The NS Interview: Nadine Gordimer

“The World Cup is a big circus. But the people need bread”

Read a longer version of this interview.

It's been over 16 years since apartheid ended. How close is the goal of a "rainbow nation"?
I have always called myself a realistic optimist. During the time of the struggle, we were so completely preoccupied with getting rid of apartheid that we didn't have the time or state of mind to think about the future. When we all voted together for the first time - an absolutely wonderful occasion - we partied and celebrated. Now, the next day, comes the headache.

Why has there been such a rise in violence?
It is mainly because we have this tremendous gap between the poor and the rest of the population, who are at various stages of achieving a liveable life, going right up to the very rich. This huge backlog of poverty is an inheritance that you can't deal with in 16 years.

What's the mood ahead of the World Cup?
It's a strange thing. While there is great excitement about the World Cup, at the same time we've got these tremendous difficulties. I'm certainly not a killjoy. People need bread and circuses, and this is a big circus. Let it be enjoyed. But what about the bread?

Will it be a good thing for South Africa?
It's difficult to gauge what the benefits will be afterwards. Take the stadiums - does one really need them, and what do you do with them? The money that's being spent could provide housing for so many who are living in shacks.

What do you think about the African National Congress today?
There is a lot of dissent within the party. Capable opposition always wakes up a ruling party. But there is dissent within the opposition parties, too.

What about Julius Malema, the controversial president of the ANC Youth League?
He has an appeal for the young, poor and jobless. They have nothing offered to them, except to rage against the state of the country. I think he's a tragedy. It's all very well to criticise him and, God knows, one must, if you have any care for this country and its future. But one has to see what has led to him coming about. It's an unfortunate phenomenon.

Are you optimistic about the future?
What some people don't realise is that there has been a remarkable change between black and white. It's hidden now because of other pressures, but there has not been even a generation to put everything right. If South Africans could overcome apartheid, surely we can summon the will to deal with the present problems.

How well has the Aids crisis been handled?
Thabo Mbeki was a highly intelligent man and achieved some good things, but nobody can explain (I certainly can't) his blindness about the HIV/Aids problem and the neglect that he allowed during his time as president. It does seem that it is being tackled now. If only we could find - when I say we, I mean the whole world, but particularly us - a vaccine against it.

Is President Jacob Zuma doing enough?
He is saying the right things about Aids, but one can't forget that when he was in court, he said in public - he can't blame the press for this - that he'd had unprotected sex with a woman he knew was HIV-positive. It makes one wonder.

Will you write an autobiography?
Why should I? I'm not interested in myself to that extent. Anything that's in me that has any worth at all to make public is in what I've written. My other life is private.

Can literature make a difference?
Has it not always done this? Most people don't make the distinction between literature and propaganda. Propaganda has its place. It seeks to persuade people. But literature, poetry, novels, stories - these are an exploration of life.

You've said that you regret not learning an African language.
I certainly regret it very much. It's a great deprivation.

Is there a plan?
You don't plan. Life pushes in on you and you respond to it or you don't.

Do you vote?
How could you not, if you'd grown up as I did, knowing that you could only vote because you were white? It is a precious right and, to us, it is all the more precious because so many people didn't have it for so long.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
In my private life, of course. Not in my public life. I hope I've done what I was capable of. It's never enough, but there you are.

Are we all doomed?
Doomed to what? To atomic explosion? To making the atmosphere unbreathable? I'm troubled about pollution and by the power of weaponry that exists in the world, but I believe that we are not doomed. We will and must find our way out of it.

Read a longer version of this interview.

Defining moments

1923 Born in South Africa
1945 Enrols at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
1953 Her first novel, The Lying Days, is published
1960 Her friend Bettie du Toit is arrested. Joins the anti-apartheid movement
1986 Testifies on behalf of 22 anti-apartheid activists at the Delmas treason trial
1991 Becomes the first South African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela

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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle