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To be or not to be …An Afrikaner Soutie grapples with her status 2006-02-16
Stella Viljoen

Hierdie artikel is oorspronklik in Engels aan Die Vrye Afrikaan voorgelê. Juis vanweë die boeiende effek wat hierdie besinning oor Afrikaneridentiteit in Engels skep, publiseer ons dit in Engels – Red. 

* Lecturer in art history and contemporary popular culture in the Department of Visual Arts, University of Pretoria

“… I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena and the Bahamas, who sees in the mind’s eye and suffers the suffering of a simple peasant folk, death, concentration camps, destroyed homesteads, a dream in ruins …”

- Thabo Mbeki (“I am an African”)

If I had known the Jeanne Goosen response, “ons is nie almal so nie”, I would have said this to the gentleman at the Voortrekker Monument curio shop. I had asked him who bought the sew-on Vierkleurs on display in a shoebox. He replied, “ons mense”. Either his answer excluded me on the basis of the hensopper twang in my Afrikaans, or worse, it included me in the bitter grimace of his false nostalgia. Either way, I didn’t have a witty comeback so I merely stared at him with a bek vol tande.

The situation was, perhaps, amplified by the presence of an American art historian who I had taken there to buy retro postcards. Once translated, he reduced the incident to the backward racism of the rightwing remnant in South Africa. Simple as that. I would not say that this tête-à-tête with Oom Vierkleur marked my ‘coming out’ as an Afrikaner, but it triggered the many discussions that were to follow on the subject of whether or not I want to call myself an Afrikaner.

JM Coetzee referred to himself as a “twyfelagtige Afrikaner … miskien” while Athol Fugard described himself as a “baster Afrikaner”. I recently heard Herman Giliomee, author of The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (2003, University of Virginia Press), following on these two literary legends, entitle himself a “dwars Afrikaner”. That led me to thinking about what kind of Afrikaner I am. I was born in 1976, the year television and the Soweto riots made headline news, to a Van Zyl and a Viljoen - Maties, who like the sun and the sea. My father got posted to London when I was three and upon our return to Pretoria a few years later, I was placed into an English school to facilitate an easy transition. What I later came to think of as a political affiliation with English was, in other words, probably a spin-off of my childhood need to conform. Nevertheless, adolescence came and went with my brother and I being the only English members of my vast extended family. Last year, I attended my first Afrikaans arts festival and in-between shows and lectures, I completed the experience by catching up on literature by Stella Blakemore (a.k.a. Theunis Krog). A friend had shared her childhood obsession with me by lending me her copies of Blakemore’s boys’ school series, Keurboslaan (still ‘on loan’ from her primary school library). Blakemore’s poetic use of words like ‘maskas’, ‘kamma’, ‘esel’ and ‘kaf’ as well as her addictive descriptions of the first Afrikaans ubermensch, dr. Roelof Serfontein, awakened my sleepy senses to the beauty of Afrikaans. At a Fokofpolisiekar concert, with the words of Blakemore still fresh in my mind, it became clear to me that I had been in denial about my Afrikaans heritage, and the poorer for it. In conjunction with Fokofpolisiekar, Blakemore’s picturesque portrayal of Afrikanerdom was translated into the crude disillusionment of contemporary Afrikaners for me. In this uncomfortable alignment, so typical of the festival experience, I found an ‘imagined community’ that I could identify with.

In the 1980s, political philosopher Benedict Anderson (1983) put forward the idea that nations, in order to be identified as, and identify themselves as a nation, are more dependent on a shared sense of self, than a geographic or political unity. In the last few years literary historian, Irma du Plessis has written extensively on the Blakemorean contribution to the Afrikaner imagined community. In her estimation, Blakemore represented a sophisticated and scholarly Afrikaner elite through these stories that simply did not exist in the 1950s, at least not in the measure Keurboslaan describes it. In this way her stories are part aspirational propaganda, part wishful thinking. In the light of du Plessis’ reading of Blakemore, I wonder which part of the contemporary Afrikaner imagined community is fabricated and which part is real.

Every Tuesday night, in a pub in Centurion, Pieter Smit sings a compilation of Afrikaans folk songs, golden oldies and the theme songs to children’s television programmes to a sold-out audience of predominantly Afrikaans students and twenty-somethings, who apparently can’t get enough of these old tunes. But this is not just about the nostalgia of Heidi and Haas Das. Before launching into “Kinders van die Wind”, Smit declares, “hulle kan ons karre en ons huise vat maar hulle kan nooit dít van ons af vat nie.”

Who are “hulle”, I wonder, and what did they do, specifically, to deserve our fear and distrust when “we” clearly have done much to inspire these sentiments ourselves? The resultant flip side of this question is, who comprises “ons mense”? An educational sociologist from a British university conducted research at Tukkies two years ago relating to changing perceptions regarding race and gender on campus. She interviewed dozens of students of different racial and cultural persuasions in the hope of discovering some kind of dialectic concerning the recent changes in the South African social-scape, but found, instead, a disconcerting silence. Everybody she interviewed was apparently unaffected by the new South Africa and, in any case, too young to be concerned with all that stuff. She interviewed students from the residencies, none of whom told her about the corridor in Maroela that was converted into a mini ‘Volkstaat’. She spoke to political science students who said they could have multiracial friends if they wanted - nobody prevented this after all - but mostly it just didn’t work out that way. Having conducted similar interviews at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape where she encountered a discourse fraught with the polemics of new democracy and awkward integration, she was baffled by the measure of naïve complacency characterised by the Tukkies students she interviewed. Some time later she interviewed me, and in the process, commented that UP was either the happiest, most problem-free campus in South Africa, or everyone was living in a bubble.

Two years later I cannot help but wonder what she would have thought of the cruel political posters plastered all over our campus by student factions who use language to further their cause (or to vent their anger?). They are disillusioned with the (not-so-) New South Africa and I understand this. They want to study in Afrikaans and why shouldn’t they - Afrikaans is no longer the language of the oppressor, but simply one of the colours of the rainbow, striving not to be forgotten. I join two black colleagues watching students march in protest to the waning amount of classes offered in Afrikaans at the University. The one asks what the student rally is concerned with and I explain that they want to study in Afrikaans. Both emphatically agree that they should be afforded this opportunity; we have not come this far to start discriminating against a language group now. And then, to my shame and embarrassment, the marchers start chanting separatist slogans that belong in our history and not in the here and now. Of course, it is not in the interest of democracy to prevent students from chanting insensitive slogans or to tear down posters that declare, “English only is erger as slegs blankes”, even if they border on hate speech … but I desperately want to. I want to pretend, like the students interviewed two years ago, that the lion and the lamb are the very best of friends, and that even if neither is sure which is which, everything is going to be just fine. Most of all, like Mrs. Dalloway obsessively preoccupied with the details of her party, I want everyone to get-the-hell-along.

In an attempt to make sense of all this, I centred the theme of one of my lectures on the notion of Afrikaner Romanticism (read: escapism). The discussion quickly spiralled into a pity party where we recited Jonker poetry as if she had not fought for the future we now possess. I confessed “I am an Afrikaner” and in a wave of Augustinian sentiment others, who would otherwise have been described as Souties, did the same. At the end, embarrassed by our Pieter-Smit-style Sehnsucht, there seemed nowhere to go with our displaced emotions. Perhaps in response to the perceptible lure of eating NikNaks in Wimbledon or building a Cape Dutch house in Saskatchewan, a couple of black students, at the back of the class, stood up. “We need you,” said the one, “… don’t go”.

In her seminal account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, Country of My Skull, Antjie Krog (2002: 98-99, Random House) struggles with what, on the one hand, she knows to be the Afrikaner’s “blunt honesty and fearlessness to grapple with the impossible” yet, on the other, the total absence of Afrikaner leaders willing to say, “I will take the blame”. Believing that she was brought up with what is “the best and the proudest in the Afrikaner”, Krog (2002: 98-99) reflects on the responsibility of a Leader: “Shouldn’t he be establishing a space within which we can confront ourselves and our past? … So that we can participate in the building of this country with self-respect and dignity? Can’t he just say: ‘I didn’t know, but I will take the responsibility … I will lay wreaths where people have been shot, I will collect money for victims, I will ask forgiveness and I will pray. I will take the responsibility. I will take the blame.’” Weg MacGyver, Dana Snyman, recently wrote in his column for Beeld that white people want all black people to be like “onse Madiba”. While this gross generalisation smacks of an acerbic truth typical of Snyman, it strikes me that at least we, meaning the white South Africans who might identify with this statement, have an anti-apartheid saboteur to embrace. Who, conversely, do black people want “us” all to be like? Surely not the Oom at the Voortrekker Monument.

As a spin-off of the Afrikaner Romanticism lecture, a group of students and I last year hosted a concert-in-the-park called the AfrikanerWVK (TRC), where people of all cultural, racial and linguistic persuasions could wrestle with and celebrate Afrikanerdom. It was poorly attended and we were disappointed by the level of apathy we encountered in trying to stimulate discourse. When I quizzed specific students on the matter many said they had reached a level of political saturation and frankly were not interested in evoking or maintaining guilt for something they could not even remember. This seemed to me to be a recurring theme among my students and there is no doubt some worn generational explanation for their flippancy relating to the amount of Eminem they’ve listened to. This apathetic posture does, nevertheless, rather ironically, remind me of the six black youths who in 1997 applied for amnesty from the TRC because they did nothing. They argued that according to the Act an omission can also constitute a human rights violation and that by neglecting to take part in the liberation struggle they were representative of millions of apathetic people who didn’t do the right thing. Their application was entitled, “Amnesty for Apathy”.

As a child, in London, my father brought home a ‘free Nelson Mandela’ button for me to add to my magpie-ish collection of badges. Today, a middle-aged, retired journalist, I can hardly get him to read a newspaper, let alone contribute in any constructive way to the political landscape unfurling before him. His once infectious bravado in terms of the apartheid oligarchy has been transformed along with the constitution and flag into a melancholy easily disguised as disinterest. In fact, his “oranje, blanje, blues”, as Coenie de Villiers terms it, seems to be intimately related to his status as Afrikaner, and in particular, white, male Afrikaner. There seem to be a fair number of white, Afrikaner men who, under apartheid, would have proudly described themselves as Afrikaners, while simultaneously being overtly (and publicly) critical of the government. What scares and confounds me is that many of these formerly critical voices have been silenced by their own disillusionment or sense of dislocation. I heard Herman Giliomee remark about his own crossover from a voice of dissent against the Nationalist regime to the biographer of the Afrikaner volk, that he must have a propensity for defending the underdog. Dan Roodt’s conversion from communist poet to right-wing whiner is more easily reduced to his insatiable hunger for publicity but he, nevertheless, seems to garner a fair following of like-minded South Africans.

I think it was Koos Kombuis who said Afrikaans is the mother-in-law of all language. It has been suggested that Afrikaans is the price the Afrikaner will have to pay for apartheid. In spite of affirmative action, crime and the fact that they now have to write in English, I expected Afrikaners like my father, precisely because they were the poster children of apartheid, to establish “a space within which we can confront ourselves and our past” (Krog 2002: 98). But maybe they themselves, and not Afrikaans, are the price we will pay for apartheid. If this is the case, then the term Afrikaner will die with them and we will all just become Afrikaans-speaking South Africans.

In the mean time, I have decided to call myself an Afrikaner, albeit a delayed Afrikaner, and to keep fighting for the souls of Ooms who wear Vierkleurs and otherwise, as if my life and not just my imagined community depends on it. For if Thabo Mbeki can call himself both an African and an Afrikaner, as he did in his 1996 address to the Constitutional Assembly, so can I.  


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