The perpetual dissenter

2009-11-18 00:00

SOUTH Africa has produced many absorbing autobiographies. This is one of them. It offers us the history not just of Alan Lipman’s full and varied life and of his main relationships, but also of the sociopolitical ideas and practices that he has been passionately involved with.

Born into a Johannesburg Jewish family in the late twenties, he argued with his father and gravitated towards the left. In World War 2 he served in the South African Air Force (in order to oppose fascism) and in 1948 he spent nine months, unhappily, in the Israeli air force. Meanwhile, he was studying architecture at Wits, and enjoying it. After working in Britain and travelling in Europe with his wife, he plunged back into the political cauldron that South Afri­ca was in the fifties. As a member of the Communist Party, he was listed and banned, but he found the party rigid and regimented, and resigned. He remained, however, a tireless worker for the left. In 1963, he and his wife left South Africa, and he started a new life as a member of the architectural department in the University of Wales. Here he worked for three decades, focusing on the sociological aspects of architecture. He became prominent in the movement for nuclear disarmament, and was also outspoken in his opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s policies on universities. In the early nineties, he and his wife returned to South Africa. They participated in the general euphoria of 1994, but, while recognising that some real progress has been made in the country, they now number themselves among left-wing, people-orientated dissenters. He has also been a journalist on architectural matters, and has received two South African honorary degrees. Lipman and his wife of 60 years are now in their eighties.

What is the common theme running through this vigorous life? As is suggested by the title On the Outside Looking In, Lipman sees himself as always an outsider to, and a critic of, the dominant group: the perpetual dissenter. But this is to define his commitments too negatively. Above all, his sympathies lie consistently with the poor, and the marginalised.

In the course of his story, Lipman introduces penetrating discussions of, among other things, the nature of democracy, the aims and the drastic shortcomings of Marxist Leninism, and some of the main issues and problems in contemporary architecture. In the latter context he includes devastating analyses of current South African developer-estate “architecture” and the dreadful township boxes that the authorities are still foisting upon poor people. Throughout the book he is hostile to all those who are power hungry, self-important, pompous or flashy. He is concerned to see things, as far as possible, from the standpoint of ordinary people.

The political position that he arrives at is a challenging one: he describes it variously as anarchism, anarcho-pacifism and libertarian socialism. The notion of anarchism is startling to most people, and clearly those who disbelieve in the value of almost any form of political control would have difficulty in getting themselves organised. But when one considers the major mistakes and deceptions perpetrated by most supposedly democratic governments (to say nothing of the far worse authoritarian regimes), one can sympathise with his position. In fact, he aligns himself with the fairly large number of people, spread all over the world, who respect Mahatma Gandhi and hope and work for a world social order which will see justice and community as priorities and will truly value all people, all sentient beings and the planet on which we live.

The book is written in a vivid, lively colloquial style, but there are a few minor editorial shortcomings — for example, one or two passages are repeated in modified form later in the book.


• On the Outside Looking In: Colliding with apartheid and other authorities, by Alan Lipman (Johannesburg: Architect Africa Publications, 2009).

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