A Taste of Bitter Almonds: a challenging new view from the ground on race, class, perdition and promise in the New South Africa
When Nelson Mandela took the oath as South Africa’s first democratically-elected president in 1994, it symbolised the triumphal defeat of almost three and a half centuries of racial separation since the original corporate raiders of the Dutch East India Company planted a bitter almond hedge to keep indigenous people out of ‘their’ Cape outpost in 1659.
The subsequent expansion of Dutch, Batavian, then British settler colonialism over the territories that centuries later were forced by Britain to form a sub-imperialist corporate entity called ‘South Africa’ has usually been retro-projected as a simplistic tale of white-over-black – but this ignores the multiracial nature of both the colonial elite and its underclass of servants, soldiers and slaves. The dispossession by genocide at the hands of Boer, British, Bantu and Griqua of the indigenous Bushmen – a term they themselves prefer to the pejorative ‘San,’ meaning vagrant – has been airbrushed out of the South African consciousness, as has the certain knowledge that all South Africans, including the author, are racially interrelated, creating blind spots that were viciously exploited by white, and now increasingly, black racist nationalists with the rise in 2014 of right-wing populism.
The Mandela moment had deep global resonance and for a few years thereafter the ‘Rainbow Nation’ was the world’s darling with the stories produced by journalists signalling in a breathless flood the dramatic changes of the transition – but in the world’s most unequal society, for the majority of its people, being excluded from a dignified life remained the rule over 1994 to 2015, and a taste of bitter almonds remained. Some of the most obvious – yet usually ignored – elements of continuity from the colonial, dominion and apartheid past in the democratic era include the intolerable official burdening of all young children by insisting on classifying them by race, the cynical unwillingness of the political elite to adequately redistribute to the hard-toiling poor the ill-gotten gains of the past especially land and corporate wealth, and the weird mimicking by today’s town planners of separatist apartheid urban geography. As one interviewee put it about his racially segregated town in 2001, it is as if the ghost of BJ Vorster – the prime minister whose regime invaded Angola and crushed the 1976-1977 Insurrection – still stalks the hills.
In the year of South Africa’s troubled coming-of-age, veteran investigative journalist and anarchist activist Michael Schmidt brings to bear 21 years of his scribbled field notes to weave a tapestry, employing veteran war correspondent Martha Gellhorn’s ‘view from the ground’ technique: here in the demi-monde of our transition from autocracy to democracy, in the half-light glow of the rusted rainbow, you will meet neo-Nazis and the newly dispossessed, Boers and Bushmen, black illegal coal miners and a bank robber, witches and wastrels, love children and land claimants. The themes covered in A Taste of Bitter Almonds include the self-exclusion of criminals and of the racist white right, the deadly divisions of so-called faction-fighting and xenophobia (the latter more correctly described as genocide), the tough experiences of social outcasts and gender pioneers, the inequitable treatment of timber, asbestos, chemical and mining workers and the sea-changes in organised labour, and the intersections of race and poverty, and of land and identity – especially for Bushmen and the other victims of robber-baron apartheid capitalism – under the African National Congress’ “national democratic revolutionary” state.
Controversially, Schmidt argues that the distorting lens of the Mandela cult has allowed the continuities between autocracy and democracy to go underreported and largely unchallenged, and asks why we seem doomed to perpetuate divisions of race, culture, class, age, and gender. Yet with most tales of our democracy focusing on what academic Patrick Bond called the ‘elite transition,’ this book is a selection of journalistic back-stories on reporting on the elephant in the room – the elite-poor class divide – detailing the contest between what Landless People’s Movement activist Mangaliso Kubheka described in 2004 as the helicopter-borne President Thabo Mbeki ‘coming down from the skies’ to beg for his organisation’s votes, standing against whom was the organic poor-class leadership of what Peter Dwyer of the Alternative Information and Development Centre described as ‘the auntie in Chatsworth who says “No!”.’
And yet, despite all the examples of shattered lives given in the text, a bright thread of promise runs through it: for instance, it is uplifting to note the iron resolve of black women sawmill workers to unionise despite working for R11/month in appalling conditions, or that though their feet are often in the mud, our Born Free youth have their eyes on the stars and have achieved tremendous gains in fields as diverse as dance and astrophysics. As with the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which ordinary broken crockery is repaired with slender seams of gold, not only restoring its prosaic functionality, but elevating it to high art by granting it a new beauty-in-brokenness, Schmidt argues that it is only by paring away the myths of our transition and revealing the scars of our continuity, by integrating our pain into our pride, that we can restore dignity to our extended family, all our people, and rise above the damage of the past.