The 1951 film "Cry the Beloved Country" gave this writer his first boyhood glimpse of that peculiarly beautiful and tragic place, South Africa.
South Africa wasn't giraffes, sun-drenched safaris, "colorful native dances" or the novelty of Miriam Makeba's Xhosa clicks--all commercial exports that came to pass over the years. It was, instead, the sight of a rural black minister, played by Canada Lee, trudging to meet a wealthy white farmer, played by Charles Carson, after Lee's son has taken part in the murder of Carson's son in a panicked robbery attempt. There wasn't the self-recriminatory or rancorous exchange one would have expected. Their grief was too great. The future of them both had been swept away.
For me, nothing in the intervening years has made South Africa any less a metaphor for sorrow and mystification, including the cultural boycott John Wilson writes about on Page 1. The boycott, whose sponsorship is centered in Washington, D.C., by two groups known as TransAfrica and Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid, and in New York by the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid, has been organized to blacklist any performer or cultural figure who goes to South Africa for "cultural contact"; and, in the words of Harry Belafonte (co-chairman of Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid), to make the artist "pay a heavy price."
Historical time seems to weigh more heavily in South Africa than it does in most other places, as though its location at the bottom of the world has a gravitational complement that weighs people down. Perhaps it's because the psychological climate has been so shot through with the terror engendered by life in a tenaciously administered police state that every word, every gesture, every intonation and every glance is saturated with significance.
In the novel "Too Late the Phalarope" by Alan Paton (who also wrote "Cry the Beloved Country"), a white minister makes love to a black woman--a grave offense against South Africa's racial laws--and is undone by a note in his letter box bearing three little words: "I saw you." Ten thousand miles away, and further still from the rigors of post-colonial self-preservation, the reader feels his terror.
I'm not going to pretend I understand South African society any more than the boycotters do--most of whom, I suspect, get their information secondhand. Two years ago, I went there for reasons too numerous to mention. They had to do with the remarkable literature that has come out of the torment of living in a sunny gulag. Dennis Brutus was there. Nadine Gordimer was there. Athol Fugard, whom I consider the greatest living playwright in the English-speaking world, was there. Those brilliant actors John Kane and Winston Ntshona had suggested to me the swiftness and economy and near-perfection with which the black artist must carry his conception through the mine field of white South African approbation--a wrong move can mean personal disaster. In the antic play "Woza, Albert!" Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema confirmed it. Was there a movement developing here?
Too, over the years I had seen that early grief worsen. One learned about official murder, imprisonment (of dissident whites as well as blacks), internal exile, banning, the forced relocation into barren "homelands." A diabolical newspaper editor could have switched photo captions from the Soweto riots of 1976 with those of the Selma, Ala., ones of 1964, and fooled many of us; there was the similar cluster of terrified blacks facing the cordon of helmeted officers, tense behind their hoses and dogs.
At first, I didn't know why the grimace of South Africa was more eloquent there than here, but I knew I had to go. Besides, for better or worse, I carry an old injunction from my first and most powerful literary adviser, an ex-boxer and novelist who told me, "You can't write what you haven't lived." I couldn't ask him about this one; he's dead now. It might be useful here to mention that he was black.
What I discovered there will have to wait for another day. But this boycott bothers me. There's the usual reason, expressed by a colleague: "An extra-territorial agency whom no one appointed or elected convenes to impose its morality on other people." The boycott rhetoric has an oppressive connotation of its own (a spokesman equates "cultural contact" with "collaboration with a racist regime"). Part of it seems plain wrongheaded--the boycotters say you can go to South Africa to speak out against the regime, apparently failing to realize that South African officials will know you're coming, and if that's what you're going to say, they're not going to let you in. And when I see the word recant (which one of the primary boycott spokesmen uses), I ask, "Whose ring do you have to kiss to get off the blacklist?"
Nadine Gordimer has a quote on the current South African condition: "The old is dying, and the new cannot be born: In this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms."
This boycott is "a morbid symptom," but for me it works in a wholly personal and unexpected way. My objection to it is that it takes away my freedom; I suspect somewhere the cleverest of the boycotters is saying, "Now you know what it feels like. Get angry."