Research and Policy Brief: 'Loyale Verset?' The N.P. Van Wyk Louw Memorial Lecture by Professor Jonathan Jansen - 25th October 2010

Professor Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State and president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, delivered the University of Johannesburg’s annual N.P. Van Wyk Louw memorial lecture last month. This important contribution to public debate forms the Research and Policy Brief for this week.

Lojale Verset?

Jonathan D Jansen

University of the Free State

 

The N.P. Van Wyk Louw Memorial Lecture

University of Johannesburg

 

9 September 2010

 

“Rebellion is as essential to a nation as loyalty. It is not even dangerous for a rebellion to fail; what is dangerous is for a whole generation to pass without protest”[1]

 

Introduction

Intellectuals then and now are easily attracted to the neat and handy phrase bequeathed to us by the brilliant Afrikaans poet and thinker, N.P. Van Wyk Louw, lojale verset. At least one former presenter of the N.P. Van Wyk Louw Lecture, the late Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, invoked the phrase in the title of his address, Dis Tyd vir Lojale Verset. It does not quite translate with the same poignancy into English as given by some students of Louw, loyal resistance.[2] Yet the phrase retains its seductive attraction in the South African transition, caught as many intellectuals are between an instinctive loyalty to a government that represents our hard-won democracy and an equally instinctive resistance to any authority (including governmental authority) that threatens the foundational values on which this new democracy was established.

What then does lojale verset mean in this perplexing period of transition from the iron cage of white Afrikaner nationalist rule to an uncertain and rather turbulent democracy under a black ANC-led government? How and why do intellectuals position themselves within this transition? How do universities enter into the pressure-cooker debates on everything from media tribunals to state interference in institutional affairs? Is it lojaal or verset that triumphs in the variegated attempts to speak truth to power? What does this tension between two seemingly rival concepts do to human actors within the South African drama, and more importantly, how does that tension shape institutions themselves as we dare peer into the future of universities? And what can we learn from the life of its author about how Van Wyk Louw himself navigated his way through the treacherous waters of another incipient nationalism of his day?

I am decidedly not an expert (kenner) on van Wyk Louw, his life and literatures, but I do wish to position some of his intellectual thought within contemporary debates inside the country we shared.

Contested Meanings

It is clear from even a cursory reading of the debates on “lojale verset” that the phrase had different meanings for different audiences, and that depending on how you read the earlier or the later Louw, he emerges at one extreme as nothing more than an apartheid intellectual or at the other extreme as ‘South Africa’s Milton.’

For Mark Sanders he is “an apologist for apartheid” whose “appeal for ‘justice’ misfires because it is caught in a larger structure of racism that is never challenged or question” (p. 614). For Gerrit Olivier he is a little more, still “the most sophisticated apologist for apartheid’ (p.208) but one who passionately defended democratic interests (p.209) and yet eventually found himself compromised “on the level of principle” (p.209) as he came to realize the limits of “lojale verset” and retreated into isolation and disgruntlement (p. 210). Whatever he did to defend Afrikaans literature from censorship, Louw—the Broederbond member--in fact played a key role in the establishment of the Censorship Board and the regulation of the university system (Sanders p. 610)---even if, some would argue, he could not foresee its negative consequences.

It is this “ambiguity” in evaluating the legacy of Louw that is reflected in the rich contributions of an issue of Die Suid-Afrikaan (October 1994), including among others the response of Njabulo Ndebele to Breyten Breytenbach. It soon becomes clear that Louw has been appropriated by the Right and the Left at various points in the past, both to nail him and to praise him, and sometimes both. Some warn of the appropriation of lojale verset within prevailing political cultures of the time, and others of the domestication of this construct to “tame” restless intellectuals.

Again, I am not qualified to deliver an expert view on the meanings of lojale verset as intended by Louw or as taken-up by his supporters or detractors; what I do intend to demonstrate is that the tension inherent in lojale verset is by no means unique to the period in which Louw lived and wrote. That tension demonstrates itself in contemporary South Africa. While the colour and creed of nationalisms might have changed in the transition between two centuries, the challenges faced by intellectuals and the society in which they think, have not.

 

Tribunals and tribulations of the present

My generation grew-up with a romantic view of the liberation movements. In struggles great and small, we longed for the day in which the apartheid state would be smashed and all the sworn ideals of democracy, freedom and redistribution would fall neatly into place. Our moral and political sense of right and wrong were crystal clear. Everything that was evil was represented in the previous government; everything pure and noble, in its replacement. The violence in then Natal was the IFP’s fault alone, the party of collaboration. The necklacing in the townships could be justified in the context of the people’s anger. There were no Quattros in the pre-1994 mind; only noble exiles who sacrificed their lives for our freedom. The Freedom Charter was gospel, and all freedoms would come and live comfortably within the new Azania once liberation was achieved. It was as simple as that.

1994 came and went. We all could now vote. The terror of apartheid was gone. The liberation icons were in power. The right laws and policies were developed. The people govern. We have a Constitutional Court and a Bill of Rights. Amandla.

Soon the wheels come off. Corruption, scandals, theft, bribery and more afflict not only politicians and parliament at the top, but government departments and civil servants down the line. Mandela departs after one term (a noble African achievement) but then things seem to go south quickly. A sitting President is removed by angry members of his party, and it seems as if the words of one sage have come true, “In Africa, when you eat the king, you remain hungry.”

Things regarded as sacred are now vilified by the new people in power: judges are ridiculed if their judgments go against the powerful; the media must be dragged before political tribunals; university principals must be given performance contracts by government; anyone who stands in the way of the new elite are dubbed “counter-revolutionaries” by young people with little education; public behaviour by the powerful is scandalous, the most powerful calling for machine guns while their protégés bear their backsides in public displays of hubris; from arms deals to travelgates, the corruption stinks to high heaven; in several provinces political rivals are literally “taken-out” by assassins; protests are the same like before, angry and unrelenting, as teachers are dragged from classrooms and nurses from emergency wards; babies die unattended and old people die in welfare queues; some of our heroes go to prison; others are kept out of prison. South Africa is back on the news of the world, this time as the crime capital of the planet with crippling strikes that scare investors.

In the midst of this chaos, some start to rewrite the liberation history. We learn of torture camps first mentioned at the TRC, but then it was too early to take these charges seriously. Now new books tell all. Others write that the assault on the media is perfectly understandable in the context of the paranoia of the exile years. The bad behaviour of the present is not something new; it is in fact continuous with the bad behaviour of the past. Our ghosts are coming back to haunt us. Rather than impose a new democratic ideal on a new country, those now in power invoke the same methodologies to repress protest and intimidate opponents. Cheap houses built under apartheid are the same ones built after apartheid; says the former President’s brother, the ANC is not a party of the people for if they were, it would show in simple things like the kinds of houses built for the poor. The inequality index separating rich from poor is now higher than under apartheid. And school education is now worse, by many measures, than in the past.

Of course, all of this is exaggerated. There has been progress, albeit slow in many areas. More black people own wealth. More students go to university. More people gain from welfare grants. More citizens enjoy access to clean water.

How then do citizens and intellectuals, and in particular university-based thinkers, locate themselves between these tensions of loyalty and resistance?

One of the best examples of this tension is found in the response of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors called Higher Education South Africa (or HESA) in its response to The Protection of Information Bill (notice the similarity in the use of euphemistic language to describe that which is wrong). Rather than take a strong and undiluted stand against what is dangerous to the state of our democracy, the wording of HESA leadership is cautious, even co-operative

“As much as it is the duty of higher education to speak truth to power it is also necessary for our universities to find solutions to impasses,”

and expresses support for initiatives that

“work collectively towards a nuanced piece of legislation that is acceptable to both government and society.”

My purpose is not to judge the correctness or otherwise of our press statement. It is, rather, to point at the tension between loyalty and resistance. In another time and place, academics and academic leaders would have made strong and unmitigated statements about the dangers and threats posed to universities and our democratic freedoms when the state assumes powers to control and punish those in the media directly.

 

Why the tension?

To understand the tension inherent in lojale verset it is important to come to terms with the social, cultural and political context in which the idea itself resides. Louw lived in a time when Afrikaner identity was still fluid and Afrikaner power not quite fully established. It was a time of turmoil following the Wars in which white poverty and memories of defeat still occupied the minds of many Afrikaners. This was a period in which Afrikaner nationalism was spreading, a powerful movement that would reach its high-point in the coming to power of the Nationalists in 1948. This new language Afrikaans was growing stronger, replacing Dutch and vying for cultural presence and political authority with English. This was the context in which Louw lived and spoke. He strongly supported his people, and made moral arguments for the separation of the races. At the same time Louw would raises critical questions of those in power, take a stand with those harmed by the state, and on occasion even support segments of the broader black population. He was constantly caught between lojaal and verset.

 

I want to play with at least five categorical explanations for the current-day tension between lojaal and verset.

  1. The emotional attachment argument. The genuine difficulty of choosing because of strong emotional and historical attachments to the ANC. I am speaking of people who were there, who lived through the trauma of the times, who found themselves on the frontline of war; many were tortured or imprisoned for the movement. They lost friends and family, and sacrificed much. One of the most interesting examples of the emotional explanation for the LV tension concerns a very good friend who regularly finds himself publically humiliated by sections of his organization, only to be promoted by the same. And so one night I asked him, “why don’t you just leave the organization and do something else with your life?” His answer is memorable: “but if I do, under what flag will I be buried?” In another democracy, a politician might say: ‘I fundamentally disagree with the war in Iraq, and for that reason I will leave the Cabinet.’ This seldom happens in our young democracy, whether the issue is the denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama or the dangerous policy (or non-policy) on HIV/AIDS or, of course, the arms deal. These examples of course also show the danger of emotional attachment over principle.
  2. The material benefits argument. The real thirst for material benefits from remaining loyal and silent on what is wrong. Not much needs to be said in this regard, for the media makes its money out of one story after the next about politicians who rise from poverty to riches within frighteningly short periods of time, and without ever having to work, let alone study and gain the skills for, access to resources. It would be a completely wrong reading of the current political fervor around succession to think that this is, for many, about the nobility of public service. For many, not all, this is about greed.
  3. The lust for power argument. Our country is over-politicized. Notice how much of our media attention goes to the fervor for position, the lust for power. Power in this context breeds arrogance, the capacity to be seen, to be taken seriously, to sometimes literally, ‘throwing your weight around.’ If you had no power before, and if on the basis of your skills or education you would not gain any power in the ordinary way, here is a short-route to amassing great power and authority over other people’s lives. We often underestimate how the lack of power fuels that relentless desire for power among a significant section of political citizens.
  4. The fear of ostracization argument. Many of us are timid. The last thing you want is your name in the paper, or some scoundrels with imaginary power calling for you to lose your job or your position—whether it be a cushy position in parliament or a income-securing job in a municipality. That is why most normal people go to extraordinary lengths to stay out of the newspapers; it is embarrassing, it is demeaning, and it can scare you and your family. To be called names—like racist or bourgeois or counter-revolutionary—can fray the nerves of most ordinary people, especially when you know there is no (easy) recourse to justice when such reckless name-calling can do irreparable harm to your reputation.
  5.  The fear of reprisals argument. Deep within the psyches of many South Africans is a real fear that something nasty can happen to you if you dare to resist. Reprisals, in this context, go way beyond simply an attack on your reputation; there is the loss of income and, in some parts of the country, even the loss of life. Notice how quickly when someone in the public eye sticks their necks out, how quickly they report anonymous threats. Notice how dangerous it is to be a whistleblower. This is not about now; it is about a culture of intimidation, threat and even physical attack that lingers within our public culture; this is an inheritance that will not be shaken-off easily. Anyone with doubts about this should simply have seen what happened to teachers or nurses who thought differently about the protracted public servants strike.

 

Can universities help us overcome the tension between loyalty and resistance?

There has been a silent revolution in our universities since the 1990s, a revolution that has considerably changed the face of higher education and the prospects for democracy. As I wrote recently in an article in the Mail & Guardian, titled The Slow Death of the Intellect, this silent revolution that has changed the meaning of “university” in the post-1990s period has its roots in a number of critical developments:

  1. The reduction of curriculum questions to questions of qualifications, standardization and modularization. Suddenly the curriculum enterprise became an administrative endeavour, with technicians pushed to the fore to prepare mindless heaps of documents for SAQA or CHE or DoE compliance, rather than posing fundamental questions such as “what knowledge is of the most worth?”
  2. The recasting of students as subsidy-generation income units to secure financial survival, rather than as critical citizens for whom our solemn task is their broad intellectual preparation for democratic participation. (The undergraduate curriculum core: what does it mean to be fair? When is it okay to kill? Did God really say? Are we here alone? How do we deal with the violent past?)
  3. The re-moulding of academics into mass-based teachers whose role is to ensure that enough students pass to ensure the financial viability of their academic departments and, of course, in this way to retain their jobs.
  4. The negative transformation of universities into factories that produce ready-made products for the marketplace to boost the economic fortunes of the nation. Whether or not this is achieved is a separate question; the point for now is that universities as places of intellectual ferment where both loyalty and resistance are learnt, is something few institutions achieve.
  5. The targeting of (some) universities as the playground for extra-parliamentary politics so that where once difficult questions were posed about society, economics and politics, some institutions become nothing more than places that re-racialize the student body and reduce the big questions that should be asked into the politics of insult and demand.

 

Conclusion

Universities must push back if lojale verset is to have any meaning in the lives of institutions and the society in which they reside.

  1. The nurturing of a new generation of academics into intellectuals.
  2. The changing of the conditions of academic work that enables intellectual work to emerge.
  3. The creation of a critical mass of intellectuals to ask and take on the big questions without fear of retaliation or humiliation.
  4. The modeling of intellectual life at the level of senior and middle leadership.
  5. The introduction of a core curriculum whose primary purpose is to lay the intellectual foundations for further learning, even though a secondary spin-off might be learning to read, argue, write and compose for purposes of higher learning.

The failure to do these things, and more, will lead us to the same place where Louw found himself: at best, to be forever caught between the turmoil of two commitments and, at worst, to retreat into silence in the face of official assault.

As the state seeks, hungrily, to assert and insert itself aggressively into the sacred spaces of institutional autonomy and media freedom, we need to push back (verset) and express loyalty (lojale) not to governments that come and go, but to the principles on which they were founded. We know the darkness that comes with retreat, and the many sacrifices that brought us into freedom.

In the words of a determined fish from the animated movie Finding Nemo, as it dangled from the mouth of a pelican:

“We did not come this far to be breakfast.”

 

 



[1] Quotation from van Wyk Louw that appears in Olivier (2010), p. 209

 

[2] Gerrit Olivier (2010), for example, in ‘Loyal Resistance’: N.P. Van Wyk Louw (1906-1970) and the intellectual, Social Dynamics 36(1), 201-213

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