Sunday, November 25, 2007
A review of Going Home by Doris Lessing
It is fifty years since Doris Lessing published Going Home, an account of her return to Rhodesia, the country where she grew up. By then in her thirties, she had already achieved the status of restricted person because of her political allegiances and her declared opposition to illiberal white rule. These days Zimbabwe makes the news because of internal strife and oppression. It is worth remembering, however, that fifty years ago the very structures of Southern Rhodesian society were built upon oppression, an oppression based purely on race.
Fifty years on Doris Lessing’s Going Home an historical record of this noxious system, a record that is more effective, indeed more powerful because of its reflective and observational, rather than analytical style. Doris Lessing, a one-time card-carrying Communist, laid a large slice of the blame for the perpetuation of discrimination firmly at the door of the white working class. Though not all white workers were rich – indeed she records that many were abjectly poor – what they had and sought to preserve was an elevated status relative to the black population. She describes white artisans as white first and artisans second. Though trade unions actively sought equal pay for equal work, they never campaigned for any kind of parity for black workers. On the contrary, they demanded the maintenance of racially differentiated pay rates. How’s that for the spirit of socialist internationalism and brotherhood! (I accept there is a misplaced word there…). In fact Doris Lessing records that it was the relatively liberal capitalist enterprises that demanded more black labour, their motive of course arising from cost savings, not philanthropy. So trade unions spent much of their time making sure that companies hired their quota of higher paid, white labour.
Even in the 1950s, she remarks on the likelihood that many Africans were already better educated than their white counterparts. White youth shunned education as unnecessary, while Africans saw it as a possible salvation. She notes that the people who treated the African population the worst were recent immigrants from Europe, particularly those from Britain, who tended to be less educated themselves and drawn from the ranks of the politically reactionary. Such people, apparently, were equally critical of immigrants from southern Europe, and expected Spaniards and Greeks to work for African wages, not the white wages that they themselves demanded.
The situation in Rhodesia, clearly, had to change. Not only was such crass discrimination unsustainable, it was also comic, as are all racially posited class systems. While the South Africans over the border created honorary whites of the Japanese they increasingly had to do business with, the Rhodesians went through their own equally idiotic contortions. An example of such nonsense is quoted by Doris Lessing when she remarks that there was a privileged group of Africans who were granted the right not to carry passes with them at all times, as long as they carried a pass to record their exemption.
But it is also worth remembering that Doris Lessing, herself, was a banned person, unable to travel to certain places and very much under the watchful eyes of the authorities. In Going Home she observes a society that had to collapse under the weight of its unsustainable contradictions. The fact that this took more than twenty years after the book was written was nothing less than a crime, and probably contributed to the subsequent and equally lamentable reaction.
Doris Lessing records seeing a British film towards the end of her travels. She describes it as a “cosy little drama of provincial snobberies and homespun moralities played out in front of African farmers in their big cars”. Fifty years on, Britain is probably cosy and provincial, and the snobberies are still rife. But now it is not Rhodesia where these reactionaries look down on people of other races overpay and under-educated themselves. It is not in Africa where corporations would dearly love to employ cheaper labour, imported if need be. Rhodesia’s white privilege of the 1950s was obviously absurd. But there are some parallels with economic and class relations in the Britain of today and, like all good books, Doris Lessing’s Going Home may even add prescience to its qualities.