Claudia Canesso. South Africa. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999. 120 pp. Grade 4-8, ages 9-12. $19.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7910-4766-8.
Reviewed by Peter Midgley (Department of English, University of Alberta)
Published on H-AfrTeach (February, 1999)
Interesting, But With Serious Inadequacies
It is difficult to write about a country as an outsider. It becomes all that much easier to miss subtle nuances or to fall prey to stereotyped generalisations. Inevitably, this detracts from the accuracy and usefulness of the final product, and this is very much the case in this book on South Africa. Aimed at pupils in Grades 5-8, it aims to cover a vast amount of information in the space of 120 pages. Like the other books in the series, the content is divided into a number of logical sections to facilitate discussion. The map at the beginning clearly shows South Africa's position and its relation to the rest of the African continent. Then follows a "Facts at a Glance" section which is very useful, despite shortcomings which will be discussed later. A "History at a Glance" section reveals interesting facts and information about the history of the territory both prior and subsequent to colonisation. After these prefatory pages we find the first chapter, which looks at South Africa and the outside world. The first chapter tries to locate South Africa in terms of its position in modern society. The second chapter offers an overview of the geography of the country.
Once we have been introduced to the country physically, we are presented first with an account of South Africa's early history and then with a discussion of the conditions in the post-independence state. Having situated the country politically, the author then takes a look at the people who inhabit the country, its government, economy and its arts and culture. Finally there is a chapter which presents us with a vision of South Africa's future. The book is wrapped up with a glossary and an index. A photo section provides a brief pictorial glance at some of the country's features. As I said, it is a well-conceived and all-encompassing project. In general I was impressed by the book, although I did have reservations about the accuracy of detail within sections and with the stereotypical visions of Africa and its people that emerges from the pages, as I will indicate in the course of my discussion.
The "Facts at a Glance" section is interesting, and mostly accurate. I did have reservations about this section in the sense that the book has appeared just as the latest national census has been completed and shortly before the next election which will bring about a number of changes in the constitution. The figures that appear here are therefore more than likely outdated even before the book appears on the shelves. Literacy figures of eighty-two percent may be the dream of many a government spokesperson and official statistics may well provide this as a figure, but it is highly suspect. Any person who is involved with adult basic education and training or in the field of primary literacy will tell you that the overall literacy rate is substantially lower than eighty-two percent. Either that or we need a more accurate definition of what is meant by literacy in this context.
The "History at a Glance" offers valuable and intriguing information. The pre-colonial history is perhaps a little sketchy, but this is probably due to the fact that many of the excellent sources on this subject are relatively unknown. The author mentions a number of important events and centres, such as Mapungubwe, but ignores other major civilisations that developed at the same time. The entry on Shaka reveals all the mythical perceptions of an undoubtedly powerful figure. But, I would guard against taking too simplistic a view of these events. Some historians, such a Julian Cobbing, have argued that Shaka's expansionistic efforts were the result of a reaction to increasing settler penetration of his lands. While there are problems with Cobbing's argument, his point is well-taken that the actions of historical personalities like Shaka have to be placed in a larger context.
The introductory overview of South Africa is concise and informative. The author has managed to accurately convey a sense of the people, the country and the complexity of the society. It is difficult for foreign readers to grasp the sequence of political events during the twentieth century and it is therefore welcoming to find a lucid and informative summary such as this one. While not denying that South Africa faces numerous problems in the future, it is nonetheless held up as a model of political change. This is precisely the image South Africans would like to foster at the moment, and it confirms the recent desire for an African renaissance in which South Africa can and will play a major role. As is to be expected, the pictures in this section focus on the 1994 elections, images of apartheid South Africa and, inevitably, Nelson Mandela.
The pictures in this section and the prefatory pages are accurate in describing the history without resorting to the sensational or becoming cliched. Unfortunately, this is not the case throughout the book, as some of the pictures portray South Africa as a cultural and economic backwater. The obviously posed picture of a tribal warrior on page 40 is juxtaposed with an introductory paragraph that describes Africa as the birthplace of modern humankind. This creates an image that is consciously criticised by Africans: that Africa is still seen as an object of scientific study, and its importance is described in terms of scientific study into the origins of mankind. A paragraph such as this stands in stark contrast to the valuable discussion in the introductory chapter that showed Africa as a vibrant, complex modern society that has made a valuable contribution to the world.
The Afrikaner people are introduced in the belligerent uniforms of Boer soldiers and as voortrekkers (again a posed photograph to illustrate a culturally loaded image--one that is highly contested within the ranks of the Afrikaans-speaking people). A colour photograph of an Afrikaner family has them conservatively dressed in Sixties' fashions and with wide expanses of farmland filling in the background. It is an old photograph that accentuates the image of Afrikaners as conservative people who cling to tradition. On page 75, the author assumes that all Afrikaners belong to the Dutch Reformed Church. Any historian will tell you that as a group Afrikaans-speaking people have always been divided, and that this division is most clearly illustrated in their religion: The Afrikaner churches were (and in some cases continue to be) split along racial and political lines. The more conservative Reformed Church forms a significant presence in certain parts of the country, while splinter churches such as the Hervormde Kerk (New Reformed Church) and the Afrikaans Protestant Church provide a home for the arch-conservatives. Many of the Afrikaans-speaking Christians no longer belong to these churches, rather attending the more liberal charismatic churches.
There are other inaccuracies in the text: a braaivleis, or barbecue, may well have developed from early settler and pioneer customs, but it is not exclusive to Afrikaners. In fact, in a variety of forms, it surfaces in almost every South African culture as traditional gatherings or as community stokvels. Volkspele as a cultural construct was forced upon white schoolchildren during the height of apartheid in an attempt to forge an Afrikaner cultural identity. These dances were certainly customary in much the same way as Irish folk dancing is customary, but in recent times this form of square-dancing has become part of the conservative, right-wing Afrikaner practice and carries with it a hefty political baggage. To even infer that it is widely practised and a common occurrence among Afrikaners (in the broad sense) is an insult.
Black people are similarly stereotyped in the book. The photographs either present them as tribal beings or as rioting hordes. While the discussion of the people of the country focusses extensively on the Afrikaners, it virtually ignores the African people and their traditions and customs. The author fails to create any accurate sense of South Africa's people and never gives them a chance to contest the existing stereotypes. These picaresque cameos of tribal people or conservative Afrikaners going about their daily business become really irritating.
I would hesitate to offer any simplistic analysis of the South African political situation, particularly of the violence that has racked the KwaZulu-Natal region. That is why I was very skeptical of the author's summary dismissal of the conflict in this region as a conflict between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC, in which the IFP received weapons from the police and the government. I do not believe that the complexity of this situation can be summarised so easily. There have been many allegations and counter-allegations, and the work of a special investigations unit was constantly obstructed. The role of the recently murdered warlord, Sifiso Nkabinde, has, for instance, never been fully disclosed. I would therefore guard against laying the blame entirely at the door of the apartheid regime.
The discussion on Culture, Arts and Communication presents a rather crippled view of South Africa's literature, and it becomes obvious that the author is not very familiar with local developments in the arts. In her discussion of Afrikaans writing, the author makes the mistake of referring to the great writer, N.P. van Wyk, when in fact his name is N.P. van Wyk Louw. I also have difficulty justifying the exclusion of Andre Brink, Antjie Krog, Reza de Wet, Deon Opperman, AGM Scholtz and Etienne van Heerden in any discussion of Afrikaans literature. As far as writing in English is concerned, the only work that is mentioned is the liberal prototype, Cry the Beloved Country. Alan Paton is given prominence over far more significant writers such as Nadine Gordimer, Athol Fugard and J.M. Coetzee. Perhaps more significant is the fact that the author singles out Afrikaans and English writers (read: white writers), but then lumps all black writers together, irrespective of the language in which they write. But, since she wishes to make the distinction, let me note some of the significant absences from her list of black writers: Sol Plaatje, Alex la Guma, Peter Abrahams, H.I.E. and R.R.R. Dhlomo, S.E.K. Mqhayi, Peter Mtuze, K.S. Bongela, R.L. Peteni and K.E. Ntsane.
In summary, then: while this book does produce some really outstanding passages and insights and provides much useful information, it does end up being bogged down by a serious exploitation of stereotypes and by its inability to escape a colonial mindset.
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Peter Midgley. Review of Canesso, Claudia, South Africa.
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