A lot of people are fascinated by Africa, often because of the stunning scenery and wilderness portrayed in wildlife documentaries. Yet there are other stories as well, which need to be told because they are more important than tear-jerkers about poached rhinos and elephants. These are the human stories and in particular, those of the Afrikaners, with their history, hopes, fears and struggles. You might not know much about these people beyond what pro- and anti-apartheid propaganda told you during the Seventies and Eighties, and it is my aim to help you understand who and what some of the toughest people on the African continent are.
The reason is simple- there’s a lot of misperception and worse, misinformation, about South Africa and Afrikaners in particular, something that needs to change. The article below is a primer on Afrikaners and while it may tell you some things you didn’t know, it is far from comprehensive. As such, I highly recommend interested readers do more research and thinking on their own afterwards, as well as seek out Afrikaner immigrants in their neighborhood, especially in shops which sell South African food and drink. It is also merely the beginning of a series on South Africa with a focus on what is happening to whites and Afrikaners in, that will feature a combination of letters to newspapers I’ve written over the years and more articles I intend to write, which will be sent to Mr. Roper at a rate of one per week, usually on a Monday.
Furthermore, while there are some dates and historical facts, the article is a statement of opinion, my opinion about the “Last white tribe” as they’ve been called at least once, and based upon my experiences while trying to understand and relate to the Afrikaners as individuals and an ethnic group. What follows below is my first post on a site named Writer Beat, dating back to late 2015. As such, it is worth bearing in mind that there will be some discrepancies in the passage of time I mentioned- for example, I have now been living in South Africa for 25 years and three months, while democracy will be 23 years old on 27 April 2017. Please forgive such small discrepancies, but I wanted to avoid altering the original post whose name is…
“The Long Story- an immigrant’s quest to understand South Africa and Afrikaners.”
I arrived in South Africa on 24 November 1991. Until I got hit in the face by a wall of heat as I stepped out of Jan Smuts airport’s doors (aka O.R. Tambo International airport today), I only knew three things about the country. First, that it was called at least once a day “the racist regime from Pretoria” on the communist Romanian TV news until December 1989. Second, there was at least one Anglo-Boer War, but I had no clue who or what the Boers were because the history books I had access to in Romania were sketchy at best. Third was apartheid, which I understood then to be similar to segregation in the U.S. I found out a whole lot more about South Africa during the last 24 years and 6 days, and deepened my understanding of the three things I “knew” before I arrived.
Sure, there was racism, but the situation was not as simple as propaganda made it out to be because racism was not and is not the exclusive preserve of whites. Yes, black people can be and are racist too, just like anybody else. I had classmates from all races at every government school I attended until 1994, and interacted with them on many occasions. To be honest, that “interaction” was an attempt on my part to have as broad a circle of friends as possible, stemming from a preconception that South Africa was populated by ethnic groups from all over the world, like the United States. It was also a way to thumb my nose at the apartheid regime’s attempts to keep us separated. The black, coloured (mixture of black, white and Asian ancestry), Indian and Chinese kids I knew were no different from me in their humanity and it seemed ridiculous that I had to treat them as inferior just because their skin colour was different to mine.
While I got along reasonably well with most people, the Afrikaners gave me the biggest headaches because I couldn’t find any way around their obstinately impenetrable natures, and having despaired of ever understanding them, made mostly English-speaking friends. As I wrote some years ago, I saw Afrikaners as stubborn, arrogant, ignorant and proud of their ignorance until I joined the SA Army.
That’s where an Afrikaner went against all of his cultural instincts to befriend me, and the bloody crucible of those days not only brought us close to each other in almost unfathomable ways, but also helped me begin to understand his people’s national character, hopes, dreams, values and fears
Whether people (Afrikaners included) like to acknowledge it or not, they are an ethnic group created from religious persecution, flight from that persecution, countless hard battles for survival, commercial adventurism which took their Dutch ancestors all over the world, distance from their mother countries (France, Germany, Holland, Flanders), love of freedom under the God they worship in their own Calvinistic way, an innate need for self-determination and constant quest for the maintenance of cultural cohesion and survival against monolithic threats.
These began with British greed for gold and diamonds that evolved into suppression of Afrikaner culture and its nascent language, to culminate in two Anglo-Boer wars and genocide. The history of these people is really one of repeated dispossession and constant threats to their existence, which over the humiliating and alienating decades of British imperial rule, was to become an all-consuming need to rise to the top and stay there forever. The bottom line is that Afrikaner culture and their actions are responses to fear of existential threats for which there is sufficient historical basis, and one ought not see their manifestation as a call to arms for Afrikaners to re-establish apartheid.
That’s because not only do they not have the stomach for the inhumanities it would entail, they also lack the credible and charismatic leadership which might somehow drag them back to the darkness of those days again. This is in no small part due to later awareness of what happened in South Africa from the moment it gained independence from Britain in 1961 until the first democratic elections of 1994. During that time, Afrikaners did their utmost to give their language the cultural, social, educational and legal parity it lacked vis-à-vis English during the colonial period (when speaking Afrikaans was prohibited in courts of law), and afterwards got down to governing the country along the lines of Afrikaner domination in most, if not all spheres of activity.
To that end, they increasingly entered political and commercial structures, as well as created their own. Some of them were overt like the Broederbond and Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), while other structures are so shrouded in secrecy that there’s no proof of their existence, such as Die Organisasie (The Organization, a group with intelligence and paramilitary capabilities) and the Boere Mafia, a criminal organization likewise rumored but unproven to exist. They launched an economic program aimed at reducing poverty among Afrikaners, in which state-owned enterprises such as Telkom (communications), Spoornet (railways), Portnet (harbours), Iskor (steel) and Eskom (electricity) played a prominent role.
Besides that, with security being paramount, Afrikaners began to dominate both police and the military, in which only the navy was an exception, as it was and continues to be to this day manned by mostly English speakers. Some Afrikaners are concerned about security to this day, and have formed groups for this purpose. In one case, the Boeremag (Farmer Force) group went overboard and attempted to overthrow the ANC-led government in 2002 through a series of bombings. It didn’t work out, but the subsequent case revealed that ANC still considers Afrikaners to be the country’s greatest internal threat, to the extent that government agents have been penetrating and monitoring most, if not all of their organizations since 1994.
The Boers also dominated the civil service and in cooperation with English speakers already there, set up a very powerful and efficient bureaucracy that was a marvel to behold after 14 years of the inefficient and wholly corrupt communist system I endured in Romania. Over the years, the fundamental attachment of the Afrikaner to the soil of Africa translated into hundreds of thousands of farmers and through South Africa’s friendship with Israel, a superb grasp of agriculture in arid climates that made the country both self-sufficient and capable of exporting high quality food. Despite the wrongs of apartheid, Afrikaners helped build a world-class infrastructure in South Africa which allowed the country to be the premier political and economic powerhouse on the African continent until around 2013.
Of course, they didn’t do it alone. Besides the English settlers and their descendants, the economic consequences of apartheid’s security policies kept the door open to pale-skinned immigrants throughout. The skills, capital and unique cultural characteristics those migrants brought with them were added to South Africa’s almost frozen melting pot over a long period, and contributed tremendously towards giving post-apartheid South Africa an opportunity to deal with the world from a more cosmopolitan perspective than might have been the case if the country was as isolated and ignorant as the communists kept Romania from 1944 until 1989.
South Africa is a place of stark and often violent contrasts, what an author (Wilbur Smith, I think) once called “the land God made in anger”. It is a place where a visitor will find modern First World suburbs such as Sandton right next to Alexandra- a Third World cauldron of desperate under development boiling with frustration and anger that manifest themselves in lethal crime and xenophobic riots. It’s where the roads are clogged with cars and minibuses, the latter being black people’s version of public transportation thanks to apartheid’s social separation and spatial planning, but almost no public transportation outside of city centers. Where electric plugs have three thick, round prongs as opposed to the European slim two-prong ones. Where cars’ steering is on the right side and people drive on the left, thanks to the indelible British mark on South African society. Where sports are still largely viewed in racial terms, with rugby and cricket being regarded as “white man’s games” while soccer is for blacks and other people of colour, even though all three were invented and introduced by the British.
It’s a country which still lags behind the developed world in a lot of respects, for example only within the last five or seven years beginning to roll out fibre optic cables and around a decade ago introduced satellite television. There are hospitals whose doctors were once among the world’s finest and most innovative, but which now are crumbling under the weight of two decades’ worth of African National Congress (ANC) mismanagement, corruption and politically driven interference. It’s a place of wild beauty that’s almost impossible to describe, where lions do not roam the streets and people most definitely do not ride on elephants to work, but where you can still see everything from ostriches and meerkats to lions and elephants in both private and national game parks. Where the soil is an iron-rich red which makes me say it’s that colour because of the amount of blood spilled over it. It’s where acacias and palm trees grace many sidewalks, and the world’s smallest desert can be found in yet another desert, the famous Kalahari. Where you go from the sand dunes and solitary trees of the west to the mines of Gauteng (previously the Transvaal province) and amazing lush green of Kwa Zulu-Natal via beautifully built freeways- the place where troops of baboons steal wealthy suburbanites’ unattended breakfasts in Umhlanga, if you really want to see wildlife in the city.
It’s a country of almost countless cultures and philosophies, of 11 (yes, eleven) official languages and general religious harmony. It’s where game rangers and volunteers fight daily battles across many national parks to keep lions, cheetahs, elephants and rhinos alive in the face of determined and well armed poachers. It’s where I found the highest peaks of happiness and lowest troughs of despair. It’s where I rose above my anger at years’ worth of xenophobia and thousands of lesser or greater slights to serve in the army and finally begin to understand the Afrikaners and why they are this way. It’s from where I write to beg that you look at Afrikaners like I do, and to finally see them for the faithful to God, patriotic, hard working, innovative, proudly stubborn and determined members of a culture tied to the red soil of this land that they are- and which has been under attack by black supremacists both inside and outside of the ANC for two decades.
A culture and its members who struggle for survival in a civil service from which tens of thousands have been pensioned off and the remainder face almost no prospects of promotion or even employment by virtue of their skin colour and ethnicity. A culture and its members who face daily the risks of horrific torture, rape, murder and robbery at the hands of black criminals who prey on farmers whose security the ANC and government it leads have deliberately undermined through the disbandment of army reserve Commandos and police rural patrols. While the government has been at pains for years to deny the racist component of farm attacks, survivors consistently indicate that this is indeed one of the features making up the majority of the attacks, along with theft of goods, cash and weapons. A people who are constantly worried that Julius Malema, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ rabble-rousing leader who is a creature made and unleashed upon South Africa by the ANC, will finally convince enough of the poor black masses ANC has failed to uplift over the last 21 years to “redistribute” everything they’ve built, worked, risked and sacrificed for in an orgy of nationalization at gunpoint, for whom only an Afrikaner musician (Steve Hofmeyr), some right wing and civil advocacy groups seem to want to speak these days, much to the derision of those whose minds have never shed the pre-1994 anti-apartheid propaganda.
Men and women who in their vast majority chose to end apartheid and mandated their government to begin negotiations with the various liberation movements back in 1992, who made a conscious decision to acknowledge the wrongs they or the government had committed in their name until then, especially since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought to light what the apartheid government engaged in, what with death squads and torture during detention without trial that liberation movement members endured until negotiations began. It was after 1994, not while South Africans voted for negotiations in 1992, that whites and in particular Afrikaners realized the enormity of what the National Party did in their name and the size of the can of worms they’d have to carry open for a long time. I can tell you while there are some who regret that apartheid is over, there are also a lot who are glad it is no more, yet the one thing all Afrikaners I’ve met agree on is their angry view of F.W. de Klerk, whom they regard as a traitor. I think they’re wrong because de Klerk just happened to be the apartheid president on whose watch South Africa’s unsustainable policy of oppression ran out of maneuvering room, things were coming to the point at which the country could be invaded by a coalition seeking regime change and that would’ve been a catastrophe for the cornered whites.
In spite of their mistaken judgment in this regard, lack of leaders and cohesion of the type enjoyed by Zulus for example, they are nevertheless human. They are… People, just people who are insulted and alienated on an almost daily basis, so frustrated by what is happening that fringe elements are increasingly calling for a homeland in which they can be Afrikaners and govern themselves without the snide remarks, mistreatment and discrimination they endure today at the government’s hands.
South Africa used to be a prosperous country for some, a nightmare of brutality and poverty for others, yet things have changed and to a great extent so have the majority of Afrikaners. As far as I can see, the problem has mostly to do with the rest of the country not wanting to acknowledge it, because the idea of the Afrikaner bogeyman who wants to bring back apartheid serves to keep a lot of people voting for the ANC in spite of its 21 year-long litany of corruption and maladministration. I guess until that view changes, the few who can afford to buy meat today (unemployment among whites went up by 1000% between 1994 and 2004, and it’s probably worse today) will gather with their friends and families around a wood or coal braai (barbecue), put on some lamb chops, steak and boerewors (fragrant thick sausages), then mutter in their B&Cs (brandy and Coke) while munching on biltong (flavored dried meat similar to jerky) and think of “the good old days”, which are old but weren’t necessarily good- yet if they have no place in the current ones, what else can they do?
What are Afrikaners? What is South Africa? Quite simply, people of various ethnic origins (although Ferreira is a Portuguese surname, many Afrikaners bear it), who inhabit 1.1 million square kilometers of a unique state of mind- and the reality of this country’s richly complex story, which I have barely begun to tell.