Saturday, 18 November 2017

In Black & White: South African Anarchist Experiences of Apartheid.

Trawling though my writings, I came across this vignette written in 2008 for a Latin American journal concerning myself and my friend and comrade Bobo Makhoba who died a year ago (one of his obituaries is here: Bobo Makhoba obit 2016). Bobo was a remarkable human being and one that I am proud to have known, but his trajectory and mine demonstrate the continuity of racialised apartheid differentials in my society: if you are working class and classified "black", your life expectancy is much shorter than if you are lower middle class and classified "white". He was a committed militant anarchist and I miss his dynamic presence in my life.

Bobo & myself at what turned out to be a very influential party-cum-meeting in Dlamini, Soweto, in 2003.

In Black & White: South African Anarchist Experiences of Apartheid  (2008)

Michael Schmidt, a journalist and writer, was born into the comfort of a lower middle-class home in Johannesburg, and was classified white under apartheid law. He was drafted into the South African Defence Force during the Insurrection and states of emergency, which had the unintended consequence of politicising him. Exposure to the naked, murderous power of the state while in the army moved him towards anarchism which he embraced as a student in 1987 and became involved with the Durban Anarchist Federation, one of the semi-clandestine organisations whose militants went on to form the Workers’ Solidarity Federation, the forerunner of today’s Zabalaza (“Struggle”) Anarchist Communist Front. He has been instrumental in the theoretical development of southern African anarchism as well as maintaining the movement’s international relations, not least with Chile.
Schmidt met Bobo Makhoba, an itinerant electrician and soccer coach, at a 20,000-strong social movement march on the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 and together Schmidt and Makhoba were among the founders in 2003 of the ZACF. A decade younger than Schmidt, Makhoba was born into poverty in Soweto, and was classified black. He was politicised by the violent turmoil in the townships in the 1980s and had moved towards anarchism by 2002 in reaction to the ANC’s neoliberal policies. He was instrumental, as a “guerrilla electrician” in helping illegally reconnect some 25,000 houses in Soweto after the ANC-led state cut off electricity supplies in a neoliberal cost-recovery drive. 
Recalling the 1985-1990 Insurrection, the two described their widely differing experiences of violence under apartheid.
Makhoba: “I live in Dlamini, Soweto, with my mother and younger brother. In the ‘80s, things were rough here. The ANC comrades were trying to establish control over Dlamini, which had originally been a stronghold of Azapo [the socialist and black consciousness Azanian People’s Organisation]. Every morning when I went to school, I’d come across the bodies of Azapo people lying in the road who had been murdered by the ANC during the night. It was frightening. Eventually the ANC pushed Azapo out of the area completely. Even today, we struggle to get our own [anarchist] projects running in the area, because the ANC breaks everything down.”
Schmidt: “When I was doing basic training in 1985, a group of us was used as the ‘mob’ against which those training as lance-corporals would hone their riot-control skills. We pelted them with tin cans and they fired at us with blanks; orange smoke substituted for tear-gas, but we had to lie down and play dead for two minutes if we were ‘shot’. One guy took a bead on me and pulled the trigger. Lying there in the dust with the chaos of armoured vehicles and figures running through the orange smoke, I realised that if the scenario had been real and I had been black, I would have been shot dead for throwing a harmless tin can. So I resolved that if ever ordered to open fire on an unarmed person, I would instead gun down the officer who gave the command.” 
Makhoba’s activity with the ZACF subsequently lapsed, mainly because job-hunting took him all over the region, but he remains an active anarchist organiser wherever he finds himself. Schmidt served as the ZACF’s international secretary and an editor.


Wednesday, 15 November 2017


© Michael Schmidt, 2016

We cannot die 
                        for we’re not born
We stare into the sun
Your golden chalice
                                drips with malice
We stare into the sun

We speak in burning archives
Ashes drift from our mouths
They carry on 
                       the furnace winds
Away from Alexandria
Blood seeps from our wounds
Blue-shifts down Luxor’s aisles
Where jackal-prints
Mark the trepidations 
                                  of the dead

We chant long starless nights
Pleiades shudders at our drums
We were before they crawled
With feet afire
                       we walked the sand-drifts
Before they raised the stones

We recite subterranean passions
Dying flowers fall from our hair
Sauropods hear our call
Coil their necks around your masts
Drag you to abyssal gloom

We cannot die
                        for we’re not born
We stare into the sun
Your golden calf 
                           your epitaph
We stare into the sun

Our crocodiles roil in black oil
Their eyes behold your flesh
Nephthys walks the land
Nebulae in her hand
Neither scimitar nor chisel
Shall inscribe 
                       our obsidian night
We are original before there was sin
We are what the dragons warn you of

We cannot die
                        for we’re not born
We stare into the sun
Your nailéd godhead 
                                  faceless in a crowd
We stare into the sun

We sing cemetery dirges
With lighted hearts and scented lips
Snows fall from our brow
Their delicate mandalas 
                                       fuel tsunamis
Our arms circumscribe your fate
You rot abandoned at our gate
We are the executed in revolt
Against the delirium of the stars

We cannot die
                        for we’re not born
We stare into the sun
The undead king 
                            our offering
We stare into the sun
The undead king 
                            our offering
We stare into the sun
The undead king 
                            our offering
We stare into the sun


Friday, 10 November 2017

Anarchists in the October Revolution

In this year of celebrating the centenary of the great October Revolution in Russia, it is often forgotten that anarchists and rank-and-file Bolsheviks attempted a social revolution in July 1917 - but that the Bolshevik leadership was unprepared and so it disrupted the attempt. By doing so, the red elite was clearly signaling its willingness to risk losing the impetus of revolution entirely and so permanently surrendering the initiative to the reactionaries purely because they felt they weren't sufficiently in charge of events - a telling character flaw that would become devastatingly dominant in the subsequent Bolshevik dictatorship.

Things began to heat up in June 1917, as anarchist participants in the events Senya Fleshin and Molly Steimer later wrote: “As is known, the government of [the Social Revolutionary Alexander] Kerensky was moving quicker and quicker to the right, into the arms of the bourgeoisie and reaction. The workers responded with a protest demonstration, aimed against both the war which keeps dragging on, and against the generally treacherous policy of the right SRs. Anarchists take an active part in all of these protests; their black flags fly in the foreground. Armed, with their ranks closed, singing the anarchist anthem, they march in the streets of Petrograd."

The Bolshevik leaders warned the garrisons against taking to the streets, and yet on 3 July 1917 there was finally a rising in Petrograd, centred on revolutionary workers, soldiers and Kronstadt sailors. The immediate cause of the rising was the government’s unpopular call for a new offensive in World War I, and the fears of the anarchist-dominated 1st Machine-gun Regiment that it would be sent to the northern front as a means of containing their revolutionary zeal. The Bolsheviks vacillated on the question, provoking a split between the party leadership and what historian Marc Ferro calls “the vanguard, where Bolsheviks co-operated with anarchists, and in July there was conflict”. Many Bolshevik leaders like Vladimir Lenin were in the countryside when the revolt broke out. Among the most notable of the agitators was the Belorussian anarchist-communist tinsmith Iosif Solomonovich Bleikhman (1868-1921). Converted to anarchism while in the United States in 1904, he was jailed by the Tsarist regime on his return to Russia, only being liberated along with many political prisoners during the bourgeois February 1917 Revolution which toppled the Tsar and installed Kerensky. Bleikhman became a leading light in the Petrograd Anarchist Communist Federation (PACF), which was founded in April 1917, and a writer for its paper Burevestnik (Stormy Petrel) and for Kommuna (Commune), paper of the Petrograd Anarchist Federation (PAF), which had been founded in 1906, surviving in clandestinity for a decade. 

The Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky condescendingly describes Bleikhman – calling him Bleichman – but is unable to avoid the fact that Bleikhman’s fiery oratory matched the aspirations of the revolutionary soldiers in particular:  "… the anarchist Bleichman, a small but colourful figure on the background of 1917, with a very modest equipment of ideas but a certain feeling for the masses – sincere in his limited and ever inflammable intelligence – his shirt open at the breast and curly hair flying out at all sides. Bleichman was greeted at such meetings with a certain amount of semi-ironical sympathy. The workers, it is true, treated him somewhat coolly, but the soldiers smiled delightedly at his speeches, nudging each other with their elbows and egging the orator on with pithy comments. They plainly liked his eccentric looks, his unreasoning decisiveness, and his Jewish-American accent sharp as vinegar. By the end of June, Bleichman was swimming in all these impromptu meetings like a fish in a river. His opinion he had always with him: It is necessary to come out with arms in our hands. Organisation? ‘The street will organise us.’ The task? ‘To overthrow the Provisional Government just as it overthrew the czar although no party was then demanding it.’ These speeches perfectly met the feelings of the machine-gunners – and not theirs alone. Many of the Bolsheviks did not conceal their satisfaction when the lower ranks pushed forward against their official admonition."

In other words, the rank-and-file Bolsheviks, like the soldiers, were more in tune with anarchist-communism than with Bolshevism. Of course, Bleikhman, as a PACF militant, believed firmly in organisation, but was indicating that the revolution was not the preserve of specific organisations, but rather of the popular classes as a whole – an idea that was anathema to the Bolsheviks who had made a fetish of the dominant role of the hierarchical vanguard party. Bleikhman addressed a large gathering of soldiers (including the machine-gunners), sailors and workers, saying, according to Ferro, "We want to overthrow the government, not to hand power to the bourgeois soviet, but to take it ourselves."

Ferro said the slogans that won the day, however, continued to back the soviets. He quotes an unpublished Petrograd archive document that “displays the grassroots unity of anarchists and Bolsheviks” who set up a joint Provisional Revolutionary Committee (VRK) on the eve of the revolt: "One witness said that Bleikhman was spoiling for a fight, being in an excited condition, and telling the soldiers that they could count on the workers and sailors, for they would join in if there were a rising. The soldiers who were there said, ‘Yes, go ahead, we’re ready for it.’ The machine-gunners were nervous, for they had to strike the first blow…"

The historian Malcolm Archibald recalls the crucial role of the anarcho-insurrectionist Maria “Marusya” Nikiforova in the uprising: “The participation of sailors from the nearby Kronstadt naval base was crucial and the anarchists put together a team of agitators to persuade the sailors to take part. Having recently arrived in Russia, Marusya was one of the anarchists who went to Kronstadt. She gave a series of speeches on the huge Anchor Square to crowds as large as 8,000 to 10,000 sailors, urging them not to stand aside from their brothers in the capital.” Under the aegis of the VRK, Bleikhman and various Bolsheviks were to lead the machine-gunners (and no doubt many PACF and Bolshevik militants) and arrest Kerensky and the Provisional Government ministers, occupy the telephone exchange and the railway station, while the workers would march on Kronstadt and meet up with the sailors. But the Bolshevik leadership and many in the Petrograd Soviet were dead set against the revolt, believing it to be premature, and tried to persuade the soldiers to back down, but instead the demonstration swelled as armed workers joined the soldiers’ march on the city centre. 

However, it failed to detain Kerensky and the demonstration petered out as participants started to return home, confused by the in-fighting in Bolshevik ranks. Some regiments were against pressing the advantage, although the Kronstadt sailors still had their blood up, so the following morning, Bleikhman again led an armed column on the Tauride Palace where both the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government’s Duma were headquartered, this time joined by the famous Left SR Maria Spiridonova. At the Tauride, as Ferro notes, demands were put forward for the release of an anarchist sailor arrested at the PAF headquarters Villa Durnovo, and for the Soviet to take power from the government. Trotsky was heckled by sailors angry at his support for the dithering Soviet. Fighting broke out between insurrectionaries and loyalist troops. But three regiments brought in from the front to defend the Soviet (and ironically, by doing so, the government) finally routed the rebels.

The “July Days” were followed by state repression and the arrest of anarchists and Bolsheviks. Ferro inaccurately claims that the anarchists disappeared “as a motive force” after the revolt was defeated, but in the aftermath, many Bolsheviks as well as anarchists were forced into hiding or even exile (Lenin himself was battling against the smear that he was a German spy). The right-wing Kadets and the industrialists gained in confidence. Ferro quotes the anarchist historian of the revolution, Voline, describing the white reaction: "In the name of the [bourgeois February] Revolution, the secret police has come to life again, the individual’s liberties have been suppressed, and the old atrocities of the police chiefs will be started again… in the name of the Revolution, the gates have been opened to the most hideous counter-revolution."

Fleshin and Steimer recalled the insurrection so: “Then came the famous July Days. Of course, Bolsheviks now omit to mention that anarchists were at the time fighting, taking soldiers out [into protests] and made speeches against Kerensky’s gangs alongside them, and then paid for that with prison terms. And only anarchists, of all the revolutionary organisations. The July defeat drove anarchists and Bolsheviks underground. [The PAF newspaper] Commune is published clandestinely. But Voline still delivers his lectures on the Vyborg side [Petrograd's factory district] with huge attendance by workers; it is still possible to hold rallies.” 

Archibald writes: “The government began hunting down the Bolsheviks and anarchists. Some of the Bolsheviks, including Marusya's friend [the Bolshevik] Alexandra Kollontai, ended up in prison while others escaped to nearby Finland. Bleikhman was given sanctuary by the Kronstadt sailors who protected him from arrest. Marusya decided it was a good time to return to Ukraine and help revive the anarchist movement there. In July 1917 she arrived back in Aleksandrovsk [Oleksandrivsk, Ukraine], after an eight-year odyssey which had taken her around the world.” She would go on to command a Black Guard detachment that liberated four Ukrainian cities and installed left-wing revolutionary soviets, helping create the space in which the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine (RPAU) would rise and initiate the anarchist-inspired Ukrainian Revolution. 

The July Days events merely hardened the resolve of many to overthrow the Provisional Government, and underlined the growing gulf between the Provisional Government and large sectors of the popular classes, and the deepening polarisation inherent in dual power between the soviets and the government. Subsequent moves by General Lavr Kornilov, supreme commander of the armed forces from July, to seize power and create a dictatorship created further distrust and spurred the growth of the Red Guards, Black Guards and military soviets. When the social revolution finally succeeded in October 1917, anarchists again played key roles.

Despite their near-fatal vacillation during the July Days, the Bolshevik leadership was now confident that the Provisional Government could be overthrown, a view shared by many anarchists. A series of meetings in the Bolshevik Party saw Lenin win support for the idea of an insurrection, which was subsequently endorsed by the Petrograd Soviet. The uprising was organised through the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, headed by Trotsky, and made up of forty-eight Bolsheviks, fourteen Left SRs, and four anarchists: Vladimir “Bill” Shatov, Anatoli Zhelezniakov, Efim Yartchuk and Henri Bogatski.

On the night of the 25th of October, the Military Revolutionary Committee and its allies made their move. Petrograd and its Winter Palace were famously taken after brief fighting – the anarchist Anatolyi Zhelezniakov leading a contingent of sailors in the assault – and while the rising in Moscow was bloodier, it too was as successful. Fleshin and Steimer recalled: “But then comes October. Again, anarchists are alongside the Communists, everywhere, in the [Winter] Palace Square, at the storming of the Pavel Military School. Anarchist Anatoli Zhelezniakov is one of the chief dispersers of Chernov’s talk shop [the Constituent Assembly], anarchists are at Tsarskoye Selo [a suburb south of the city, now called Pushkin], where Kerensky is finally repulsed [during the Kerensky-Krasnov uprising]. Anarchist [Iustin] Zhuk – a political convict who served his hard labour sentence in Shlisselburg – leads a Shlisselburg workers’ detachment to guard the Smolny [Soviet headquarters] and then to Tsarskoye Selo to meet Kerensky."

The day after the storming of the Wnter Palace, Lenin was able to announce to the Second Congress of Soviets, then meeting in Petrograd, with Zhelezniakov as a Kronstadt Soviet delegate, that the Provisional Government had fallen and that the soviets were now in power. Several attempts to overthrow the Petrograd Soviet, and restore the Provisional Government were swiftly defeated by Red Guards and Black Guards. The anarchist-dominated Dvinsk Regiment, for example, decisively defeated an attempt at counter-revolution by the Kadets. It was a moment of incredible hope, when all the future seemed open. The soviets and factory committees were in charge, the Red Guards and Black Guards patrolled the streets, “workers’ control” and even self-management seemed the model of the future, and the old Russia, with its autocracy and repression and hunger seemed dead at last, blasted away by the blaze of revolution. 

Writing the best eye-witness account of the Russian Revolution, the book Ten Days that Shook the World, US communist John Reed, who was close to the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, riding to Petrograd in a truck loaded with Red Guards and driven by a grizzled worker, recalled dawn breaking that fateful day: "The road was crowded with the proletarian army going home, and new reserves were pouring out to take their places … Across the horizon spread the glittering lights of the capital, immeasurably more splendid by night than by day, like a dike of jewels on the barren plain. The old workman who drove held the wheel in one hand, while with the other he swept the far-gleaming capital in an exultant gesture. ‘Mine!’ he cried, his face all alight. ‘All mine now! My Petrograd!’"


Friday, 3 November 2017

The Italian Season in South African Politics

Michael Schmidt, October 2016

With the new pattern of coalition rule now established in several of its municipalities including the metros of Tshwane, Joburg and Nelson Mandela, South Africa has now fully entered its “Italian Season,” a period of dramatic realignment in the face of state inertia, ruling party atrophy, and social unrest.
The season in Italy that I am speaking of occurred four decades ago, in a very different time and space, heavily inflected by the Cold War, but nevertheless, to compare Italy over 1962-1969 to South Africa over recent years is instructive, for the similarities are startling.
In 1962, Italy gained its first centre-left government since 1947. The Italian political spectrum had been dominated in the post-war era by the centrist DA-like Christian Democrats (DC), but possessed powerful ANC-like Socialist (PSI) and Communist (PCI) parties.
The PCI, though declined to 1,540,000 members by 1966, remained a mass party (the SACP probably peaked at only 30,000 in the 2000s). Unfettered to a nationalist movement, unlike the SACP, the PCI nevertheless held strong sway within the COSATU-like CGIL union confederation, alongside the Socialists, which, like the ANC, had also suffered two splits in the previous two decades (its United Proletarian splinter, the leftist PSIUP, can stand in here for the EFF).
Where the PCI and the SACP are similar is that, though the SACP is in power via the ANC, and the PCI remained outside of power except in the cities of the “Red Belt” of Emilia-Romagna, they were both, in their relative ages, riven by internal conflict between traditionalists and social democrats, and had become viewed by the young working class as dead letters because of their integration into the system.
The year 1962 heralded what is termed “the opening to the left,” in which a coalition of the Social Democrats and Republicans pushed DC rule to the left with several attempts at modernising structural reform, in a similar sense to the quasi-socialist RDP under Mandela. 
As with democratic South Africa’s golden age, this was a boom period for the Italian economy, but the Socialists signally failed to make hay while the sun shone, and their structural reforms were soon replaced with watered down policies over 1963-1968 by coalition governments dominated by the Socialists that dissatisfied the newly-urbanised proletariat who had stood most to gain by the “opening” (one is reminded here of GEAR, then ASGISA). 
In the 1960s, the Italian state was prey to practices that tended to curtail initiative and efficiency. Firstly, there was lottizzazione: governments ensured that key civil service posts were occupied by party members; here, we call it cadre deployment, and as in Italy, it occurs right through the ranks (it is instructive that COSATU membership has shifted significantly from private to state employees).
Then there was the sorry condition of the Italian state-owned enterprises. Inefficiency meant heavy reliance on public funds, which were all too readily obtained, yet most SOEs experienced heavy losses over the 1960s, with the marginal exception of hydrocarbon giant ENI. 
The confluence between lottizzazione and SOEs resulted in the emergence of what then Bank of Italy governor Guido Carli termed a “state bourgeoisie,” with Italy specialist Paul Ginsborg writing that “a new generation of public managers and entrepreneurs, very closely linked with the dominant political parties, not only wielded considerable power, but also diverted substantial amounts of public funds into private channels.” 
Ginsborg cites the chilling case of ENI’s Eugenio Cefis, who used ENI funds to secretly purchase for himself a controlling shareholding in electrical-chemical SOE Montedison, to which he then relocated, to preside over an empire with 15% of the European market, and which by the 1970s included “the ownership of major newspapers, … the financing of political parties, and close links with the secret service.” I hardly need to draw comparisons here, but the term state capture comes to mind.
Lastly, there was the pervasiveness of clientalism in Italy where the Mafia were particularly successful in exploiting the cities’ developmental agencies to divert funds intended to develop SMMEs into construction speculation, which eroded public space, the public interest – and public confidence. 
Over 1967-1968, Italian universities overcrowded with newly-urbanised working class and aspirant middle class students erupted with protest, as occurred here over 2015-2016. In both cases, the immediate concerns around fees, exclusion, and a lack of transformation – stemming from the antiquity of the Italian academy, and the corporatisation of the South African – were rapidly overtaken in the eras of the Cultural Revolution and the Arab Spring with broader concerns. 
In both countries, the students rejected conventional politics, including those of the ossified Communist parties, in favour of more militant and directly-democratic politics, though flawed in practice, and radical new currents arose: in Italy, the operaista of the varsities, housing projects and factories; here, the populists of the #fall campaigns, townships and platinum mines. Both countries were wracked by unprecedented strike-waves over wages and conditions and community protests over service delivery, with the socialists and communists losing control of the unions to new formations (witness the fragmentation of COSATU, and NUMSA’s new initiatives). In Italy, even the DC-linked CISL unions radicalised, and in 1972 federated with the leftist CGIL and conservative UIL (take heed of SACOTU’s aim to unite with COSATU if it sheds the ANC). Radicals repeatedly clashed with a remilitarised police force: the Carabinieri had undergone the process in 1962, and the SAPS in 2010. 
From 1969-1982, a crisis-riven Italy fell into what is called the Anni di Piombo, the “Years of Lead,” in which bullets ruled in a zero-sum “strategy of tension” between reactionaries and revolutionaries, resulting in waves of ultra-left and ultra-right terrorism and even two coup plots. The 2012 Marikana Massacre was a worrying sign that this course is already a possibility for South Africa, while this year’s integration of the EFF into municipal governance at ANC expense (as with the United Proletarians in Italy at Socialist expense) somewhat defuses the threat. So now we stand on the cusp of where we might diverge from our “Italian Season” – or continue with unforseeable results.


Thursday, 2 November 2017

Distilling the Vision

The acknowledgements page in any book concentrates the writer's mind in recalling that writing is not at all the lonely task it is made out to be, but that scores of people contribute to the distillation of vision. Here is the text from that page in Drinking with Ghosts (2014):

I want to thank my publishers at BestRed, Jeremy Wightman
and Fiona Wakelin, for getting excited about the original
idea, my editor Karen Press for her many and sterling
improvements, and former Military Intelligence officer Lt-Col
Danie Crowther for his fact-checking. A book of this scope,
which simultaneously covers my country’s transition and my
own personal evolution, naturally owes much to those who
have assisted my research, so heartfelt thanks is due to my
beloved archivists, unsung heroes of the preservation of our
national memory, especially Michelle Leon of the Times Media
Group, and Zeenath Ismail of Independent Newspapers
– as well as Kashiefa Ajam of Saturday Star and Noor-Jehan
Yoro-Badat of The Star. I’m especially indebted to journaliststurned-
writers Rian Malan, Julian Rademeyer and Tony
Wende for their invaluable critiques of my text.
I would not have become the rather maverick journalist
I did if not for my mentors, so I recognise the contributions of
my first news editor, the late Joe Mulraney of The Natal Mercury,
who taught me that the foundation of my craft lay in paying
attention to detail; my third news editor, Shami Harichunder,
who showed me the bridge still to be crossed; and my quiet
friend Philani Mgwaba who had lost almost his whole family
to internecine fighting in Zululand, yet helped me cross
that bridge, sitting with a quart of Black Label between my
knees, listening to the Umlazi Gospel Choir in black tie raise
the roof of a shed in rural Ixopo – its loveliness famed in Cry
the Beloved Country; my fourth news editor, the late George
Mahabeer, who was the quintessential street-smart, socially
connected journalist; and I am especially indebted to Jocelyn
Maker, who founded the Sunday Times Investigations Unit,
and who panel-beat me into the investigative journalist I am
today. I have attempted here to credit my colleagues for their
contributions to my work, but there are those who make the
headlines sing, yet whose bylines do not appear in the records;
to my scores of wonderful, unsung subs, this is for you!
There are others who, in blazing trails through the bleak
wildernesses of massacre and memory, set the benchmark
for my efforts, and whom I have had the privilege to meet:
Antjie Krog who walked the Truth Commission’s trail of
tears for all of us, interlocuting the enormity of our crimes
in her Country of My Skull; Ariel Dorfman of Chile, who so
accurately inscribed to me his book on exile, longing, loss
and belonging, Feeding on Dreams: ‘this book, that could be
about South Africa’; indefatigable, gentlemanly anarchist
revolutionary Octavio Alberola Suriñach, whose campaign
to try to break Spain’s ‘Pact of Forgetting’ the horrors of the
Franco era dovetails with my project of recovering memory
in Southern Africa; and Rasha Salti of Lebanon, whose own
penetrating forensic meditations on her country’s transition
in Beirut Bereft resonated so immediately with my own
musings on our haunted condition as I wrote this book. I
have not met writer and consummate forensic journalist Gitta
Sereny, but her unflinching and yet nuanced interrogation of
the aftermath of the Nazi era, The German Trauma, was the
inspiration for this book.
Lastly there are those thousands of ‘ordinary’ people
I have interviewed in my career, especially those I have
quoted here in the text, many of whom I’m sure you
will agree are quite extraordinary. We journalists have no
authority to force interviewees to speak to us; we rely merely
on our reputations for fair dealing, so a profound thank you
is owed to all, villains and virtuous ones alike, who trusted
me enough to tell me a little of their personal truths; I trust I
have been fair to you. There are many others who may remain
unnamed, but to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for the way
I came to see the world: the fierce, such as anti-apartheid
fighter Rica Hodgeson, secretary to Walter Sisulu, who in
her eighties once told me that those whites who didn’t want
to live alongside blacks in Hillbrow as she did ‘can just
fuck off!’; the passionate, such as bag lady Doreen Gunn,
whose infectious, all-consuming love for the lost drove me
to walk the streets of the East Rand for five months on an
investigation; and the lost themselves, such as the sad whore
on whose thin pink crocheted bedspread in her tiny Albert
Park apartment with the rickety dressing table we used to lie
fully clothed and speak of dreams – until she lit her Mandrax
pipe and it was time for me to go; and my debonair friend
and former photographer Anton Hammerl, killed by Gaddafi
loyalist troops outside Brega during the Libyan Civil War on
5 April 2011, who used to sing me songs by psychobilly band
The Cramps on our many long journeys behind the curtain.
Of course, I need to issue the amateur historian’s caveat:
while I have striven to be as fair and accurate as possible,
any errors of fact or interpretation are my own. I do,
however, recognise the difference between what the French
term verité (truth) and veracité (veracity): both the journalist
and the historian have as their task the search for veracity
rather than truth, for there are many truths, yet it is out of
verifiable, established facts that the strands of different,
sometimes competing, sometimes complementary, and often
illuminating truths emerge. I trust that readers will take
away with them new nuances to their personal truths about
my country’s past, and thus, its future.


Wednesday, 1 November 2017

In a Garden in Seville

This is an extract from my forthcoming book, Isandlwana - a Love Story. 

Three green parrots that look more like African Rift Valley fish, swim past, cheeping, through the entwined palms and cypresses, the cries of owls, cicadas and parakeets resonate, ringing around the memorial to Gustavo Bécquer, the Sevillian poet, where three marble women on a bench, clung together in their carven crimplenes, describe the passion, expressed in his words, of the traverse of the mystery: “The invisible atoms of the air / pulsate all around and become inflamed… / What is happening? Tell me! / Silence! It is love that is passing!” 

The first woman sits low, as in a reverie, her fan is snapped shut, hair in a bun, her cheeks rounded with puppy-fat, a single rose fallen into the crease of her gown; she is anticipation. The second woman is more refined, her cheek thrown back in immodest ecstasy, her ringlets falling to her half-bared shoulders, her right hand laid over her heart; she is consummation. The third woman leans against her and looks away, a veiled mantilla crowning her ageing face, her hands clutched in sentiment; she is melancholia. Flanking Bécquer in bronze, a lively child-like Cupid, his quiver full, prepares to dart the young woman – but on the other side, an adult Eros lies dying, his bow dropped, his wings crumpled, his arm raised in fruitless supplication, a dagger buried in his back… And yet it is here that a bold cypress, of formidable girth, chosen by the poet’s friends for its longevity, surpasses its intention, slowly pushing the marble blocks aside, dismantling the monument to ephemeral passion.

Nearby, water gouts from the throats of three pipes, falling from a 1960s ceramic sunburst sky into a rectangular pool that is underfilled, a backdrop to a reclining stone statue of another woman, whose stone head has been removed by thieves. In a pool two young girls, very blonde, swim in their shorts to beat the heat; emerging, water runs down their thighs; they tremble at the cloud of my passing.


Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Mughal Lovers

I sometimes write songs, and this one is from a proposed EP being put together by some wonderfully talented friends of mine. The collection of songs for the EP has a very chilled vibe, somewhat post-punk, and my topics are offbeat. This song, Mughal Lovers, is based on a beautiful Mughal Indian miniature, the original of which hangs in the Museum Rietberg in Zurich. It was painted in Himachal Pradesh in about 1780-1790 in watercolour and gold on paper. In the song, I compare the painting's martial alarm with the pastoral peace of a Hindu watercolour from the same time and place, of Radha and Krishna in a forest glade, painted about 1775. Though the music has yet to be decided on, in my mind's ear, it is a stoner-doom track ;)

Mughal Lovers
© Michael Schmidt 2016

on the verandah
They turn
at the
sound of thunder
rips the 
fabric of the air

His musicians play on
murali, tambura
and pakhavaj
while six white birds 
like hooked crosses
flee the threatening sky
a lone white bird
flies instead to the west 

his hand 
yet she is unafraid
Bring me
my sword!
woman complies
Green hills 
succumb to darkness

In a
Krishna and Radha
frolic on 
a bed of leaves
His Sahasrāra 
spouts golden filaments
his blue right hand
deep in her yoni

trapped in wonder
They turn
at the
sound of thunder
rips the 
fabric of the air
He must go off to war
but Krishna and Radha
are rolling on the floor