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My generation
George A Hill Herman Wasserman is the author of the short story collections Verdwaal and Aan die ander kant van die stad. He has also published several stories in collection volumes like Vonkfiksie and Uit die kontreie vandaan. He is the co-editor (together with Sean Jacobs) of the academic essay collection Shifting Selves: Postapartheid Essays on Media, Culture and Identity. He was born in Port Elizabeth on 29th July 1969 and matriculated at Durbanville High School in 1987. He studied literature and journalism at the University of Stellenbosch and obtained the BHons Joern, MA and DLitt degrees. He worked as an art columnist and book editor for Die Burger, and has been a senior lecturer in the Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch since 2002.
"In 1977, terwyl Steve Bantu Biko in dieselfde stad ondervra en geslaan is, kaal en bewusteloos in 'n polisievoertuig gegooi en na Pretoria vervoer is om aan sy beserings te sterf, het ek kommervry in Framesby se strate gespeel en getrou Sondagskool bygewoon. Dalk het ons op een van ons Sondagmiddaguitstappies verby sy sel gery, ek weet nie."
"In 1977, while Steve Bantu Biko was being interrogated and beaten in the same city, thrown naked and unconscious into a police van and transported to Pretoria to die from his injuries, I played without a care in world on Framesby's streets and faithfully attended Sunday School. Perhaps we drove past his cell on one of our Sunday afternoon outings, I don't know."

Braaivleis, sunshine and a state of emergency

Herman Wasserman

Also available as: Braaivleis, sonneskyn en 'n noodtoestand

"The day they jailed Mandela, I first heard John Lennon sing," David Kramer recalls in the song "Out of the Blue". He belongs to a generation that is a few years older than me, because when I first saw the light of day in 1969, Nelson Mandela had already served a few years in jail.

In 1976, the year that the young black pupil Hector Petersen was shot dead by policemen in Soweto, I started school. The worst violence that we little whiteys were exposed to was corporal punishment by bombastic teachers. There were never Casspirs parked outside our classrooms. The greatest excitement that year was, rather, related to the fact that we got our first television set.

In 1977, while Steve Bantu Biko was being interrogated and beaten in the same city, thrown naked and unconscious into a police van and transported to Pretoria to die from his injuries, I played without a care in world on Framesby's streets and faithfully attended Sunday School. Perhaps we drove past his cell on one of our Sunday afternoon outings, I don't know.

In 1978, the year the kragdadige Pieter Willem Botha took over the reins of the apartheid government, I was taught in the Kragga Kamma commando of the Voortrekkers how to salute the "Orange-White-and-Blue", the South African flag. At that stage I had no idea that eleven years later I would have to stand for hours to attention in the rain on the Cape Parade so that the Defence Force could take its leave of its supreme commander. On SABC news broadcasts we did sometimes see the names of soldiers who had died on the border, but they didn't really register. My brothers and I had a great time playing cowboys and crooks in our large garden.

On the same day as my birthday in 1981 Prince Charles and Lady Di were married. Our principal at Eversdal Primary School gave an instruction that every teacher should bring a television set to class so that we could see the direct broadcast of the wedding. At that stage I had never even heard the name Nelson Mandela, nor did I know that he had been a lawyer before he was thrown into jail, but I did know that Lady Di had been a nursery school teacher somewhere in England before she met the prince.

In 1983 we saw posters on the lampposts with "Vote Yes" and "Vote No" on them. We got up early to see Gerrie "Sore Hands" Coetzee fight against black boxers overseas, and we held thumbs for Zola Budd. Every Tuesday we had to put on our cadet clothes and march in formation on the rugby field. If you forgot to wear the brown uniform, you were beaten with a plank taken out of the back of a school desk. We heard the words unrest and necklace, and the papers spoke disparagingly about "stone-throwers" and children burning down schools.

In 1985 a few friends and I held a party on one of their parents' farms just outside Durbanville. We braaied outside, a little way from the house, where we could light up a cigarette on the sly now and again and share a few beers that one of us had smuggled in in his rucksack. We thought we were cool. At one stage one of them went inside to get something from the house. When he came back, he said that a state of emergency had been announced on the news. We were stunned. Where we lived, in the safe, prosperous suburbs, there was no emergency of any nature whatever. Our lives revolved around hormones and experimenting with smoking and drinking (occasionally someone particularly daring even with dagga). The only rebellion we knew about was against our parents and teachers. We listened to British punk, wore our hair in a crew cut, rode around on 50 cc motorbikes. With apologies to David Kramer: "The day they announced an emergency, I first heard The Smiths sing." We told jokes about Ethiopians after Bob Geldof held a concert for them.

In 1987 we wrote matric. Our set-work was Van Wyk Louw's Raka - "Raka, die aap-mens, hy wat nie kan dink,/ hy wat swart en donker is, van been en spier/ 'n lenige boog, en enkeld dier" ("Raka, the ape-man, he who cannot think,/ black and dark, a supple bow/ of bone and muscle, solely beast"), but we weren't allowed to read the ordinary version. We used the "school version", from which phrases like "skaamteloos groot die skaamte" ("shamelessly great the shame") had been expunged, because schoolchildren should preferably not be exposed to sex. The boys received their call-up papers for the defence force and had to decide whether they would go to the army or to university first. We were under the impression we were going to "defend our country", and that sounded like an adventure. On Sundays there would be men in uniform attending church, boys who'd come home on a weekend pass.

In 1988 we quickly became adults within a period of three months when we received our basic military training, the start of two years of national service, paradoxically called diensplig ("compulsory service") in Afrikaans. As we ran in platoon formation with our R4s at chest height, we had to sing songs like "I wanna go into Angola/ I wanna to kill old Sam Nujoma". We learnt to shoot, we were screamed at, we had to get up early to iron our beds, we puked from exhaustion on the obstacle course. We were indoctrinated against the Cubans and Swapo. One day as we were busy training, a group of "oumanne" (second-year vets) came back from the border. They stood and watched us, laughed at how awkward we were with weapons and drill commands. We were shocked at what they looked like - dirty, unshaven, with long hair and wild eyes.

After basics some of us were lucky enough to get quiet clerical work; others were sent away to the border, some to the notorious 32 Battalion. I applied for a transfer to the Defence Force Band. It didn't earn you many points in the macho division, but was calmer and safer. Our job was to add a touch of elegance to parades and military funerals. I learnt to do the slow march, something I would do regularly for the next year and a half when we accompanied a coffin, draped in the national flag, to the cemetery. A few mates and I went AWOL to attend the VoŽlvry concert in the Three Arts Theatre in Plumstead.

In 1990 I was a first-year student. At the first-years' camp someone went into town and came back with a newspaper: the ANC was being unbanned, Nelson Mandela released.

In 1992 I received my first degree. By the time South Africa became a formal democracy I had another two, and obtained a bursary I had to work back. My access to a professional occupation was assured. I therefore began the New South Africa on a foundation laid on a privileged education.

From the above it is clear that I belong to a generation of white Afrikaners who grew up in an illusion. We grew up in safety and comfort, blissfully unaware of the realities of the country around us. If, therefore, I want to speak on behalf of "my generation", there is no way I can pretend to have a grasp of the totality of experience of South Africans of my age. To assume that my individual experiences may to some extent be emblematic of a larger group of white South Africans of my age is risky enough; to presume that I can include black South Africans when I put into words the experiences of "my generation" would be arrogant and dishonest. What do I know of the experiences of those who weren't allowed to play sport against us unless our parents had given a letter of consent, who didn't celebrate rag with us at our universities while the country was burning, who were sometimes literally in the sights of our guns in the townships? So if I want to try and explain how members of my generation make sense of our current environment, I have to realise that the separateness of the worlds in which we lived has played a central role in where we are today and how we see the country and ourselves in it. The past in which our generation came about was a past of division. That is the paradox: that which makes us a generation, namely a shared past, is precisely the experience of division.

So if I want to presume to speak on behalf of a cohort of South Africans who are grouped together on the basis of their age, I can do so at most in respect of those with similar socio-political backgrounds to my own. Even then, I know, a shared past is not the same as an identical past.

Then let me write on behalf of the last generation of Botha's children only. On behalf of the white Afrikaners who turned between 35 and 45 in the year that South Africa's democracy celebrated its tenth birthday. We were the last to attend segregated schools. Some of us were the last to vote in a whites-only election, the last to be called up for two years' national service, the last still to sing "Die Stem".

Can we maintain that we share none of the guilt for this past? We cannot deny our complicity, nor can we maintain that we were not advantaged by it. Yet at the same time many of us cannot rid ourselves of a resentment against those who misused us in terms of a system. We were old enough to know better than to become part of an immoral system, but because we grew up under a semblance of normality we were never confronted with a choice. We are a group who gained our understanding with a one-eyed view of reality and are therefore only now starting to learn what it is to share a country with others. It is a group that welcomed the end of the era of privilege with open arms, but was not required to renounce its material and social advantages.

And if I remain silent about the others, our fellow-citizens who are the same age as us but who grew up in a different reality, it must be an audible silence. It must be a silence that reminds us that although things have changed there are still gaps in our togetherness, here on this side of 1994. It must remind us that we still have a lot to talk about. That silence must make us feel uncomfortable about the fact that South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. The heritage of our fathers has, in so far as it relates to the inequalities in society, to a large extent remained the heritage of their children. The silence must remind us that although we have moved past the divisions of the past in our minds, at ground level those gulfs continue to exist. It's a silence that must drum against our practised assumptions, our comfortable environments, our existing ways of thinking. It must be an acknowledgement of the unpleasant fact that in this country we still live largely alongside one another rather that together with one another.

And if now speak on behalf of my generation of white Afrikaners, it is ironic on top of everything else. Because it is precisely our generation on whose behalf there was always someone else who spoke, and we hated it. When we were children, it was decided on our behalf that our future was in danger. It was decided on our behalf that we didn't want black children next to us at our school desks. It was decided on our behalf that we should go and overthrow communism, and we were called up to deliver up our innocence, for you, O South Africa, dear land. In our schools, in our homes, in our churches others spoke on our behalf, and we were taught not to answer adults back.

But it would be the height of arrogance to position ourselves as victims. Despite the fact that as children we were psychologically molested in the national interest, and despite the fact that we did not come through that unscathed, today we are in a far better position than our peers, the lost generation who defied the rubber bullets in the townships. Our privileged education and privileged economic position allowed us to obtain degrees and work experience before affirmative action was instituted, and we are hanging onto what we have for dear life. We have largely managed to miss the frontal lobotomy of white men in companies and institutions, even though we haven't had the beach houses to which they were able to retire either.

My generation envies the one that has followed us, for the weightlessness with which they zip across borders, for the fact that they are able to zigzag between styles, fashions, continents without the weight of past decades on their shoulders. But we also see a sort of directionless nostalgia, a salvo looking for a target, in their pastiche of an era in which they did not share - that compels them to think up alternative names like Abel Kraamsaal ("Abel Maternity Ward") or Fokofpolisiekar ("Fuckoffpolicevan") without having to take the same risks as a Koos Kombuis or Johannes Kerkorrel. The market is the only ideology against which resistance can be shown today.

My generation has largely emigrated inwards, to the security of a suburban existence, to a privatised culture and religion. It is true that we didn't surf the entire wave of material prosperity all the way to the beach like our parents did, but economically speaking (in the light of the larger South African reality), we are able to drift along in relative comfort, thanks to the helping hand of our advantaged background. We remember where we come from, but we have neutralised it. Sometimes we'll use words like min dae or naafi as a shibboleth in a joke, but we do not depend on a do you remember? for our identity. We don't always know how to turn guilt into responsibility, but unfortunately we don't worry too much about it either. We aren't strongly present in public debates, because we were not taught to take a critical position, and we prefer the safety of braaivleis fires and dinner parties for our opinions. We do know that we don't want to participate in the older generation's language debates that use words like struggle and fight, because we still remember what it feels like to fight in someone else's war. We hear how the older generation deny that they ever voted for the NP and listen with a slight feeling of irritation when they dig up stories about how they played together with their black friends on the farm. "There is a traffic jam on the road to Damascus," says the historian Albert Grundlingh, and we agree.

But let us beware of the new cheerleaders on the market square who want to get us to believe unconditionally in the freedom of the individual and the salvation of free, rational choice. Let us remember that not everyone of our age has inherited the same choices and freedoms as we have. Let us not too quickly join the choir of shosolozas and thereby forget that the present is still limping along as a result of the inequalities of the past in which we grew up. Don't let us believe uncritically in the miracle of a new society, but let us rather realise that we have to help build it. And we cannot do so by remaining sitting in our enclaves. If we do not consciously go and try to get to know the others of our generation of whom we know so little, whose language we often cannot speak, whose poverty we generally do not share, whose culture is strange to us, we are going to perpetuate the illusion of our youth. If we are not going to move across our borders, we will never be able to develop new identities, and we will repeat the divisions of the past in the future. We have to reinvent ourselves, in conversation with the others of our generation, and learn to listen to the silences that lie around our assumptions and presumptions. Our privileged past gives us the responsibility to help bridge the chasm of poverty between ourselves and the others of our generation. The new South Africa is not yet a fait accompli. The only way our generation can escape the complicity of the past is by consciously accepting responsibility for the future.

So that we can be a generation that creates something new. A generation that regenerates.

Works by the author:

Aan die ander kant van die stad Aan die ander kant van die stad (pictured left)
Verdwaal (not pictured)

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LitNet: 27 October 2004

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