Friday 18 August 2017

Cetaceans - the Other Intelligence

A Review of Philip Hoare, The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea

Probably one of the saddest contemporary books in natural history, The Whale relates how Homo sapiens, driven by a need to light his lamps and bulk out his womenfolk's skirts, hunted cetaceans. Despite the fact that cetaceans are possibly the nearest competitor to human intelligence in our world, the slaughter started with precious few attempts to understand them - except to understand how to kill them. 

If the UN Convention on the Crime of Genocide could be applied to cetaceans, as a species we'd pretty much stand guilty, for almost *all* of our knowledge of whales comes from hunting them to the brink of extinction and it has only been since the 1960s that this has more generally been agreed (Japanese and Norwegian whalers excepted) to be a rather bad idea. 

Whales are pretty weird by evolutionary standards, having walked out of the oceans at some point as smallish otter-like creatures, who at some point abandoned the shores and reverted to the waves, losing all but the vestiges of their newly-acquired limbs and fur. There are some sub-species of cetaceans that thankfully we have never even seen alive - knowing them only by the very rare washed-up corpse. Tragically, there is one whale that we know to be the last of its genus because its unique, haunting, lonesome whale-song has remained unanswered in the depths of the Bering Sea for decades. 

Amid this tragedy, however, Hoare brings a beautiful and intimate storytelling style that starts out as a exploration of why and how an unknown Yankee hack named Herman Melville (keen to challenge Nathaniel Hawthorne as author of "the great american novel" - a perennial obsession of obscure US writers, it seems) came to write Moby-Dick - along the way exploring how the tale of a real "great white whale" entranced and horrified 19th Century seafarers. 

Hoare spends time in Nantucket for which Basque whalers set out from the Bay of Biscay in at least the 16th Century - but by some early accounts way back in the 14th Century - to hunt their prey. I guess at least back then the whales had a better chance of survival than the whalers in their fragile boats. He tracks the development of whaling from a survivalist pursuit of meat to a vanity of scrimshawed teeth and whale-boned corsets, to a black-hearted massacre driven by the greed for oil, to a very belated turn to conscience and conservation.

Along the way, he also brushes up against some of the other denizens of the deep - in particular the arch nemesis (and tasty meal if its dinner-plate sized suckers come unstuck) of the sperm whale, the giant squid. This is the "kraken" of lore if at least one eyewitness account cited by Hoare is credible, of a giant squid running some 100ft long, alongside a ship under sail, though current scientific estimates put it at a mere 43ft maximum (or the larger females, that is). Then again, bear in mind that we know so little about them: the giant squid was photographed in the wild for the first time only in 2004.

It is often forgotten that whales are not only those monstrous leviathans of the abyss with car-sized hearts, but also include much smaller species including the "smiling" dolphin, the feared orca, and the narwhal - its tusk a single extruded tooth with thousands of nerve-endings that is more likely a navigational and mating tool than a weapon. Not that we should get all cute about cetaceans: Free Willie aside, even dolphin are smart, pack-hunting carnivores and are sometimes given to gang-banging (take that, you hippies!).

Yet for any of you who has held their breath as Sea Shepherd's vessels have clashed with Japanese whalers and factory ships, Hoare underlines that cetaceans are the transmitters of knowledge (if not "culture" as we narrowly understand it) to their their offspring, and the consummate navigators of the world beneath the waves that makes up most of our planet. When we are finally gone I hope that ours becomes a planet of the whales once again.


Thursday 17 August 2017

Recalling the Marikana Massacre

A LITTLE OF THAT HUMAN TOUCH: Journalists look at the process, reporters at the event; we need more journalists writes Michael Schmidt, Op-ed, The Star, 30 August 2012

In all the angst and soul-searching wrought by the Marikana Massacre – despite some jaded commentators trying to reduce it to a mere “incident” – the description of the clash that has been most noticeably absent is “class war”.
We South Africans are so accustomed to the almost ritualistic dance of burning tyres and toyi-toyiing crowds, then the arrival of an armoured phalanx of police, then an inevitable escalation through megaphoned warnings, to rubber bullets, to live ammunition and, sometimes, corpses, that we can’t see the class war for the teargas. In much the same way as most journalists refused to talk of insurrection in the late 1980s in preference to the depoliticised term “unrest,” so in the democratic era, we talk of “protest” and not class war.
Poloko Tau’s commendable on-day reportage in The Star on the killing by police of his contact among the striking rock-drillers, the strike leader that he only knew as “the man in the green blanket” immediately emphasised for me how rare it is to have our journalists even bother to build such contacts in stricken communities, before the smoke rises on the horizon. 
Cardboard-cutout renditions of extremely complex conflicts cuts both ways. Who after all recalls that in the 1976 Soweto Massacre, the leader of the police contingent Theunis “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel lost his right eye to a bottle in the fray, which might have precipitated the shooting; or that student leader Tsietsi Mashinini was himself stoned by the students for demanding that they back down? It is telling that we do not know the actual sequence and detail of one of our most hallowed sufferings in more accurate detail. Likewise, in the polarised narrative over Marikana, the details of the police deaths are either totally ignored by those backing the strikers, or upheld as a justification for slaughter by those backing the police. 
Most journalists were rooting the origins of the massacre in the strikers taking to their Wonderkop redoubt barely a week before the bloodshed. But I recall noting that there was “trouble at t’ mill” down at Lonmin at least a year ago, and I had a gut feeling back then that it would all end in tears, though few journalists kept their finger on the pulse in the intervening months. In fact I worry that most of our journalists (those who analyse conflict as process) have been supplanted by reporters (those who simply report on conflict as isolated events). For one thing, I have seen little reportage over recent years of the surreptitious remilitarisation of our police – civilianised at great cost in the wake of apartheid.
Myself and Canadian photographer David Buzzard were the only two journalists on the scene of the Christmas Day Massacre at Shobashobane on the South Coast in 1995 when 19 ANC-aligned villagers were butchered by an Inkatha impi; and I was the only journalist who returned a decade later to report on the aftermath.  I employ a process I call “forensic meditation” in returning to the scene of a massacre; walking the paths of the killers to their termini, re-interviewing victims and perpetrators, reconstructing the details and teasing out discrepancies.  My forensic meditation on Shobashobane in 2005 resulted in a partial confession from former IFP warlord Sipho Ncobo, by then serving as mayor of the area. I have been 2km down the Implats platinum mine, on the stopes where rock-drillers sweat in 55°C heat, the air thick with the bite of ammonia. I’ve yet to see our journalists walking the paths of the rock-drillers they are reporting on.
Scott Peterson was one of few journalists in Rwanda during the “100 Nights” Genocide back in 1994. What he produced out of an incredibly complex tale was not just harrowing eyewitness reportage of the infernal interahamwe bloodletting, and went far beyond reporting on the Genocide as process not event, but resulted, in his book Me Against My Brother, in one of the best structural analyses of how the slaughter was rooted in the convergence between the interests of Agathe Habyarimana’s Akazu (Little House) inner circle and their extremist Zero Network, of the meddling French post-colonial state, and of the Rwandese Catholic hierarchy. In other words, structural analyses of the interests served by massacre penned by journalists are far too rare. 
It was left to Leonard Gentle, director of the International Labour Research and Information Group, to write that “The drill workers at Lonmin… were Xhosa-speaking and brought from the Eastern Cape into an area where most people speak another language, Tswana. This was a conscious move by the company to heighten exploitation in the mines. Add to this the toxic mix heavily armed mine security, barbed-wire enclosures, and substandard informal housing—and a picture of institutionalised violence emerges.”
A decade after the Genocide, I sat at a fancy restaurant overlooking the velvety hills of Kigali at night, drinking with the top military brass of the Rwandese Patriotic Front. One salient thing struck me about them: having forcibly ended the Genocide when France and the United Nations proved unwilling, they believed with a frightening certitude that they were on the side of the angels regardless of what they did – something I encounter in the ANC elite regarding their role in ending apartheid; that they are incapable of doing wrong, or at least that all they do is sanctified in the blood of their martyrs. This sense of semi-divine mission, combined with the ethnic divisions and institutionalised violence of which Gentle speaks, in support of mining multinationals, not only replicates apartheid logic but is a dangerously volatile mix.
In July last year, I had the privilege to interview one of the world’s most intriguing guerrilla fighters. As a youth, Octavio Alberola plotted the invasion of Cuba with Fidel Castro, and became a member of Defensa Interior, the Spanish exile anarchist underground council tasked in the 1960s with assassinating Spanish dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Today he has become deeply involved with breaking what in Spain is called the “Pact of Silence”: the unspoken backroom deal whereby Spanish society remained mute about the abuses in the aftermath of the Spanish Revolution when Francoist forces are believed to have killed some 200,000 people. It is only in recent years that mass graves have been uncovered and Alberola is driving a campaign to have the ersatz “criminal” sentences of those massacred expunged so their remaining widows can be pensioned. 
I have come to believe that there is a similar “Pact of Silence” in Southern Africa – all the more potent, as in Spain for it being unspoken. And there is no case that more glaringly demonstrates this than that of the Operation Dual Massacre that is almost unknown – despite it being apartheid South Africa’s biggest war-crime. It was accepted as true during the failed Dr Wouter Basson prosecution that between 1979 and 1987, some 200 captured members of the South-West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) were drugged, flown in a Cessna from an airstrip at Etosha Pan, naked and bound, to a location about 100 nautical miles off the Skeleton Coast, where they were dumped into the ocean from an altitude of about 3,6km. A lawyer friend of mine who worked on the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions told me he believes the reason SWAPO has not gone after the known death-flight perpetrators is that SWAPO has atrocities of its own that it fears would be brought to light if it pursues this (and in fact a Dutch human rights group has attempted to bring charges before the International Criminal Court). The implication is that perpetrators on the apartheid and liberation movement sides of the line are colluding in suppressing the truth.
But somewhere out there are 200 families wanting to know that happened to their sons and daughters. Some day the dam will break – but those families are unlikely to ever have any bones to bury. In contrast, this May, the bones of Alberto “Pocho” Mechoso, the long-lost brother of another interviewee of mine, Juan Carlos Mechoso, a former guerrilla with Uruguayan resistance movement Revolutionary Popular Organisation – 33 (OPR-33), were found in a drum on the seabed off Argentina where he had been kidnapped, tortured and “disappeared” during the Dirty War in 1976. There were seven other drums of human remains alongside his. The only reason the Mechoso family can finally find closure after 36 years of agony is that Argentina has a proactive prosecutorial authority that has undone secrecy pacts and those they protect with impunity.
Western and African heads of state last week hailed as a great leader the dead Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi whose forces in 2005 murdered 193 pro-democratic protestors, injured 800 more, and jailed 40,000. To my mind, only elite-class interest can explain this cynical, deliberate act of forgetting. Our journalists need to explore the class function of our police – who are themselves poorly-paid and work in atrocious conditions – in support of the elite’s structural interests. And those interests are terrifyingly inhuman: during the Xenophobic Pogroms of 2008, the inactivity of the police for the first week of the killings made it seem as if the elite was curious to see how far such a fire could burn before they were forced to put it out; after all, divisive ethnic violence has proven a ready fall-back for regimes in crisis in Africa. Divide-and-rule remains the rule for minorities – and elites are always minorities.


For Want of a Truth Commission

A review of James MacKinnon, Dead Man in Paradise, Faber and Faber, London, UK, 2007.

Seldom does a work of historical investigation manage so delicate a balance between poetic nuance and forensic judgment, but it is even rarer for a journalistic probe into the mysterious death of a family member four decades ago in a foreign country to manage to illuminate the nature of an entire people and country, an illumination all the more powerful for its inability to penetrate, and yet at least to delineate, certain recalcitrant shadows. 

The only book I know to do something similar is Martin Pollack’s The Dead Man in the Bunker (1998) in which he pursues the truth about his long-dead father’s hidden past as an SS officer, which reveals almost more about the roots of anti-Slavic racism among Germans living in the borderlands of what became the Third Reich than it does about his own family.

The Dominican Republic is a country that has, unlike my own South Africa, or the more directly comparable Chile or Guatemala, not undergone the flawed-yet-purgative process of a sort of “truth and reconciliation commission” after emerging from decades of authoritarianism. South Africa’s commission was blessed by being covered by a radio journalism team lead by the poet Antjie Krog, which resulted in her harrowing book Country of My Skull (1998).

But for want of such an official inquiry exhuming its skeletons, the Dominican Republic, that forgotten Caribbean land of caudillismo, exquisite fruits, genocide, and crystal waters, at least has the interlocution of Canadian journalist James MacKinnon’s breathtaking true tale of his dogged search, stumbling in poor Spanish, for the truth behind the weird murder of his uncle, Catholic priest Arthur MacKinnon, at the height of the popular revolution that broke out in April of 1965. 

With a robust passion for the Dominican downtrodden, Padre Arturo was a natural mark as a trouble-making “red” for cold warriors like General Elias Wessin y Wessin, the tank brigade commander whose forces battled the youth of the revolution in the capital Santo Domingo until the US, fearing a second Cuba, landed Marines in May 1965 and the clock stopped.

But what then to make of the fact that in June 1965, alongside Arturo’s bullet-riddled body were two more gunned-down corpses – one a uniformed police lieutenant and one a plain-clothed police corporal – and while the dead cops are suspected of assassinating the priest, it appears that an army soldier may have gunned the cops down in turn, insuring 39 years of silence, in a country that harbours its silences? 

Who killed who, who gave the orders if there were orders, and why? Amid the suggestions of a political plot with a “blush of communism” lurks a possible motive of a cuckolded lover. But in a country struggling to come to terms with its past, nothing is as it seems and few answers are straightforward.

MacKinnon has an amazing eye for detail and a poetic sense of mood, plot, pace, dialogue and of place: “I can see the fires on the slopes as farmers clear the underbrush. In between them are valleys filled with flame trees, all of them ferociously in bloom. The canopy of flowers is the same colour as the embers that glow from the earth.”

What he has produced is a tour de force in what I term forensic meditation, the painstaking reconstruction of a scene of damage and loss, sifting through the evidence to strip away the layers of accumulated obfuscation, restoring its original simple brutality to the scorching light of the Caribbean sun, and in doing so, revealing many truths about themselves to the Dominican people. 


Restoring the Reputation of the Polish Anarchist Movement

The Polish anarchist movement suffers from a uniquely distorted history. Although it honourably defended the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto - two Anarchist Federation of Poland (AFP) militants being later hailed as "Righteous Among Nations" for such work - and took up arms against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, it has often been mischaracterised by historians as tainted by either nationalism or Bolshevism. The roots of the problem lie in the bizarre fact that in 1930, the regime of military strongman Józef Piłsudski united several unions into what was intended as a yellow government-friendly union centre: nationalists, independents, socialists including a small faction of the Polish Socialist Party and a workers’ faction that had broken with the Second International, and the 40,000-strong anarcho-syndicalist General Worker's Federation (GFP, formed four years earlier at the same time as the AFP) were merged to form the Union of Trade Unions (ZZZ).

The ZZZ's programme, according to historian Rafał Chwedoruk, “was a compromise between radical syndicalism and reformism, even solidarity,” the latter presumably meaning solidarity with the regime. Nevertheless, Chwedoruk noted that "the syndicalists became more and more socially radical in the era’s economic crisis. They supported and organised many strikes. The syndicalist wing dominated the ZZZ… It was a large centre (170,000 members) and had influence within certain industries (esp. in Schliesen in central Poland) – in construction, metal industry, military undertakings etc. The ZZZ declared for the class war… [yet] had a small parliamentary group..." Chwedoruk argues, unconvincingly, that Polish syndicalism was a strange hybrid, a “unique political doctrine” straddling “the border of national-Bolshevism and anarcho-syndicalism,” and “a weird mixture of nationalism, syndicalism and anarchism”. It is not clear whether this is because he appears to take the ZZZ as an undifferentiated whole, or whether it is because of the common error of counting as "syndicalist" those like the Zet youths under the sway of non-syndicalist radicals such as the proto-fascist Georges Sorel.

The ZZZ was clearly a mixed organisation including conservatives clustered around Stanislaw Cat-Mackiewicz, editor of the journal Slowo (Word), but it also embraced a significant anarcho-syndicalist current centred on the likes of tobacco worker Ignacy “Morus” Głuchowski (1892-1944), AFP militant teacher Władysław Głuchowski (1911-1941), former prisoner of the Russian Okhrana secret police Stefan “Szwed” Szwedowski (1891-1973), and agronomic draughtsman Tomasz “Janson” Alfons Pilarski (1902-1977). Many would come to play leading roles in the anti-Nazi resistance: Pilarski, a member of the anarcho-syndicalist Free Workers' Union of Germany (FAUD) in Silesia from 1919-1933, had even helped form the anti-Nazi anarchist Black Ranks militia in 1929 before being forced to flee Germany in 1933 under threat of execution for high treason. From 1931 to 1939, the ZZZ established itself as a powerful force on the labour front, and expressing an interest in joining the anarcho-syndicalist international, the IWA: the anarcho-syndicalist current within it was represented at the 1938 congress of the IWA in Paris in 1938 by Pilarski. The conservative unions - including the military munitions factories - later split off the ZZZ, putting it more firmly under anarcho-syndicalist control. 

After the Nazi invasion in 1939, some 4,000 ZZZ members formed the clandestine Polish Syndicalist Union (ZSP) which built an armed wing, the 104 Company, which by some accounts rose to 600 insurgents, while AFP militants formed the Syndicalist Organisation "Freedom" (SOW) which had its own armed wing, the Syndicalist Brigade. Both units liaised with the Committee to Protect Jews and the mainstream Home Army (AK), ran supplies into the Warsaw Ghetto and smuggled Jews out, and fought the Nazis before and during the Warsaw Uprising. The anarchists and syndicalists even continue fighting for four days after the AK surrendered to the Nazis on 2 September 1944 - and their remnants went on to fight in other formations, helping to drive the brown plague from Poland. It is time that the Polish movement be restored to its proper, honourable place in history as a solidly anarchist, anti-fascist fighting force; I trust the sections on Poland in my forthcoming book Wildfire will serve to do just that!