Saturday, 15 August 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Arrival

I published an introduction to this series of posts on apparent references to South African Apartheid here, at least partly to force myself to get on with watching through the series again and writing the posts. I realise that since then I have been avoiding the subject, which on re-reading through my first post, I think is caused partly by the way I planned to deal with the series by subject rather than episode. I have decided, therefore, to write another series of posts about The Prisoner, focussing particularly on echoes of Apartheid, and going episode-by-episode. I would predict that I will be forced to omit certain episodes rather than post on them, with a comment that I don’t feel there are references to apartheid in them.
Imagine my delight, therefore, on watching Arrival in a mindful way, to find numerous possible echoes of apartheid. I theorised originally that The Prisoner would be open to an apartheid-based interpretation, but that no final identification or evidence of inspiration would be possible. My watching through this episode and reading about the subject of apartheid have not caused me to change my mind.
The most obvious way in which this episode reminds the viewer of South African apartheid is the parallel between the ‘removal’ of Number 6 from his home, and the forced removals of different ethnic groups finding themselves living in designated white areas under apartheid. In fact, this viewing has made me realise for the first time, the full significance of new arrivals’ cottages in The Village being reproductions of their own homes. This tells them clearly that this place to which they have been forcibly taken, is from now on their home. There is no possibility of going back to the life they led. This is paralleled very clearly by the forced removals under the various Group Areas Acts in South Africa (the District Six removals are a better-known example). In fact much earlier days a system of separateness of the races was built into the way South Africa operated (for example in allocated racial areas in the plan of Johannesburg before it was even built). From the National Party’s winning of the elections in the late 1940s that system of ‘petty apartheid’ was turned into a policy of ‘grand apartheid,’ in which racial groups had a ‘homeland’ designated for them, to the advantage of the ruling white minority. Obviously complete separation was never possible, because of the whites’ requirements for labour, etc, and so while people had homelands (which they may never have set foot in in their lives) in reality people remained mixed up, in fact in designated white areas, it was required by law to build servants’ quarters. And this is, of course where the analogy also falls down. The aim in The Prisoner is quite different. In a sense Number 6 has to be kept in a safe place where his knowledge can’t be put to use, but there is no sense in which the reason is anything intrinsic to him. It is as a result of his action in resigning, and this is also clearly the case for everyone else in the village. They are given, as it were, a home for life, but this is based on no external ideology.
As is the way in analysing episodes of The Prisoner, I must take the opportunity instantly to contradict myself here, and say there is apparently a certain ideology underlying the prisoners’ removal to The Village. Apart from the obvious approach to knowledge and security, it is phrased very much on Number 6’s arrival, as if it is an act of kindness to him. Number 2 is very sure that Number 6 will come to like The Village eventually, and in fact come to appreciate the paternalistic actions of his masters in placing him there against his will. This is a very clear echo of the front placed on the ideology of apartheid in South Africa. Verwoerd got the ideology hook line and sinker from Nazi ideology after studying in Germany. However that did not stop him speaking publicly defining the word apartheid as being a way of saying ‘good neighbourliness’ (here), an incredible untruth, almost exactly paralleling The Village’s propaganda of itself.
Another obvious echo, which does not stand up to too close scrutiny is that being given a number which hereafter defines him, parallels legal designation of race in South Africa. This echo is further reinforced by the continual use of pseudo-medical and scientific language in The Prisoner, to designate Number 6 as a social problem, in the institutional psychiatric way largely criticised at the time, which I have posted about previously. It must not be forgotten that the ideology underlying apartheid was one of eugenics, adopted wholesale from the Nazis, and in the apparent ridiculousness which resulted, the underlying racist philosophy could easily be forgotten:
‘The Group Areas Act defined three races, Dr van Rensburg said – “White, Native and Coloured”. All those who fell between White and Native were regarded as Coloured. But the Act allowed the Coloured group to be subdivided into Indian, Chinese, Malays and those commonly known as Coloured people. The Malays were regarded as Malays only as long as they lived in their own group area of Schotsche Kloof. If they moved into another area, even across the road, they became Coloureds. A Japanese, so far as the Act was concerned, was “Coloured” because by definition he did not fall into any other group. The Act did not have a definition of a Japanese. But Japanese living in the Union could get permits to live as Whites, buy houses in White areas, and attend White cinemas and restaurants. But any Japanese tourist would technically be Coloured. However, he could once again be treated as a White and book in at the best hotels for a maximum period of 90 days.’ (Dr van Rensburg was chairman of the Group Areas Board. Cape Times, March 2nd 1960, cited in Ben MacLennan: Apartheid The Lighter Side. Chameleon Press, Plumstead, 1990, pp. 31-32).
‘That would be telling,’ says Number 2 when asked what Rover is. I think possibly it would be anachronistic to compare his attitude to the later obsessive control of the South African and foreign media, which I believe to have started in the 1970s; the South African government was at first quite upfront about what it was doing, at least when compared to the government of the odious Ian Smith in what was then Rhodesia. Nonetheless, it would be important not to underestimate the sheer level of secrecy and bureaucracy which necessarily underlies a completely fabricated society. The Village would probably be more likely to last a long time than the apartheid regime in South Africa, which by artificially controlling the whole economy and society of a country, brought it to its knees.
In fact the broader picture is what makes me think that South African apartheid only carries echoes in The Prisoner, rather than being a possible inspiration for The Village – The Village’s multiculturalism is the exact opposite of the plan in South Africa. The whole point of The Village is that you no longer know who is who: in apartheid you are intended to be ever clearer on who is who.

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