Vol. 17 No. 2 · 26 January 1995

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It is relatively easy to compile a compendium of South Africa’s ills, to give inflated attention to the more bizarre or sensational things that happen, and to make the simplistic judgment that this is a country going to the dogs. R.W. Johnson, for example, delivered himself of some pretty contestable comments (LRB, 20 October 1994). Considering that he must have written his piece, ‘Enrichissez-Vous!’, barely five months after the inauguration of President Mandela, he showed himself eager to rush to judgment. He patronisingly refers to the President as a ‘dear old man with a shining moral character’, and follows this with the remark that ‘there is, quite unmistakably, a lack of grip in the way the Government is being run.’ Those who know and work with President Mandela arrive at the opposite conclusion. He has moved naturally and rapidly to gain control of the administration of the country, and to give it moral content and direction.

Johnson persists in calling the Minister of Justice ‘Omar Dullah’, showing some lack of grip of his own. This apart, the reader is left with the impression that Mr Dullah Omar is trying to steamroller the Truth and Reconciliation Commission through Cabinet, with Deputy President F.W. de Klerk fighting it tooth and nail. This is hardly the case. Although there were reservations on the part of Deputy President de Klerk’s National Party and others, a basis for wide agreement has – since Johnson’s remarks – been achieved, and legislation is expected to go through Parliament in 1995 with maximum support. So much for the tooth and nail conflict.

Johnson says that the ‘Ministry of Administration’ (sic) ceded control of the country’s water resources to the provinces without consulting the Ministry of Water Affairs, ‘which then had to put up a furious fight to snatch back control’. The facts are that the interim Constitution categorically reserves water affairs as a national responsibility, i.e. under my department’s control. There never was any question of this responsibility being ‘ceded’ to anyone else by the Ministry for the Public Service and Administration. It was constitutionally impossible. Admittedly, it did take some time to convince all and sundry of the self-evident fact that water was a national responsibility (this was done by concentrating minds on the actual situation), and of the obvious truth that water is an indivisible national asset. A ‘furious fight’ was unnecessary.

Johnson mentions alleged Cabinet incapacity to reach tough decisions. We have a Government of National Unity, comprising the ANC, the NP and the Inkatha Freedom Party. It would be an immaculate coalition were there no differing viewpoints in the Cabinet. But on the really important questions, such as the integrity of the new South Africa and vigorous prosecution of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, there is unanimity among all players. Johnson describes the Government’s White Paper on the RDP as ‘wholly vacuous’. All one can do is to direct attention to the White Paper itself, and to favourable comments that have been made about it locally and abroad.

The impression given of indecision and drift is not fair and not factual. Yet it is cunningly woven into much that Johnson writes. We know him well. He is a craftsman of destructive criticism, and on occasion something of a prima donna in the process. The statement that ‘no one can say whether the question of where the country’s capital is to be has been resolved.’ suggests drift verging on incompetence, whereas the President himself and his office have made very clear statements on the state of this debate. What cannot be clear, until it is tested, is the wish of the people of South Africa and their representatives on this matter. To test opinion and not to pre-empt it is the democratic way. What is wrong with that?

Johnson’s reference to 12 figures in the Cabinets being Communists or ‘close to the SA Communist Party’ is gratuitous suspicion-mongering, reminiscent of the Cold War. It takes no account of the central fact that the new government is remarkably pragmatic and non-ideological in tackling the vast, practical challenges facing South Africa. The substantial privatisation programme is a case in point.

Johnson suggests that the 11,000 civil service vacancies which were advertised and drew 1.4 million applications were additional posts to find jobs for the ANC’s ‘clients’. They were routine civil service vacancies, and the Government rightly insisted that they should be advertised widely. The fact that the new government inherited a truly staggering unemployment rate had an understandable result: there were hosts of applications. Not ‘clients’, just people needing jobs.

To report that ministers ‘repeatedly make speeches saying how much they dislike having white civil servants’, and ‘in many cases have already suspended their top white civil servants … in order to give jobs to clients and cronies’ who are less able, is to suggest a concerted campaign waged against senior officialdom. There might well be reservations about some of the ‘old order’ civil servants, virtually guaranteed employment by the new Constitution. The reservations have limits, and there is great respect for the many competent and industrious white civil servants who are settling down to the new dispensation. All permanent heads of government departments were viewed as acting in that capacity while their posts were advertised. This was in accordance with the spirit of the new Constitution. It would be interesting to see Johnson’s list of the many ‘clients and cronies’ who have been placed in top civil service positions by the ANC. In fact, a good number of the ‘old’ civil servants have been reappointed.

One could go on testing the assertions offered as Revealed Truth in Johnson’s article. He speaks of strikes, blocking of motorways, rioting, marches, littering, hostage-taking and university crises. He speaks of a ‘mess’ in education; he questions whether the press will remain free (though free expression is specifically guaranteed in the Constitution, backed by the Constitutional Court). Of course, he cannot resist the ritual denunciation of Deputy Minister Winnie Mandela, and so on. From Johnson’s October 1994 view, one would have expected South Africa, emerging into 1995, to have been well on the boil once again, as in the days of apartheid repression. This has not happened. The politically-related violence level is well down, the economy is re-emergent, RDP projects are underway, the police are increasingly seen as protectors and not bullies, the people are happier (and far friendlier to one another), foreign tourism was up 14 per cent in the year Johnson entered his gloomy judgment – and, to cap it, in March 1995 the British Queen and her consort will pay their first royal visit to South Africa in nearly fifty years. Was it better in the old days?

Kader Asmal
Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry

Misplaced Grievances

I thought the basic criterion for printing letters in the LRB was some sort of style, wit or literary relevance. That from Lord Hanson’s Legal Director (Letters, 22 December 1994) had none of these; worse still, the silken politico-litigious menace within the phrase, ‘organisation funded through the public purse’, seemed to imply that taxpayers’ money should never be spent on any organisation which published matter critical of any powerful private interests and that, if it happened again, Hanson plc might one day use its undoubted influence with the current government to teach you a lesson. But then again, perhaps its publication was simply an intelligent way of reminding the Literature Panel of the Arts Council how much you deserve your modest grant. In any event Mr Dransfield doth protest much too much and wholly counterproductively.

Christopher Price
Settle, North Yorkshire

One only has to suffer the misfortune of viewing Hanson’s current self-congratulatory and imitative television advertisement (presumably allowable as a cost for tax purposes and thus, like your journal, supported partly out of the public purse) to appreciate the extent to which the company cares about its persona. Paul Foot’s review of Hanson: A Biography gave us the critic’s view, which is surely one of the objects of criticism. Graham Dransfield’s call for that view’s suppression gave us real insight into Hanson’s psyche. Mr Dransfield has very definitely and most helpfully put Hanson’s foot in it.

Anthony Bilmes

The British Library Will Survive

John Sutherland is quite right to point to the danger that access to the British Library will be restricted once the Euston Road building is eventually opened (Letters, 12 January). But it is not only at the British Library that accessibility – and therefore independent scholarship – is increasingly under threat. University libraries are more and more following policies that deprive those without some sort of sponsorship from pursuing research.

I had a research permit for about fifteen years to the British Library of Political and Economic Science, which was founded by Sidney Webb a century ago ‘as a great laboratory of social research’ and which is run by the LSE. The permit was issued under the then regulations of the Library that provided for free access to ‘bone fide researchers’ not working for ‘profit-making institutions’. This helped to provide me with material to produce several books and a large number of journal articles, so that some twenty-five of my works are to be found in the catalogue of the Library (two of them as ‘recommended texts’). Much of this material is not to be found at the British Library or any other in this country. Then last summer I received a letter from the Library telling me I could only use it in future on payment of £7.50 a day, £20 a week or £200 a year. A similar letter presumably went to many other permit-holders.

These sums may not seem large to the head of the LSE, John Ashworth, or to Lord Dainton, the chair of the Library Panel, but they are an awful lot for any researchers not working for an academic institution or in receipt of a substantial commission from a publisher. They effectively rule out access to the Library for anyone who chooses to keep themselves while writing books or articles by living on part-time work or enduring a spell on the dole: the £20 a week would eat up half someone’s dole money. The Library has, in fact, made a ruling that, had it been in effect earlier, would have prevented many of the books on its shelves ever being written.

When I made some of these points to the sub-librarian in charge of ‘management and external services’, the justification was twofold. First that ‘we are by no means the first university library to introduce charges.’ Second, that ‘today’s market economy is quite incompatible with your suggestion we should provide each of the authors of our material with free access to the wider collections.’

Chris Harman
London Nl

Kettle of Fish

William Scammell’s letter about metaphor and simile came to a somewhat sticky end (Letters, 22 December 1994). The metaphor ‘is not … a flying buttress but a … load-bearing wall’ makes little sense in light of the fact that flying buttresses are load-bearing walls.

Build a building without a trussed roof and the weight of the roof will tend to push the walls out. (Stand a book open like a roof on two others like walls.) Masonry, or to be precise mortar, is very weak in tension, it is imperative to keep it in compression. The quick way to do that, in this instance, is to thicken the walls. You can have somewhat thinner ones if you place heavy weights (say, statues, pinnacles or hunks of rock) along the top of the join between the roof and the walls. You can even scoop out part of the walls to allow big windows, provided you leave some wide bits to push in on the walls (solid buttresses to give them their proper name). However, solid buttresses don’t subtend as great a solid angle to the sky as simple windows. In order to extend the period in which light can enter the building, say, a cathedral, which you are constructing, you can cut out bits of the solid buttress, or build a simple pillar with a half arch on top to push in on the wall where the roof joins it. Unfortunately the half arch pushes the pillar out and over. Hmm, well then, add some weight where the half arch rests on the pillar (a statue? a pinnacle? a hunk of rock?) and/or give the flying buttress a flying buttress of its own, a little smaller, and a little shorter and so on.

Gothic architecture is not ‘gothic’ in any recognisable non-architectural sense of the word. It is not about fripperies, spookiness or decorative detail for the sake of it. It is ludicrously functional, medieval Pompidou Centre functional. You can dispense with these forms if you have roofing trusses (repeat the three-book experiment with a short piece of string pinned to the covers of roof book so that it can’t open) or other methods of keeping the walls in tension (pre-stressed concrete, for example). Whatever you do, you ought to be discouraged from removing the ‘prosthetic’, ‘unnatural’, ‘improper’ pinnacles, statues and flying buttresses from any Gothic buildings in your possession, unless demolition is your intent.

Gordon Guthrie

Great Copyright Disaster

John Sutherland’s erudite article (LRB, 12 January) contained a minor legal solecism. An author’s moral rights exist only for so long as the copyright in a particular work exists, and an author’s estate would not therefore be able to lodge complaints in perpetuity concerning the treatment of a work.

Anthony Mosawi
Brown Cooper Solicitors,


I was delighted to read John Bayley’s very positive review of Peter Taylor’s latest novel In the Tennessee Country (LRB, 12 January). The novel’s opening sentence, as quoted by Bayley, is: ‘In the Tennessee country of my forebears, it was not uncommon for a man of good character suddenly to disappear.’ This, to me, is a truly memorable sentence, so much so that it sent me hastily to my shelves to a treasured collection of Peter Taylor’s short stories entitled The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court where I found a well remembered story, ‘Cousin Aubrey’. This story begins: ‘In the Tennessee country of my forebears, it was not uncommon for a man of good character suddenly to disappear.’

Stanley Clingman
London N3

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