Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Ek is ‘n Boer…or am I?

By Anton I Botha

A while back I wrote a little piece on the Afrikaner as villain which was meant to be a light-hearted reflection on my own cultural identity and its portrayal in the popular media. More recently the comments made by Jimmy Manyi and others again made me think of race and culture. In my previous piece I described myself as “being an Afrikaner by origin”. One commentator, identifying him or herself as G, made the following observation, “what are you now, surely you can’t be anything else [but an Afrikaner]?” This got my mind juices flowing a bit (not a frequent occurrence I can assure you). Good question I thought! Even though I felt on an intuitive level that I can be something more, I can’t logically be anything else but an Afrikaner … or can I?

Is it true that we are locked in by our cultural identities? Am I doomed to support the Blue Bulls, drive a double cab bakkie and eat biltong? Should all coloured people, as Kuli Roberts would have it, resign themselves to the fact that they will end up smoking, have large families and eat lots of fish? I would like to think there is more to me and to other people than just our rather narrow cultural identities. Individuals are complex beings with many different facets and influences. Just think of a couple of examples among the Afrikaners. In one ethnic group we have ex-minister Pik Botha and Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout (Pieter-Dirk Uys), Dr Chris Barnard and Dr Wouter Basson, Carike Keuzenkamp and Karen Zoid, Steve Hofmeyr and Koos Kombuis, Beyers Naude and Eugene de Kock. Each represents radically different values and ways of being yet they are all, inescapably, Afrikaners.

I, for one, am proud of being an Afrikaner but my identity is by no means limited to it. I would like to think there’s more to me. I am also a proud South African and African. I have travelled a fair bit and lived overseas for a number of years. I watch too many pop culture movies and I read books (although not nearly often enough) and when I get an opportunity I make sure to learn about things outside of my area of speciality. I have friends from as many different cultural backgrounds as can tolerate me and I have learned to cook food from many different parts of the world (although how well is up for debate). All of these experiences make me more than just an Afrikaner, and yet, being an Afrikaner is still part of who I am.

Some people find the label “Afrikaner” troublesome, and who can blame them if the music of Kurt Darren and Nicholis Louw are inextricability linked to being Afrikaans? I would rather have my ear drums burst by an angry chimpanzee with red hot nine-inch nails than listen to their music. Rather, as an individual I have chosen not to expose my fragile mind to that kind of “cultural” entertainment.

And we all have this choice. There are some things about being Afrikaans, just like there as some things about being Zulu, Xhosa, coloured, English, French or any other ethnicity that are wonderful. As an Afrikaner I love to braai, I love potjiekos, I love Afrikaans literature and stand-up comedy (the language simply captures nuances that no other language can). I am also proud of all the positive things we have given the world, including heart transplants, pinotage, bobotie, Minki van der Westhuizen and the Creepy Crawly. I am also proud to be associated with a group of people who stood up against the tyranny of a large empire.

I am not, however, proud to be associated with the oppressive regime that followed and the untold damage it did in the name of a “pure” ethnicity or race. (In case you were wondering, I mean apartheid, not the Afrikaans version of Idols.) Nor do I associate myself with, or relate to, the Reitz Four or the AWB.

What I am driving at is that just because you “originate” from, or belong to, a specific ethnic group does not mean you have to internalise all its values and practices. Each individual has a responsibility to examine the values, beliefs, and practices of what they believe to be their own culture and decide if these things fit with “who” they are and what can be reasonably understood to be right. There is no superior or inferior culture; they are all flawed in their own special ways.

Any person, who limits themselves to the values and practices of their own culture and therefore lives the stereotype of their culture, will be a poor individual indeed. Equally, people who pigeonhole and stereotype others based solely on their assumed “culture” will be equally poor as they will miss out on a rich diversity of human encounters.

So to those who believe I am an Afrikaner and nothing else, I say you should go and fall into the unemployment line of intelligence and those who think I should praat Afrikaans of hou my bek I say try speaking in more than one language. After all it’s impossible to properly order crème brûlée in a language other than French!

Anton likes hats cause when you wear them there’s less of the world to deal with.

68 Responses to “Ek is ‘n Boer…or am I?”

  1. Richard #

    @CiA, I worked with somebody in the 1980s who was what would be the stereotypical Afrikaner of the time (nylon trousers, false teeth, very narrow-minded) who told me Jews were untrustworthy and were thieves. When I pressed him on it, he said that was because of their behaviour during the Boer War and afterwards. The relative I mentioned was himself Jewish, accosted during the War (WW2) as an “Engelse Jood”. I would so much like to read some confronting all of this by an Afrikaner, and tracing these people to see what they make of it all in hindsight.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:18 am
  2. CiA #

    @Richard. Perhaps I am the wrong “Afrikaner” to ask. I grew up in an average, conservative, rural Freestate Afrikaner family of modest means in which children were taught to respect other languages, colours, religions and means. I dont recall my father wearing nylon trousers, but he was known to wear a safari suit to his Railways job every so often. (Would it be politically correct to harp on about Jewish stereotypes at this point? Should we discuss the atrocious treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis at this juncture?)

    I consider my upbringing privileged, as I had the opportunity to share my childhood with township kids – only about 500m away. I was more comfortable with Sesotho than English then. How many city kids, liberal, English, or otherwise had this experience? (And they call us narrow-minded! :-) ) And on top of my dad’s youthful experiences, I recall fairly harmonious relationships between Afrikaners, Jewish, Coloureds, Portuguese, and Blacks in our little dorp during my youth (not perfect).

    cont …

    March 23, 2011 at 4:34 pm
  3. CiA #

    cont…

    Interestingly enough I dont choose my friends based upon language, colour or religion either. (Not that I need to justify anything). My brother is married to an “Engelse Jood” (who subsequently learned fluent Afrikaans), me to a “foreigner”. So I guess we dont fit your stereotypical mould. I dont carry a comb in my sock, and dont own gray shoes.

    But perhaps you are confusing class with culture, and judging a group based upon an individual. Not a smart thing to do.

    What you – and many Afrikaners – dont realise, is that many of us have Jewish blood. Im not even referring to the Bram Fischers, Pieter-Dirk Uys (Evita Bezuidenhout), or Freestate Boerejode. I certainly have found Jewish and Muslim (Hindu, Animist, Christian) ancestry in my distant familytree, through early settlement. (My parents were totally unaware of this heritage). My tolerant upbringing is vindicated by my subsequent discovery of our triple European, Asian, African/Khoi heritage, verified through DNA testing and archival research. And as mentioned before, to me this is what Afrikanerskap is about.

    March 23, 2011 at 4:43 pm
  4. Richard #

    @CiA, certainly an open childhood. I spent a lot of time in what was called Zululand, and a lot of white children (not too many Afrikaans-speakers where we were) grew up speaking the vernacular. I had little contact with Afrikaans children, but when I did, I gradually came to see a picture that disturbed me on so many levels. Of course I am not speaking about individuals, I am speaking about the general cultural “lay of the land”. But then of course it was a matter of degree. Afrikaners would speak about the “ka****s” whereas the English-speakers would talk about the “Wogs”; the k-word was considered very harsh, so a milder epithet was substituted. When we relocated to the Eastern Cape – the predominantly Afrikaans part – I began to perceive the difference. What I found was a much more “militaristic” mindset (some reminders of pre-War Germany, or at least what I have read), a drive for sporting success (like in the old USSR/Nazi Germany), an intolerance, a strange dissipation in the shadow of the church, a fair degree of corruption, a lot of antipathy towards non-Afrikaners, and a lack of seeing black people as people. This was all set in a jelly of anger and bitterness. To complement it, there was also the notion of non-Afrikaners being less South African (some leading Afrikaner in the 1960s said words to the effect of “I do not see how one can be a South African without

    March 23, 2011 at 8:31 pm
  5. Richard #

    first being an Afrikaner”). At the same time, in a mixed linguistic area, I noticed how most foreigners coming to South Africa tended to adopt English as their language, not Afrikaans, meaning there must have been some resistance from Afrikaners to motivate that move. Some more “conservative” (a euphemism) German immigrants only spoke Afrikaans or German, which also says something. And then of course black people adopted English as their collective ligua france, when surely Afrikaans should have done the job more easily, being more widely-spoken? I remember going into a police station in Port Elizabeth in the mid-80s, and the man in charge complaining that the black woman “praat vrot Afrikaans”, though his English was worse, from what I overheard. I cannot distil a lifetime’s experiences here, but I remember in the 1994 elections (in which I was appointed among a handful of mediators by the IEC) going to, or chairing, many political meetings. When I heard an English-speaking South African voice, I was always encouraged by the prospect of reasonableness (which was generally forthcoming), and when I heard an Afrikaans-accented voice, I must say my heart sank a little, knowing there would be difficulties ahead. What might those difficulties be?

    March 23, 2011 at 8:32 pm
  6. Richard #

    Well, a strange sense of entitlement (a mirror here in contemporary SA, though in different clothes), a certain arrogance, a perverted sense of history (this bedvils SA, and I suspect always has), an unwillingness to see the other man’s point of view. For myself, growing up, it was impossible to identify with this type of white person as having anything in common with me; sharing a nationality with him would be as peculiar as sharing a nationality with a Tlingit Eskimo. But he made the rules, and his culture dominated, and oppressed us all. So I had to distance myself from my nationality, which had been appropriated: whereas it had been more polyglot, it became increasingly confined to Afrikanerdom. If they had “won out” on a purely linguistic level, so be it, but it was so much more than that, so many values and ideas that were incompatible. And incompatible, it turned out, with most of South Africa. I am personally disturbed at the lack of engagement with their own past that Afrikaners (of the white variety) display, and the acceptance of so many of the old National Party lies that were generated to created an “ingroup/outgroup” dimension that eventually allowed them to seize power. I so admire the Germans as a nation for looking at their history fairly and squarely, and changing. This has not happened in South Africa. However, that is no longer my battle, since it doesn’t really affect the rest of us anymore, but

    March 23, 2011 at 8:32 pm
  7. Richard #

    but I do get riled up about it when I read comments on forums! By the way, if Israel does wrong, it should be criticised. The louder the better!

    March 23, 2011 at 8:33 pm
  8. Richard #

    By the way, I recently read Arthur Conan Doyle’s book on the Boer War (“The Great Boer War”). He served as a doctor, and it was fascinating, because he gives some cultural insights into the burghers of the Transvaal. In the 1980s, the observations still rang true. If you have a Kindle you can find it for free.

    March 23, 2011 at 8:50 pm
  9. Proudly SA #

    Richard, it would be of no use for me to argue with you reason being we grew up in different times. I am a white afrikaans speaking 28 year old, the described stereotype you mentioned above of a ‘afrikaner’ definitely doesn’t fit me nor friends and family close to me. I drove past a awb tent the other day that possibly fits your description. It was actually a very funny yet sad sight, 2 big “anties” in khaki uniform with a young man in a black uniform with a red swastika like band around the arm, it seemed like they were recruiting next to the road… Unfortunately for them it seemed like there were no candidates. It would be serious offensive to put me in the same category as these characters, just like your example of the ‘tlingit eskimo’. My upbringing was pretty much the same as CIA’s. There is no place for discrimination and racism here or any where else for that matter from all sides. We can only look to the future with optimism, otherwise we become morbid individuals. I read an interesting book about the boer war that I would recommend to you “Commando by Deneys Reitz” if you are interested.

    March 24, 2011 at 1:48 pm
  10. CiA #

    @Richard
    You seem to have had some unpleasant experiences, I am not responsible for that, and cannot change that. I think the chip on your shoulder prevent any meaningful objectivity; you will probably never change your mind. I agree with some of what you’re saying, but will not except your generalisations and stereotyping, which I consider equally racist. I dont want to defend the indefensible; at the same time I understand my history, and am proud of my heritage. I suggest you start making an effort to read Hermann Giliomee “The Afrikaners: Biography of a People” to enhance your understanding, if you are interested to!

    There has been a schism in Afrikanerdom since first settlement, between the hardline and the more tolerant variety. (Perhaps similar to Jews in Israel, another group who feel themselves under threat). The “democratic” Afrikaners are at fault for not speaking out loud enough, long enough. Yet dont forget that under apartheid, Afrikaners opposing the regime were prosecuted the same as everybody else – sometimes worse, because they saw us as traitors. Well, perhaps not an excuse.

    Still, Afrikaner dissenters were many, though less prominent, as the foreign press and English media never made the effort to read the language. As a kid I admired people like Beyers Naude and Breyten Breytenbach, but in the Freestate we also had Max du Preez, Bram Fischer, Peter Blum, Andre P Brink, Antjie Krog, Ettiene Leroux, Karel Schoeman, amongst others.

    Cont …

    March 24, 2011 at 5:11 pm
  11. CiA #

    Cont …

    The NG Kerk has a lot to answer for. But dont forget that the old National Party could never stay in power without the grateful English, Jewish and Portuguese votes. It was Percy Yutar, Jewish attorney-general, who prosecuted Nelson Mandela in 1963. In my naive youth, fresh off the farm, I joined the old PFP to try making a contribution, the only Afrikaner in a Jewish-dominated, prominent city branch. Boy, did they make me feel unwelcome – even when (or because?) Van Zyl Slabbert was the leader! “Belonging” did not last long. They soon sidelined me for opposing military service, which the branch hierarchy was very much in favour of.

    Again, Afrikaans surnames represent most nations in Europe, from Italy to Norway – and elsewhere. Afrikaans is still the third largest language in South Africa by numbers. And me thinks many immigrants still take up Afrikaans, certainly in my social circles. So again it depends who you associated with. Still, prior attempts to force Afrikaans onto others backfired badly; by the same token, I don’t blame anyone for taking up English now – after all an international language.

    Btw, I have a Kindle; but your recommendation seems rather one-sided, I can suggest better and more objective. Even USA-based reviewers call it slanted, not accurate, not factual, not readable. Hmmm. I can see where you are coming from.

    March 24, 2011 at 5:22 pm
  12. Richard #

    @CiA, I have no chip on my shoulder. I have started reading “The Rise of the South African Reich” which is fascinating, and recommend it, if you can find a copy (it dates from 1964). I attented a bilingual school, and went to an Afrikaans university, so think I have a fair amount of insight. It was when I went to teach in the townships in the later 1980s and spoke more in-depth to people there that I began to really realise what a monstrosity had been perpetrated. Until then it had only been historical matters that sparked me off, but here was “living” history, if you like. The idea among the Afrikaners was that God had given them the right to rule South Africa, that it was all predestined. The “others” in the country were mere nuisances, obstacles put there by God to test them and their resolve. Despite what I might instinctively feel, I have tried very hard to inform myself. There is a whole other side to South African history that we never hear about, and that is the old SAP/Labour party side of things. I wondered about the even-handedness of what I was learning at school. When I was growing up, and television came upon us, we were frequently shown programmes about the Boer War, and concentration camps were used to silence any opposition or debate. So I began to research these, from books by doctors who had been there.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:16 pm
  13. Richard #

    What I found was that, yes, tens of thousands died. Yes, sanitation was very poor. But I also found that many Boers had never been immunised, and were very susceptible to certain illnesses. Many also died when they were immunised, as it was somewhat of an inexact science. I also found that many Boers shunned the doctors in favour of Boereraad and took medicines like “Duiwelsdrek” and other ineffectual remedies. I also found that mortality rates were high outside the camps due to a rinderpest epidemic. The manufacturing process of large-scale grains in those days was also imperfect, and sometimes small quantities of dye entered bags. Now the National Party seized on all of these to advance its cause, by saying it represented genocide. Conpsiracy theorists are not merely modern phenomena. None of this would matter to me, but that it led to the enormous ructions that still beset South Africa today. Hertzog and the other nationalists refused to allow a common South African identity to emerge, wanting to Afrikanerise everything, which caused people to pit themselves against one another. If this mentality had died when the nationalists achieved their republic in 1961, it would have shown how much people could be led. But when it went on and on, and caused so much suffering, it is simply inexcusable. The mentality is hard to explain if you weren’t alive then. In my teenage years I used to write letters to the newspapers, and one poison-pen response asked

    March 25, 2011 at 1:26 pm
  14. Richard #

    me, “Where were you in 1902 when our volk were dying?” In 1902 my grandparents weren’t even born! I use this just as an example. Now of course I am not naive; the will to power (to paraphrase Nietzsche) will lead people to all sorts of convoluted thinking that they think will be to their advantage. Today the Afrikaner is being subject to the same medicine his nationalist bretheren doled out in their day, and the ANC is using (in many cases) similarly one-side arguments. This brings nobody any pleasure, though it is a great irony. But I maintain that there is a streak of fascism running through Afrkaners from the earliest days. That does not take away from any feelings of pride that you feel you are entitled to (though I don’t know how anybody can take pride from something that they themselves have not achieved; I can repect somebody else’s achievements, but pride is another sensibility entirely), but it takes a lot to unpick the reality from the decades of power-mongering lies. I have known a good many very decent Afrikaners, but it is not individuals under discussion here, it is group mentality and political culture. But as I say, thankfully this is now all academic. The Conan Doyle book is not one-sided in my opinion, I am quite sensitised to propaganda (thanks to National Christian Education generously supplied in the old South Africa). To understand our present, we must examine the past.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:37 pm
  15. Richard #

    @ProudlySA, thanks I’ll look out for that book. I think to make headway in this, one has to look for primary sources. In the 1980s, some Transvaal school history textbooks sympathised with Adolf Hitler’s policies. It was all so distasteful. It is marvellous to see a new country being born from the ashes of all that old hatred. But you know, all human behaviour has its source somewhere. Those AWB people you saw have been taught a certain version of truth, which does not take account of a common humanity. People are different, with different strengths and abilities, but we have to live together in reality, not in some idealised fantasy. In understanding and making allowance, we uncover a greater humanity. The terror of zombies that many of my township pupils experienced was real to them; I could not simply laugh it off. By listening to them, and helping them confront these things, I was better able to define myself, and see what we had in common past the overt differences. For people like the AWB, these difference make them want to utterly reject and ridicule the other. They are taught their identities, they do not discover them for themselves. At the heart of it that is what fascism is, it is not truly interacting with the world but interpreting it from some other (usually mythical) source. Good on you for not succumbing, shaking off the dead hand of past lies and moving forward.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:51 pm
  16. CiA #

    @Richard
    Remember the “red under every bed” scare tactics of the NP? You see a Nazi under every Afrikaner bed, and youve scared yourself silly. Snap out of it, it is a pampoenspook.

    The UK Independent calls your 1964 book by Jewish author, Communist Party leader, Bunting “a one-dimensional study”. OK, even I had a brief affair with Marxism, then saw the light. But in 1940, Bunting opposed Britains war against Nazi Germany as “imperialist”, aligning himself with the pro-Nazi Greyshirts – until Germany invaded the Soviet Union. He was out of SA 1963-1991, thus hardly in touch. During that time he “never deviated from the current line of the Soviet Union”.

    Many monstrosities were committed by the leaders of the NP. Heck, forced removals come to mind. Same is true of many international political parties, rightwing and otherwise. Remember Stalin?

    A recent study concluded that apartheid had much more in common with segregation in USA South than Nazi Germany. Apparently many NP officials went to USA to study how things were done, then improved on it. Now that is believable.

    Some were dumb enough to believe the propaganda at school. Your sweeping generalisations are equally astonishing. Afrikaners believing that that God gave them the right to rule South Africa? Maybe Verwoerd did, but I dont know any normal person who did.

    Again, I grew up with firsthand concentration camp accounts, not onesided thirdparty books. I would expect empathy rather than rejection from a person with a Jewish background.

    March 25, 2011 at 4:43 pm
  17. Richard #

    @CiA, you are of course correct that there were many non-Afrikaners who went out to bat for the NP. In my own (non-Afrikaners) family there was a member of the old President’s Council set up by PW Botha, and then to balance that out one who fled on a Union Castle ship to avoid being prosecuted in the Rivonia Trials! As for the family member who was a psychiatrist in the Verwoerd assassination trial, his politics are unknown to me. But as I have said, it is not about individuals, it is about culture, and in this case, political culture.

    March 25, 2011 at 5:12 pm
  18. Richard #

    @CiA, fortunately we are in the position of looking at this speculatively. But I do remember seeing Mimi Coertse at the end of broadcast of television with lots of “Voortrekkers” (Afrikaans version of the Scouts) holding burning torches, in khaki, singing “Die Stem.” The parallels, even if only aethetic, were remarkable. Regarding books on these matters, I don’t much read the editorial input. Bunting is not biased – he presents the Afrikaner perspective – but I simply take the facts onboard. I had a friend (Afrikaans, and a lecturer) who had a father who was very involved with the Greyshirts, and had all the propaganda. I think the anti-semitism was/is located more in the upper-echelons of Afrikanerdom. Jewish relations with Afrikaners forms a very complex study, like Israel’s relations with apartheid South Africa. On a personal level, nobody but a sociopath could be unmoved by any suffering, whether in a South African concentration camp in the veldt, or in a township, but it is the political capital that is extracted that is disturbing. When I see, say, the rebellion at Slachtersnek, used as pro-Boer propaganda (still) I feel ill. It was nothing but white people refusing to accept blacks as their legal equals! By the way, you can find the transcriptions for free for use on Kindle. I just don’t see any real examination; it is as if Afrikaans-speakers (or some of them) aren’t sorry about the past, they’re only sorry they lost.

    March 26, 2011 at 12:19 am

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