Lost for words
Appeared 8 May 2004 in the Financial Times, London
Elise Louw gave the lie to everything I felt for her people. It was her courage and love that had faced down her family even as they cursed her on her wedding day, when she married a Jew. At the same time she embodied all that was best in Christianity. And this, despite the condemnation of the minister of her church from whom she sought advice about the central conflict in her life, a Christian raising Jews. You will burn in hell, he told her. She managed once more to do what she always bid us do, and turned the other cheek.
Yes, I am a Jew and an Afrikaner, a Boerejood, as we South Africans say literally farmer-Jew. Unless you are South African, you probably wont appreciate the oxymoron that this is. Boer: at first what pure-bred Afrikaners proudly called themselves, the word became a label of contempt in the mouths of other white South Africans and hatred in the mouths of blacks. And Jood. Oh Jood! If you have any European or Christian ancestry you will hear the accusation, the curse. Put them together and youve got me.
Strangely, after almost 25 years living in England, I find myself treasuring my Afrikaans heritage, and concerned that this rough eloquent language might be lost. South Africans have just voted back into office, with an even bigger majority, the ANC government that has run the country since the end of apartheid in 1994. Afrikaners and their language werent an issue, not even a sideshow. Afrikaners are after all just 7 per cent of the population, Afrikaans speakers just 12 per cent. I know there must be few tears in the world about this. Isnt that what they deserve, you might be thinking. Too bad the Afrikaners are disappearing into a new Diaspora, as the young, the bright and the energetic leave the country while their language is doomed to exist only on websites devoted to preserving it.
And who dares speak for Afrikaans and the Afrikaner today? I do. I speak because, despite everything, Afrikaans forms one of the dual chambers of my heart, and as such it must survive if I am to live fully.
So I went back to find out what I could about what has happened over the past 10 years. I wanted to see how the Afrikaners had fared, particularly now that they had been humbled, at the mercy of their age-old enemy, the black man. I wanted to visit them in their internal exile.
At Heathrow I board a South African Airways jumbo and note with interest and surprise that all the cabin crew are black, not a white or mixed-race face among them. It is years since I flew SAA and the crew reflect the changes that have occurred in the country. Where, I wonder, have all those Afrikaans girls gone? I note that black empowerment has not yet reached the cockpit as Captain Hardwick welcomes us on board for the non-stop overnight flight to Cape Town. I feel a small release of tension on hearing his voice. This comes with a sense of shame, 30 years of conditioning in apartheid South Africa have taken their toll. It is not a pretty thing but I recognise it for what it is. I look up and the toilet sign above my head still says in Afrikaans Toilet Agter Beset, Toilet Aft Engaged, another crappy thing that has yet to change. No sign yet of any of the countrys 10 other official languages among them Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Sotho, Pedi.
I sleep fitfully and eventually, through the cabin windows, see my first African sunrise for years, a mix of orange, lemon and blue striations. Shortly after breakfast as the aircraft banks past Table Mountain I feel that old thrill home again. The plane does not so much land as kiss the tarmac. I spot my sister Jay and nephew Kirsten waiting for me in the arrivals hall. At home Guy, my brother-in-law, waits. His full name Guillaume van Helsdingen Louw still cracks me up Guy-the-thing-from-hell-Louw an old family name from his Dutch settler ancestors whose tongue, together with the French Huguenot refugees who came to the Cape in the 17th century, metamorphosed into the language of the white tribe of Africa over the next 200 years.
We pass the miles of cardboard, wood and corrugated iron shacks that line the approach road into Cape Town, home to the hundreds of thousands patiently waiting for the miracle of the new South Africa, as people still call it, to transform their lives. In the well-heeled suburb of Constantia there are roses and poinsettias in bloom, lemons on trees and guavas on bushes.
After lunch I renew my acquaintance with my fathers 30-year-old Mercedes 300 Diesel. It is still going like a donkey, not fast but steadily, he says. Waiting for the yellow light to disappear on the dashboard before I am allowed to press the ignition, I think that if Im car-jacked my assailants are going to make a very slow getaway. The engine rumbles into life and slowly I exit the house of my childhood to go in search of Afrikaners in the new South Africa.
On the surface, the new South Africa is rather like post-war Germany, not a Nazi to be found. The talk was of how immoral and unsustainable apartheid was. But scratch the surface, just a little, and the older racist attitudes are still there. But what has changed are the ugly scenes and the ugly signs. I see smiling white Afrikaans youths serving black and coloured families in restaurants and inter-racial couples walking hand in hand on the streets and on mixed beaches. It is no longer the racial divide and racial purity issues that cause such waves among Afrikaners now it is all about language and survival.
I am told by Max du Preez, a distinguished Afrikaner writer, broadcaster and former newspaper editor, that many leading Afrikaner liberals always few in number to begin with are now becoming less liberal. These so-called verligte (enlightened) intellectuals are increasingly worried about Afrikaans and the lack of Afrikaans as a medium of education. It has deeply divided the Afrikaner intellectual community. All these Afrikaners, as Ive begun to think of them, have gone all ethnic on me, worried about Afrikaans language and culture. I believe the Afrikaner must become part of a bigger whole. Besides, the language has never been richer than it is now, says Du Preez.
I can only think that the divisions between Afrikaners, this broedertwis (brother dispute), must be highly diverting to many non-Afrikaners, some of whom are surely rubbing their hands with glee. Afrikaans, after all, was the issue that ignited the riots of 1976 that set the black townships on fire and eventually led to the country being made ungovernable. In an act of mad hubris, the then National Party government had decreed that Afrikaans was to be the medium of black education. Young black students protested the language of the oppressor in the mouth of the oppressed is the language of the slave. The township of Soweto outside Johannesburg, synonymous first with oppression, then with uprising, burned for more than a decade until Mandela was released. The defining image of the 1976 Soweto uprising, of the dead teenager Hector Peterson being carried away from where he was shot by apartheids police, went round the world together with pictures of the childrens protest banners: No Afrikaans! This was not a way for a language to win friends.
One man who not only knows a lot about the Afrikaners but feels a lot about the future of the language is Professor Ampie Coetzee, head of Afrikaans and Dutch Literature at the University of the Western Cape. He is best known for his work on the relationship between literature and politics and on the identity of the Afrikaner. He spent time studying under the revered Afrikaans poets NP van Wyk Louw and Ernst van Heerden. He has close links to Breyten Breytenbach, whom he considers one of the worlds greatest poets. Breyten, as everyone refers to him, went into exile in Paris in 1960. In 1975 he returned as an undercover agent for the ANC before being caught and jailed for nine years under the Terrorism Act. His importance in the small pantheon of Afrikaner rebels was that he was the truest representative of the revolutionary Afrikaner, thinking and writing and speaking and then doing the unthinkable.
As I arrive at Coetzees bungalow situated near the open expanse of Rondebosch Common, he and his wife, Anne-Ghrette, and their two-year-old son Kobus (Last of the Afrikaners, as Coetzee describes him later) are just returning from the supermarket. The house is securely fenced, gated, locked and barred, but climbing roses soften the security measures. I shout a hesitant hello as they disappear inside. Coetzee re-emerges and unlocks the gate. Come in, come in, he says and I am ushered into a small dark sitting room stuffed with books, pictures, carvings, statues all the stuff of an artistic, bohemian, intellectual, creative life. Beneath a couch opposite me a carved white-eyed baboon keeps a close watch on me throughout the interview.
As I sit down I notice a massive family Bible (his mothers it turns out) just by my left elbow. Later when coffee is served I move the Bible, not wanting to place the cup on this treasured item. Coetzee laughs and says: Its all right, Im not religious, you can put the cup on it. But I move it anyway, knowing how my own mother would have felt. I say: I dont want your mother to kom spook (come to haunt you).
Coetzee is dressed in a denim shirt and jeans with bright red thick-heeled sneakers, which add a few inches to his height. His thick grey hair and short beard frame a face Ive seen on a thousand Afrikaners: shrewd, slightly cynical, yet quick to smile. Underneath is a well-disguised wariness.
He says that many Afrikaners believe that the last Afrikaner president, FW de Klerk, sold them out. By persuading them to trust him he managed to get turkeys to vote for Christmas. He says the last regime did not negotiate hard enough with the ANC, who in effect ran roughshod over them. The cultural safeguards needed for a small minority were not achieved. They got the constitution protecting 11 languages, but thats not happening, he says. English is basically the language of administration in this country. So it is the language of government, he concludes.
I think the only Afrikaners who will really survive are the Afrikaners who go to live in Orania (a whites-only small, rural enclave tolerated by the government). It is not a ghetto, but the Afrikaner who can withdraw and practise his language and culture, only he will survive as an Afrikaner.
It reminded me of what I was told by the Stellenbosch-based political scientist Jannie Gagiano, a hardegat (hard-arsed, uncompromising) Afrikaner, who is pessimistic about the future. In his view, Afrikanerdom is a spent political force: I will tell you where their best minds are, they are resting in the Diaspora, or taking retirement down at a nice strandhuisie (little beach house) where they can privatise their Afrikanerdom through ethnic nesting. I dont see them returning to the public fray.
Coetzee also talks of a Diaspora, not only a physical Diaspora but a spiritual, a cultural Diaspora, because my concern is that the Afrikaner as a group as we knew them with a definite language and a definite literature is going to dissipate.
South Africas official language policy is that every child has the right to be educated in their mother tongue, as far as is reasonable. At three of the universities established under the old regime specifically as Afrikaans-medium institutions, Afrikaans is an official language for teaching and research along with English. At Stellenbosch, the oldest and probably still the most distinguished of the formerly Afrikaans universities, English dominates at postgraduate level. Officially, the formerly English-medium universities, such as the University of Cape Town, allow students to write their papers and exams in Afrikaans. But the reality is that Afrikaans, once so dominant in some of the nations leading educational institutions, is on the skids.
Coetzee says Afrikaans as a tertiary medium of instruction is being broken down. The University of the Free State is practically an English-language university. The Rand Afrikaans University has more instruction in English than in Afrikaans and Stellenbosch is transformed. For instance, if there are three English-speaking students in a class who cannot understand Afrikaans, then the class will be in English.
The [authorities] say Ö it is not necessarily going to be like that, but it is going to be like that because the education minister says it is unthinkable that there can be an Afrikaans university. There cannot be an Afrikaans university anymore. Just as he says there cannot be a Xhosa university or a Zulu university or a Venda university, but he does not say that there cannot be an English university! He leaves that out because its obvious what is going to happen. (Later, when I check, I find that the minister actually said language should not be a barrier to university access.)
Coetzee tells how his 19-year-old son Marko, who attends an English-medium school, is sometimes called Boertjie (the diminutive of farmer, usually meant even more pejoratively than just Boer), although he is a big guy, and he hates it. He hates being called a Boer. Hes had fights about it, not physical, but fights. He never talks about the Afrikaner, he has no consciousness about it and when I carry on about Afrikaans dying he just laughs at me. Hes not concerned about it at all. I think the schools are so integrated now and so multiracial that kids are not ethnic anymore.
I ask him about Breyten. I think that he is one of the greatest poets in the world. The irony is that he writes in one of the smallest languages in the world. He is translated now into English and French but its not the same because he uses Afrikaans metaphors that just dont translate. Hy kyk die kat uit die boom. How can you look the cat out of the tree? Die aap is uit die mou. The monkey is out of the sleeve (the secret is out). It is surreal, totally surreal. Die koeŽl is deur die kerk en die dominee is dood. The bullet is through the church and the vicar is dead its too late for tears. He laughs with delight.
This younger generation of Afrikaners who are less concerned about the future of the language call people like him old grey men in grey shoes. He says that Afrikaners and their language are becoming marginalised and that he must learn to accept that. I dont mind too much, he says. But he does, he does.
I later learn that Coetzee has not suddenly started wearing red shoes in response to the grey shoe charge. He wears red shoes in tribute to Breyten who is partial to colourful footwear.
The next day I drive out to Stellenbosch, which is basking in mellow winter sunshine, the branches of oaks dappling the white and green architecture of the foremost Afrikaans university of the old days. I park the Mercedes outside the main administration building and walk next door to the history department. On the steps outside there are half a dozen black students, so dark they look blue-black; they appear to be from other parts of Africa, and so it proves. The building also houses the department that deals with foreign students. In the lobby, a group of blonde Afrikaans girls, looking like Barbie dolls, stand around chatting. I look from one group of students to the other, amazed that all this has happened and without the total meltdown I expected.
Professor Albert Grundlingh, head of the history department, says the arrival of black students at Stellenbosch was very difficult at first, but today it is taken in their stride by everyone. I describe the two groups, black and white, male and female, that I saw on my way in and he says: They are very polite to one another. Maar hulle kry nie vatplek aan mekaar nie (But they dont get a gripping place on each other vatplek being a place to metaphorically grasp something), and he laughs, as I do, at the unintended double entendre. And as if on cue, there is a knock on the door. Its a student from Gabon asking for a quick word. Politely the professor asks the student to give him just a few minutes more and then hell be with him.
Grundlingh is very concerned that Afrikaans will be lost. If the language does not fulfil any higher order functions, scientific functions, academic functions, then obviously its going to lose a lot of its impact for people to learn it. Its a real threat. English is such a powerful language when you run it alongside Afrikaans it just swallows it up. And these youngsters, these kids, they see that as a plus, they want to learn English, they realise that if they want access to the wider world they need English. They realise their futures are limited in this country.
Someone who doesnt find that particularly worrying is Yvonne Malan, a graduate lecturer at the department of philosophy. I am told she is an outspoken voice, and she does not disappoint. She is a slight, boyish figure, with short brown-blonde hair, dressed casually in running gear, and it soon emerges that she has run the Comrades Marathon (South Africas gruelling 89km road race) three times. She also plays soccer and is keen on rock climbing, without ropes. In her office hangs a mock-up of a Time cover with a picture of George Bush. Below it, in bold type, are the words WE ARE FUCKED. Here, it seems, is a new generation of Afrikaner. It quickly becomes obvious that she is not averse to breaking taboos.
She sits with her arms crossed, almost hugging herself, a little shy, cautious. She was born in Pretoria, she says, but grew up in the Cape. Her doctoral thesis is titled Deconstruction and the Ethics of Resistance not light reading, I imagine.
Her Malan ancestors were Cape Rebels in the Anglo-Boer War at the end of the 19th century, she tells me. This war once again casts a long shadow. Here is the offspring of Afrikaners who might have sat out the war in the comfort of the British-controlled Cape Colony but who opted to go north to fight alongside their Afrikaner brothers and cousins, putting at risk all they had in the Cape. Somehow Im not surprised to hear this. Yvonne Malan has the look of eagles about her.
She says that what is much more important to young Afrikaners, the things they define themselves by, is the soccer team you support and the Kwaito music you listen to. Many more than ever are going overseas for good or for a time and coming back with a much broader world view. As a result, she says, they are far more relaxed about the future of the language.
She also points out that Afrikaans is in rude health thanks to the many coloured and black people who speak it as a first or second language. If the University of Stellenbosch, for example, wants to maintain its Afrikaans language policy, then it needs more coloured students. Where are the old men now? Are they offering bursaries to these students?
They should also keep in mind that the youth still speak Afrikaans, but their whole identity is not wrapped up in it. They use language as a creative force, not as a mechanism for power and exclusion. Karen Zoid (a rock star who sings in English and Afrikaans), for example, does 10 times as much for Afrikaans as the ou ooms (old uncles) will ever do.
In the new Holocaust Centre in Cape Town there is a 1930s article from the Cape Times telling how 1 000 men and women marched to the docks at 11 pm one night intending to halt the berthing of the SS Stuttgart carrying 538 German-Jewish immigrants. They failed, I was happy to see. But this period, the 1930s and 1940s, witnessed a surge of anti-Semitism in South Africa, ensuring a prominent place for the Jewish Question on the public agenda. Anti-Semitism formed an important component of the Afrikaner National Party world view, evident in such movements as the pro-Nazi Greyshirts, the Ossewabrandwag and the New Order. This was precisely the time that my crazy, stupid, brave, loving mother chose to marry a Jew. What could she have been thinking?
As it happens, my parents went through an understandably lengthy courtship thanks to the mutual antagonism of their two communities. After 15 years of on-off romance, they finally married in 1948, the year the National Party came to power. They decided they would raise their children in the Jewish faith. How this decision came about I am not sure. Perhaps my father felt that in this way he would not be opting out from Judaism completely; and for my mother, knowing her, it would have been an act of love, the final proof that she had not a scrap of her peoples anti-Semitism in her.
This religious duality had its lighter and its bittersweet moments. When my mothers dominee (parson) came round each year to collect funds for the church, my father would take great delight in providing a seriously large cheque with this proviso: Make sure that you tell everyone how much the bastard Jew gave and then they wont be able to give less!
It is thus with great satisfaction that in the Gitlin Library, near the Holocaust Centre, I discover something that few Afrikaners will know. The South African author Charles Press, in his authoritative book, The Light of Israel The story of the Paarl Jewish Community, writes: Jan Lion Cachet, a renegade Jew from the Netherlands, played an important role in the early history of the Afrikaans language. He was a regular contributor to Di Afrikaanse Patriot, the first Afrikaans newspaper, published in Paarl. It was said of him that he was proud to be a Jew, a Dutchman and an Afrikaner.
Press continues: His allegorical poem, Die Afrikaanse Taal, displays such prophetic vision that it is considered to be one of the jewels of the first Afrikaans Language Movement. I begin to feel whole at last.
The tale of the Afrikaners cannot be told without reference to another remarkable man, Abram Bram Fischer. He was born in 1908 into a prominent Afrikaner family. He was the grandson and namesake of the last president of the Republic of the Orange Free State (the most vociferously conservative of the old Afrikaner republics before Union in 1910) and his father was a respected lawyer and judge president of the Orange Free State. Fischer was a brilliant student who went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar before returning to South Africa to practise law. But he chose to join the Communist Party and defended many black activists, including a young Nelson Mandela. He was hounded, struck off the roll and finally sentenced to life imprisonment under the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1975, he died just a few weeks after being released because he had terminal cancer.
Writing about Bram Fischer, Stephen Clingman, the academic and biographer, says: He came out of Afrikaner nationalism; he died belonging to the whole of South Africa. He never saw this as a betrayal of Afrikaner identity, but rather as its fulfilment, its extension towards the true meaning of the name African. He was a white man able to undertake, in the course of his own life, the personal transformation that must accompany, if not herald, the political. At a time when it would have been almost unimaginable to say so, instinctively and by conviction, he understood that if whites were to have a meaning and a future in South Africa, this was the kind of change they would have to undergo. And so he took it on a story of identity, its retention and extension, into the marrow of his own life.
I pack my case and head for the airport. There I sit with my brother-in-law, Guy Louw (the thing from hell), killing time till my flight home to the UK. Guy is an Anglicised Afrikaner, married to a Boerejodin (boer Jewess), my sister, working hard in this new South Africa. His pragmatism makes this all possible. He seldom speaks Afrikaans. He thinks of himself simply as a South African. He loves rugby and cricket, braaivleis (barbecues), kortbroeke (short pants) and kaalvoet stap (walking barefoot) and goes regularly from the city to refresh himself in the platteland (literally flatland, but denotes rural area).
He has survived seven lean years with ingenuity and quiet dignity. He turned himself into a tourist guide to help make ends meet. Now he has returned to his trade as a civil engineer, building harbours, roads and bridges, the economic infrastructure that the new South Africa needs. Surely here, right beside me, is the best message of hope for the Afrikaner. The qualities that have helped them survive and thrive in Africa are still at work in him. Their genes live on in his and my sisters children - and they have no wish or intention to leave their beloved country.
Julian Roup is the author of A Fisherman in the Saddle (Jacana). His new book, Boerejood, is due to be published in August 2004.
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