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Letters

Vol. 21 No. 22 · 11 November 1999

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It’s a bear!

If Charles Leadbeater really does draw on the children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt as inspiration for his vision of the Great Modernising Project, he is even further off the mark than Nick Cohen suggests (LRB, 28 October). The book does, indeed, tell the story of a family which determinedly overcomes all obstacles in search of a bear: ‘We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared.’ The point of the story, however, is that the hunters have not thought about the consequences of their actions. When they eventually track down their quarry in its cave it is, understandably, very annoyed: ‘One shiny wet nose! Two big furry ears! Two big goggly eyes! it’s A BEAR!!!’ The angry bear chases the terrified family all the way home and disaster is only narrowly averted. Safe inside again, with the door bolted, they cower under the bedcovers and vow: ‘We’re not going on a bear hunt again!’ Perhaps there is a useful lesson there for New Labour after all.

Tim Minogue
Lewes, East Sussex

After you, Jemadar sahib

Thomas Ingram says that the grade of jemadar is similar to that of lieutenant (Letters, 28 October). A jemadar was a VCO or Viceroy’s Commission Officer. There were three ranks: jemadar, subadar and subadar-major. They wore respectively one, two and three small ‘pips’ on their shoulders. They ranked between NCOs and officers proper (King’s Commission). They had no equivalent British Army rank. Posted as a gunner sergeant to a Sikh company in 1942, I was a complete anomaly. When travelling with the Jemadar and a number of soldiers in a truck the question as to who would sit in front with the driver always presented itself. With a slight bow I would say, ‘After you, Jemadar sahib,’ and he, dignified, grey-bearded, would say: ‘No. After you, Sergeant sahib.’ A little more politeness and then we would both uncomfortably squeeze in together. Incidentally, with my dinner I was always served ‘jemadar chapatis’, which were smaller and thinner than those prepared for the troops.

D.J. Richards
Evesham, Worcestershire

Unreliable Friend

In the debate as to whether Nelson Mandela was at any time a member of the South African Communist Party, I’m inclined to side with R.W. Johnson’s surmise (that he was) rather than Anthony Sampson’s (and Mandela’s own) assertion that he wasn’t.

From 1963 to 1967 I was a member of the SACP and worked closely in the SACP/ANC underground with Ruth First in Johannesburg, writing propaganda for the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. A leaflet written by me for First, distributed in May 1963, appeared in evidence against Mandela and his colleagues in the Rivonia Trial later that year. After First had left the country, I edited the underground journal of Umkhonto we Sizwe, Freedom Fighter, and during the Rivonia Trial, passed copy for typesetting to my Party contact, Hilda Bernstein, whose husband Lionel (‘Rusty’) was on trial alongside Mandela. Later I was on trial, and in prison, with the SACP chairman, Bram Fischer, and central committee members Ivan Schermbrucker and Eli Weinberg. The understanding I had from them was that Nelson Mandela was ‘one of us’.

His transcription in 1962, in longhand, of a classic text of Stalinist Marxism (‘How to Be a Good Communist’, by the President of China, Liu Shao Chi) makes no other sense to me. Mandela’s explanation for this in his autobiography – that he wrote it to prove a point to a black SACP leader, Moses Kotane – is unconvincing.

In a sense, however, the issue is irrelevant. The SACP and the ANC leadership were so closely identified with each other over this period and subsequently as to be virtually indistinguishable. Leading figures in the exile who were unable to stomach the relationship were expelled in the Gang of Eight episode in 1975. Lesser critics later disappeared into ANC prison camps in Central Africa, where some were killed.

I find it probable that Mandela was a member of the SACP at the time of the setting up of Umkhonto in 1961 and that he found it politic to resign formal membership after his return in secret to South Africa from his undercover support-raising trip in Africa and Britain in 1962. In practice, whether he was ‘in’ or ‘out’ by then did not make an iota of difference. Given the ‘Africanist’ concerns of newly independent African leaders impressed on him during this trip – in particular, by Kaunda in Zambia – it was to the advantage of the SACP as well as the ANC that by the time of his arrest in August 1962 he was ‘out’. As he writes in his autobiography, his principal conclusion from his trip abroad was that the ANC ‘had to appear more independent’ of the SACP, and that resulting organisational changes were ‘essentially cosmetic’, in order to make the ANC more ‘palatable’ to allies in Africa. Certainly, in this period Mandela had no substantial strategic or programmatic differences with the SACP, or with the Soviet Union. Of course, this is not to gainsay his substantial independence of judgment, especially as a prison ‘statesman’, with a unique capacity for harmonising differences.

Paul Trewhela
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

David Brokensha (Letters, 28 October) is quite right that living in a country doesn’t automatically mean you know more about it than those who don’t (though it helps). My point was rather that some choose to leave South Africa and some, like me, love the place and choose to come back here – and that this should count for something. V.M. Hunt, in the same issue, is equally right to point out that Indians were heavily disadvantaged by apartheid – though less so than Africans. The only thing about which I’d disagree is their difficulty in learning English. Growing up in Durban, where around half of all South Africa’s Indians live, I never met an Indian who wasn’t fluent in English. The educational achievements of the Indian community – their pupils, with fewer advantages than whites, frequently top the exam lists in every subject – are quite remarkable.

Finally, I agree with Anthony Lewis that there have been a few occasions on which the Constitutional Court has not upheld the Government view. What he misses is that to date there have been only two major Constitutional issues on which the Court has had to rule. The first was the stipulation in the interim Constitution that the final draft should not in any way reduce the powers of the provinces to the advantage of central government. However, the list of areas of legislative competence reserved to the provinces was very much reduced in the final version of the Constitution, and a whole new doctrine of ‘co-operative governance’ was introduced, enjoining the provincial and central governments to work together – with the central government view prevailing where there was a conflict. Without any doubt this meant that the promise of no reduction in the power of the provinces was broken – yet the Court allowed it to go through.

The second concerned the law that registration to vote in the 1999 election should depend on having a bar-coded ID book. Because the bulk of Africans only got their ID books after 1990 most of them had the new kind, whereas most whites, Coloureds, Indians and Africans who had lived in the ‘independent homelands’ all tended to have old-fashioned IDs. The latter groups – who also tended to be Opposition voters – were effectively disenfranchised by this law: up to four million were unable to vote, as securing a new ID was no easy matter and in any case the old ID remained a perfectly valid legal document.

The remarkable thing about this law was that it made the exercise of a fundamental right (the franchise) dependent on the possession of a discretionary document: it was like making a driving licence essential to the vote. There were widespread protests and initially even the ANC caucus was dismayed, but the law was rammed through on a three-line whip. Given the centrality of the struggle for the franchise in South African history – the Afrikaner Nationalists had begun their rule by disqualifying black voters – this was a case where the Court absolutely had to stand up. It didn’t.

I can only ask Anthony Lewis to imagine what would have happened in the US had a Federal promise not to reduce the powers of the states been broken – or millions of Opposition voters been disqualified from the exercise of the franchise. It was, after all, a proud and crucial part of the civil rights struggle that the US Supreme Court rejected all literacy tests and other artificial barriers to the exercise of the franchise. That said, these are early days for the Court here and even those limited and timorous assertions of judicial independence that we have seen are to be welcomed.

R.W. Johnson
Johannesburg

Where’s the carburettor?

Jerry Fodor's provocative dismissal of brain imaging (LRB, 30 September) scores some palpable hits, but misses the main target. Yes, the false colour images are marvellously seductive but by the time you see them they have been so massaged as to risk being thoroughly misleading. Yes, for most of their brief history the scanners have been either toys for physicists or tools for clinicians. For the former, the technology on its own has been sufficient. For the latter, the images are aids to diagnosis and surgery. For neither has it been necessary to ask the questions about meaning which Fodor properly proposes. However, for a proponent of the case for the modularity of mind to argue that understanding the dynamics of brain processes is an empirical irrelevancy is pretty cheeky, and my guess is that he knows this perfectly well. Modular minds are at best hypothetical and somewhat improbable, but evidence for the modularity of aspects of brain processes – vision is a good example – is strong. A theory which integrates brain and mind processes will be a major goal for neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers in the coming decades. It will need to understand both the particularities of the micromechanisms of nerve cells and their interactions and the dynamics of the system as a whole. The scanners have a vital part to play in providing that understanding. But the first thing we need to do is to dismiss the idea that because a particular brain region is active when, to use Fodor's example, we think about teapots, this means we have located a teapot storage site in the brain. All we have done is found part of a system enabling us to think teapots. In their less gung-ho moments the scanner enthusiasts know this perfectly well, as in his less cynical mode does the rationalist Fodor. The rest of us trying to weld empirical data with satisfactory brain theory need both.

Steven Rose
Open University

Awed but Silly

I much regret that two misdatings appeared in my piece on Ivor Gurney (LRB, 14 October). First, Gurney’s work on ‘Rewards of Wonder’ began in 1921, not 1919; second, his radically changing ‘sense of war’ is notable from 1923, not 1925, onwards. Neither misdating, I think, affected my awed view of the man but both are silly.

Arnold Rattenbury
Ffestiniog, Gwynedd

Don’t go

Alan Myers
Hitchin, Hertfordshire

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