A grim country still waiting for better days - Businesslive

Oct 02, 2022
2 October 2022 - Wikipedia reveals that a defining feature of Super Crown Bookstores in the US in the mid-1990s was that each of them carried up to 80,000 titles.

Michael Morris
Wikipedia reveals that a defining feature of Super Crown Bookstores in the US in the mid-1990s was that each of them carried up to 80,000 titles.  

I looked it up because I was l trying to remember choosing Bruce Catton’s Reflections on the Civil War, which I inscribed at the time, “Super Crown Bookstore, Washington, August 1994”. It was one of some dozen titles purchased in the course of my four-week, six-city trip across the US — courtesy of the state department’s superlative International Visitor Programme for journalists — which remained unread on my various bookshelves of the past nearly 30 years until about a month ago.

It turns out to be a greatly absorbing read. Especially compelling is Catton’s effort to view the defining catastrophe of modern America through the life of a solitary, unremarkable soldier around whose sketchbook of campaign vignettes and portraits part of the narrative is built.

Typically, I suppose, the soldier — John Geyser of the Corps of Engineers — left little trace once hostilities ended. Catton writes of Geyser, who died in 1908, that “(somewhere) along the line, the ardent youngster who hurried to the recruiting officer the moment the guns at Fort Sumter had cooled became the old man who shut up his shop and had to ask for a pension, and we do not really know very much of the story”.

But Catton does find something more to say, and it reaches all the way to us:  “As a member of one of earth’s unnumbered generations [Geyser] represents something grander than any army: humanity itself, working without glamour and without reward to make its painful, never-ending progress from one everlasting mystery to another, hoping and suffering and enduring, its capacity for all of these being infinite. In this pageant, too vast to be seen or understood, he had the same sort of part as you and I.”

And, of course, in these past few weeks of reading about Geyser and the bloody events that ultimately checked the Balkanisation of the North American continent and sealed the process of what Catton calls “a broader freedom, a broader citizenship”, I have been thinking back to my trip of 1994 and the sensations that went with travelling across the US as a citizen of the world’s youngest democracy, then just months old.

We must all somehow have had a part in the great transition from apartheid to democracy, as was true of Geyser in making the history of his time. I have thought about the pride and distinction of being a South African in 1994 — and how, these days, that has all but gone. 

Only last week we witnessed deeply flawed laws being hurried through the hoops by an ANC-dominated parliament at a time when there’s simply no disputing that SA’s un-ignorable crisis can only be blamed on flawed ANC policy. Worse, those who say they have a counterplan are willing, many of them, to abandon working together in favour of some selfish advantage.

And so, once again, as in the grim mid-1980s, we are a waiting country. As fellow Daily Friend columnist Jonathan Katzenellenbogen wrote last week: “The real problem is that the political stars have to be aligned by having a leadership that responds positively to pressures exerted beyond their narrow constituencies.”

How much easier it would be if we could all see clearly the part we could play — or be convinced that if we did it would make all the difference.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.


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