Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Checkmate

I am becoming aware of a certain dissatisfaction as I watch through The Prisoner looking for possible allusions to South African apartheid. Checkmate has brought these dissatisfactions to a head, and I think it is for the reason that so many elements of the apartheid regime and society can be seen in The Prisoner if you look hard enough: pseudo-science, social engineering, political force, ideological underpinnings, abuse of medicine and psychology, labelling and institutionalisation theories (these were very fashionable at the time), and so on. In fact I am coming to the conclusion that apartheid was probably not the main inspiration for The Prisoner, although it indicates the openness to different allegories that the series can so easily be read in terms of apartheid. This particular episode is I think probably best read in terms of Goffman's theories around labels and institutions which were very prominent in mental health from the 1950s for several decades and used to underpin the theories of 'care in the community'. Ironically, in terms of The Prisoner, this move was painted as beneficial to the sick, rather than a means of cheapening their care, which led both to the release of people who should never have been in institutions in the first place and found themselves often unable to cope outside, and also the release of people whose conditions meant they presented a considerable risk to the community they were resident in.
My real point here is that ideology can always be misused to support what you want. Medicine and psychology can always be used to underpin whatever fringe notion you have at stake. Notoriously the already-discredited Nazi pre-war theories of eugenics were largely used to underpin apartheid. This underpinning strikes me as having an interesting echo in this episode. The underlying theme of conformity reflects the quandary of knowing that you are living in an unjust society. Reference is made to breaking points and giving up in this episode. If you live in The Village what do you do? – resist and risk being broken, or conform for a slightly easier life, knowing that you have in reality been broken anyway? There are also questions of which side people are actually on and which side they appear to be on. A question which is not really examined in this issue is that of what side people think they are on – if the supposedly respectable, lawful institution of government and church tells you that, say, racial segregation is right and just, and decreed by law and God, an awful lot of people will not question that, or will suppress their doubts where they have any.
The action in Checkmate takes place against a background of a Village full of almost completely conforming sheep. Yes, of course the events of The Village are subordinated to Number 6's activities as the dramatic effect of the show, but I feel in institutional and behavioural terms this subordination reflects what would actually happen in reality. The chilling fact is that in reality the majority of the Villagers would at least have kept quiet and not resisted. Even allowing for the later rigid control of the media by the authorities, privileged whites in South Africa under apartheid had no excuse not to know what was going on. The examples I have been giving from Apartheid: The Lighter Side were all in the public domain. There was no excuse for not knowing. This is the painful conundrum that really underlines any connection between The Prisoner and apartheid, and also connects it to the institutional or behavioural theories of Goffman. In reality, when it comes to the crunch, most people prefer their own comfort to the bigger issues. This is the real reason Number 6 could never rely on any help. This is the real reason it took the black majority population of South Africa so long to resist apartheid in any marked way: most people are so busy getting on with their own life they will deal with that as best they can before anything else. In this context it is relatively easy for the authorities to play people off against each other and sow the seeds of suspicion, exactly as they do in Checkmate.
There is a further, even more chilling, undertone to this conformity and comfort. After a while in The Village, it would become your home. You would have pangs at the very idea of leaving. This feeling of comfort and security would lead you eventually to support the activities of The Village authorities, and of course at that point any resistance is impossible. And at this point a psychological trick comes into play where you are convincing yourself that you are not supporting The Village authorities, or else refusing to see the abuses happening in front of you. Witness to this is a documentary named Apartheid Did Not Die. I have already referenced the writings on the internet of pro-apartheid South Africans. And only today, I have discovered that when the monuments to the architects of apartheid are pulled down, they are not just junked as I assumed, there are people who actually want them:

When a bust of Hendrik Verwoerd disappeared into the night in Midvaal, the question arose: What actually happens to the statues from our sordid past?
'What are they going to do with the head?" I wondered as the noose on the strap tightened around the prime minister's stiff neck.

The image on the television showed a bronze bust of Hendrik Verwoerd being hoisted off a sand-coloured plinth and deposited on a white flatbed truck. Perhaps the old man would be carted off to a secret municipal dumpsite named in ­honour of Leon Trotsky.

There is no such place. Metaphors are not fact and history is not easily swept aside by Trotskyite rhetoric, especially when it is cast in bronze. Dismantling this sort of history, which is ceremonial, blatant and weatherproof, requires many talents, not least being a head for political theatre and nous for logistics. A contact number for a man with a crane is also useful.

Timothy Nast, the 28-year-old executive mayor of the Democratic Alliance-led Midvaal municipality, recently proved himself adept at the latter when, on May 4, he rid his metropolitan region of what was said to be the last Verwoerd sculpture on official public display. But his handling of the event was marked by naivety, allowing a nominally benign action to escalate into a national comedy.

A quick recap of where things stand.

On the morning of May 5 Nast's office telephone started ringing off the hook. What had the mayor done with the Verwoerd bust that had stood outside the Meyerton municipal offices for the past 28 years? The queries intensified as television news replayed images of the former prime minister's summary lynching. Who was the man with the white truck? And why did he pitch up for the removal job at 10 the previous night?

"It was removed when the contractor could remove it," Nast, who grew up in the patrician village of Henley-on-Klip, bluntly told an inquisitive Sapa reporter. "Ask the contractor." And he is? "A man called Piet," responded Nast, unable to offer a surname.

The low comedy of his opening gambit set the tone for what was to follow. Responding to inquiries about where Piet had journeyed into the night with Verwoerd's bust, Nast offered an unequivocal response. The bust had been returned to its owners, the Klipriviervallei-kultuurvereniging (KKV), an obscure cultural council that is technically defunct.

The KKV formed part of a network of regional cultural councils allied to the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (FAK), a powerful Afrikaner heritage organisation and Broederbond front group founded in 1929.

In May Freddie Peters, a former KKV chairman and current Democratic Alliance member, hastily reconvened the inactive council following threats of vandalism to the bust made during the run-up to the recent hotly contested local government elections. (The elections saw ANC heavyweights such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Julius Malema trek to Meyerton in an ultimately failed attempt to drum up party support).

On May 4, the day the bust was removed from its plinth, Jackson Mthembu, the ANC national spokesperson, issued a statement lambasting "the sheer display of arrogance by Nast, who has refused to remove Verwoerd's statue". He added: "To the majority of South Africans, except in the eyes of the DA, Verwoerd remains a symbol, embodiment and apartheid architect of all ills of the country's terrible past and his statue should be confined to a museum."

Nast, who was 19 when he was elected a municipal councillor in 2000, acted swiftly, convening a meeting of the mayoral committee. It passed a "formal resolution" to have the Verwoerd bust removed and Piet was summoned.

The hurried removal of the bust has ushered in a period of political theatre.

A day after the bust's removal, Dumisani Dakile, Cosatu's provincial secretary in Gauteng, issued another of his quixotic communiqu├ęs. Dakile, who last year denounced Malema as a "premature leader" and a "grandstanding crazy individual", demanded that the statue "be removed and thrown into the dustbin of history within seven days".

Presumably the biblical timeline is indicative of how long it takes to build this mythical dustbin.

The Midvaal chairman of the Freedom Front Plus, Corrie Pyper, was equally annoyed, if for entirely different reasons. "Skelm," he cried, accusing the DA council of being underhanded. "I'm not saying apartheid was right but it is still part of our history," Pyper told Sapa. "If you want to do something like this, you tell people: 'Listen, we are going to remove your uncle. Come take a picture, come shed a tear.' "

Were it 1994, Dakile and Pyper's statements would read as urgent and timely. But by 2011 both men appear to have boarded the late flight to a place called Political Expediency. "How soon people become bored with the making and unmaking of history," says Pavel Grekov, a Russian state functionary, in Johannesburg writer Ivan Vladislavic's superb 1996 short story, Propaganda by Monuments. Grekov makes this observation about his memory of "the hundreds and thousands who had taken to the streets to watch the first monuments fall". 

It was not just the Russians who lost interest in toppled monuments. In Germany thousands turned out to see the undoing of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Three years later, when a 19-metre red Ukrainian granite effigy of Lenin was dismantled in East Berlin, men in hard hats were the principal crowd. Unmaking history had become a dull logistical exercise.

As in Berlin so too in Bloem­fontein: three years after the workmanlike disassembly of Lenin, a 4.3- metre bronze statue of Verwoerd, which had stood in front of the headquarters of the Free State provincial administration since 1969, was removed from its pedestal. The steady removal of Verwoerd busts from council offices in the ensuing period has, for the most part, happened unnoticed.

"Where do they put them all?" Grekov wonders to a work colleague.

"Scrapheap — of history," he is told.

"No, seriously," Grekov insists.

It is a fair question. In Hungary, which also saw its fair share of toppling monuments, a 20-minute ride on a Budapest bus will deliver you to Memento Park, which displays 42 public sculptures dating back to Hungary's four decades of communist rule. Not all monuments are preserved in this way. Nikolai Tomsky's stone Lenin, all 129 pieces of it, is buried south of Berlin.

The situation is no less contradictory in South Africa. After spending 12 years in a warehouse attached to a Bloemfontein furniture factory, sculptor Gerard de Leeuw's life-size statue of Verwoerd is currently in Pretoria—so too the Meyerton bust. Their display couldn't be more distinct.

The De Leeuw sculpture lies on its back on old tyres in a storage yard at the Voortrekker Monument. It is wrapped in shade cloth and dotted with mud dauber nests. In contrast, the diminutive Meyerton bust is being displayed provocatively alongside the old orange, white and blue national flag at Kleinfontein, an 860-hectare right-wing enclave northeast of Pretoria. (Quote an: here)

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