Interview with Ari Sitas, Of Socialism and Dentures by Jonathan Mandel, 10-11 April 2015

Media and Social Movements Network

Rondebosh, the suburb below the University of Cape Town which is below the Cecil John Rhodes Memorial which is below the ragged sides of Table Mountain is where we meet. Ai Sitas is an uncomfortable stroller here as he had spent close to three decades in the ferment of civil wars in KwaZulu-Natal. 

His poetry is all about that and he is more than an insider in the politics that made Zuma and Nzimande and marginalised many others in the country. He comes from those parts. He knows them well. He admits that the transition from a Valley of a Thousand Hills to a Walk in the Night is difficult!  But he does enjoy the harshness of the Cape and his weekend hikes with old comrades and friends discussing what went wrong with their revolution. We meet there because he needs to visit a dentist, he jokes that he is still committed to the narrrowing of the socialist vision from socialism in one country to socialism in one bedrroom to the latest, socialism around one set of dentures.  

The coffee houses are packed and there is only space outside made impossible in turn because there is such a fierce wind howling through the Cape. 

It s a month after the Rhodes statue had to be lifted away rather than fall, and he offers for us to continue at his place. It is a fine house. It is tasteful with some of the greatest art adorning each little space and the garden facing the backside of the mountain. Some of the Greek feel is unavoidable as he was born in Cyprus in the early 50s. He and his partnerr ae not art collectors, rather some of the country’s best artists are their friends , gifting them work for each occasion: Mkame, Badsha, Kentridge in one room. Sibisi, Muafanjego, Batiss, Diamandis in another. And then the books, and the cds, and the chillies dangling in the kitchen. You are in the midst of left aistocracy.

The last time I interacted with him alone was at the launch of his Mandela Decade book, where his friends Pitilka Ntuli and Barbara Hogan stole the show. I accompanied my friends the Trudes from back home the Netherlands to speak about his poetry, but there I allowed them to lead because literature is their mainstay. 

The Mandela Decade book was more than worth it- ceating a chronicle of the pillars of the transition, tracing the subtle nuances in cultural transfomation, sudying the long term effects of mobiliity and closure for the country’s black working-class, It was largely ignored because it did not conform to either black or white common-sense. It was not just about class betrrayal and an elite transition. It was as Wits’ Devan Pillay argued a complex take on the transition that was too subtle for knuckleheads. At that stage I never anticpated that he would be working  closely with left ANC cohorts who wanted to reverse Mbeki’s neoliberalism. We are, he said, negotiating between conservative white liberals clowning as Marxists, a UDF version of Tretschikov-kitsch  masquerading as feeling and black fundamentalists who have misunderstood Biko and Fanon.

The world’s meltdown has seperated sheep from goats and had made visible what most economists tried to hide-that any growth in the world system and by implictaion the ticking over of capitalism is mainly due to the emerging powers in BRICS and mostly China. But South Africa and Brazil are in serious economic trouble as their economy is stuttering and as in South Africa’s case most of its top corporations are making good profits outside the country. It is ironic that Marx returned through Picketty and anti-austerity movements, whilst neo-liberalism has returned with a vengeance through the European Union’s Troika and the financial might around Merkel.

He is animated by the promise of a long leave where he can gather his thoughts on historical sociology after his remarkable Gauging and Engaging Deviance 1600-2000 and recent work he and his good friend Sumangala Damodaran did on the movement of material and symbolic goods, slaves, women and music in the period before European ascendance. Further, he and others had researched extensively the pre-history of BRICS and once again, he wants time to lay out his argument about the reconfiguration of the world economy and he wants to extend his moral discord expressed in his Ethic of Reconciliation. That is apart from his creative work-poetrry, music and performance that is reaching new heights. He has been offered the inaugural Bhagat Singh Chair at JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies in 2016, so he hoped this would create a breathing-space.

He had a bit of a medical scare last November but as he humorously recalls, it has been marched out of him by his partner, the Freirean Astrid Von Kotze- she made him walk a whale trail, up and down Table Mountain and crazy Nature’s Valley hikes, but he adds that one thing for sure his basketball career was over. I thought this was another wisecrack but indeed he had been a provincial player for the veteran sides of KwaZulu-Natal and more recently, the Western Cape.  He moved effortlessly between Rousseff’s troubles in Brazil with impeachments, Syriza and the troubles that the ANC will get us into in the next few months.

On this last count he does get rather exasperated, having spent three years alongside Sarah Mosoetsa changing the Humanities and Social Sciences landscape in the country away from neo-liberal techno-fixes to watch a dwindling light on any question of principle. The ANC he agued is no longer the movement for an idea, the search for a balance between freedom and equality, the Mandela’s promise of the first State of the Nation address, it is a hub of incumbencies and loyalties to those who facilitated you getting there. The whole country has turned into a prospecting frenzy and there will be barely a square inch left of it which will not be on auction.

J.M: So after Cecil John Rhodes I hear it will be Marx that falls in South Africa. Do you think that Marxism has a chance with the new generation of black students?

AS: The students are asking very important questions of the status quo-why is it that in the 21st century they come to feel exactly as Sol Plaatjie felt in the 1910s, a paraiah in the land of their birth as Black or African people. Why do institutions of Higher learning continue to be cauldrons of Eurocentrism and Afrophobia?  The ANC promised to lead us all from the colonial othering to an assertion of self. They think it failed, that is why Fanon is back in the fray and so is Biko. Marx is not over, he is not wrong because he was White, he is wrong because he was short on gender, race, identity, aesthetics etc, but right in his historical and class impulse, how historical social formations emerge and what are the main contradictions of a capitalist economy. No one who has read Fanon properly or understood his living and revolutionary project cannot see Marxian influences throughout his work. And Fanon was not right by the way because he was Black, he was right on many issues and he was wrong on many aspects of his work, i.e who was to be the revolutionary class of the anti-colonial struggle, but he was mostly right on his pitfalls of nationalism, on the Hegelian and Sartrean dialectic, wrong on his negative take on the search for an alternative non-Eurocentric African history, right in the need to search for post-colonial social psychology, right on the racial gaze and wrong that violence has been and is cathartic. His work is polysemic, open to at least a dozen of Fanonisms.      

The Rhodes Must Fall movement is kind-of admirable. Its showiness, its self-reflection, even its banality at times are part of a vivid road to finding a voice in a space where there are no big ideas left- things to feel about, think about or sacrifice something for. Because it carries the vigour and the impatience of youth it may be scary too: scary to the participants of the movement but also to those whom it identifies as eliminable and surplus to requirements. Whatever ones assessment of its strategy or tactics RMF has asked in a few weeks what no one could achieve at UCT in twenty years. It did shake out white and black complacency. And there is discomfort because the frames have been dropped and smashed. This is not a white country with a black problem, nor is it about whites accepting blacks into civility but a standing of this idea upside down on its head. Although the issues are different in other Universities, RMF has prompted a range of anti-systemic tremors everywhere, Wits, UKZN, Rhodes, Stellenbosch- the heart of hitherto privileged institutions designed for the enhancement of a changing status quo. 

It is true that dozens of black student struggles that have been happening in most Universities have not received the limelight that UCT students have enjoyed. The limelight by the media is obvious: it is UCT, it is the top ranked in our academic PSL, unlike Bafana Bafana it is also top ranked in our academic CAF, third ranked in BRICS and in the top hundred in our academic FIFA. The students accepted and who fail its first year are students with the highest matriculation results in the country. They are also better-to-do than most and they are better equipped in social media than any of their professors. Of course other Universities do not have Rhodes statues and have their own tensions of ethnicity, class, gender, chauvinism, poverty and so on but at UCT, the elephant in the room has been race. What is shared with other student initiatives is a sense that all kind of people, symbols and charters must fall for the post-colony or the post-Apartheid University may rise.

J.M: You have not answered my question- does Marx have a chance with the new generation of black students?

AS: Depends which students: those influenced by US-based Black Studies, no. Those who argue intersectionality, in-sourcing and fees must fall, yes. Those who argue, F***Mandela, Roll over Solomon Mahlangu and Chris Hani, here come the capuccin kids, no. Those influenced by Congress, PAC, Azapo or the EFF, yes. For me, there is no social science possible without it being a dialogue or a confrontation with the ghost of Marx. And if you want to understand the economic crisis of our times, you need to deal with more than the ghost.  

This new phase of turbulence in the country from the mineshaft, the workplace and the University happened extremely fast. There was no inkling as well that a strike by Marikana miners in 2012, albeit against their union and for a living wage, led by the green-blanketed Mambush Noki would lead to their killing and deep divisions in the labour movement. Many students in the Rhodes Must Fall Movement had watched the Marikana documentary during their sit-ins whilst occupying University administration buildings. When the challenge to the announcement of fee increases got them moving again, a serious port of call were the campus-based trade unions and the vulnerable outsourced workers that did much of the muck raking on campus. 

 

J,M: But don’t you think that the students are correct and that the ANC betrayed black emancipation?

A.S: The ANC is caught between a bourgeoisie that it loathes to need… and a bourgeoisie that needs it. For a while, under Mbeki’s stewardship the ANC almost learnt to love it but there was a counter-trend that used it as a ruse for loathing.  Imagine a magnetic field held together by something that mutates activity into profits and allocates bits of it everywhere. Within it there are attractions and repulsions but like all magnetic fields the minute the arc of repulsion reaches a waning distance, attraction returns. 

As I tried to argue but to deaf ears at the Sociology Congress, there is a white bourgeoisie that has been deracialising being the one pole of this dance and a black bourgeoisie that is deracialising that constitutes the other. There are of course intermediaries who slide both ways. The former bourgeoisie is outside the ANC’s reach and does not quite like the fact that it still courts with Bandung-type anti-imperialisms and that it courts the SACP, otherwise it would have been quite a convenient maintenance crew. 

But it has learnt how to influence without having to rule, since Jan Smuts’s United Party lost the plot to Afrikaner Nationalists. It found common ground later with many Verligte bosses and professionals. Being distanced from state rule, it did shape remarkable outcomes. 

The question that we faced was what kind of capitalist state were we dealing with-we know in general that states are there to enhance conditions of surplus extraction, to create legitimate regimes of plunder in relation to nature, to institute permissible modalities of exploitation and to define the terrain of the national and distribute rights and obligations. They are there to concentrate legitimate forms of force, to enact systematization and regulation. But there ae a variety of regimes possible within this, and such regimes are shifting and creating a range of power-blocs to rule with different balance of class and in South Africa race and class, but in Nigeria perhaps ethnic, agglomerations of forces. If we had time we could analyse precisely what this kind of regime is about in the present but we would be moving out of the mists of the miasmic into proper Sociology.

Assuming you trusted my analysis of the form of regime implied since 1994, I would like to jump to two insights: firstly, our work did stretch a key tension in South Africa’s public and institutional life. How can you create something new within an emerging institutional  incoherence: our fiscal regime has changed institutions to steer society under fiscal discipline and outsource all or most action parts to “civil society”, to put it out to “tender” as it were-that is what most neo-liberalised institutions do. On that basis where most action parts in the state are disabled and handed over, how do you expend at least 60% of your budget on social forms of development? It becomes obvious that despite its self-description, it is not a developmental state as such but one that has developmental stimuli and processes. We need a proper conception here to express this hybridity. It is neither a developmental state, not simply a neo-liberal state and not a national democracy as expressed in the ANC’s conceptual framework. 

Secondly, it was about class power the South African bourgeoisie is very strong and its mix of the Cape Colony Club and the Broederbond has been quite infectious. The resilience of the local capitalist class and a systematic defence and re-definition of its interests is very obvious.  I did argue “then” during the transition period that there was a revolution within “the” revolution where its interests although not hegemonic, were becoming dominant.  This is becoming more than the defining reality with the ANC being nudged into becoming its well-heeled maintenance team. The reason why the fit brings discord is that within the ANC there are strong currents still that subscribe to a secularist Nationalism which is anti-imperialist and a Marxism that the Cold War should have upended in the eyes of the captains of the SA economy. But also its networks are bringing in new capital that is outside its spheres of influence: Chinese, Indian and so on.  

Class is not only about the ownership of land, property, assets or means of production. Class being is a project that has to be renewed, re-negotiated and fought for. It has historical weight and in South Africa it was a racial construction, ab initio and well into the 1980s otherwise the British East India Company would have offered shares to the Zulu Royal House and ownership of means of production by black people in “White” South Africa would have not been made illegal. Such a project had boundaries and points of inclusion and exclusion: it was about schooling systems that sustain it, associations, organisations and think tanks that look after its interests; it is about Universities, the top echelons of the main professions and the media and the cultural capital of the Church and the Synagogue. It is about a civilizational constellation that is deeply European. And indeed in South Africa, it is to be found in the intersection of the borderlines of three communities: Anglo, Afrikaner and Jewish. The boundaries have been made slightly more permeable to allow some “de-racialisation.” Within the context of its whiteness, it offered business opportunities for other ethnic formations: Germans, Greeks Italians, Portuguese and with some ambiguity, the Lebanese. And across the colour bar it offered concessions to some Coloured, Indian and a miniscule of African interests after protracted struggles.  

Given the high concentration and centralisation of wealth on the mines, plantations and farms by the 1910s, the class was small and as from the 1940s- i.e… with the decline of Jan Smuts’ prowess and the decline of the United Party it learnt how to be dominant without being “hegemonic”. It was in the words of Lawrie Shlemmer defined by a pragmatic realism which was flexible enough to accommodate a variety of political formations as long as its long-term viability and interests  were and are upheld: from the old Nationalist Party, PFP and Inkatha to most political formations in the new South Africa.I am describing a class whose numbers are in the low thousands whose regeneration is predicated on their ability to recruit a black bourgeoisie by altering somewhat the boundary rules and by making sure that the rules of engagement and entry become stricter. It is obvious that money does not guarantee entry.

J.M: Why do you think it is resilient then?

A.S: Without interfering in the political process directly it has navigated the main parameters of change. There are… seven areas where the achievements were not paltry: to get the Mandela administration   to abandon nationalization and forms of public ownership; to open up ownership tracks for a black political elite and to allow serious empowerment deals; to change the focus of everyone and the state towards growth and market-friendly policies like GEAR; to succeed on an abandonment of critical humanities and social science and an emphasis on the market, science and technology; to achieve the marginalization of metanarratives of class or nation at the level of ideas ad declare both Marxism and secular nationalism dead in most Tertiary institutions; to create a common sense through the media that it and its cohorts are the normal and the everyday and that they are the essence of civil society. And now to attack trade unionism and make labour rights the enemy of the poor.

What it cannot manage is the disconnect between political power and academic and cultural dominance and most certainly, the new flows of economic capital and the shift to the East. In raising the issue of what kind of Humaniities, we got the unconditional support of centres of political influence in power, of a black intelligentsia, of nationalist and black consciousness thinkers, of Marxists and a whole range of radical currents but we underestimated the cultural and intellectual prowess of the non-racialising white elite. This deracialising white bourgeoisie exists in the same magnetic field as a deracialisng black one closer to the ANC and highly dependent on the procurement expenditure of government, the mega-projects in and through parastatals and the circuits of capital that BRICS is bringing into the country. Whereas the former is defining high culture and looking West for a framework of excellence; the latter is defining political and popular culture and looking East and South. As the magnetic field is defined by their contrary elements, there are convergences and repulsions. 

The emerging black bourgeoisie needs the ANC as a political fixer and government as a source of accumulation. To win big projects it has brought many more white interests into the fray, than their white counterparts brought in blacks. Where it is thriving is in its emerging BRICS and networks outside the old white monopoly worlds. The former controls, cultural, professional and educational capital. The latter, popular culture and increasingly sport. 

There is a third, made up of worker and trade union funds that is enmeshed and intermeshed providing most of the finance capital for re-investment. Given this turbulence, the government has a remarkable autonomous space to operate and provide for a more decisive role that has a more redistributive and defining role but is in short-supply in terms of vision or an enticing and inclusive metanarrative as it has outsourced most of its thinking parts to knowledge workers and consultants.

J.M: But don’t you think, this crisis of capitalism, engineered by a neo-liberal casino mentality is insoluble? Isn’t Immanuel Wallerstein right that this is the final systemic crisis of the world economy?

AS: It is a challenging question. One can ask: whose crisis is it? The effect of the crisis of 2008 is to have increased the share of income of the top 1% and 10% of global society. It has done so, here in South Africa too. And Capitalism is held together by growth rates in China, India, the East as it were and to a lesser extent by Africa. The world average is 3%, African countries are growing at 5.8%. There is a crisis faced by small capitalists, petty traders, lower rank white collar people, workers, peasants and precarious jobbers. The bottom 50% is devastated. They are not running away to the parties of the left but to religious formations.  

Perhaps there is the irking concern that Immanuel Wallerstein was right: that the world system was spiralling into its final crisis. The polarisations were forcing the vectoral pressures into asymptotes, those are his words, to crises… and the bursting of all bubbles of success. On the other hand, we have joined the cohort of fixers: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, at least at the inter-state regime level believe, and agreed to believe and have defined protocols that harbour such belief, that the world system can be re-steered away from a world of body-bags, violence and collapse. Beyond the aura of consumption, the iPhone and the Daisy-cutter bomb there is conviction that there is another way of wiring things and reconfiguring our life chances. 

Can the BRICS initiative and whether it can rise to its own challenge to create the architecture, the norms and rules of engagement in a post-imperial world? There are its doubters and its supporters but it is a sociological fact: the borders these regimes monitor harbour 42% of the world’s population, 30% of its GDP and a very large share of the world’s misery and its mutinous “”indignatos”. 

The world economy is kept ticking over for sure  by a range of emerging powers as I said and the economy’s rhythms and timing are punctuated by China’s ascendance. It is in short being rewired by Mao’s children (excuse the irony) into a capitalism with “Chinese Characteristics”. India is in the mix too and both countries’ responses to the 2008-9 meltdown have been highlighted. 

But rewiring the economy is one thing, it must not be confused with BRICS, the initiative that is so maligned by the Western media and by market fundamentalists as a non-starter. The initiative seeks rather to reconfigure rather than rewire and to move away from what the erstwhile hegemonic regime in Washington has attempted to impose on the world since the 2nd World War. It is therefore not about what Brazil, Russia, India, China and South African governments are opposing but about the values, norms and rules they try to put in place. Starting from a talkshop since Durban 2013, Fortaleza 2014 BRICS-things are beginning to happen.

What is important is to look at carefully what their state-linked think-tanks are proposing as appropriate and what forms of consensus are emerging around the initiative. They are not there just to fix the multilateral system but they are pushing for a new global architecture for finance and economic cooperation, a new take on development and a search for new norms around which plunder of the natural environment, or new permissible forms of exploitation are bandied about and how does all this link with finding a vision that permits diversity in social systems as opposed to the uniformity of the Washington Consensus.

Why be modest? This is a vital multilateral effort during a significan historical conjuncture: we are witnessing a world “”öut of joint” and a major involution of the West. BRICS is one of the world’s ascendant imprints in a period of dangerous open-ness, destruction, regime change and economic crisis. And it is world historic because it reminds serious historians of that epochal period from the 15th-17th centuries which witnessed the East’s involution- an involution which went cheek by jowl with the West’s emergence as a powerful fixer, creating the conditions for success, constraint and failure for centuries to come.

J.M: The SA-India  connection is easy to fathom, but what makes South Africa close to Brazil?

AS: We were aware how their dictators since 1964.like South Africa’s Afrikaner nationalists, played with import substitution and repressive policies to achieve unprecedented levels of industrialisation which met with severe limits in the 70s and early 1980s. Also, how indebtedness and hyperinflation followed. They voted for the first time in 1989, we voted five years later. 

Brazil, the “duckbilled platypus” of Francisco De Oliveira’s imagination, has been within our radar. So has De Oliveira’s work since his Critique of Dualist Reason and his work to establish PT.  They have much to share with South Africa, over and above its opening to the world economy and the consequences thereof. 

The Bolsa Familia that the Cardoso regime initiated but which was extended under Lula’s stewardship; that Lula who teetered a bit in the first round of the presidential elections in 2006 is not just the leader of the poor but he is nonetheless part of the Bolivarian family of leaders that did not find the Washington Consensus a happy fare. But there was graft and the obvious resistance to Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s Plano Real with its deregulation, privatisation and restructuring has many echoes in South Africa. Indeed, most of South America witnessing anti-neoliberal movements and left or centre-left governments coming in with remarkable popularity- from Chavez in Venezuela to Kitchner in Argentina, followed by Ecuador, Uruguay and Bolivia. This all created a breathing space for Cuba, one of South Africa’s closest friends. They are teetering, but they are not gone. They talk to us.

Their women’s movements and trade unions are very close to ours. Many of us too looked at the Sem Terra movement and read Paulo Lins’City of God,and how these resonated with our own favelas, drugs, gangs and youth creativity and despair. Sebastiao Salgado’s images of Serra Pelada, the miner ants scouring the pits for gold, resonated deeply with our very own gold, platinum and other forms of mining that scoured our history. Even our trade union history parallels in remarkable ways, the emergence of the Brazilian ones.

The most debated though has been the formation of the Workers’Party in 1980 and since then it has marked the debate in South Africa’s labour movement, whether it should emulate the Brazilian experience or forge an alliance with the Congress Movement. In the last two years such calls have intensified, and it seems the “Lula moment” as we call it, is upon us with the talks around the formation around metalworkers of a United Front. The image of radicalised religious communities, human rights networks, radicalised intellectuals, Trotskyite networks, lapsed communists, gender networks and trade unions coming together to echo the Brazilian experience is very much in the air. It will take a lot of effort to get it off the ground you know.  

Intellectually we have admired their extravagant theories of Roberto Unger and the disciplined structural arguments of Theotonio dos Santos. Musically we have listened carefully to their tropicalistas and anything from Veloso to Virginia Rodrigues and marvelled that the birembau is common to us all and how capoeira is spreading amongst our urban youth.

There is a problem though.

Roberto Schwarz has explored the dilemma I am addressing quite early in his “”Brazilian Culture: Nationalism by Elimination”. Let me read from it: “it is easy to see that the change from one school of thought to another rarely arises from the exhaustion of a particular project; usually it expresses the high regard that Brazilians feel for the newest doctrine from America or Europe. A deceptive impression of change is therefore created, a development with no inner necessity and therefore no value. The thirst for terminological and doctrinal novelty prevails over the labour of extending knowledge and is another illustration of the imitative nature of our cultural life. We shall see that the problem has not been correctly posed, although we may start by accepting its relative validity.”

JM: So you are all trapped by the West! How charmingly enduring!!!

AS: One of the most enduring allegories of knowledge is Plato’s where shackled in a cave we have been raised by having the Canon projected on the wall and these images -shadows of puppets in the original as opposed to the brilliant light of knowledge outside- are the existing world as it is: modernity, progress, development, complexity and all the normative cornucopias that our societies lack become obvious. Our underdevelopment, our backwardness, our deficits as Brazil may be likened to a duckbilled platypus and China as a sleeping dragon. Our unattractive bits need to be excised to make our potential, actual. 

In the wondrous projections on the cave’s wall there is Hegel’s and Comte’s diorama of progress and we do prefer Hegel’s because it is more dialectical and gives the slave agency and vigour. And now that we are post-colonial, we do not have to be shackled anymore because the projection is an attractive fare, The contemporary is not about “take off” and industrialization anymore, that is for the backward regions because we are all in a post-industrial information galaxy and we are so intertwined and interconnected so a modern Durkheim, like Manuel Castells can argue that the Net has deepened the global division of labour. What we are experiencing now with all its furies and anomie is a maladjustment, a cultural lag. 

There has been a mounting critique of such image-making. Brazil and Latin American scholars, sociologists and political economists talked of dependencia, of core and peripheries, of imperialism. Now post-structuralism, post-colonial studies and a growing body of Southern Theorists have attempted to find a language for this disquiet. The critique of the Eurocentrism of Sociology’s canon is very much with us. But what does this mean? Yes, moving out of the canon has created numerous counter-essentialisms where suspect ontologies spawned relativisms by the dozen. So out of the Cave has meant entrapment into a new Enclave that is totally dependent on its contrasting Other

The issue is that all of us, those shackled and the puppeteers have to leave the cave and move from a play of metaphors and deconstructions to a substantive critique and a new theoretical praxis. We need to even liberate canonical figures like Marx, Weber and Durkheim from the canon itself. 

JM: That is theoretical, what would make normal people connect between the continents?  

AS: There is something spectacular about Brazil. It is its sheer size and diversity, but apart from its resilient flora and fauna from its tropical and riverine north to its cool and variegated south, it is about its defiant subcultures: the right for the carnival was won against the papacy in the late 17th century and, when that was won its sensuality was just right and it is shared by rebellious underlings and their usurpers, the horrific patriarchs of any Jorge Amado novel. There is also the fastest export among youth cultures: capoeira, which shimmers with African soul.  

Brazil was the explosive space of patriarchy, militarism and rapacious white frontiersmen: it is the whitest and the blackest of the Americas, it is the richest and the poorest, and where it is the poorest rhythms get truly exciting and where it is at its richest and dark, it is as if Europe is its obvious heritage from the opera house to Foucault and Luhman. But even attempts at imitation have always their Latin American twist: when imitation happens it turns delightfully gawdy because Brazilians after centuries on the margin are wired differently- from Leonidas’ball-flick to a Virginia Rodrigues canto. And, if in doubt look at the Curitiba-based Opera de Arame with its glass roof and wire structure. 

This is peculiar- you can find better Italian restaurants than in Italy and better German beer brews than in Germany, but in-between, the hybrid stuff that happens in Rio breaks the mind from fig to lobster! It is as if the ghosts of undefeated Goitaca warriors, felled by smallpox, deflect each attempt to such a crazy hybrid. And you get a sense that modernism had to be construed exotic, Brasilia is the capital and monument to the peculiar new from the foreign ministry to the national congress there.    

And if Rio’s coastline is not enough try Recife, Olinda, Joao Pessoa and Natal. And if you think that is bad enough try the Fernando de Norohna archipelago of islands and corals, if all fails Maranhao and then the Amazon for good measure and write an essay of why you should be, deservingly so pierced by the tip of a local indigenous arrow or spear. 

And look at the sentient beings from the ants to the birds to Via Campesina, the CUT and the struggle. 

JM: So how on earth is South Africa similar?

We seem by contrast so compact, until you hit the open roads that lead from its fiscal heart Johannesburg towards any cardinal point of the compass. Then you realise the contrast of light and shadow, the sun and some of the best stars that frame a restless moon. It is a black country with a white problem because colonialism and settler arrogance have created a wound so deep that no gold, platinum or money can fill it. There is a daily Fanonian catharsis through small pockets of violence, directed wrongly at women and children or a township library and then there is contrition, Christian and Customary. Ancestors have formed a trade union because they are exhausted by the calls of the living for atonement and direction.  

There is the heart of Cape Town stuck in Cape Dutch simplicity and elegance and enough ragged rock, mountain, wine and fynbos to dull you away from the fact of Khwe massacres. And the distance from all this to the Nguni strongholds of the East, is pock-marked by outrageously beautiful reserves, elephant parks and resorts. But the shacklands will interfere, will remind you why mutiny is the norm and facing the Indian Ocean, Durban, the Afro-Indian harbour of subtropical intensities- the perennial struggle between crows and mynahs, the tropical vegetation, the palmtree and cement, the Zulu, the Inidan and the Anglo. 

KwaZulu-Natal celebrates its wars, its battlefields, the once powerful Zulu kingdom and depending who is speaking, mourns the consequences. From Shaka, to Gandhi to Luthuli, the story gets complicated. It gets even starker up the highlands in the white heart of the centre of power in Pretoria where Paul Kruger once dreamt of Boer autonomy and independence. Nelson Mandela admitted openly of the difficulty of sustaining African dreams in its historic streets. You may choose to descend towards Zimbabwe, or Botswana or Namibia, each choice invites stark nature back in- the lowveldt, the African savannah, the arid Kalagadi transfrontier park, the Riechtersveldt, a world of wonder. Or you can head towards the Free State and Lesotho. Wherever you chose you will be haunted by mines, used and disused, by mine-dumps, by the greed and need that keeps it all together.

I am getting carried away. Brazil is better than South Africa in soccer but our sadness and tragic acuity has no peer.

JM: So what about socialism around a set of dentures?

AS: I would rather be toothless.