Review of ‘ The Seed Is Mine and Across Boundaries’

The Seed Is Mine
Charles van Onselen
Hill and Wang

Kas Maine was born in 1894, lived as a traditional black patriarch and sharecropper on the South African highveld, and died at the age of 91 in a segregated rural slum, still clinging to the dream of planting one more crop, still struggling to maintain the dignity and independence that apartheid policies had stripped away. Mamphela Ramphele was born in 1947, the daughter of black schoolteachers in the Transvaal, and became one of the radical young activists who helped topple the apartheid system, surviving arrests and bannings to hold influential posts in the academic and corporate worlds of a new South Africa.

Historian Charles van Onselen's biography of Kas Maine, The Seed is Mine, is a truly great work of devotion, to a man's life and to the discipline of history. Van Onselen spent over a decade and a half doing the research for the book, including his interviews with Maine during the last six years of his life. Maine summoned almost total recall of all his landlords, the size of yearly plantings and harvests, the succession of droughts and good rains, his sales and purchases of livestock, his acquisitions of plows, planters, wagons and eventually tractors.

He documented with exactitude the marriages, births and deaths that shaped his growing family (his labor pool) from season to season, decade to decade. And he described precisely his off-season work as a diamond digger, water carrier, teamster, cobbler, leatherworker, blacksmith, horseshoer, tailor and traditional healer. He was able, also, to expound on the many challenges of his role as a patriarch trying to maintain his authority and protect his family in a paternalistic and increasingly racist society.

Although illiterate himself, Maine had kept a bag stuffed with any document, receipt, letter and scrap of paper that authorized or recorded his activities throughout his life. But it was his memory that amazed his biographer, as well as the "accuracy, depth and extent of his insights" into the economic, political and social structures that dominated his world.

Maine's relations with white landowners were as critical to the family's success as the vagaries of weather, blights of locusts or diseases of livestock. The Afrikaans and English settlers who gave land in return for labor and crops were part of a white-ruled society in which a black sharecropper had some power and choice. A landowner might turn out to be a trusted ally or a vindictive adversary. Maine sometimes received loans, and learned new skills, from his landlords. He stood ready to challenge their authority when any of them threatened his children (he had to defend one daughter after she poured a pot of tea over an abusive landlord). In the years before apartheid, it was even possible for Maine to appeal to the police or magistrates in a dispute with a landlord, and win. Yet this was a rare event in a society where individual decency ran against the grain of the settlers' culture.

In recalling the birth of his first son, Maine described the rule on the farms: "When a child was born you went to the landlord and said, 'We have had a baby boy.' The landlord would be pleased and say, 'Oh, you have had a little monkey, have you cut off its tail?' Then we would say, 'Yes master, I have cut off the tail, it's a person now, no longer a baboon.' That was how the white farmers used to put it to us." Paternalism was only a polite form of racism, which became virulent as rural paternalism gave way to the laws of capitalism and apartheid.

Van Onselen evokes the relentless, seasonal rhythms of Kas Maine's life like a Homer relating the wanderings of a black Odysseus. The book reveals a hero, but it does not spare us the ironies and cruelties of the patriarchal culture that defines this hero. Maine was a driven survivor who would plow his fields at night and work himself and his family beyond exhaustion. And even this did not guarantee survival. After one disastrous harvest and trek to a new farm, Maine recalled, "I was starving, my cattle were starving and my children were starving." When he managed to acquire half a bag of grain, "the horse and the children ate from the same half-bag." And he doesn't even mention his wives!

Even when Maine was most successful, inspiring envy in other tenants and landlords alike, his wives had to run the household economy without any of the profits from his sales of crops and livestock. The money all went into his pocket for more livestock, new plows or, later on, new tractors. The women had to steal cowpats from the fields at night and sell them as fuel, or weave straw baskets for sale, raise chickens and take in laundry to earn enough to buy clothes and run the household. And there were bitter, perennial fights over his wives' demand to send the children to school, while Maine insisted he needed them as labor, for himself or for his landlords.

Maine sometimes exercised the prerogatives of a patriarch over his family with the same indifference and cruelty that his white landlords and political masters showed in enforcing the prerogatives of paternalism and apartheid over him. He was ready to beat his sons and daughters into submission when they resisted or rebelled. And, even in old age, he denied a wife's pleas for a cinder block house to replace the corrugated iron shack they'd transported and lived in for more than 50 years--the money went to one more tractor.

But his insistence on patriarchal authority was tied to the increasingly destructive rules and policies of a racist government that were driving his family off the land, denying their rights to own livestock or even farm for themselves, and turning a once independent black rural population into subservient laborers and slum-dwellers. In a shrinking world of choices, Maine was fierce in his determination not to give in. Yet that fierceness also alienated his own children, destroyed his labor resources as they fled the family, and further limited his possibilities as age and growing blindness sapped his own strength. When he insisted on buying that last tractor at the age of 86, van Onselen writes, "He was living in a resettlement slum surrounded by the neglected fields of a dying peasantry, whose labouring lifeblood had long since drained away to the cities."

Two lives could scarcely be more different. Yet their biographies are like different threads in the same fabric, each part of the complex interweaving of forces bringing about South Africa's remarkable transformation. One can sense the stubborn dignity of the sharecropper as well as the selfless courage of the activist in the figure of Nelson Mandela. These biographies offer a rich understanding of people whose lives are the roots of history, the roots from which such symbols as Mandela spring up.

In her autobiography, Across Boundaries, Mamphela Ramphele writes of a generation that rose to resist apartheid, as if from the ashes of a sharecropper's dreams. Theirs was a different kind of struggle, shaped by the realities of mass urban poverty, rural disintegration and the cultural destruction that apartheid had produced. Ramphele grew up in a hybrid family culture, both traditional and liberating. Her mother set the example of defying patriarchal rules, and she followed the example, choosing a career in medicine against her family's advice. "It was not the desire to serve which influenced my career choice," she writes, "but the passion for freedom to be my own mistress in a society in which being black and woman defined the boundaries within which one could legitimately operate."

Medical school also became the seedbed of political activism as she was drawn into the "black consciousness" movement and a deep friendship with the young leader Steve Biko, who urged blacks to have more faith in themselves and not let white liberals run their liberation struggle. Ramphele needed little urging, as her remarkable life demonstrates. In a world of police surveillance, orders that restricted her and other activists to remote places and forbade contact among them, and imprisonments that often resulted in brutal deaths (Steve Biko died of beatings in police custody while she was pregnant with their child), she combined medicine and activism. Ramphele's mission was founding and running community clinics for poor patients. Banished from directing her first clinic (a security agent told her, "Well, Dr. Ramphele, goodbye, you bitch!"), she soon started another in the province to which she was exiled.

It was the commitment and determination of men and women like her that ultimately broke the back of apartheid, and her autobiography is full of tributes to these activists, as well as to the priests and nuns, and white liberal allies, who sheltered and comforted her during her darkest moments of grief and despair.

In the twilight of apartheid, Ramphele took refuge in academia, turning from medicine to research, alarmed by the symptoms of social disintegration among poor black communities that a clinic could never cure. She became an anthropologist. Her work attracted the interest of Nelson Mandela, still in prison, who encouraged her, and who took to heart her criticisms of patriarchal abuses occurring within the liberation movement.

Ramphele is now working at the peak of South African society, as a vice-chancellor of Capetown University and on corporate boards of directors, to advocate the cultural changes that must accompany any real economic development among the poor. She writes: "Affirmative action as it has been pursued in the United States and in many other parts of the world assumes that 'outsiders' have to be brought into the mainstream to ensure their participation, without there being any fundamental questioning of that mainstream as a desirable social framework." Clearly, her success has not tamed this activist any more than the punishments of apartheid did.

Reviewer Paul Trachtman writes from his home in rural New Mexico.

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