikaner" culture--a recreation of the Great Trek (a journey undertaken by the Boer farmers to get away from English colonial rule). The fact is that these farmers had identified themselves with Africa and no longer wanted to be associated with European colonial domination. The Trek was therefore, ironically, in opposition to colonial expansion. Opposition to British rule has been taken up as a symbol of the right-wing Afrikaner tradition, and is commemorated by them. Again, this is not representative of wider Afrikaner culture, which is increasingly recognising the fact that the so-called Coloured people are Afrikaners, too--people who identify with the language Afrikaans and who identify with Africa as their physical and spiritual home. To include these people under the conservative blanket of a stereotypical vision of Afrikaner, is an injustice.
I would also hesitate to call "boeremusiek" a popular style of folk song. It is a form of music that has, once again, been appropriated by the right-wing Afrikaners and is popular only amongst a very small section of the community. Most people listen to modern music, and have adapted it to African conditions and influences. What the author calls "lo jazz" is in fact an Africanized version of traditional jazz. This was very popular in the 1950s and 1960s, but gave way to more authentic rhythms such a mbaqanga and kwaito. While these forms of music draw on Western musical forms, they rely mostly on traditional rhythms.
The author also shows little understanding of the difference between homelands and townships (or locations, as they were previously called). Certainly, black Africans were forced to live in the homelands--small pockets of land designated to them by previous colonial administrations. In fact, the creation of the African National Congress was stimulated primarily by the need for effective opposition to the 1914 Land Act, which designated 7 percent of the country's total area to Africans. The Africans who remained in the "homelands" became a source of cheap migrant labour. By using labour from these homelands, permanent tenure in the "white" cities was denied them, and the government gained control over their movement. Migrant workers were housed in compounds, or "locations."
With the increasing industrialisation of the country, more and more Africans migrated to the cities, forming large slum areas around white enclaves. These became known as "locations" and in the 1970s, "townships." Most black people today live is such townships, and not in the homelands. The homelands were granted a measure of political independence under the apartheid regime, but this was recognized by most South Africans as a farce, and these areas have all been reincorporated into a united South Africa. It is therefore incorrect to say that black people live in homelands. In the former homelands, many people still adhere more strongly to the traditional customs of their ancestors and in the more remote areas you can still find traditional homes. The picture of a "homeland" in the book is more representative of an average township than of a homeland. The only evidence that this picture was taken in a homeland town is the registration on the car, which indicates that it was the territory known as Leboa.
Heinrich's description of the transition to democracy during the 1990s is accurate and informative, although her short biography of Nelson Mandela contains some errors. Mandela was born in one of the homelands, the Transkei, which was reincorporated into the united South Africa. Mandela was not sentenced to death, as the book states. While the death penalty was certainly an option for the judge at the Rivonia trial, he went against all expectation, and Mandela and his co-accused all received prison terms instead.
In the section on culture, a few minor errors have also crept in. The author notes that "Malaysians make bobotie, a spicy ground-meat dish." She is in fact referring to the people known as the Cape Malays, people of mixed race descended from Malaysian slaves brought to the Cape. They are not, however, Malaysian. Both authors were confused by the term "mealies." Heinrich calls it a "corn stew." Mealies is the South African term for corn. These are sometimes stripped off the cob and boiled to make a dish known as umqgusho, or samp. It is eaten as a starch in most communities. Traditional communities sometimes roast the corn and grind it, creating a powdery substance that resembles popcorn in taste. The most common use for corn is to grind it and make a porridge out of it, known as "mieliepap"--mealie-meal porridge. This porridge is the staple diet of many people throughout South Africa. Mealies are therefore a versatile food which is eaten in a variety of ways, and not as a "stew."
A very nice idea at the end of the book is the list of online sites that provide information about South Africa. While most of these are informative, I found the inclusion of the Boer Nations home page startling. This indicates where the author found most of her information on Afrikaners. The author notes that here you can find "plenty of information about the Boers and their homelands in South Africa." A small group of political radicals still adhere to an ideal of an Afrikaner "homeland," a territory where white Afrikaners can still reign supreme and live according to their vision of "true" Afrikaner culture. There is no such thing as an Afrikaner homeland, other than in the minds of these people. It is not a political likelihood, either. To refer readers to this site is not at all representative. The other sites listed are far more informative and objective.
The list of "important words" provides young readers with an explanation of the more difficult terms encountered in the book. Seen as a whole, I found the layout exciting and innovative, but the content is often inaccurate or misleading. The book reinforces many stereotypes which South Africans are keen to change.
Patrick Ryan's book on South Africa is also informative in certain respects, but as misleading as Ryan's in others. He provides more interesting facts, such as the length of the Orange river and dedicates almost a page to a description of South Africa's colonial history, which is important in trying to understand current developments. Unfortunately, the pictures in this section are confusing. The main picture depicts a group of British soldiers on their way to king Chaka during the Zulu War of 1879. On the text page, there is a photograph from the siege of Mafeking, one of the major events in the South African war of 1899-1902.
He writes that "slowly, the Europeans and the Africans began to fight over the land. These small battles soon led to wars between the Europeans and the tribes." Immediately below this is the picture taken from the siege of Mafeking. However, the text never mentions this war, and the placement of the picture creates the impression that it was a war between European settlers and the indigenous African people (which Ryan insists on calling "tribes," despite the condescending tone of this word), whereas it was in fact a war between the British and the Boers. The British wanted to annex the independent Boer territories for their recently discovered mineral wealth, and this led to a war between the colonial government and the Boer Republics.
The author makes the same mistake as Heinrich about the formation of the ANC. He confuses the doctrine of separate development, which characterized the South African government until 1948, with the doctrine of apartheid, which is a term coined and an ideology institutionalized only after 1948. To state that this occurred "soon after" the formation of the ANC is historically incorrect. While this may seem insignificant, it does have a serious impact on the perception of South African history.
The information in this book is dated to such an extent that it is almost obsolete, despite the fact that the date of publication is 1998. While the author notes the transition to a democratic government, he still says that most black South Africans live in the 10 homelands scattered across the country. These were all incorporated into the united South Africa under the 1994 constitution. A further mistake is that he then says that Kwazulu-Natal is one such homeland. To be entirely accurate, Kwazulu (literally, the place of the Zulus) was such a homeland. It was situated in what was then the Natal province of South Africa. After 1994, these two areas were combined to form a new territory known as Kwazulu-Natal. Kwazulu-Natal is therefore not a homeland, but an integrated political territory within democratic South Africa. Many Zulu people still live a traditional lifestyle in the northern parts of this province--the part which formed the homeland of Kwazulu under the apartheid regime.
Ryan suffers the same confusion as Heinrich about the meaning of the word "mealie." He calls it "a porridge made with corn and milk." Mealiemeal porridge, the product, is not to be confused with mealies, the actual corn. His fascination with interesting trivia leads to sensationalist statements such as "many South Africans also like to eat ostrich eggs." In fact, ostrich eggs are rarely sold commercially as a food, except in the ostrich-farming areas such as Oudtshoorn.
Although Ryan tries to present a pictorial journey through the country, most of the pictures are from Cape town and its surrounding areas. The pictures reveal colonial pastimes rather than a true picture of the country.
The historical obsolescence of the book is further revealed in the fact that he still talks of the "many" South Africans who celebrate the day of the vow. He also provides an inaccurate reason for the existence of the holiday. He implies that it is a day on which people "honor those who died in a great battle between the Europeans and the Zulu tribe." In fact, the vow was one taken by the small group of Afrikaners that they would regard this day as holy if God granted them victory over the Zulu armies. Only a handful of Afrikaners were killed during the battle, while thousands of Zulu soldiers died. The victory marked a turning point in the struggle for colonial domination of the Zulu nation. The commemoration is not in honour of those who died in battle, but in celebration of a victory over the Zulu people
It is a politically-charged holiday which is met with great opposition from large portions of the South African community. In fact, in an attempt to ameliorate the political ideology behind its existence, it was renamed "Family Day," and later "Day of Reconciliation." It is only a small group of radical conservative whites who still observe this day in its original form. To call it a "special day that reminds the people of South Africa to work together for peace" is far-fetched and reveals an ideological stance that I find worrying.
In the vein of providing trivial information (an aspect of the book that I liked tremendously), the author provides a number of Afrikaans words for equivalent English sayings. The list is interesting, but contains a number of errors: "Thank you" is "dankie," and not "danke," and the Afrikaans equivalent of two is spelled with two "e's," not one. The fact that author does not include any of the traditional African language greetings confirms my suspicions about the ideology underlying the book. This is a book that provides readers with all the stereotypical European images of South Africa and does nothing to dispel the notion that South Africa is still a European enclave.
Lending prominence to Afrikaans in the way he does denies the linguistic diversity of the country and accentuates how the Afrikaans language was abused for political means, much to the chagrin of many Afrikaans-speaking people who wish to remove the stigma attached to the language in the past. Taken in conjunction with the misrepresentation of the Day of the Vow and the emphasis on the Zulu people as quaint remnants from the colonial era, this book cannot be recommended as a source book on South Africa and its people.
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Peter Midgley. Review of Heinrichs, Ann, South Africa and
Ryan, Patrick, South Africa.
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