Nadine Gordimer and kronor for our Red Terror

For a while now, I have been interested in the “Swedish connection”. The intriguing question for me is: What role did Nadine Gordimer play in securing the Swedish funding for the ANC and South African Communist Party? Without the Swedish millions or hundreds of millions, there would never have been a campaign of Red Terror with bombs and gruesome necklace murders, and South Africa might never have had a change of government.

roodt_dan4I have even taken to learning some Swedish, sensing that somewhere in Stockholm must lie the secret to the calamity that has befallen my country, descending into violence, corruption, anarchy. Nadine Gordimer received the Nobel Prize for Literature from the Swedish Academy and one of the current members of that academy, Per Wästberg, played a singular role in making South Africa a political cause in Sweden. He was also a friend of the radically socialist prime minister, Olof Palme. Gordimer-Wästberg-Palme… that is how I suspect it went, and there exist both fact and fiction to back it up.

In the 1960s the South African Communist Party received only £30 000 per year from the Soviet embassy in London, which was obviously too little to fund the military takeover of South Africa about which the party fantasized. If any of the communists had prayed, one could say that their prayers were answered by Sweden.

In a country as violent as contemporary South Africa, I have often thought that someone should write a kind of satire based on Boccacio’s Decameron, where people escape to some remote farm somewhere to tell one another stories while the rest of the country endures the daily dose of rapes, murders and armed robberies.

This morning there was a news report about a four-year old girl who was shot near Cape Town. In a sense, then, someone like Nadine Gordimer dying at the ripe old age of 90 is almost a cause for celebration. She was attacked once in her Parktown home, and somehow managed to ascribe it to “unemployment”, not to the singular nihilism of our roving sadists who terrorise us all.

I suppose many people would find it inappropriate for me to speculate about her possible role in securing the huge amounts of Swedish crowns that financed the Red Terror campaign of the 1980s when car bombs went off in the street, as well as other explosive devices in shopping centres and restaurants. But in a country where the Grim Reaper lurks on every street corner and in every suburb, we have already bidden farewell to etiquette or quaint customs requiring us to offer only eulogies to the recently deceased.

Although most people call Nadine Gordimer a South African author, I daresay that few people bought her books in this country. I often heard bookshop managers complain that her works “don’t sell”. Of course, overseas, especially in the US and Great Britain, she was much more popular and decidedly more appreciated. In all the obituaries she is described as an “anti-apartheid author”, whatever that might mean in literary terms.

In a way, Gordimer took pride in her contempt for us, the born-and-bred South Africans, especially whites and Afrikaners. She belonged to the radical-chic set who took it upon themselves to vilify us from the safety of their homes in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, where opulence and leftism have often vied with one another.

I first met Nadine Gordimer as an undergraduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand. At the time I remember I wrote some “cultural” pieces for Wits Student, the campus newspaper. Two of us made an appointment to see her. She was quite aloof in her treatment of us and as far as I recall, she did not offer us anything to drink. Or maybe that was just my Afrikaans upbringing and our famous sense of hospitality that made me notice that. And then we were students, hardly New York celebrities who could further her career or her international renown.

I recall something else from that visit: while she pretended to be some kind of intellectual, most of her opinions and remarks were quite shallow. One of us tried to draw her into a discussion on literary theory, but she shied away from that and just got more haughty, with an ill-disguised irritation filtering through to the conversation.

We were eventually shown the door and I can hardly even remember the article that was published afterwards.

The second time I more or less “bumped into her”, to put it colloquially, was chez les Goldblatt, meaning the house of Mr. and Mrs. David Goldblatt, the photographer. I was more or less friends with the Goldblatts’ son, with whom I studied political science. In those days, especially at Wits, political science meant Karl Marx. OK, so we also dipped into Hegel and a bit of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but that was about it in the second year.

The Goldblatts had quite an old-fashioned kitchen and may even have had one of those ancient coal stoves that became fashionable for their art deco extravagance at one point in the seventies. There was also a kitchen table and they were making coffee in an Italian espresso pot, real coffee, not the instant stuff that most people drank in those days. I was a sucker for real coffee, especially people who ground their own beans. I remember when my wife and I moved into a flat in Hillbrow a few years later, the first thing we bought was an extravagant designer coffee maker and coffee grinder. The Brazilian in Loveday Street sold us that, together with the beans for which we made regular pilgrimages into downtown Johannesburg. Yes, in those days it was still white, believe it or not.

Imagine my surprise then when Nadine Gordimer came casually strolling into the kitchen, clutching a copy of the afternoon’s Star, the terrible Johannesburg newspaper. You might retort that all Johannesburg newspapers have always been terrible and I would have to agree.

She did not recognise me from the time of the interview or if she did, she did not let on. I think we students excused ourselves, with or without coffee, and that was the end of that little vignette from my youth.

Or should I call it a piece of the puzzle? For, unlike most white South Africans who were not privy to the inner circles of Johannesburg radical chic – especially not Afrikaners who still have no clue about Marx and Hegel – I collected all these souvenirs in both senses of the word, from books and real-life encounters.

Not so long ago, I wrote a review in Afrikaans of Joe Slovo’s biography, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the war against apartheid (Monthly Review Press). For those who do not know, Monthly Review Press is just about the most famous Marxist publisher in the United States, so it is only natural that they should publish Slovo’s biography.

That is another piece of the puzzle. Somewhere in another interview with a British newspaper, Gordimer referred to Joe Slovo and his wife Ruth as “those wonderful Slovos”. I gather that they were friends at some point.

Slovo was the mastermind behind the so-called “armed struggle” or urban terrorism campaign against South African in the 1970s and 1980s, assisted by the Soviets and East Germans, but financed by Sweden! Eventually the poor old National Party, which by that time was run by utter morons, capitulated to Slovo and the rest of the radicals, old and new, and today we are on our way to emulating the former Soviet Union, with extremist policies just round the corner, such as “land reform”. Even the oafish journalist, Max du Preez, wrote a few days ago that a real, Soviet- or Cuban-style revolution is looming ahead for us. In his parlance, Uhuru is weer op die tafel (Uhuru is on the table again).

On 27 April 2004, the then Swedish ambassador to South Africa announced on the Afrikaans radio station RSG that “without Sweden, the ANC would never have come to power in South Africa”. For all their other faults, Swedes are usually honest.

How did the “wonderful Slovos” get to the Swedish money? is the intriguing question. For that, one must read one of Nadine Gordimer’s early novels, A world of strangers. Here and there, the narrator breaks into a kind of political soliloquy, fulminating against the newly elected National Party government that was busy banning communism and threatening to move the multiracial slum area, Sophiatown, to a new place called Soweto. A world of strangers represents an ode to Sophiatown and its main character, a British journalist who comes to work on the mythical black magazine, Drum.

The novel is something of a roman à clef, because in real life the protagonist was Anthony Sampson, who also played a major role in making Mandela famous in the pages of The Observer, a London newspaper. I read his autobiography in which he paradoxically expresses his suprise that Mandela ever became a leading figure as he had found him dull and narcissistic, back in the nineteen-fifties.

Per Wästberg definitely publicised Nadine Gordimer’s writings in Sweden too. I suppose he must have had some hand in her nomination for the Nobel prize.

However, as my knowledge of “svenska” grows, I am increasingly able to piece together the role played by Per Wästberg in securing the funding bonanza for the radical movement that made possible the Red Terror that in turn brought the National Party to its knees.

Wästberg is himself an author and a journalist. All through the 1950s and the 1960s he had written many articles on South Africa in Sweden’s most influential newspaper, the Dagens Nyheter, owned by the Bonnier family. In 1960 he was apparently banned from both Rhodesia and South Africa, no doubt because he was writing very negative material on both countries. From what I can see, he published a book on his experiences in Southern Africa, På svarta listan (On the black list). During the crucial period from 1976 to 1983 when the international propaganda campaign against South Africa really got going, Wästberg was the editor of Dagens Nyheter. I can just imagine what kind of coverage he gave to South Africa at the time, with his intimate knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes, with the distribution of Swedish funds to the ANC and SACP, as well as the “New Radicals” within South Africa. A recent book by that title, written by one Glen Moss, claims that the ANC did not so much overthrow the old government, as a small group of radicalized Marxist or neo-Marxist students on the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand. Well at least I had the honour of rubbing shoulders with Moss, Barbara Hogan and other illustrious revolutionaries.

Did Gordimer also channel some Swedish government funds into South Africa to publish her own books here? I strongly suspect so, because the local edition of her dystopian short novel, July’s People, was brought out by an Afrikaner liberal imprint Taurus, with whom I had some contact at the time. Even calling Taurus “liberal” sounds wrong. They were more like sycophants, enthralled to Gordimer and her views. No-one would have told me at the time about the underground Swedish money fuelling the revolution in South Africa, so I have no direct evidence of such a transaction. But during the 1980s while my wife and I lived near the place de la République in Paris, I received a visit from Taurus’s bearded Afrikaner lay-out artist who had just been to, guess which country? Sweden. Now, at that time the degree of interest in Sweden among Afrikaner layout artists was at about the same level as Swedish winter temperatures, in the negatives.

In fact, the poor man could not stop telling us how Sweden and its “overly civilized people” had horrified him. He was something of a nature freak and therefore felt much more at home in the African bush, studying vultures through binoculars, than dealing with taciturn, politically correct Swedes whose social codes he probably understood as little as they did his. He had no reason to travel to Sweden, except as a minor part of the grand plan to overthrow the South African government, financed by Sweden and other Nordic states.

The Swedish connection was there alright. Without the friendship between Gordimer, the “wonderful Slovos” and Wästberg, as well as their shared leftist politics, the South African revolution might never have happened.

If only Afrikaners today could have had some Nordic sugar daddy, we could still have saved this country. Alas, and partly thanks to Per Wästberg’s propaganda in the Dagens Nyheter, that will never be the case.

We will have to find it in ourselves to not only survive in Africa but also to break down all the stereotypes and half-truths so copiously distributed through Nadine Gordimer’s novels and short stories.

Shortly before I went to Paris in 1985, there was a conference of the Afrikaanse Skrywersgilde in Johannesburg, in the sports centre of the University of the Witwatersrand. My intellectual irritation with Nadine Gordimer finally reached a critical point when she confounded structuralism and post-structuralism and did not understand that great Nietzschean strand of post-humanism running through so-called “French theory” at the time. The other day a caller reminded me of the minor philosophical clash I had with Gordimer that day.

In a sense, South Africa and not even Afrikaans have any real literature. There is some good Afrikaans poetry, and one or two novels from the first half of the twentieth century, but it more or less stops there. I do not know too much about Russian, but apparently 70 years of communist rule in Russia also produced a few good satires, such as Bulgakov’s The master and Margarita, but not much else. The greatest Russian novelist of the twentieth century, Vladimir Nabokov, was fiercely anticommunist and also claimed by the Americans as he wrote his later works in English.

Without the Afrikaans word apartheid, neither Gordimer nor JM Coetzee would ever have received the Nobel prize for literature. Being the antipodes of the world, a strange formerly Western country in Africa, South Africa lends itself to being violently misunderstood. These days, of course, the confident foreign equations between South African and American race problems are making way for a kind of muted horror that no-one will ever admit to. We have run out of master copies, a bit like Nadine Gordimer in her so-called “post-apartheid period”.

As I tried to intimate in my much-maligned novel set in the 1980s, we have been semantically carpet-bombed, a bit like Iraq’s entire infrastructure was destroyed by the USA during the second Gulf War. There is no meaning left in South Africa. We are even going to kill the last religion left, Democracy. As a country, South Africa has no beliefs, no principles left, apart from sadism, perhaps. The Marquis de Sade, not Nelson Mandela, is our patron saint.

In one of her rare moments of introspection, Nadine Gordimer spoke about the “Manichean poisons” she had to “imbibe” in order to make her prose “relevant”. It was more or less an admission that she practised a genre that would please the foreigners and her friends in the communist underground, but that would not speak to us, Afrikaners de souche. How I love that newly politically incorrect expression that has lately become popular in France!

Gordimer’s parting shot to me was a letter to International PEN in which she tried to oppose any form of Afrikaans literary society coming into being on South African soil. She partially succeeded in that the whole of Cape Town and Stellenbosch at one point banished me to a kind of Siberia. In making me persona non grata among the pen-pushers in my own language, Gordimer had a kind of last laugh on me.

Not that being persona non grata in Afrikaans literary circles is anything to regret. That was the way it was thirty years ago, and it will continue that way. If “Marx turned Hegel on his head”, our southern peninsula lives permanently upside down, blood running into our heads all the time, sometimes spurting in the streets or in restaurants where our Red Terror has hardly abated.

And if my comments should be seen as amiss, as a bit of an overly politicised obituary, I simply claim that political licence that Gordimer did in so many of her books, to launch into a proletkult tirade against the social conditions or government policies around her.