The Weekly Dissident: Peter Horn on education, the arts and neo-apartheid

In this edition of the Weekly Dissident, MPHUTLANE WA BOFELO speaks with Peter Horn about his views on education, politics and the literary, visual and performed arts literature; and his assessment of post-apartheid\neo-apartheid South Africa.

Peter Horn 1

South African poet Peter Rudolf Gisela Horn made his mark with his anti-Apartheid poetry. Born on 7 December 1934 in Teplice, in what is now the Czech Republic, Horn fled from his home at the end of World War II and settled with his parents first in Bavaria and later in Freiburg, where he completed his schooling. He later immigrated with his parents to South Africa.

Lionel Abrahams commented that the poetry of Peter Horn is “overwhelmingly the record of his responses to aspects of the South African system, which he scrutinises not in a nakedly personal way but, rather in the manner of his master Brecht, through the equipment of a revolutionary critique”.

Talking about the harmony between the conscientious thematic concerns and magnificent aesthetic and stylistic attributes of Peter Horn’s poetry, Dirk Klopper wrote:

“The ten poems that comprise The Plumstead Elegies constitute a sustained meditation on the nature and function of poetry in a society riven by violence, injustice and exploitation.”

MwB: You did your primary education in the Czech Republic and Germany in the 50’s and your higher education in apartheid- South Africa.  Can you share your views on the philosophy and practices that underpinned the curriculum, pedagogy, learning environment and social relations at these different education institutions and how they have shaped your outlook on life; your approach to education and your writing and\or approach to literature?

PH: Of my primary education I remember little, but it must have been good, because the entrance exam to the high-school at the age of 10 was quite tough. My education was interrupted by the end of war, as we were refugees from Czechoslovakia in May 1945. The education at the gymnasium in Donauwörth was rigorous – Latin and ancient Greek – but I particularly remember my mathematics teacher: he did not “instruct” us, but posed problems which we had to solve ourselves. In this way he forced us to think for ourselves. He also insisted on exact language, which later helped me with philosophy and science and in my university studies in general. Every day between the ages of ten and fifteen I walked one hour to the train to Donauwörth from the little village where I lived and back, and in the vacations I had to work in the fields, harvesting wheat and potatoes and herding cattle.

The key to my school education was the emphasis of thinking for yourself rather than rote learning. To a certain extent, as a refugee, I was, however, an outsider both in Bavaria and in Freiburg.

Coming to the University of the Witwatersrand after that was quite strange. The curriculum there was much more structured than at a German university. I found British philosophy rather dry in comparison to continental philosophy, and the kind of psychology offered – behaviourism – somewhat boring. And of course the German course was easy after a German gymnasium. The head of the department introduced me to a lot of 20th century exile literature, because he himself was an exiled Jew. He knew Thomas Mann, had corresponded with him. He knew about Brecht. Most of the German writers had some kind of contact with other European literature, so there was always this openness to European literature. English was a bit of a challenge, as I had not had English at school and had learned English just before starting university in South Africa. But I majored in English nevertheless.

When I went to university (late fifties), this was a nearly purely white university. I met three (THREE!) black students and a couple of Chinese students during my entire years at Wits. We were, however, interested in the world from which we were cut off by various apartheid legislations, in the arts and music of the ghetto, and once I went to the treason trial to listen to Mandela. We took part in various protests.

But it was only in my years at the University of Zululand, that I really began to understand what it meant to be black and poor in a rural environment. It was there that I first came into conflict with the authorities (there was a massive documentation on me by the Special Branch) because of my views and my poetry. That was also the time I started to write about all aspects of life in South Africa, as I perceived it.

Peter Horn 3MwB: You have worked for some time as a packer, builder, lab assistant, photographer, insurance agent, and a teacher before teaching at various universities in South Africa.  Can you share your observations and reflections on the points of convergence and divergence between these varying worlds of work and\or your experiences in these varying worlds of work?

PH: Working in various environments has taught me a lot about the reality in which most people live. From the age of 10 working to contribute to the living of the family and to support myself was something which I did not question. After matric for one year I had to earn the money for the fare to South Africa (my father lost his job in Freiburg, as the factory he was working in, closed down, but he was offered a job in Johannesburg) and then for one year in South Africa enough money to support myself as a student. I eventually got a loan from the Department of Education on the understanding that I would teach at a school for at least three years.

I think what I have been forced to do by sheer necessity made me more open to all kinds of people whom I would otherwise not have met (including for example a sangoma from Soweto, who was my customer at the insurance company). I hope I never adopted a narrow academic view of the world disregarding people in other stations on life. I also learned that one cannot and should not always rely on others to provide one with a living: go out and do it yourself. I worked during my studies (studied in the morning and at night, and worked in the afternoon).

MwB: What do you see your role as a poet, writer and educator to be and what’s your general view on what literature is and what education is?

PH: As a poet and writer I see myself writing – mainly about South Africa – as I see it. When I am said to have written political poetry, then this is so because living with open eyes and ears the poet in South Africa was and is living in a political environment, in an environment of struggle. Not to write about this would be wilfully closing ones ears and eyes to the reality which surrounds me. I started to write in English in 1965 when I was at the University of South Africa, and met Walter Saunders, Michael McNamara and Walter Battiss. We were then the core group out of which Ophir grew a year or so later. Literature is an essential medium to understanding oneself and others, to understand one’s own psychology and ones society in all its complexity.

As an educator, like the teachers and lecturers from whom I have learned so much, I want my students to develop the ability to think for themselves, to understand complex facts, not to evade into easy sloganeering or into repeating the ideas of authorities, to acquire as wide and varied a view of the world as possible. I think education is to allow everybody to become the person he\she can be, given his gifts and his\her shortcomings, to be open to others and his\her surroundings.

MwB: You seem to be saying the political undertones of your poetry is\was a reflection of the permeation of politics in various aspects of the life in South Africa; therefore suggesting the arts reflect the features of society. What is your opinion on the state of the literary, visual and performed arts  in South Africa today and on the nature of the South African society? What are the commonalities and dissimilarities between the pre-1994 South Africa and the post-1994 and how does your writing and the works of others respond to whatever continuities that are there  between apartheid South Africa and post-apartheid South Africa (or what others, myself included, prefer to refer to as neo-apartheid capitalist South Africa)?

PH: On the one hand many writers seem to think that after 1994 everything reverts to normal. That means to overlook that while we may have a democratically elected government, we do not have a just society. On the other hand it is not very helpful to mouth slogans without thinking. In the end a society is a very complex thing and our thinking must be just as complex and refined to do justice to the task. The belief that change is simple is pernicious and leads us into all kinds of unconsidered and unintended consequence. If we do not want to make things worse than they are, we need to think harder.

It would be dreaming if we thought that all the elements of the old apartheid society have disappeared or that the new political class is perfect. On the one hand many whites continue to live as if nothing has changed; on the other hand many comrades are still in a struggle mode, not realising that burning libraries is perhaps not the solution, when they can bring about change from inside the ruling party or at the voting booth. But that means to find solutions that are better than the ones currently accepted.

Peter Horn 2MwB: If you were to write a charter for a more humane, just and egalitarian society, what would it say?

PH: I would never be arrogant enough to write such a charter. The writer has to be searching, describing, analysing; not prescribing. It is the people who must decide how they want to live, and as a writer I can only make suggestions.

MwB: What do you think should be the path to a more humane and just society and what instruments, weapons and mediums do you use in playing your part towards this society; why did you choose them?

PH: Obviously, the writer writes, in his writing he shows and perhaps analyses the shortcomings of the present. What hinders us to live a full life? What happens if we change some of the things which we sense are hindering us, keeping us down? Are we creating a better society or do we make things worse? The writer has no other weapon than his pen and his mind, and he has questions rather than answers. The medium may be theatre, poetry, novel, story etc. I am not very good at anything else, so I try to change society by writing.

Mphutlane wa Bofelo is a South African poet and essayist; cultural worker and social critic who is influenced and inspired by Black Consciousness, Sufism, radical humanism and socialist humanism. He holds regular conversations with the nation’s anarchists, rebels and dissidents.

– Images supplied. This interview has been edited for brevity.