The fact that the depiction of workers and poor whites is relative to the class position from which they are observed was already recognised by the Afrikaans poet N.P. van Wyk Louw in his essay from the 1930s “Die Rigting van die Afrikaanse Letterkunde” (“The Direction of the Afrikaans Literature”) which appeared in the collection Berigte te Velde (1971, but first published in 1939). In this essay he bemoans the increasing estrangement of the Afrikaans worker from Afrikaans literature because of the dominant class perspective found in this literature. As example he uses the portrayal of Jochem van Bruggen’s Ampie figure from the text of the same name who, as rural poor, is not known as he “would be as human being in the immediate presence of God” (1971: 10), but rather as he is seen through the eyes “of the older, patriarchal landowner” and this at a time when the poor whites (as urban workers) began to take militant steps as in the uprisings of 1922 when workers confronted South Africa “through the viewfinder of the mauser gun”. The estrangement between literature and the workers pointed to a break in the organic unity of the nation; it indicated the emergence of petit bourgeois authors who no longer understood the aspirations of their people.
The late 1930s, when Van Wyk Louw’s essay appeared, though, was different from 1922. In 1922 the break within the volk was not that apparent. The workers and their petit bourgeois nationalist compatriots were still fighting hand in hand in the trenches. In 1924 the labour and nationalist pact won the elections. In 1929 the nationalists won on their own. In the
30s, after ten years under nationalist and semi-nationalist rule, poor white and worker support of the nationalist party waned. In these circumstances the nationalists lost in the mainly Afrikaner constituency of Germiston during a by-election in 1932 (Bonner 1981.97-122). In this region Solly Sachs and his garment workers’ union played an important role in fighting the exploitation of Afrikaner women workers in the nationalist controlled clothing industry. The clothing industry was developed in the twenties by the Pact government to create jobs for unemployed white women (Bozzoli 1987:181). This industry was marked by extreme exploitation of unmarried women workers. Because of the low wages and work the workers began to strike in the clothing factories of Germiston in 1931 and 1932. The then Minister Minister of Justice, Oswald Pirow, reacted by ordering mounted police officers to break up the women strikers (Bonner 1981: 102-103). With these events as background the national party came to lose in what was considered the safe constituency of Germiston.
Throughout the thirties and forties the garment workers played a leading role in the resistance against the reactionary nationalism of especially the purified national party founded the leadership of D.F. Malan in protest against the amalgamation of the national party of Hertzog with Smuts’ South African party in 1933.
In contrast to the racially orientated nationalism of the purified national party the garment workers promoted a non-racial and worker orientated nationalism (compare articles such as “Ons en die Voortrekker-eeufees” (Cornelius 1939), “Die tragedie van die Aflikanervolk” (Anonymous 1940), and “Wat die Duitse Nazis waarlik dink van die Afrikaners” (Burford 1939) from their journal Klerewerker. This journal shows how far the workers progressed in the development of an own class consciousness and identity in opposition to the patronising image of them created by the nationalist petit bourgeoisie.
Under the leadership of Solly Sachs the garment workers’ union produced poems, short plays, stories and articles in their journal Klerewerker. These literary products fell completely outside the main stream of Afrikaans literature.
With time the garment workers’ history fell into oblivion. In the main stream Afrikaans literature it found expression only in the largely forgotten drama Die Nuwe Wêreld (1947) by H. A. Fagan. This play is part of the petit bourgeois tradition of worker literature. It is set in Johannesburg six months after the Second World War. A worker strike at the Van de Leur Clothing Factory forms the context in which the main character, Gerhard, comes into conflict with his father, the factory owner, Mr. Van de Leur. Gerhard, who has just returned from the front, is under the impression that the objective of the war was to establish a classless society:
We fought for liberty and equality. Now the war has ended and we are free and equal (1947:5).
He is confronted, though, with a situation where the old capitalist codes are still in use and where the exploitation of the workers actually intensified under emergency regulations that were not scrapped at the end of the war. The workers are forced to work long hours because of the huge demand in the industry due to the returning soldiers exchanging their uniforms for civilian clothing (1947: 15-16). The workers on the other hand fear that the market will reach saturation point with consequent retrenchment of workers.
The oedipal confrontation between father and son complements the struggle between workers and the factory owner: the oedipus complex overlaps here with the class struggle. The play, from its narrow petit bourgeois perspective, explores the problematic identified by Lewis S. Feuer in his introduction to the Fontana Pocket Readers Marx & Engels (1984): the irrational identification of bourgeois youths with the working class and the ensuing conflict with the established social order put in place by their fathers. According to Feuer, Freud addressed this problematic far better than Marx. In Marx’s own time the struggle between the generations was so apparent in Russia that Bakunin predicted a rural revolution under the leadership of 40 000 students in 1896. This social phenomenon was portrayed by Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (Marx & Engels 1984:24).
This essay explores the knowledge unconsciously present in Die Nuwe Wêreld about the way in which the oedipal complex links with the class struggle, and determines Gerhard’s identification with the workers. This essay will also focus on the way in which class codes operate in this play.
The title Die Nuwe Wêreld is a reference to the “Intemational”, the anthem sung, by the real garment workers at their meetings (compare the article “Kruistog vir ‘n bestaande loon” from the Klerewerker, Feb. 1940):
Stand up! Oh slaves of the world!
Awaken! Who thirst and hunger.
Come and help build a new world,
Because the old is coming to pass…
Away with bad old traditions
Poor people arise, arise.
The foundations of a new future
The workers themselves will make.
The “new world” as the ideal of the returning soldier can be linked to the activities of the Springbok Legion, an organisation of ex-servicemen, who with the slogan “Liberty-Equality-Fraternity” and with their journal Fighting Talk promoted the idea of a classless and non-racial democracy (Pike 1985:229).
But these points of contact with historical reality are coincidental. For Fagan the play is primarily an exploration of a motto taken from James Burnham’s book The Managerial Revolution, which sees the post-war world in terms of greater state interference in the economy and extensive bureaucratisation that leave the workers more helpless than in the capitalist period:
The control of the world is passing into the hands of managers. Capitalism has virtually lost its power, and will be replaced not by Socialism but by the rule of the administrators in business and government (Fagan 1947).
It is not a protest drama. Fagan tries to be as objective as possible. But when the history of the garment workers is compared to their portrayal in the drama the extent to which Fagan is a victim of his own petit bourgeois worldview becomes apparent: the workers are portrayed predominantly as simple minded (Dorie and her begging father, Koot Coetzee), drunk (Koot Coetzee during the meeting in the third act), corrupt (Stoffel Booysen, the representative of the union) and obsessed with money. The only two workers presented in a positive light are the comical and morose foreman, Balthasar Diederiks, and the “attractive” (“bevallige” 1947:1) secretary, Ria, who is typing “diligently” (“ywerig” 1947: 1) and is “tastefully dressed” (“smaakvol gekleed” 1947: 1). The worker in the play is therefore not the same type of intelligent and militant person who published in the Klerewerker or travelled throughout South Africa to organise workers (see Bettie du Toit Ukubamba Amadolo).
The decor gives an image of the social hierarchies in a capitalist society: the secretary’s office with chairs “for people waiting to see the managing director” (1947: 1) is the bourgeois version of a royal court; the word “Private” (a recurring motif in the play) on the managing director’s office door has the connotation of bourgeois individualism and control of the self against the collective existence of the workers in the machine hall.
Much of the tension and comical effects of the play can be ascribed to the way in which Fagan consciously portrayed the interaction of the social codes of the different classes. As such the play becomes a good example of the “little behavioural genres of speech situations” (Morson 1986:46). People of different classes, for instance, cannot share jokes, as Booysen tells Gerhard:
I can bear a joke – of a man who is my equal. But from you people how can I know it is a joke? People must be friends to make jokes with each other. You are not our friends. You could never be our friends (1947:69).
And they are not allowed to fight with one another:
Leave him, Stoffel. He is not your mate you can fight with (1947:80).
Gerhard’s function in the play is to disrupt the existing order and code in that he as bourgeois identifies himself with the workers. The workers, however, do not accept or trust him. He bemoans the separation between the “us” and the “you” which makes of him an outcast:
“we” and “you”! Always still “we” and “you”!… Am I a strange animal to be chased from the herd? (1947:7 1).
The class and capitalist order also manifest itself in other ways in the text. The sequence of names in the list of characters is an example. Gerhard is the central character in the drama, but his name appears after that of his father. This indicates the important social status of the father as factory owner and patriarch in the capitalist order. He is the one that possesses all the other characters (as father he owns his son Gerhard, while financially he owns the workers). Precedence in the List of Characters is therefore determined by the ideological status of a character. The sequence of parent and child is changed around lower down the list with the unemployed father, Koot, and working-class daughter, Dorie. The father’s name here appears after that of the daughter as breadwinner. Ownership is turned upside down: Koot’s survival depends on the money his daughter earns: his statement “It is me – me as the parent – who hurts when my child is injured” (1947:22) indicates not only sentiment, but has a real material foundation. Stoffel Booysen’s name, last on the list (despite his important role in the play), appears without any indication of his role as representative of the trade union. As character he is the most nuanced figure in the drama and also the most convincing (critics like J.C. Kannemeyer and R. Antonissen objected specifically to the characterisation in the drama: Stoffel Booysen though can be considered an exception). The different dimensions of his character emerge in his portrayal as spokesman for the workers, but also as a figure who enriches himself through the struggle and in a moment of doubt expresses his scepticism regarding the struggle. Compare his reaction (“If we ever will get those things”) to Gerhard’s naive idealism:
The new world, Booysen – to see to it that there is food for everybody, clothing, homes and education for everybody. That is equality – equality for everybody. Is it not correct as I say it. Booysen – is it not right? (1947:70).
A tragic dimension to the character emerges when the factory is nationalised and the workers lose their negotiating powers.
The separation of the classes is manifested especially in the forms of address that is one of the central motifs of the play. In many scenes Gerhard comments on this ritual of the class society:
Now the war has ended and we are free and equal. We call each other by the first names. I am Gerhard and you are Ria 2 (1947:5).
When Gerhard meets the foreman for the first time, he asks:
Tell me, friend – eh – what is your first name, friend?’ (1947:8).
The question upsets Diederiks and he responds with timidity:
My first name, rnister? Balthasar – Balthasar Diederiks (1947:8)
Where Gerhard addressed him with the jovial “friend”, he answers with the ideologically loaded “mister” (in this context referring to distance and respect for a superior class). Later Diederiks find a compromise form of address for Gerhard: calling him “Mister Gerhard”, which combines respect and the first name, while Gerhard teasingly refers to the conservative Diederiks as “Comrade Balthasar” (1947:4 1). Mr. Van de Leur’s power over Diederiks is expressed in the fact that he addresses him by his surname while he does not know the names of the two hundred women workers whom all look the same to him in their uniforms (1947:4).
The most apparent separation of the classes manifests itself in the fact that marriage between them is taboo; even when the bourgeois son is willing and the working class woman a diligent worker. Mr. Van de Leur, addressing his son on the issue of marriage, states that he should be able to marry well with their money and position (1947:33).
The perspective of one class on the other is ideologically determined and relative. The relativity of vision is illustrated by the way in which the author organises his material to overlap with that of particular characters. When Gerhard points out to his father that they are looking at the workers through different “spectacles”, his father answers with the following words which actually summarise the play in such a way that the vision of the father and the playwright complement each other:
You will have to hit your head against reality, and hit it till those spectacles break (1947:28).
These words are confirmed when Gerhard’s idealistic view of the workers is destroyed time and again by “reality”. The first disillusionment occurs when the foreman, Diederiks, calls in the police to suppress a strike. Gerhard digests this disillusionment with a piece of “ego talk” (Vygotsky, see Morson 1986:29) in which he explains the situation to himself.
Yes, yes might be – the period of transition – from war to peace suppose it is difficult. Maybe I am too impatient. But police against striking workers – that cannot be right (1947:9).
His second disillusionment is in the first act in the scene with the injured Dorie, her father and Stoffel Booysen. Disillusioning for him in this scene is the importance of money in their lives (in contrast to his idealism):
But, old man, first get your daughter home. First make her comfortable. You can talk later about the money (1947:23).
Later, though, he notes that their obsession with money is a product of their living circumstances:
And then their poverty. A five pound note is a dream. For father it is something to play with. to show off in front of them and to tease them with (1947:28).
A further disillusionment is when he discovers that Stoffel Booysen is enriching himself through Dorie’s injury. His reaction is vehement..
…But even if I was a private under you, I would tell you in your face that your behaviour is detestable. It is detestable, disgusting’, such treachery… such meanness, such betrayal, such… I cannot find words for it (1947: 26-27).
The next disillusionment does not come from the workers, but from Gerhard’s father. Stoffel Booysen brings Gerhard to the realisation that his father bribed the inspector. Gerhard challenges his father to answer the accusation. His father, not used to being accountable to his inferiors, refuses and the bonds between father and son are broken temporarily:
I do not have to answer them, and I do not have to answer you. You said You are going with them. All right, do that. I will not stop you. The bonds between you and me, you have destroyed yourself., now you can go your way and I Mine (1947: 62).
The final disillusionment happens when it becomes clear to Gerhard that the workers refuse to accept him. This happens in the last act after Booysen has physically attacked him in a state of rage:
I cannot understand these people. See in you an enemy, despite all your attempts to be their friend. Even the Coetzees – Dorie included, for whom I went to some trouble when she was injured (1947:82).
Later he admits that the workers are spiteful and distrust him. He then asks dejectedly:
But why? Why all the distrust? Why are they looking for an ugly ulterior motive in everything one does or says (1947: 82-83).
The effect of this ultimate illusion is undermined by the aesthetically weak, but otherwise significant, ending. In Gerhard’s most dejected moment (“Nowhere, and with nobody can I find solace. Every door I knock on, is closed in my face” ) Ria comes to his rescue and adopts him:
I can see you need someone to keep you in order, and it seems to me nobody else wants to do it (1947:85).
The last scene between Gerhard, Ria and Mr. Van de Leur is central in explaining Gerhard’s irrational behaviour (the fact that he identifies with the interests of another class). This scene represents the “wound” (Hillman 1979:54) of the text: the opening to the unconscious of the text that enables analysis and knowledge (that is not only description and interpretation) (Macherey 1980). It is the point in the text where the reader can extricate him/herself from the tautological trap of description.
The textual wound, or the weak place in the text (“the dramatist [achieves] an all too easy solution for the sub-motif when Ria decides to marry Gerhard to assist him in his weakness” Kannemeyer 1978:210) makes it possible to explore Gerhard’s irrational behaviour using psychoanalysis. His “illness of ideality” (Chasseguet-Smirgel 1976), his idealism, has as foundation the desire for the lost mother, a desire displaced onto Ria, the workers and the ideal of a classless society. Compare in this connection the word “mother instinct” (“moedergevoel”) that Mr. Van de Leur uses in the following passage:
With that thought you would not have found a woman, Gerhard – not a real woman, not one with the motherly instincts that each real woman has (1947:85).
Throughout the drama, Gerhard’s mother, who never appears on stage, is referred to in terms of his loneliness and alienation. The “stifling atmosphere” in which he grew up, because his mother and father could not relate, is described:
It was not a marriage based on love. Father wanted a pretty doll,’ and mother a wealthy man. Why they did not separate – well, that is their business. but a mother and father who do not get on are an, oppressive atmosphere for a child – a crushing, stifling atmosphere (1947:30).
The following significant remark explains his contradictory attitude to poverty (on the one hand he idealises poverty, on the’ other hand he fights it):
It does not help to justify the things I went through in my life. If only we were poor, so that mother could have been in charge of the housekeeping, so that she herself would have looked after me instead of servants and governesses! (1947:31).
Ria is object of transference of both the mother and the servants: she is a worker, but, like the mother, tastefully dressed. She is a compromise resolution of his libidinal problematic reaching back into his infantile years. His mother does not react to the needs of his existence, therefore he feels she rejects him:
I was at home last night – for dinner, before I came to you. Mother did not come out of her room at all. She had one of her headaches – which she often gets, but never would have had if she was working for a living (1947:43).
Because of this rejection he experiences his whole existence in terms of being excluded and therefore he rebels against the class code according to which he must keep himself apart as bourgeois:
Oh, I see. I must keep apart. (With sincerity:) You know, Mr. Diederiks, I grew up apart. Our house was big enough for each to go his own way, and that is what we did. And when I could wander away from my governesses, it was to the poorest pans of the city that attracted me the most. And do you know why? Because I always saw, people there., people in crowds – adults, children always masses of them. They were thrown together in their small overcrowded houses; the houses were close to each other, the one person could not stay out of the way of the other, the one family could not avoid the other. Those people must be friends; they must laugh and cry together … (my italics 1947: 53-54).
The emphasised “must” in the quotation above, the “must” forced on the poor by the capitalist system, is in other places in the drama the “must” of authority, of being subject to the private decisions of the boss and inspector. In the above the “must”, the capitalist necessity, brings forth Gerhard’s ambivalence, he glorifies this “must”.
The collective cohabitation of the poor is in contrast to the “private” associated with the owner; the private against which Gerhard is rebelling: “I thought of the disappearance of the whole idea of private ownership” (1947: 52-53). Ironically his unconscious identification with his father is betrayed when he falls in love with his father’s “private secretary”: possibly in the capitalist society the nearest substitute for the wife of the father.
Because of his experience of rejection by his mother (loss of the mother and the pre-oedipal unity) his whole existence is aimed at fighting “artificial divisions”: he seeks (like the nationalist N.P. van Wyk Louw in Berigte te Velde) the organic unity of a society of difference. His experience of the communist idea is based on a mystical oceanic feeling. He is actually a nationalist who emphasises the organic unity of the society despite the apparent material differences:
You want equality, and I want it. I desired it since I was a child. I did not understand things then as I do now. I just felt that I was looking for something, but now I know what I always missed and sought (is carried away by his topic and urge to confess). I was a lonely child, and I wanted friends, I wanted to be friends with everybody. But because of the divisions, the artificial divisions presented by society, I could not do it (1947: 69-70).
Time and again Gerhard’s idealism degenerates into egocentric and existential outpourings, to which nobody wants to listen, about his “loneliness~’ as child. He is essentially looking for a therapist and therapy. The fact that nobody wants to listen increases his oedipally determined loneliness:
Hm! Does not listen any more. I am a fool casting pearls before everybodv’s feet (1947:71).
And to Diederiks:
Now, that is an honest admission: you are not listening, you are only hearing. But you do not have to listen. (Despite the smile, his body and voice indicate disappointment and dejection). I feel sometimes as if I am only talking to get rid of the thoughts. And I just started – I do not know how it happened (1947:55).
Gerhard’s oedipal alienation makes him intensely aware of an existential lack in his life, and makes him a seeker trying to heal the wound left by the loss of his mother (“I desired it since I was a child. I did not understand things then, I just felt that I was looking for something” 1947:69). In the working class and in the image of Ria (a Lacanian illusion) he saw wholeness:
Why did your image float before my eyes for three years – in the trenches, during the battles? Can I explain it? Is it necessary to explain it? (1947:43).
In the concluding scene all the oedipal lines come together in the depiction of Ria as a woman with “motherly instincts” (“moedergevoel”) and therefore “a real woman” (1947:8 5).
Gerhard’s desire is fulfilled on two levels in the last act: through the nationalisation of the factory in which he sees a recovery of the organic unity of society, and through his libidinal desire for a substitute mother He is completely satisfied. But it brings to light the absolute irreconcilability between him and the working class, a difference that can never be bridged. The melodramatic and the tragic as two diverse currents in the play emerge. To tragedy belongs Stoffel Booysen, the Dionysian figure, with whom the female workers, as Bacchantic choir, identify. As tragic figure he moves from his initial hubris to his downfall with the nationalisation of the factory:
DIEDERIKS: Speak, Stoffel it is your last speech. Official of the Union, hi! Played Mr. Big. And now? Official of nothing. A dead thing (1947:78).
With Stoffel Booysen the workers go under. The choir becomes one with the body of their hero. It becomes clear when Gerhard calls out in his joy about the nationalisation to a crowd who cannot understand his excitement (“Ladies! Ladies! You won. The factory is now state property – your property. Say hip, hip hooray! Come now: Hip hip hooray! Hip, hip…nobody joins in)” (1947:79)). Booysen then points out his sophistry:
Shut your mouth! Such a hypocrite! Such a fraud! Who is the state? Who is the government? Who is the Minister, the inspector, the inspectors, the manager? Is it us? It’s you – you – just your rule under a new name – you aristocrats, exploiters. thieves! (1947:79).
Throughout the play the workers are the carnivalesque, orgiastic tragic undercurrent for whom the material – “the five pound and the immediate physical existence are central. The carnavalesque (Bakhtin) and the tragic (Nietzsche) (identical concepts?) overlap in the scene of the meeting (1947: 72-75). Booysen with his hubris creates here a stage for his own fall (when Dorie and Koot take the stage and unmask him).
The tragic current within the melodramatic context of the drama as a whole brings the question again to the fore: why are the names of Stoffel Booysen and the workers last on the list of characters? Can one not read the ideological proximity of the or and the bourgeois hero into that? Is the author not here again the hero of his own play, while the “true” drama happens
somewhere below the surface of the text in the lesser characters the unconscious of Gerhard? The truth seems to be something unconscious, and maybe it is therefore important that workers, as social unconscious, come at the bottom of the list.
In contrast Van de Leur takes the decisions that regulate lives of the other. He is therefore the social conscious: He is ordering factor in society; therefore it is natural that his name should be at the top of the list.