All posts by Hendrik Mentz

South Africa and the question of truth

Hendrik Mentz says our current debate is riddled with category errors

First published by politcsweb

‘There is only one truth. It’s a bitter truth, but it’s a truth that can save us’ (Vasily Grossman)

For Maxim Gorky, there were two truths, and he advised Vasily Grossman to write the new truth of the (Communist) Revolution into his first novel, Glϋckauf, if he wished it to be published [1]:

We know there are two truths and that, in our world, it is the vile and dirty truth of the past that quantitatively preponderates […] it is a disgusting and tormenting truth. It is truth we must struggle against and mercilessly extirpate. [2]

Grossman wrestled with Gorky’s dualistic epistemology until he concluded – as Plato had centuries before – there can only be one truth:

‘No, Marusya […] You’re wrong. I can tell you as a surgeon that there is one truth, not two. When I cut someone’s leg off, I don’t know two truths. If we start playing at two truths, we’re in trouble. And in war too – above all. When things are as bad as they are today – there is only one truth. It’s a bitter truth, but it’s a truth that can save us. If the Germans enter Stalingrad, you’ll learn that if you chase after two truths, you won’t catch either. It’ll be the end of you.’ [3]

South Africa, and the question of truth

The challenge of what constitutes truth also faces South Africans today.

During the time of the first democratic elections in the country which ended apartheid (1994), our truth was the rainbow nation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela. Now, however, a quarter of a century on, the belief in our oneness has been shattered. Instead, Gorky’s sense of ‘a vile and dirty’ past with its ‘disgusting and tormenting truth’ is what now prevails with accusations of ‘white monopoly capital’, ‘you stole the land’ – and which must now be ‘mercilessly extirpated’ by a new truth that will liberate ‘the people’ from the shackles of a white colonial past.

The sense of there being two truths was confirmed in 2018 by no one less than our State President, Cyril Ramaphosa, during his first Sona (state of the nation address) when he stated that the original sin inflicted on South Africa were the white settlers (VIDEO of Ramaphosa’s accusation: click here), and that to correct the injustices flowing from this original sin the South African Constitution was to be adapted to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation.

The President isn’t alone. There are currently multiple processes ‘mercilessly extirpating’ the past. University curricula are being ‘decolonised’. White people – framed as the sole beneficiaries of colonialism – must now own their guilt, confess the privileges flowing exclusively their way from their theft, and find ways of making amends by reaching out to those whom, over generations, they oppressed. Any white person questioning this new truth is by definition racist, accused of resisting reconciliation, and is punished through labelling (witness: Helen Zille), banning (Steve Hofmeyr) or discrediting (Afriforum), alternatively they can leave the country.

An idea, once it takes hold, wields enormous power, and so it is imperative for it to be true. For instance consider the consequences of the following ideas: the divine right of kings, liberté, equalité, fraternité, Rule Britannia, apartheid, the American Dream. By ‘true’, I mean that the idea in question should at least make sense – which the new South African truth being propagated doesn’t, because it contains numerous category errors.

Category errors

You’ve made a category error when the quality you ascribe to something (i.e. the category in which you place it) is wrong. In other words what you say or believe it to be, isn’t true.

To illustrate a category error Gilbert Ryle tells the story of a traveller being shown around a campus and who noted the library and the faculty buildings but then complained he couldn’t find the university. The traveller’s error was to assume that a ‘university’ was also a tangible object or category comprising bricks and mortar whereas it fell into a different category altogether: conceptual.

Ryle coined the term ‘category error’ in order to show that René Descartes – of cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) fame – was wrong to believe that each of us comprised a separate mind in a body because if it were so, Ryle argued, how could something inanimate (mind) bend something material (body) to its bidding – like a ghost in the machine (which is in some ways similar to the belief that when we die our soul rises to heaven while the body remains behind). Ryle contended that there are truer ways of describing human consciousness that don’t commit a category error, for instance, understanding that being human expresses itself through thinking, feeling, toiling and then dying (please note: my reformulation).

I turn to South Africa.

Claims that white people stole the land are false

The accusations of new-truthers that white South Africans stole the land from our people comprise a series of category errors, and are therefore not true.

‘Our people’ is a category error because it privileges black Nguni/Bantu as victims whereas in fact the original Nguni people were in the same category as white Europeans and light yellow to olive Khoikhoi invaders who, in successive waves, occupied space originally exclusively inhabited by yellow-brown-skinned Bushman (San) hunter-gatherers [4].

The ‘land’ itself is also a category error because the original Bushman wouldn’t even have noticed the land. Instead, was endless space with mountains and streams teaming with animals to be hunted and eaten. What is now categorized as ‘land’ would for the Bushman have been the spoor of an impala buck. What is now categorized as ‘land’ would for the Khoikhoi pastoralist have been water, and grazing until it was exhausted. The Nguni people might have had the initial sense of an area to be held, cultivated and protected but even this sense didn’t approximate the European sense in 1659 – with the first Land Plakkaaten of Jan van Riebeeck – of a geographical area, measured, pegged, and with a title deed and associated record of permanent ownership ‘to be entered in a well-bound book, so that no difficulties may arise later over possession and inheritance’ [5], let alone its modern equivalent as a mechanised, tightly managed farming operation forming an essential part of the country’s GDP.

To summarise: ‘you stole the land’ is a category error because what is now understood as stolen land never existed before European settlers arrived in southern Africa, whereas the category ‘land’ as it was then ‘conceived’ as teaming game or endless grazing now no longer exists.

The accusation that white people are the original sin is false

President Ramaphosa’s accusation that white people are the original sin is also a category error because the land purportedly stolen is indistinguishable from the geographic entity universally recognised as the Republic of South Africa of which Ramaphosa is currently President. So, if by Ramaphosa’s reckoning, white people are the original sin then Ramaphosa, as beneficiary of that sin, is equally – if not more guilty, and should, by rights, resign. He can’t have his cake and eat it.

It is impossible to ‘decolonise the curriculum’

That the curriculum can be ‘decolonised’ is also a category error because it assumes that ‘colonialism’ is something lurking, like a homunculus, inside knowledge able to be identified and extracted, instead of understanding knowledge as additive and enriching.

Accusations of racism are category errors

Murder is a clearly defined punishable crime or category distinguishable from manslaughter, acts of self-defence, and action on the battlefield, and is itself, a sub-category of killing. Racism is also now categorised as a crime but whereas I know what murder is, what racism is escapes me, because, like Descartes’ category ‘mind’, the category ‘racism’ is a nothing. Sure I can infer racism like I can infer mind but I’m just as likely to be wrong. For instance we infer from Penny Sparrow’s use of the descriptor ‘monkeys’ to describe black people littering a Durban beach on New Year’s eve that she’s a racist. But where or what exactly is this thing that we now call, label or categorise as ‘racism’, and how to measure it? Is it the word? Is it the speaker? Is it the attitude? Is it the intent? Is it the context? Is it the interpretation? Is it all these things? Is it something else? I don’t know. You help me. Helen Zille is suddenly a racist because she tweets that colonialism also brought benefits. Again, the same series of questions apply. I could go on to Steve Hofmeyr or Julius Malema but hopefully the point has been made that whereas crimes such as stock theft, fraud, trespassing have tangibility in that each has been clearly defined, meaning a perpetrator can then be identified, stand trial, and, if guilty, sentenced and convicted, the same cannot be said of racism which is by its very nature indefinable, as in: fluid, fleeting, contextual, contingent. The label ‘racist’ is therefore a category error, which, needless to say, comes in handy if your intention is to cower or confuse a populace, keep everyone on the back foot, discourage discussion, ensure adherence to a new truth.

One truth

None of the above is to deny that European, Khoikhoi and Nguni people detested, feared and together exterminated the Bushman in horrific numbers [6], thereby forcing them into remote enclaves and, finally, the Kalahari. Nor does the above excuse white people for passing various legislation aimed at driving ‘the Hottentot … from pasturage and watering-places necessary for the Company’s purposes’ [7], and dealing with the ‘native question’, thereby depriving many black farmers of their ancestral land and their livelihood. Nor does it excuse apartheid, which uprooted entire communities.

But the foregoing constitutes the one truth which found expression in the form of a negotiated treaty [8] we refer to as our Constitution, with its associated remedial legislation which has been administered over the past quarter of a century by the ruling ANC government. So why invent a new truth, unless for nefarious ends?

So if all we have is our one truth, how do we live it?

I don’t want to talk for Ramaphosa, Malema et al except to suggest more truthfulness on their part, owning and taking responsibility, and less projecting and blaming would be a fair start. You, dear reader, can speak for yourself. For me I return to Grossman, who, I believe, has the answer. The one truth finds expression in the individual in a very personal way. Further, it is clearly evident given history that truth is about suffering:

The more sorrow there is in a man, the less hope he has of survival – the better, the kinder, the more generous he becomes. [9]

And what is that sorrow? For me it was locating, entering and living my own darkness – also inherited, as transgenerational trauma, going back almost 300 years to 1749 when Joachim Frederik Mentz stepped ashore in Table Bay. Mine was a lonely, arduous, terrifying yet definitive experience which I sense, in retrospect, has made me more human than I was before. It also strengthened me at my core, brought me greater clarity, and left me, on occasions, less critical and kinder: as in you and I; not crowds. It also enabled me to detect and resist, as tyranny, those who wish to impose their truth as the truth.

Man and Fascism cannot co-exist. If Fascism conquers, man will cease to exist and there will remain only man-like creatures that have undergone an internal transformation. But if man, man who is endowed with reason and kindness, should conquer, then Fascism must perish, and those who have submitted to it will once again, become people. [10]

References:

1: Smith, A. (2019). The trials of Vasily Grossman. Harpers Magazine, July, pp. 80-85. Available at: click here [Accessed 11 July 2019].

2: Foreword by Robert Chandler to Grossman, V. (2018:5). Stalingrad. London, Random House. Available at: click here [Accessed 25 June 2019].

3: Ibid.

4: Theal, G.M. (1919). Ethnography and conditions of South Africa before A.D. 1505. London, George Allen and Unwin.

5: Spilhaus, M.W. (1949:109). The first South Africans. Cape Town, Juta.

6: Theal, G.M. ibid.

7: Spilhaus, M.W. ibid. 6

8: I am indebted to Michael Kenmuir who, in correspondence, pointed out that the Constitution is in fact a treaty.

9: Grossman, V. (2011:72). Life and Fate. London, Vintage.

10: Ibid., 78.

No one can tame a fence like Japie Presence

If you live in Suurbraak or its environs and need a fence constructed or repaired, a chicken hok rooikat or otter-proofed, bollards constructed or your lawn mowed, then Japie Presence is your man.

Jakob Present repairing a chicken hok
A rooikat (caracel or African lynx) took out my two ducks one night after the other. Jakob knew what I was up against, fortified the gate using a bent dropper I had on hand and ensured the base around the cage was impregnable and end of problem
Jacob goat-proofing a fence
Freyja the goat was a real pest as she insisted on jumping the perimeter fence in order to feast inside. Jakob improvised and end of problem
Otter that killed ducks and chickens on a neighbouring farm
This otter terrorized neighbours Mark and Dori wiping out almost their entire poultry operation. I recommended Jakob who then ensured that the chicken coop was otter-proof

Japie, whose real name is Jacob (or Jakob in Afrikaans) is a man of many talents. Consequently he has been a boon to me. For instance it was he who noticed that the metal chimney to my Dover stove was rusted and needing replacing. He did a MacGyver and it not only no longer leaks but pulls far better than it did.

On request Jakob also arrives with his weed eater and will do an excellent job mowing your lawn.

He’ll also tends to the garden, rakes leaves and will prune your fruit trees.

For big jobs he’ll quote, but also has a daily rate. If his quotation isn’t to your liking please engage with him as he is open to discussing his and your needs to ensure that neither is short-changed.

If you need to contact him leave a note below and I’ll get back to you with his mobile number.

Quid pro quo. I’m voting Cope

This time round I’ll be voting Cope for national, and DA for the Western Province. Here are my reasons.

Why I won’t be voting ANC

What brought my world crashing was our President (no less) Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa announcing to the nation that the Constitution must be changed in order to reflect the prevailing racist trope that white people constitute ‘the original sin’ (see below), and are therefore to blame for a quarter of a century of failed land reform – and not the ANC.

His was my Piet Retief moment; treachery.

(For readers who don’t know the history: after ratifying transfer of land to the boer Voortrekkers led by Piet Retief, the Zulu King Dingane kaSenzangakhona requested the boers leave their weapons outside the chief’s kraal (enclosure) in order to participate in a feast. Unarmed, the boers were set upon by Zulu Impi and slaughtered | Grobler, J. (2011). The Retief Massacre of 6 February 1838 revisited. Scielo, Historia 46(2) [online] Available at [accessed 6 April 2019]. )

Image of a plaque in the Voortrekker Monument of the signing of the treaty between Dingane kaSenzangakhona and Boer leader Piet Retief
Zulu Chief Dingane kaSenzangakhona (left) and Boer Voortrekker leader Piet Retief ratifying their Treaty | Greyling, L. [image] available at [Accessed 23 December 2018]

The Retief-Dingane analogy, I believe, holds as Ramaphosa (that’s him with his red tie, below) was co-architect of the original treaty that gave birth to the South African Constitution signed between incoming President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (seated) and outgoing Prime Minister Frederik Willem de Klerk:

Signing the SA Constitution: Cyril Ramaphosa and Nelson Mandela
Cyril Ramaphosa (red tie) co-architect of the South African Constitution standing at the right hand of President Nelson Mandela during its ratification | ENCA. Twenty years since the signing of the Constitution. [image] Available at [Accessed 23 December 2018].

Silver-tongued Cyril’s endorsement of the Gupta, Bell Pottinger, BLF, EFF, Jacob Zuma anti-white narrative tells me I cannot trust this man.

Why I won’t be voting for the DA, nationally

At about the same time the leader of the opposition, Mmusi Aloysias Maimane, was also into betrayal, first of Helen Zille for her colonialism tweet and then all white people, including members of his own party, who, according to him, must own up to and, by implication, atone for their ‘privilege’ .

Mmusi doing a Malema? You decide.

Why I shall be voting Cope, nationally

In contrast it was Mosiuoa Gerard Patrick (Terror) Lekota, leader of Cope, who, on principle, fearlessly stood his ground – despite the taunting and jeering – with his question that still hasn’t been answered by Ramaphosa (or the DA): “Who is ‘our people’; who is not ‘our people’?”.

When a friend shafts you it is difficult ever to trust that person again. On the other hand if someone stands up for you and you don’t even say thank you; that sucks. Why should it be any different for a politician?

So, Mr Lekota you’ve demonstrated that you’ve got my and all South Africans’ back: black, brown, olive and white. It’s payback time to stand up and be counted. Quid pro quo. I’m voting for your party, the Congress of the People, come Wednesday May 8, 2019.

Why I shall again vote DA provincially

I’m voting DA provincially because the Western Cape Government under the premiership of Helen Zille works for all its people and not for just a small elite of the super-connected. Witness: Health, Education, very few potholes and overwhelmingly clean audits. So my ‘thank you’ will be to vote for the DA in the Western Province.

LinkedIn Learning is a life-changer – or was, for me

This unsolicited post will argue that you should take out a trial subscription to LinkedIn Learning to rivet those joints: yours and/or your employees

Photography has featured strongly in much of my working career in education (photographic clubs, school magazines, newspapers, newsletters, websites, press releases and social media), so I reckon I knew something about how to shoot a reasonable image.

However, mine was always just-in-time learning based on a lifetime of hands-on, manuals, physical courses, YouTube and Adobe Support videos.

In short: Heath Robinson.

So my scaffolding has taken some strain over the years and, then, a short while ago, it collapsed (well kinda – I know I’m dramatizing, but it certainly felt that way) on a photoshoot suggested by long-time friend, Ken Barris, of the Swartberg Pass to Prince Albert where, throughout, I had enormous difficulty coaxing the kind of images I wanted from my Nikon D800E and two prime lenses, whereas Ken was in his element (refer the photo above and the credit below).

Since then, defeated and depressed, my camera mostly remained in its bag.

In the meantime, however, I had an upcoming commission by Peter Baker – who, with Darryl David, put together the annual Booktown Richmond in the Northern Cape, South Africa – to shoot and report on another chapter of Bookbedonnerd. That, and encouragement by conversations with Ken, convinced me to take the financial plunge, and I purchased a 24-85mm medium zoom.

Additionally I signed up for a monthly LinkedIn Learning subscription (which enticingly comes with a free one-month introduction and the option to cancel anytime). After providing my payment details I logged in, listed my training needs (Photography, Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, WordPress, and Premier Elements) and was presented with abundance: hundreds, if not thousands of full-length courses to choose from.

I followed their recommendation which was tutoring by Ben Long, and selected his Photography Foundations: Exposure, Photography Foundations: Lenses and Nikon D800 Essential Training. Additionally I worked my way through Morten Rand-Hendriksen’s WordPress Essential Training and WordPress Themes: Twenty Fourteen.

I was blown away at how professional, comprehensive, accessible and helpful all the courses were.

My modus operandi was to work through each course – not skipping a single lesson – even though I thought I knew something about the topic in question, and I’m glad I did it that way because I was then able to rebuild from the ground up thus trading Heath Robinson for solidity and elegance.

I don’t in this post wish to run myself down completely because I do suspect I’m not the only one depending on rickety scaffolding. My sense is successful people mostly play to their strengths. In fact a colleague, Alixe Lowenherz, once suggested that most everybody in IT in those early days was flying by the seat of their pants.

And it’s because I suspect I’m not unique, and that we’re all a little rusty or rickety that I’m recommending you, too, sign up to LinkedIn Learning.

LinkedIn Learning is a professional, polished and comprehensive LMS (learning management system) with courses on every topic under the sun – it seems, so if you own a business or are responsible for training in your company I would like to make one further suggestion: their staff option. It’ll return dividends.

Bookbedonnerd? Didn’t make it. My car broke down. But I do have some nice goat pics.

Goats ‘oor die rivier’ (across the river) from Suurbraak

Photo credit: feature image at the head of this post of me not getting it together on the Swartberg Pass was shot by Ken Barris who was in top form

Barrydale and books go together

When you conjure Barrydale do you think of literature? If you do then you’ve discovered The House of Books.

Anton in the atrium to his House of Books, Barrydale

Situated in Van Riebeeck Street near to ABSA and the OK, one enters through a garden into an atrium of books. On entry turn to the room on your left: books, the passageway: books, in every nook except the bathroom: books. Additionally you’ll find thousands of CDs and DVDs in the hallway and elsewhere.

I live in Suurbraak, and whenever it’s time to fill my jerrycans with drinking water from the Tradouw Pass I extend my journey, order two double espressos from Diesel & Crème, draw some money from the ABSA ATM and then visit Anton.

As I’m interested in unravelling the history of this area and South Africa in general – particularly with the view to trying to understand the early conflicts between Bushmen, Khoi Khoi, Bantu and European – I tend to gravitate to the room at the end of the passageway which houses Africana. More recently I’ve invested, because it is an investment, in four volumes of Theal’s History of South Africa before 1505 until 1872, Jan H. Hofmeyr’s South Africa, Spilhaus’s The first South Africans and the laws that governed them and Vulliamy’s Outlanders.

I’ve also purchased a number of excellent CDs to listen towhile doing the pass.

Anton’s a photographer and you’ll see his work on display throughout. Quirky, gritty, angled – almost every image spoke directly to me. See if you agree:

Image, copyrighted to Anton, House of Books, Barrydale
Image, copyrighted to Anton, House of Books, Barrydale
Image, copyrighted to Anton, House of Books, Barrydale
Image, copyrighted to Anton, House of Books, Barrydale

So if you value books, enjoy CDs and/or want to expose yourself to some stunning images then visit House of Books next time in Barrydale, and if you’re lucky Anton might be at hand to enrich your visit with suggestions and ruminations on his stock, Barrydale and the meaning of life.

The Buffeljags is running dry

“This is the first time in 30 years the river has been this low,” reports Bertrim Oliver, who lives in Suurbraak, a small village that straddles the Buffelags Rivers on the way to or from Barrydale in the Western Cape.

Where I live, in line with the confluence of the Caledon and Buffelags, neither river seems to flow anymore, and the Buffeljags is fast drying up.

Where the Caledon River meets the Buffeljags in Suurbraak

“Never seen it this bad,” comments Matthew Mentz, “but we have had worse droughts, which makes me think water tables are disappearing.”

The Municipality of Swellendam administers Suurbraak and supplies farmers and all of us who live ‘oor die rivier’ (across the river from the village) with irrigation water from the Buffeljags, which they pump to a storage dam up the hill.

When the level falls below the pump feed we on this side of the river will be in trouble as the irrigation dam water is our only source – unless we have rainwater tanks of sufficient capacity.

Buffeljags in line with the pump station in Suurbraak

Organic farmers, Mark and Dori September, are therefore at risk.

Dori and I spoke with the Suurbraak Municipal Manager, Desmond Marais, about the situation. Marais confirmed that bulk water is available from Swellendam (purchasable via the Municipal cash office).

Caledon River that runs close to the plot where I stay in Suurbraak

Update, Wednesday 2018-11-21

Two days later the heavens opened (see below), and it then poured throughout most of the night.

Rain collecting around the cob house

The next morning, what do we see:

The Buffeljags flowing strongly over the weir in Suurbraak

In view of the comment below by Carol Browne in response to Matt’s hypothesis about groundwater levels mentioned above, it will be interesting to monitor for how long the flow continues.

The featured image at the head of this post is of Dori and Mark’s and my goats surveying the new geography of the Buffeljags

This is a developing story.


A hidden geography

The longer I live alone here, off-grid in Suurbraak, managing my son (Matt) and daughter-in-law’s (Sasha) small Niche Unity farming operation, the more absorbed I become in what I call a hidden geography, captured also in a short film by Green Renaissance:

Ostensibly, the film is a creation of Justine du Toit (producer), Michael Raimondo (director), Warren Smart (cinematographer), and Jackie Viviers (editor) all of Green Renaissance. Continue reading A hidden geography

Suurbraak rolling mass action: a commentary

Commentary on the march held in Suurbraak Sunday 14 May, 2017.

This report provides:

  1. commentary on the march
  2. commentary on the period shortly after the march ended
  3. commentary on the handover of the list of demands
  4. update on the racial incident
  5. ruminations about  where this is all heading

Continue reading Suurbraak rolling mass action: a commentary

‘Ons soek huise’: Suurbraak march for housing

This report gives you a taste of the day as it happened and is divided into three sections:

  1. The march itself
  2. Shortly after the march ended
  3. Handover of the letter of demand

For commentary on the day please go to: Suurbraak rolling mass action: a commentary

1. The march itself

Continue reading ‘Ons soek huise’: Suurbraak march for housing

Reasons for, report on, and thoughts about the Suurbraak protest

I reported earlier how I came away troubled from a meeting I had attended two weeks back called by the Swellendam executive mayor, Councillor Nicholas Myburgh, to address a host of community-related issues.

Flowing from that meeting was a protest action this past Sunday 7 May 2017, which ended in the symbolic burning of a banner depicting Swellendam Municipality. Continue reading Reasons for, report on, and thoughts about the Suurbraak protest