Johan Fourie's blog

I'd rather be a comma than a fullstop

A black and white Christmas reading list

with 3 comments

BlackCountI’ve been a Alexandre Dumas fan ever since I first read The Three Musketeers, and it is still my favourite novel. It’s true that it doesn’t match the standards of today’s fiction: there’s absolutely no character development and most of it is just a little too good to be true. But it’s a fantastic tale of camaraderie, bravery and passion that has taught generations of boys that drinking before fighting is a good idea and girls (Lady De Winter) are never to be trusted. In The Black Count, Tom Reiss finds the true inspiration for Alexandre’s novels – his father. Born to a French father (Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie) and slave mother in the Caribbean, Alex Dumas (the father of Alexandre Dumas the novelist) moved to France during his teenage years (1776) and spent the next few years frequenting the salons of Paris. He was an imposing figure, received the best education in the academies to become an excellent swordsman and horsemen, but could also spend and dress lavishly. Can one get any more French than that? Except, in a France that still had to abolish slavery, he stood out for another reason: he was black.

The Black Count tells the amazing story of Alex Dumas (the name he adopts after he enrols in the army, the surname belonging to his slave mother), the inspiration for many of the events in his son’s books. Alex Dumas rises quickly in the military, leads several successful battles (his muscularity, skill and braveness the stuff of legends), and becomes the head of the cavalry of Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Egypt. Alex Dumas’ imposing figure would cause Napoleon intense jealousy, and would ultimately result in the fall and death of Dumas. Think The Count of Monte Cristo (being jailed with no reason) without the Count ever escaping. While the story of Alex Dumas (the soldier and archetypal Republican Frenchman) disappeared from history books, his son managed to turn the stories he heard of his father into novels that’s been enjoyed through the ages. By piecing together these stories and new sources from what seems to be an extremely rich and unexplored archive, Tom Reiss has managed to write a biography of a man that inspires the same virtue as the characters in his son’s novels. The only difference is that this time we know it to be true.

PoorWhitePoor White by Edward-John Bottomley investigates the rise, fall and reemergence of the poor white phenomenon in South Africa. There are few more qualified writers for such a book – it was the topic of Edward-John’s Masters dissertation at Cambridge and his father published his PhD on early white poverty in 1990 – and the book bears testament to that: amidst the many poor white inquiries and congresses and policies (which can easily turn into a one-damn-fact-after-another history book), Bottomley keeps the narrative fast but eloquent, for this reader, even sometimes a bit too eloquent. Bottomley is often guilty of using one too many adjectives, which gives the book a poetic rather than prosaic feel. (The first chapter is especially guilty of this charge, but also elsewhere. Here’s page 20: “Let us talk of empire – of the age of British expansion into the wild countries beyond their island fortress, when red masses were seen marching in the hills of Natal and the backstreets of Delhi. When great ships too to the waves, bearing the message of civilisation to the corners of the world. Where they docked the air trembled of the sound of thousands of polished boots marching in a murderous quickstep.” Beautiful but excessive.)

The best parts of the book is when Bottomley gets down to the nitty-gritty of how government policy helped to eradicate white poverty: the building of the nationalist machine to “perform the greatest magic trick in history” (too much?). An economic historian may argue that too little emphasis is given to the rapid economic growth of the forty years between 1930 and 1970 (averaging about 5% per annum over the period), and its role in filling state coffers and increasing incomes. Bottomley’s argument is that white poverty never really disappeared; it was simply hidden from public view. I don’t agree entirely: The fact that the Apartheid government could “hide” the poorest of the white poor by the 1970s is evidence of the remarkable improvement in the living standards of a large part of the white population (given that nearly a third of whites were considered poor in the 1930s). The burden of this improvement in white incomes, of course, were carried by black South African workers, but understanding this rapid turnaround in white incomes remains an important challenge for economic historians.

Instead, Bottomley focuses on the human story, and the final chapter traces the  reemergence of white poverty in urban slums today. These are stories seldom told; here they are written with a sympathetic ear and they certainly abolish the notion that all whites are wealthy. But the fact that these stories are surprising, even shocking, should alert us to the fact that white poverty is still only a tiny fraction of overall South African poverty.

MakersJust as the earliest black and white printer revolutionised the home office, so too will 3D printers create a new industry: the home manufacturer. This is the argument by Chris Anderson, author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. 3D printers allow anyone with (free) software to design products on their desktop and print it immediately. Here’s an example: need a gift for your daughter? Why not let her build her dream house on Sims 3, and then print it with your 3D printer for her to play with the characters in real life? (Let’s take it one step further: why not get a 3D scanner as well, and then print the dolls to look like your daughter and her friends?) And it’s relatively inexpensive: you can now get a home 3D printer for about R20000.

Anderson argues that 3D printers (and related technologies) will reverse the trend of outsourcing production to lower income countries. Instead of mass production, mass customisation is now necessary to not only maintain low cost, but also to cater to the individual needs of consumers, which requires being close to the consumer. To cater to those needs, Anderson argues that the manufacturing industry is now beginning to adopt the tools of the web:

The world’s factories are opening up, offering Web-based manufacturing as an on-demand service to anyone with a digital design and credit card. They allow a whole new class of creators to go into production, turning their prototype into a product, without having to build their own factories or even have companies themselves. Manufacturing has now become just another “cloud service” that you can access from Web browsers, using a tiny amount of vast industrial infrastructure as and when you need it. Somebody else runs these factories; we just access them when we need them, much as we can access the huge server farms of Google or Apple to store our photos or process our e-mail.

While Anderson notes the important (beneficial) economic shifts this may entail for the US (bringing jobs back), he is (unsurprisingly) less interested in what the impact will be in countries that now benefit from outsourcing – or more specifically, countries that hope to benefit in the future. China and other Asian countries may benefit now, but several commentators have argued that because of cheap energy, low labour costs and improved infrastructure, Africa presents the next frontier in the low-cost production supply chain. Many see the growth of a strong manufacturing industry in African countries as the key to long-run development and job creation. But what if the Third World is simply replaced by 3D printers? Will Africa continue to produce the raw materials (printer plastic) for the machines of the West?

It may all seem a little far-fetched. Printing your own shoes? Really? But the technology is developing fast, to the extent that it is already possible to print anything from clothes to computer chip circuits. If Africa – and South Africa in particular – wants to take advantage of this revolution, it will require, firstly, that we plug ourselves even more quickly and deeply into the global network (i.e. fasten the roll-out of broadband access) and, secondly, that we cultivate a nation of innovators, designers, entrepreneurs, and not a country where the best our citizens can hope for is a job in a factory without a future.

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Written by Johan Fourie

December 27, 2012 at 09:07

3 Responses

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  1. […] who buys books to read them, anyway?) Sometimes I am lucky, like my recommendation last year for The Black Count, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Biography, a story about the father of Alexandre […]

  2. […] from policy discussions during the 1960s (even though, as Edward John Bottomley shows, it still persists). Even though the poor white problem was about a third as severe as black […]

  3. Definitely things I’ve learned from The Three Musketeers, “that has taught generations of boys that drinking before fighting is a good idea and girls (Lady De Winter) are never to be trusted”.

    The First Musketeer

    January 2, 2013 at 00:52


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