Defend Truth


Read the books but remember their place in the cultural axis that emerges in anti-democratic societies


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Typically, before we buy books we read reviews about the authors, flip through the dust jackets and look at or listen to various recommendations and endorsements — before we buy the book. In this way, we can situate an author before we read her or his work.

As soon as I can pull together a few pennies at the end of the month I will buy a new book. By all accounts, it is well-written, well researched and generally a good book. It is highly relevant, and I do look forward to reading it…. Though I should add, it is not ground-breaking, yet slightly disingenuous in the sense that the book is about how apartheid “never really ended”. My view, as expressed over the past decade at least, is that it has been replaced by economic apartheid where elites — wealthy people like the author of the book — in many ways now share privileges with the minority of white people who dominated apartheid and are quite unable to acknowledge their own privileges.

That the book and its author, in particular, have been lionised and defanged is par for the course. As the scion of a leader of the political formation that comes closest to South African fascism, the author and the adulation he has received may be likened to the way that Joseph Goebbels referred to a group of writers in Nazi Germany as the geistige Auslese, or “the intellectual select”. 

The pedant may say it is unfair to say anything critical about the book without having read it. Well, this essay is not about the book per se; I really do not doubt that it is a good book. It is about the author, and more broadly (to provide substance to some of my claims and assertions) it is about whether one can separate writers from their work. For now, my immediate answer is, “No!”

It’s hard to separate writers from their politics

Consider this. I recently decided that I wanted to read A House for Mr Biswas again, even though I know that its author, VS Naipaul, while being a brilliant writer, is a truly dreadful and sometimes quite offensive human being. A House for Mr Biswas was, in my understanding, the last time Naipaul wrote anything that I (personally) found a pleasure to read (without being nauseated). His book Among the Believers was politely described by his publishers as “controversial”. However, it provided fodder for the far-right in the US (See the first review on this web page) after the horrific attacks on New York City and Washington two decades ago.

Naipaul, who was born and raised in Trinidad, repeatedly expressed impatience with postcolonial attempts to understand how the present has deep moorings in the colonial past. He described the country of his birth as “a society which denied itself heroes … a place where the stories were never stories of success but of failure.” He described India, from whence his forebears came as indentured labourers, as “a decaying civilisation, where the only hope lies in further, swift decay”. About Africa, he said the continent “has no future”. Chinua Achebe was especially trenchant about Naipaul. Writing in 1965, Naipaul is accosted in the Congo by “native people camping in the ruins of civilisation”. 

I make these points without drawing moral equivalents, but simply to point out that A House for Mr Biswas (and some of Naipaul’s other texts) is outstanding. (I also enjoyed his book, India) I will read A House for Mr Biswas again, but I cannot dissociate him from his personal and political disposition for the same reason that I cannot dissociate the writings of, say, Alice Walker, WEB Du Bois or Langston Hughes. The latter’s ancestors were slaves (in North America) which had a major impact on Hughes’ work and he dedicated all his writing to the black experience in America. It is extremely difficult to separate a writer’s disposition from her or his literary work….

Situating the author 

The author of the book I intend to buy is by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, son of Dali Mpofu (both of whom are members of the Economic Freedom Fighters) and among the wealthy elite who benefited significantly from the Elite Transition that is sometimes referred to. Not insignificantly, Mpofu the elder was CEO of the SABC when the capture of the state and its agencies began to deepen and he walked away with a massive handshake. As City Press reported in 2009, Mpofu confirmed that he had been paid an exit package of about R14.1-million “but according to reports, he cost the broadcaster well over R100-million during his two-year tenure”, all the while “an internal audit into the widespread looting of the broadcaster’s coffers flies in the face of efforts to arrest the rot at the SABC. According to City Press, “Mpofu joked that he would become a ‘full-time house husband’”. (For the record Mpofu told City Press he walked away with “only” R12-million).

We may then be able to situate the writer in the multiple contexts that shape him and the “field” in which he operates. Indeed, literary production, in general, may be considered in relational terms. We do so by considering a literary field. This is the space of literary dispositions that are possible in a given period in a given society. These conditions are made possible by the encounter between the various dispositions of particular agents (in this case the writer) as they are shaped by their social trajectory. It is not difficult to make the argument that the writer’s position in this field is, as it were, built upon a range of forms of capital. Sizwe-Mpofu (unless he is classified as non-African by the state — then he has joined some of us as democracy’s neo-subalterns, and only his name gives him access) is an enormously privileged young man who has built up vast reservoirs of capital — social, cultural, symbolic and economic. 

Given the above, he is a near-perfect exemplar of what Pierre Bourdieu and Jean Claude Passeron described as “The Inheritors”, in their study of how higher learning (especially in France) reproduced inequality, and effectively served the elite. (See The Inheritors: French Students and their Relation to Culture). While I am sure the book will be a good read I will argue that it is impossible to rip the author, a bright young avatar of the EFF, from the multiple contexts that shaped him as a member of the elite, and what Bourdieu and Passeron may have described as an “inheritor” that is so part of the way in which inequality is reproduced. 

Situating the Book

It may be obvious to the reader that the book I hope to buy is called The New Apartheid — Apartheid Did Not Die, It Was Privatised. Let’s be clear, I agree with that general statement, but the author is precisely a beneficiary of that new apartheid, as I tried to explain above. What then about the book itself (not its contents) but the book as produced by a member of the closest we have to a fascist movement in South Africa? 

We may recall the time when Julius Malema went to Parliament (as provided by the Constitution) and then (on the basis of the Constitution) he battled to get rid of Jacob Zuma. This has echoes of when Mussolini came to power in October 1922 and declared his intention to remain faithful to the Italian Constitution. And then, one of the first things that Mussolini did when he had the chance (and when the Constitution did not give him what he wanted) was to throw shade on the Italian constitution. For Malema and the EFF, the Constitution has now become a target, and Mpofu-Walsh’s book may well be part of the collective effort of the EFF to discredit the political settlement and the Constitution. This is not outlandish nor is it without historical precedent. 

In the early 1940s, Joseph Goebbels brought together writers from around Europe — Hungary, Holland, Italy, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, Spain and Switzerland — to start “preparing” European writers for Hitler’s fascism and, more specifically, “in order to lay a basis for the coming common work” for what was to emerge from Nazi Germany’s military victory. Literature was to be the “soft power” of European fascism and part of what The Times of London in 1937 described as “the Cultural Axis… [of] Germany and Italy’s European Mission”. It was a distinctly Nazi model of cultural organisation and contribution to the field of European literature. The writers in the room were considered to be the geistige Auslese referred to above. 

Before we buy books we read reviews, we read about the authors, flip through the dust jackets and look at or listen to the recommendations and endorsements — before we buy the book. As mentioned above, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, whom the late Pierre Bourdieu may have included among “The Inheritors,” and who is a member of the elite who benefitted enormously from the Elite Transition, has masses of forms of capital built up mainly on the economic capital acquired by his father with those millions he received from the SABC. 

Bourdieu explained that economic capital is essentially material assets that are “immediately and directly convertible into money” which, I should add, buys you all kinds of privilege. And so, while Malema, as part of his politics or revenge, speaks of a willingness to shed blood, makes references to genocide, Floyd Shivambu violently attacks journalists, and the EFF are deeply implicated in corruption, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh may be providing the literary basis, and “cultural axis” for the rise of fascism in South Africa as a member of the geistige Auslese. 

I look forward to reading the book. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Tshabalala says:

    Funny how the ‘revolutionaries’ go to expensive private schools and enjoy their Rhodes scholarships at Oxford – just long enough to disown them and the system that created them. The timing is always illustrative.

  • John Cartwright says:

    I found ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ a very sad read. Poor Mr Biswas (a deliberately comical-sounding name to a true Brit, compounded by the ironically courteous ‘Mr’) never gets his house, and indeed nothing seems to go right in Naipaul’s version of Trinidad – a deeply colonised and alienated mind, despising and denigrating his own origins in favour of a Blimpish caricature of Englishness. Sad indeed.

  • Helen Swingler says:

    Thoroughly enjoy your columns and insights – and prodding at (un)holy cows.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    So … I gather the older Mpofu did a VBS on the SABC before his erstwhile followers did so to VBS ? AND … now he continues doing so … by providing those who are (or would like to be) ‘above the law’ with ‘services’ (free of excessive cost?) defending the indefensible with legalese gymnastics … or is it pyrotechnics! Maybe the fruit has not fallen far from the tree ? Why let a ‘good thing’ go to waste must be the mantra ! Having your cake and eating it … while you and I have to settle for bread … literally ! Maybe a little Kool aid will help with the swallowing ?

  • jacki watts says:

    I did enjoy this take on a book to be read. Do let us know what you think of the book’s illuminations of the inner workings of the mind of the writer. Of course, one may not always be able to tell – Heidegger being a case in point… how can one write so beautifully yet be a Nazi sympathizer… ?

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