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OU Lecture 2008: The early years

Updated Thursday, 29th May 2008

In the first segment of his lecture, Professor Raphael Kaplinsky explains how growing up in South Africa helped shape the way he sees the world.

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Professor Raphael Kaplinsky talks about his childhood, involvement in politics and subsequent unhappy departure from a turbulent South Africa. And then, with the start of the revolution in microelectronics, he begins to look at the possibilities that these new technologies would open up for developing countries.




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I understand the inaugural process to be partly around a development of ideas. How did I get to where I am? And I want to start off before I speak about China and Africa, although it’s relevant, just telling you a bit about my family. My mother’s family I think came from Lithuania or perhaps it was Latvia, or perhaps it was Germany. We don’t really know. And they came to South Africa in the 1870s we think, but we don’t really know, during the Gold Rush, and lived up in what is now the Johannesburg area.

My father came from this town which started off when he was young being in Poland; it’s called Slonim. In the First World War it was overrun, it became Germany, and then it was overrun again, it became Russia. After the First World War it became Poland again, after the Second World War it was the Soviet Union and it’s now Belarus. And I was brought up in South Africa. [LAUGHTER] There you go!

A week before this picture was taken I fell off a swing, and I was always categorised as having lots of freckles and indeed I had lots of freckles but as you can see, on only one side of my face. The others were deposited on a gravel pit beneath the swing I fell off. [LAUGHTER] And you probably can’t see that. That’s the motto of the badge of my school, which was CPS. They told us CPS stood for Claremont Public School but we knew that CPS stood for cat’s pee soup! [LAUGHTER]

Now, it’s quite difficult coming to England as a foreigner and to be told what a public school is. Because for most of us the public school means a place which was open to everybody. Claremont Public School was a genuine public school in the sense that it was non-fee paying and it had people from what might be called the working class. It was public – well actually it wasn’t really public. Because the class of people it drew its clientele from was, of course, a white community. And it was a white community of great privilege, and this school which I went to in South Africa and where I started my early years, where my interest in China begins, not quite – but anyway – was an extraordinary place. I remember once a cry going up round the school, this must have been in the mid 1950s, that Gêke wasn’t really white. That Gêke, the child in the school, was basically a coloured and suddenly this frenzy overtook the school, and Gêke was literally chased out the school by a group of white kids, who broke the boundaries themselves and chased Gêke, not just out the school, but into the river, the sewers which ran beneath our playing fields, and nothing more was seen of Gêke.

So my early years at school were years of some disturbance. Living in the world of the 1950s and early 60s which saw the institutionalisation of a barbaric system of repression. There were an extraordinary framework of laws determining who was acceptable and white and who was not. For example, the technical definition of a non-white was somebody whom, if you put a pencil in their hair, the pencil wouldn’t fall out. And that therefore determined him or her as being coloured because their hair was very curly and therefore they weren’t white.

It was a period of growing force-removals, of black people being pushed out of cities into rural areas without water, without any means of subsistence, where very rapidly one in two children came to die of malnutrition. It was a political system of growing authoritarianist and repression and, of course, as a child in South Africa it was – well I was going to say it was impossible to escape what was happening around you, but many white South Africans were able to escape it. I wasn’t able, and nor was my family. I remember graphically a process of burning books; two occasions in which we burned books, on the lawn, which were banned. We didn’t have any pornography in the house so we didn’t have to burn ‘Black Beauty’. ‘Black Beauty’ being banned in South Africa because it was inconceivable that any black person could be beautiful, and they failed to realise of course it was about a horse! [LAUGHTER]

But towards the end of the 1950s, masses began to rise. It became very uncomfortable. In my childhood 30,000 black Capetonians marched 15 miles along the highway to the city of Cape Town to demand the abolition of the pass laws. Soon afterwards we had Sharpeville, when 67 people were shot with their backs turned, demonstrating against the pass laws. And not long after at Rivonia, Nelson Mandela and a large number of very brave South Africans were arrested and tried for treason.

My family was tangentially involved in this. My uncle was one of the last three labour politicians in South Africa and, in fact, if you read Nelson Mandela’s biography, autobiography, he refers to the assistance given to him by my uncle and my aunt. When he was on the run, he masqueraded as being a chauffeur and his disguise was to drive my uncle round for a short period of time

So I had the sense of politics in my family and then, in 1965, my brother, Simon, who is here, phoned up one day and said, "Look! I’ve got to get out quick." And we literally jumped into a car, we drove a thousand miles and he got on a plane and left the country, and two days later the police came to arrest him, not knowing that he wasn’t in the country, and he wasn’t there, luckily, but the people he was working with were arrested, put in solitary confinement and tortured.

I too was on a political path and became involved – and I won’t go into the details of it – in a series of political events and found myself some years later, in mid 1969, faced with the decision of going to jail or leaving. And in the space of 24 hours I packed my bags and left on a boat, leaving Cape Town, you will have seen the fabled picture of Table Mountain with the white clouds on top, crying, because I thought that I would never be able to return to South Africa. And I was sure that the forces of oppression in South Africa were so substantial that this would be the last time I’d see my home city.

In my book I refer to this example in rather grand and deliberately pompous terms as realising that the forces of oppression and class subordination could never be overcome, and the decision to go had been a difficult one. A good friend of mine with whom I was involved politically had, we’d discussed this, he’d done his PhD in France and I was about to be arrested and said, well there’s no point in spending your life in jail. This is a human challenge, it doesn’t matter if it’s not South Africa, it might be somewhere else. And he thought it did matter and he stayed behind in South Africa and then you will know Rick Turner. One day there was a knock on his door at half past 10 at night and he didn’t trust the knock on his door, so he looked down at the door from above the window and he was shot dead in front of his two children.

So these were difficult times and I found myself dislocated, living in the UK, and for those of us who went through that period, it was an extraordinary period to be around. We’d just been through the student riots round the world. It was a period of great elation that their system was flawed and was the cause of all the world’s problems and in fact our task in life was in a very grand term, to overthrow the system. And I immersed myself in that culture right through the 1970s. I spent four years in Kenya and came out of it and was involved – and here I’m beginning to talk less personal stuff and more about the substance of today’s talk – in what became to be called the Dependency Debate. And the Dependency Debate was a debate which said that what happened in developing countries was essentially a consequence of what happened at the centre of the world economy. Developing countries were dependent on what happened at the centre. And in many respects we were right.

We were patronising in the sense that we failed to give Africa and other developing countries a sense, and recognise their sense, of agency and history, as if there were no internal political processes in Africa or Latin America, as if part of the problems of inequality emerging in Africa and Latin America were only due to this pernicious global system out there, as if there was no internal processes of domination and subordination.

Nevertheless, it was an interesting debate and I found myself in a world where the bottle was quite clearly half empty. The task was a negative one, a task of opposition. I went to Kenya, I came back in the 1980s and you know what? I just got fed up of being against and I began to ask the question, if the glass, if the bottle isn’t half empty, perhaps it’s half full. Is there a way we can make something for the world, make something a better place without necessarily engaging all of our time in overthrowing the system? And I was very much influenced, as some people in this room might have been, by a famous film in 1979 called ‘Now the Chips are Down’. It was before any of us knew about microelectronics and was a film which told the most extraordinary things about this coming revolution in electronics and what it would do to our lives. And of course they got it wrong. They vastly underestimated the impact of the ICT revolution on the way in which we live our lives but nevertheless it was a very shaking experience, and I immersed myself in the sense of moving from appropriate technology, where I first met Dave Weald, who is in the room, to looking at the most advanced technology and what possibilities did this open up for developing countries?


With thanks to:

  • Slonim Museum
  • BBC
  • Catherine Jamieson
  • South Photos Agency
  • University of Cape Town
  • Pathé / ITN Source

Next: Segment 2

The Open University Lecture 2008





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