Today in City Press, and Afrikaner journalist I respect very much, Adriaan Basson wrote a great piece. There’s much I agree with, why does Afriforum, the Afrikaner civil rights group not team up with Abahlali baseMjondolo for example? But this post is about the bits in it with which I disagree.
Much of Adriaan’s argument turns on one point. Afrikaners might be a numerical minority, but they are not minority in the sense that they are potential victims that need protecting or special treatment from the state. That is because they are well to do Adriaan argues. Lets for the moment forget about the fact that a significant number of Afrikaners live in poverty. Is Adriaan’s a good point?
No. Adriaan’s argument is too simplistic. It does not take into account the things that make most people truly happy in life. At its essence his is a right wing argument. One I am sure he does not intend.
One line of argument is easily dispatched for six. Adriaan quotes the UN in support, “In most instances, a minority group will be a numerical minority, but in others, a numerical majority may also find itself in a minority-like or non-dominant position, such as blacks under the apartheid regime in South Africa.”
But apartheid is no more. Although many progressives like John Pilger like to claim that apartheid is still alive, but Ferial Haffagee, Adriaan’s own editor, does a grand job of dismantling this argument herself: ‘Its only harvest is to keep us from the honest answers and the hardest analyses. It is sound-bite activism, good to raise a “Viva!”.
She continues to list many of the problems the country faces but says:
Awful, all of it. The reasons for this are more complex than a simple pretence that the change of power did not happen in 1994. ‘
That many Afrikaners are relatively wealthy vis-a-vis the majority of South Africans is true. In fact the new South African government (not intentionally, but by way of non government) has provided them with ample opportunity to become more wealthy. And many of them have.
But are we to judge the sense of happiness and well-being of a group of people in terms of the money they are making? A growing body of evidence suggest that what people want in life is not only money, but a sense of fulfillment, recognition and belonging. A sense of inclusion in a society, a sense that your skills are put to good use and valued and a sense of security (which I will deal with later). There comes a point in life where more wealth does not make people more happy. And happy societies are not societies where inequality is the norm.
Adriaan argues that events like the Klein Karoo Kunste Fees is a sign of the vitality of Afrikaans. But the reverse is true, the strength of Afrikaans festivals in the country is precisely because of its demotion in public life. It’s the privatisation of a previous public identity. In the words of sociologist and lead singer of the Brixton Moor en Roof Orkes, Andries Bezuidenhout, we are giving the language “a beautiful funeral”.
The impact of the loss of Afrikaans in the public sphere can not have but been and is no less than an experience of collective existential trauma for Afrikaners. One could argue that this process was unavoidable in a country with so many competing languages. One could argue that the ascendancy of English as the language of the public sphere is not only normal, it is desirable.
However one can not argue that it has not been at the cost of Afrikaner’s sense of being or belonging. Arguing that Afrikaans still plays a massive roll outside the public sphere is to discount the importance of identity to you and me. Identity must have a public component.
It also completely ignores the nature of Afrikaner identity in particular: Unfortunately the history of Afrikaans and Afrikanerdom is tied to the language, and its acceptance as a language in the public sphere is tied to Afrikaners sense of self, and self worth. Professor Melissa Steyn points out with respect to Afrikaners and their responsibility for apartheid:
…ironically, it would be a mistake to read the racial domination thus entrenched as emanating from a group that felt secure in their power. Afrikaners contended with the more powerful forces of the British empire throughout a history that was experienced as a long and bitter struggle for freedom from white-on-white overlordship. The self- esteem, indeed the very self-image, of Afrikaner nationhood was forged within a mythology that celebrated the courage of a people who refused to be subordinated to the British empire on more than one occasion in their history.
This is not an argument on my part for the recognition of Afrikaans alongside English. This is me pointing out that there is severe collective pain being felt that is not recognized by the South African community at large. Steyn analised letters to the editor at the Rapport newspaper, she concludes:
“Deep-seated anxieties about identity and loss of self are discemable in the letters. Unlike English South Africans, however, whose in-group has an international ideological center which gives the “we/us” a stable continuity, Afrikaners are contending with a profound existential crisis, grappling with the question “Who are we?”… The answer would have to reassure the deep fear that activates the soul searching: “Will we—our language, our religion, our identity—disappear?”"
In a fantastic article that I recommend every south African read, Rustum Kozain makes the point even better. Kozain surfed many an Afrikaner right wing website and his conclusion will surprise:
…if one looks past the racist language and past the sensationalism, the emotional tones of many of the posts and comments of white dissatisfaction are hard to ignore. There is rage, yes, but also heartbreak. In a culture that has in its history a strong agricultural connection with the land and a strong literary celebration of landscape and belonging, it is not difficult to see and understand this rage as a product of heartbreak, among other things. An easy, cynical and unsympathetic analysis would be that this heartbreak and rage is simply the product of a loss of power; that all of this are the hysterical fulminations of a segment of South Africa struggling to come to terms with a loss of political power. It certainly is this, but it is also more than this. And it is heartbreaking.
The argument that the well to do can’t be an oppressed minority is bogus. The Jews in Germany suffered a terrible fate largely because of their perceived superiority and wealth and in Africa similar thing happened to the the Tutsi’s in Rwanda.
Each time I visit South Africa I am surprised by the levels of fear and anxiety amongst South Africans of all races and cultures. Amongst whites however this fear is often irrational and qualitatively different. It is however not even remotely without basis. I would like to use two examples to explain how violence against whites are not only perceived as a threat, but driving them from public spaces.
A few years ago, on a crowded day in the town of Zeerust, Constand Viljoen and his wife, who was deep in his seventies was attacked as they went shopping. He managed to fight off his attackers after a struggle, but what is important is that none of the many onlookers came to his rescue. That an elderly couple can be attacked in a busy town without anybody helping is very odd and not normal societal behaviour I’m sure you would agree.
A similar thing happened to my dad, who used to be a doctor in Krugersdorp and was attacked when he was in his 70′s. He always went to that bank machine, but when he was mugged in front of many people, yet nobody helped. The community just looked on.
I know this is odd – even in the South African context – because I have spent many hours in South African townships and in predominantly black places like Yeoville. I know the crooks and skabangas dont ply their trade in broad daylight or where many people are. The community won’t allow them. Their revenge can be swift and harsh.
The reason is I suspect it happened here was because the community see Viljoen and my dad as “other”. They see them as being part of a privileged group, and the attackers part of a group that are the real victims, just like Adriaan describes. So why intervene? The result is that white South African faces are disappearing behind walls.
So what bothers most is not actual violence against whites, but what it means. The fact that whites by and large cannot be in public spaces in South Africa’s cities any longer, not without becoming a target of crime is delegitimizing them as citizens. Their whiteness marks them as wealthy targets and removes the protection one would normally find in a society at large. The result is that they are confined to a life spent behind high walls, shopping malls, and cars.
To the Afrikaner identity this loss of being able to move around in public, to go to the park, to walk in the city center, to become non citizens, but getting in turn an ever bigger fancy house, is a grand Faustian bargain. And my anecdotal experience says that they hate it.
Recently, as part of an exhibition of South African photographers in London, Roelof van Wyk explained why he thought his pictures of Afrikaners were a more up to date and sympathetic take on them than earlier, often non sympathetic pictures taken by non Afrikaners of Afrikaners, like that of Rodger Ballen and David Goldblatt.
Van Wyk’s pictures show their subjects without any context, even without clothes, he wanted to play with the idea of the oppressive hand of the colonial ethnography. In his pictures Afrikaners are being objectified, analyzed like natives of yore. But he claims, they are natives, and what’s more, Afrikaners are now free to do what they want, they can for example sleep with who they choose.
What he achieved is something different I thought. And the contrast with what Goldblatt did is instructive. Goldblatt says of his work on Afrikaners:
“Travelling through vast, sparsely populated parts of the country with my camera became a major part of my life at that time. I think that our landscape is an essential ingredient in any attempt at understanding not just the Afrikaner but all of us here. We have shaped the land and the land has shaped us. Often the land was unforgivingly harsh. Yet, the harsher the landscape the stronger the Afrikaners’ sense of belonging seemed to be.”
Van Wyk’s pictures are completely devoid of any link to place, or to any attachments of culture. If he had chosen to show context, he would have had to show Afrikaners in their big houses behind their big walls, or their 4 by 4′s, or in a shopping malls and perhaps one or two in a squatter camp.
Afrikaners don’t belong anywhere except in a glitzy Anglo world that could be anywhere, but considering who they are, it is a kind of hell.