Animal Farm, the feted novel by George Orwell (the nom-de-plume of Eric Arthur Blair) has been studied by generations of learners. Written by a struggling left-wing journalist, it employs the allegory of a farm to tell a tightly-woven tale of how social revolution can turn on itself.
First published in the late 1940’s, I rate Animal Farm – seen by critics as a commentary on the Russian revolution – as one of the finest political satires of the 20th century.
Briefly, it deals with a farm owned by a human, Mr Jones He is a man whose neglectful and drunken ways have caused the animals to mount an uprising. They take over the running of the farm in a frenzy of social idealism imbued with the noble notions of liberty, equality and comradeship.
But it’s not too long before the personalities of the animals begin to emerge. Molly, the conceited white mare, begins to feel that life was better under the previous regime, the humans, as she gets no more titbits.
Meanwhile, the pigs – particularly the two male boars – begin to assert control. They police their growing fiefdom with the dogs (their security forces) and bit-by-bit, the idealism of the revolution is eroded as the sheep unquestioningly follow their master of the day.
The pigs, secular beings with no higher ideals to guide them, become more equal than other animals. Different values begin to apply to them, and their dictatorial and unaccountable ways, seen in their appropriation of privilege for pigs only, is soon painfully noted by the farmyard.
The book ends with a poignant scene: the animals press their noses to the window of the farmhouse as the pigs, slowly taking on human shape, noisily carouse in Mr Jones’ living-room. They are totally oblivious of their fellow farmyard dwellers, and the wheel has turned full circle.
Apart from being an obvious allusion to those gluttonous sycophants currently populating our South African political spaces today, Animal Farm has, I believe, another message.
This is something that I thought about deeply, especially after interviewing Rebecca Shaeffer of Human Rights Watch yesterday on DRIVETIME about a shocking study that revealed immigrants to South Africa were being denied basic medical services.
What was so appalling about the HRW report “No healing here: Violence, Discrimination and Barriers to Health for Migrants in South Africa” was that xenophobia was being not only being practised against migrants by ordinary South Africans, but by health workers in our clinics and hospitals.
“Migrants to South Africa are abused in transit, attacked upon arrival, and then denied care when they are injured or ill,” said Shaeffer, fellow in the health and human rights division of HRW.
“The South African government should be ensuring that these people get the care they need, and are entitled to, under the country’s constitution.”
According to Shaeffer, the Department of Health affirmed these rights; but they weren’t being applied at grassroots where health workers would discriminate against patients on the basis of their nationality or lack of documentation.
Given that migrants, the most vulnerable in our society – and the most prone to illness and injury because of it – were being affected was scandalous she admitted to me, adding that discrimination against foreigners was “institutionalised” in our health care system.
She agreed that our health care system was under severe strain, but that discriminating against foreigners was not the best way to balance budgets.
Apart from that, she said, nobody really knew how many foreigners there were in South Africa. In addition to some kind of census, there needed to be responsible research to establish what their pressing needs were.
But where would attitudes of such despicable racism derive from? Have we South Africans, blighted by three centuries of colonialism and four decades of apartheid, taken on the mantle of the monster we grew to despise?
That was my first question, too easily I must admit, answered by the allegory of the pigs in the living room. For when the big boars begin to play, the rank and file in the farmyard will begin to believe that they can follow suit.
And this is what I think has happened.
Ordinary South Africans, their noses pressed to the living room window of the black elite and the white bourgeois, have taken note. The osmosis of uncaring has filtered down to the ground. We have become Animal Farm’s living room, the locus of Mr Jones’ anaesthetising himself against reality.
Copyright Shafiq Morton
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