Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Introduction

The beach at Durban in 1960: as heavily engineered as The Village
(Image credit: here.)
One of the possible influences often cited on the creation of The Prisoner is the experience of members of the production team of apartheid-era South Africa; an additional contemporary weight may be added to this as the issue was coming to the public arena in the 1960s as a result of the Sharpsville Massacre, in which police shot a number of black youths who were merely protesting peacefully.
As is my wont, I have reached a conclusion before I have even written these posts, and so I am going boldly to come out with it at the start: I think it is apparent that no single influence can be attributed conclusively to The Prisoner. It was clearly written in such a way that it could be interpreted as referring to multiple matters, lending itself to multiple interpretations, which continue to be argued about on the internet to this day. Other possible readings would include various allegories and an interpretation of The Village as a containment facility for Cold War-era spies who are considered risky in some way. In particular I find the interminable arguing about the significance of black and white badges in the series to be fruitless, since every conclusion can always be contradicted. It is a pity, really, because this is the most obvious reference to apartheid, although I feel it is a little facile for McGoohan, and could well be a blind. I find the references to South African apartheid to be much more subtle.
From the early days of British settlement in South Africa, areas were demarcated for different races. This later becomes even more apparent in later town planning: for example, segregation was built into Johannesburg even before the city had started to be constructed! Ongoing conflict between competing English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking settler groups ultimately left the Afrikaners impoverished by the early years of the twentieth century, a situation which changed after the National Party came into power in the late 1940s. Let me make it plain what is the unspoken issue here: South Africa is an immensely resource-rich area. The issue is both of greed for diamonds, and of competition merely to survive. All of the most basic human instincts come into play in the history of apartheid. Drawing inspiration from Nazi-influenced studies of humanity in Germany, the National Party developed a philosophy of separation, which in fact even had an underlying theology. They claimed that a policy of separate development for the different races in South Africa was the only, indeed God-ordained, way for humans to live. From the 1950s onwards a series of increasingly stringent and ridiculous laws enforced the rigid separation of the races. Areas of the country were zoned for the different races to live in, people were legally defined into races according to a number of pseudoscientific tests. Of course blacks were allowed into white areas for the purposes of work – in fact servants' quarters had to be built by law from the 1960s onwards. The 'grand apartheid' dream of the different races living in their separate lands (which if carried to its conclusion would have made South Africa a completely white nation), was accompanied by the 'petty apartheid' of segregation of benches, pathways, beaches, entrances to buildings, queues, you name it. The 'rights' of the white minority were vigorously protected, with employment quotas: you had to employ a certain number of white people, at significantly higher wages than black people doing the same jobs. By the 1960s, which is the period of apartheid which would have influenced The Prisoner, if it did, the white population of South Africa was experiencing unprecedented wealth, privilege, and leisure.
It was apparent that all was not well, of course. From 1960 onwards a series of States of Emergency, declared in most states in wartime, were declared, in which the press could be completely gagged and people could be imprisoned without trial for no better reason than that the policeman literally didn't like the look of you. Incidentally there were stringent laws as to who could arrest whom. Seriously. By the early 1970s it was becoming apparent to commentators who didn't buy the apartheid ideology that it was an unsustainable system. The legislation of how the country's economy should run ultimately strangled it, and increased disinvestment by foreign nations ultimately meant that by the 1980s South Africa was more or less completely alone. From the point of view of The Prisoner, and with the benefit of hindsight, the 1960s milieu was one where the system was being propped up, already beginning to fail, subject to dissent from within and without, yet somehow managed to continue.
Perhaps the best parallel with The Prisoner is found in the obvious question: how on earth did this manage to continue? 'By force' is the obvious answer, but this was underpinned by the complete control of the press, arbitrary legal powers, and no doubt the tacit approval of the whites who were frightened of losing their privilege. It is human nature to ignore others' misfortunes as long as you're alright yourself, and one of the most interesting things to me is that the whingeing on the internet about the present state of South Africa is exactly the reverse of what happened in apartheid era. If you do a search about white people in South Africa you don't immediately find the huge houses with swimming pools behind gates and run by a staff, you find complaints of farm murders (which are interpreted as genocide, but are plainly not because genocide has to be deliberately aimed at one race and simple fact is that you're far more likely to be murdered in South Africa if you are black), and complaints that Black Economic Empowerment has engineered privilege for a minority of blacks, ignored the people who would formerly have been classified as coloured, and doomed the Afrikaner to penury. This is almost exactly what apartheid aimed to do, only doing it for a different racial group. Nor has the ideology underlying apartheid died (Opening Pandora's Apartheid Box is a good, and superficially convincing, account of the ideology, built on the traditional lies that blacks can't think straight and that the Afrikaners are the indigenous population of South Africa. Seriously.), but continues to be hawked around, using any justification it can find. And here's the other wonder for me personally. I come from Birmingham, a city with an accent which notoriously you either love or which sets your teeth on edge. If you don't like the Brummie accent, it therefore seems to me obvious that you wouldn't choose to live in Birmingham. It is apparent to me that many of the whites in South Africa do not like black people. They consider them inferior, they fear and hate them, wouldn't trust them to run a bath (for example the apartheid-era instructions for making a sandwich in South African railways run to pages including finding a loaf of bread), yet bizarrely rely on them for their own quality of life, and resent them if they perceive black people having a better quality of life than themselves.
I feel that probably this subject is better approached by theme, rather than by episode, which is how I've previously treated The Prisoner. Naturally this plan is subject to change, but I would identify themes underlying both apartheid and The Prisoner as: legislating reality, propaganda, differentiation, ostracisation, fear and loathing, pretending. I intend to examine the series under these headings, or ones that will come to me and will probably bear a passing resemblance to them, and draw parallels with apartheid in South Africa. As I say, I haven't actually watched through the series with a view to this series of posts yet. I have come up with the headings from reading about apartheid, and will post this as a spur to myself to get on with it.

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