Almost exactly 40 years ago, Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was coaxed out of the Philippine jungle, the last Japanese-born soldier still fighting World War 2.
He had not been alone. Many Japanese soldiers had fought on after 1945, either refusing to believe that Japan had surrendered or simply never getting the news.
Over the years Onoda’s war had shrunk in scale: his last remaining comrade was shot by police when the old soldiers raided local farmers in 1972. By 1974, Onoda’s weapons would have been a mouldering rifle and a rusting samurai sword, and his enemies trespassing goat-herds and lost tourists.
He returned to an unrecognisable world. The year Onoda enlisted, Japan’s warplanes had taken two hours to travel the 350km from their carriers to Pearl Harbour. The month before he walked out of the jungle, the crew of Skylab 4 returned to Earth after spending 84 days in space. When he joined the Imperial Japanese Army it had been the high noon of global aggression and quasi-historical claims on other countries’ territory. Now, the global war was a cold one and colonialism was not only openly condemned by the formerly colonised (when had Indians and Africans been given a voice?) but also officially regretted by the colonisers.
Onoda was deeply unhappy. He grieved over what he perceived as the decay of a society that had been great in his youth. It upset him so much that he emigrated to Brazil for a time, farming cattle in a Japanese community until he apparently adjusted to modernity and ultimately returned to Japan.
I thought of Second Lieutenant Onoda last week as I read of another alleged racist attack at the University of the Free State and as I looked at pictures of students in Potchefstroom performing Nazi salutes as part of a fun exercise in militaristic conformism. I thought of him as I read the endless, despairing racism that has killed online debate. I thought of him again and again as I saw educated, relatively wealthy white people react with anger and fear, over and over again, and heard him despairing over his beloved fascist motherland brought low as a messy modern democracy.
I sometimes wonder if racism should be classified as a communicable disease, passed down from parent to child. But when I think of Onoda I wonder if white racism is not so much a disease as a terrible allergic reaction to modernity.
I am not a historian and I might be entirely wrong but I can’t help wondering if many white South Africans never got the post-colonial memo; that, instead of being awoken out of the comfortable blancocentric slumbers of the 1930s by World War 2, we hit snooze in 1948 and went back to sleep until 1994.
Perhaps this is where the anger comes from. I imagine that if I woke up (or came out of the jungle) to find my ancestral and spiritual home unrecognisably different, my overwhelming response would be grief. Is it possible that many white South Africans feel they have lost their Heimat and, if so, that their anger is born of grief?
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross might agree. Her famous model for the five stages of grief is disputed, but I do find it interesting that her first two phases are denial and anger. Was the “Rainbow Miracle” and Madiba-love a kind of denial, an irrational belief that a dreamed-of country, with all its 1930s social strata intact and unchallenged, might still be within reach? Is that why even some whites who consider themselves non-racist feel no shame in employing black women to tidy even small flats – because servants are part of the natural pre-War order?
Is the anger I see all around me the result of the denial slipping away? Are many whites now feeling what Onoda felt; that society had gone to hell simply because it was no longer how things had been in the 1930s?
I don’t know if the Kübler-Ross model is applicable to us or even worth examining in the context of white anger. But if there is merit in both, it might be worth noting that the next stage of grief is bargaining. Can we still be friends? If you take the mines will you at least leave me my farm? After this comes depression, and then, at last, acceptance. I like to imagine that acceptance is not a grudging surrender but rather a new beginning, a rebirth into modernity. But for now, it seems, we have a long way to go.
First published in The Times and TimesLive