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Megan Hall

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Jenny Diski (LRB) on the “awfulness” of South Africa

In the LRB of 3 July 2008, Jenny Diski catalogues her encounters with various foul-opinioned South Africans, and expresses her disappointment at the fallen Rainbow nation (haven’t heard that phrase in a while…).

The ‘you can’t understand until you’ve lived there’ argument had kept me from visiting South Africa quite effectively. If being there would make me understanding about apartheid, I preferred to stay away. But now it had to be a very different place, 18 years after Nelson Mandela walked free from prison, 14 years on from the day when South Africa had its first democratic election. I was going to be there anyway – Cape Town was the end point of another journey – and I thought I’d spend a couple of weeks and look around; be a regular tourist in a place where minds had been changed.

(There’s more at

Reading this Diary piece made me consider unsubscribing to the LRB for the only time I can remember. I’m not sure why. I don’t think of myself as strikingly nationalist (the 1995 Rugby World Cup made barely a blip on my horizon, if that’s a useful dipstick), and yet the whole article, especially its tone of going bravely against the flow of opinion about South Africa, irked me.

I don’t doubt that people did say the kinds of drongo things that she reports them as saying. But surely that’s hardly a surprise. Trundle off to the UK or the States (just two obvious examples), or even Australia, and you’ll encounter some real dyed-in-the-wool types who speak in derogatory and offensive ways about their countrypeople, or particular segments of them anyway.

So we’re hardly unique.

Not that that makes it ok, or even less irksome or shaming (because there is something vaguely shaming about her comments). Perhaps its the shaming aspect that made me consider no more LRB. Like the Jewish jokes that can only be told by Jewish people, perhaps it’s only those who live here who can voice displeasure and disappointment without raising my defensive hackles.

I comfort myself a little with the thought that most of the people Jenny Diski mentions meeting seem to be middle-aged and over. Don’t younger people, on average, have views that are less hair-raising?

I hope so.

And finally, maybe South Africa just didn’t boil her vegetables — not every place can, after all.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    July 29th, 2008 @14:51 #

    I'm so glad you write about this Jenny Diski piece. It also raised my hackles. She clearly was ill advised about where to spend her time and who to spend it with. I like to fantasise an encounter between Jenny and Ben (Trovato)

    Come on not all of us, so called middle aged folks are that bad? Or maybe we are worse. Makes me feel sheepish to think of myself as middle aged, but I guess I am.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    July 29th, 2008 @15:28 #

    On the subject of unsubscribing from lit mags and reviews, the New Yorker has been getting a lot of flak for it's recent Obama cover, which has the candidate, dressed up as an Islamic terrorist, fist-bumping his Black Power/Panther wife. There are reports of hundreds of cancellations. Here is the cover:

    The irony here is that this New Yorker raised hackles through satire; whereas Diski and the LRB raised them through selective, chauvanistic reporting. It's like the convergence of communism and facism at that point in the political spectrum we all learned about in high school: the joke and the insult become near-indistinguishable, drawing similar feelings from people who are decidedly distinguishable.

    To the New Yorker - the fact that I let my subscription lapse at the same moment that you published that cover is coincidence! (The mag's just gone dead boring.)

    And Colleen, how do you know I'm not Ben Trovato?

    OK, I'm not.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    July 29th, 2008 @16:11 #

    Gak! And just yesterday morning, encountering their bumf in my mailbox, I was mourning the fact that I no longer have a subscription to the LRB.

    Although Diski qualifies her piece by assuming the 'average tourist' gaze, she could have done far more to ironise local informants' comments. She could also, for instance, have spent a few minutes reading local media, as a start, to see what columnists are saying about these very same issues.

    Compared to other diary pieces in LRB, and especially ones where writers find themselves in European cities and where the diary is suffused with knowledge about a place, Diski's piece comes across as ignorant of the place and its history. It's a terrible piece, and not just because it is about South Africa.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    July 29th, 2008 @16:44 #

    Yes, that is it exactly. Other diary pieces I'm thinking of come from a position of either being knowledgeable or from an interested, open lack of knowledge; but her position is one of having prejudged and a sense that she knows all there is to know already and visiting the place simply confirms all her (ignorant) perceptions and judgements.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Megan</a>
    July 30th, 2008 @13:42 #

    Ok, so it wasn't just me that thought it was grim.

    A real error of judgement, the Obama cover, but I'm not much of an Obama fan, really (though he's probably the best of the available options), nor a New Yorker fan (takes insular to the extreme, and gets formulaic v quickly)...

    And Colleen, you are not middle-aged!


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