A tale of two tales
On the river Weser, near the city of Hanover in modern day Germany, lies the town of Hamelin. This is the place where, so legend has it, the Pied Piper once plied his trade. Take one of the passing barges down river and eventually you will reach the port city of Bremen, located just shy of where the river finally empties itself out into the North Sea. Walk up into the old town and by some unlikely chance look down at just the right moment, and you may espy a small nondescript square of four smooth black stones among the cobbles in the market place. This is the simple monument, if you could call it that, to the woman once known as the “Angel of Bremen”.
Her story, it is said, goes something like this. Many, many years ago there lived a girl in Bremen named Gesche Margarethe, known to all as just Gesche. Her mother was a seamstress and her father was a tailor in the town. Her only sibling was her twin brother. The family was poor, but Gesche was charming and pretty, though perhaps a little vain in her youth. At the age of 21 she married a widower, a well-off saddle maker who lived in her street, and moved into his house on Pelzer Street. It was a large property which had a number of annexes which were leased to tenants. They had five children together of whom three survived infancy.
This was a time, long ago, when diseases were not at all understood. Not even doctors knew what caused illness, how it was transmitted, or how to prevent or effectively treat it. It was not uncommon for disease to decimate communities and wipe out whole families, with no one being any the wiser as to the cause.
One day Gesche’s husband was struck down by sickness. It began with vomiting and diarrhoea followed by desperate thirst and the most excruciating pain. Gesche tended to her husband as best as she was able, but after four days he died. The doctor who treated him diagnosed the cause of death as gall-bladder fever. Gesche, completely distraught, was now a widow at the age of 28.
Gesche kept the house – though for money reasons she eventually had to sell her husband’s business - and two years later her parents moved in to the top floor and paid her rent. Over the course of the following several months she was to suffer a new series of tragedies –dwarfing even that which had gone before. It began with her mother contracting a terrible illness and dying within days. A week later her youngest daughter also died, and a week after that her other daughter. The following month her father fell ill and died. Her beloved young son survived a bit longer, but soon too he fell victim to whatever it was that was ravaging the house, and died shortly after. An autopsy was now carried out on the body of the boy, in an effort to work out what was causing these deaths, but given the primitive state of medical science all that could be diagnosed was an “entanglement of the guts.”
The following year Gesche’s brother, a soldier, returned unexpectedly from fighting in a war. Such joy that his return brought Gesche however was short-lived. Within days he too had fallen dreadfully ill and died. During this time of great despair Gesche had become betrothed to a wine merchant in the town, whom she had known since her youth. Yet, the following year, he too was struck down by illness, only marrying Gesche on his deathbed. The child she had conceived with him was stillborn a few months later.
Gesche tended to and fed one loved one after another as they fell ill and died. As they suffered, so she suffered caring for them. Such extraordinary resilience and compassion, through a period of indescribable tragedy and personal anguish, earned her the name the “Angel of Bremen”.
At this point you are no doubt thinking that this old story provides a strange but striking metaphor for the relationship, stretching back over the past sixty years, between post-colonial Africa (the house on Pelzer street) and those Western intellectuals who identified completely with the cause of black liberation (the Angels). It can hardly be denied that there was no-one more publicly desirous for Africa and black Africans to succeed, once freed from the grip of their colonial or white rulers, than these makers and traders of ideas. (There is of course a smaller and less influential group of intellectuals who, instead of sustaining and supporting, have criticised, carped and complained. The late Stephen Ellis comes to mind. But such reactionaries need not concern us right now.)
As, regrettably, one post-colonial African polity after another started failing, before succumbing to the most terrible convulsions – Zaire, Uganda, Rwanda and Zimbabwe to name just a few – no one could be said to have been more affected than the Angels. The varied reasons for the failures of these states remains an issue of some dispute. That South Africa too has now sickened despite all the hopes once invested in it post-1994, also suggests the underlying causes of the illnesses are not yet properly understood.
Nonetheless, while both cause and cure may remain elusive there is today no-one more acutely aware of, or prepared to selflessly minister to, the psychic pain of the racial majority in South Africa. For evidence of this one only needs to look at their damning reaction to Helen Zille’s outrageous suggestion that South Africa could learn some lessons from Singapore; including that some of the institutions inherited from the colonial-era could - instead of being smashed to pieces - be retained, reformed and repurposed to benefit the majority of the population instead. As the Economist noted this was a “spectacularly ill-judged comment” for which Zille should, by rights, have been kicked out of the Democratic Alliance.
At this time of great national anguish at the spiraling failures of the ANC, is it any wonder that so many black South Africans have turned against the former DA leader (someone with the bedside manner of a hyena with Tourette’s) and towards the Angels, with their comforting words and the moral and ideological sustenance they proffer?
Now, Gesche’s tragic tale did not end there. For a number of years her jinx appeared to have been lifted, and there were no more deaths. After some time she moved out of the house on Pelzer Street, which she rented out. At her new abode she met and became engaged to the stepson of the landlord of the house she was renting. Her misfortunes now returned. Her fiancée, a clothes merchant, became ill shortly after their engagement and after a number of weeks he too expired, apparently of cholera. This was just under six years after the death of her second husband.
The following year Gesche, still reeling from this latest calamity, moved back into the Pelzer Street house. She was well known at this time for always being happy to provide delicious treats to her neighbours and their children. Then, yet another misfortune struck. A female friend of hers, a music teacher, fell ill and died in terrible pain. Another neighbour too fell ill shortly after, his condition progressively worsened, and the next year he was dead. Gesche selflessly nursed both patients through their dread illnesses.
By this time Gesche had run short of money and so she sold her house, on condition that she could continue to live in one of the outside rooms as a tenant in perpetuity. The new owner, a wagonwheel maker called Herr Rumpff, moved in to the main house with his young wife. He had been warned that this was an accursed abode, in which people died, but not being a superstitious man he dismissed such nonsense out of hand. Five months later, however, just after the birth of their child, her wife fell ill and died in terrible pain a few days before Christmas. Death after child birth was quite common at the time. Ever-willing to help Gesche took over the management of the house and the kitchen. This was not the end of it though. Five months later Gesche’s former maid along with her three-year-old daughter, who lived in one of the annexes on the property, also fell ill and died within days of each other.
The various attending doctors struggled to work out what it was about this house in Pelzer Street that was leading to so many deaths, and various conflicting diagnoses were given. Over the next several months a number of residents on the property continued to fall horribly ill, including Rumpff himself, though none passed away.
Then one day, as he was sitting down to eat, Rumpff noticed a greasy material on his bacon. He asked Gesche what this was, and she replied “that is probably fat.” Inside the substance he noticed white granules. He had seen something similar on his salad some months before, and shown it to a friend and neighbour, but had disregarded his warnings that this was likely poison, as he could not believe that someone was trying to do him in.
He now took a sample back to his friend, and on examining it carefully and comparing it to an example of the real thing, they decided that the white granules were probably arsenic. Rumpff then took the piece of bacon to his doctor, who had attended to a number of the Pelzer Street deaths. A local pharmacist conducted a series of experiments confirming that arsenic was indeed what the white grains were. On reporting to this to the law, the authorities now acted, searching the house, and taking Gesche into custody. Rumpff’s reaction to this was initially one of disbelief: Gesche had been so friendly to him. Indeed, she had been so overly friendly that it had been annoying at times.
Over the following three years in detention Gesche would confess to poisoning all those who had died around her, fifteen people in total (including a friend and creditor in Hannover), as well as many others who had fallen ill but survived. Initially, she used straight arsenic, which dispatched her victims to the afterlife very quickly. But later she used a substance called Mäusebutter (mouse-butter), a combination of fat and arsenic, commonly used at the time to kill rats and mice. She would smear it on the food, or put it in the soup or stew, which she then gave to her grateful victims. Administered in just the right quantities their illness and suffering could be dragged out over months instead of days. It is said too that she smuggled some mouse-butter into prison, with the intention of committing suicide, but ultimately did not take it as she could not bear to suffer the agonies that she had inflicted on others.
At this point you would be thinking, and with good reason, that this metaphor for Africa and the Intellectuals should not be stretched this far. Or could it? Might this class of intellectuals really bear some responsibility for the failures of so many post-colonial African states over the past six decades? Surely not.
Of course, F.A. Hayek did note in 1949 that intellectuals in the capitalist West had long been lending their “moral and material support almost exclusively” to anti-Western ideological movements to the East. For instance, news in the United Kingdom and United States of what was happening in the Soviet Union in the 1930s was heavily filtered by members of this class, given their strong identification with the socialist cause at the time. He wrote too that it was always only a matter of time before the views “held by the intellectuals become the governing force of politics.” Though this observation was never completely true of Western societies, with their strongly developed institutions and cross-cutting intellectual traditions, it was certainly applicable to post-colonial states. These were often led to independence by Western-educated philosopher-king types, and they remained intellectually dependent on ideas emanating from the metropole after independence.
In the 1950s and 1960s many Western intellectuals (our Angels) did strongly promote the idea that the new nations of Africa (and Asia) should nationalise the commanding heights of their economies, and shut out foreign investment by multi-national corporations. And it is also true that the economies of many countries expired, not long after this advice was implemented. The Angels too have also long sympathised with the idea that the central issue facing one post-colonial African state after another has been the economic ‘dominance’ of one or other Kulak-type minority; whether Igbos, Tutsis, Indians, Belgians, Portuguese or white farmers.
It is difficult however to discern from the literature of the Angels whether there may possibly have been some link between the sorting out of this problem and the subsequent agonies of these countries. Post-mortems generally put down the cause of death to something akin to ‘entanglement of the guts’ caused by the enduring legacy of colonialism. If someone tries to conduct their own autopsy on the body of the deceased they will often find the coffin firmly locked. The Angels have always resisted the idea that newly liberated countries could learn anything from the expiry of previous ones, rejecting it as ineffably racist. In our universities today, overawed as they are by the current Western academic fashions, students do not learn the hard lessons as to why countries like Zaire or Zimbabwe failed and Singapore did not. Instead, they eat the latest imported racial comfort food, manufactured by the Angels abroad, of whiteness studies, identity politics and de-colonisation.
Though certain Dubai bank account holders would undoubtedly disagree, it is clear to most people that South Africa is currently severely ailing. Though the worst has not yet happened the polity is exhibiting certain advanced symptoms of progressive decay, chiefly kleptocrosis of the state. If this dread disease is now successfully carried across into the private sector– via the Mining Charter, control of the public service pension pot, land seizures, or capture of the Reserve Bank – its condition will rapidly become terminal. Over the space of two years then the once inconceivable (a Zairean or Zimbabwean-style outcome for South Africa) has moved to the possible. It is now leaning ever closer towards the probable despite the truly heroic push back by a loose coalition of the independent media, civil society, opposition political parties, members of the ANC and SACP, and the legal profession.
Such efforts though may come to nought if the understanding of the underlying cause is not understood. If the Zuptas are successfully checkmated in this instance there is no guarantee that other agents won’t take over from where they were kicked off. The great question still facing South Africa then is not why a narrow group of unscrupulous individuals have made themselves rich beyond all imagining through plunder of the state and, having achieved that, now seek to make themselves even richer still through the plunder of the private sector. Simply to ask it is to answer it. It is rather how this terrible outcome, which everyone feared and no-one desired, is yet again close to coming to pass.
If they really do wish to avoid it, one place for our own politicians and intellectuals to start would be to take a break from the fevered search for scapegoats, and instead take a second look at the butter on the bread of our daily political discourse. One of the ironies of the Gupta leak revelations is that Bell Pottinger were being paid huge sums by the Zuptas to construct and advance a narrative defining whites as the true enemy of black progress (so not the looters), which many in the British and America media had long been pushing anyway, quite of their own accord. Take for instance the Financial Times analysis of South Africa’s discontents that appeared on 3rd February last year. This insinuated that “white people” remained incorrigibly racist (their attitude to their black compatriots being, “We told you so. You can never run a country properly”), suggested that they “wholly underestimate the privilege they still enjoy”, and blamed “black anger” on enduring racial imbalances and the “the persistence of economic apartheid.” Similar themes could be found in the reporting and comment pieces on South Africa in the New York Times over the past year.
Here then we find on the pages of two of the world’s most influential newspapers a reoccurrence of the old and infinitely poisonous notion that productive racial minorities are painful abnormalities, whose condition must made to conform with that of the majority or, if that is not possible (and it never is with the remedies proffered), ejected from society. This ideological mouse-butter is being served up by Angels who know perfectly well what the consequences will be to those who consume it. This is one reason it is generally produced for export purposes only.
Its terrible effects have also long been well documented, if you know where to look. The economist P T Bauer wrote four decades ago that the idea that the misfortunes of a country, or a people, could be put purely down to external causes (such as the “legacy of colonialism”), though comforting, had a long and disastrous history: "Ethnic minorities whose maltreatment is the order of the day over much of Africa and Asia [as a result of this or similar notions] have often been the main agents of economic progress in poor countries. These minorities have usually had incomes much above the average for the country. Their maltreatment has reduced both current and prospective incomes in these countries, and thereby widened income differences between them and the West, most obviously when they have been expelled or massacred." This is an analysis hardly contradicted by the more recent Zimbabwean experience.
And the Angel of Bremen? She was tried and sentenced to death, and her head chopped off in front of a huge crowd of townspeople. Or so at least the story goes. The black stone really is there though. It is said to mark the spot where her head fell to the ground and it appeared, as if from nowhere, shortly after her death. It is known as the Spuckstein and passing citizens still spit upon it out of disgust at her horrendous crimes and, perhaps too, the gullibility of the town at not recognising the obvious for so long.