It feels a bit strange to be interviewing a Dutchman in English, about the history and culture of a certain white tribe in South Africa, the Afrikaners.
Dutch writer Fred de Vries (1959), former Africa editor of the Dutch newspaper ‘de Volkskrant’ now residing in Johannesburg, has interviewed a cross-cut selection of Afrikaners, from the poor ‘white trash’ to rich successful businessmen and well respected writers alike to find out if their language and culture has a future in South Africa.
His extensive research resulted in a most detailed and –almost- complete history of white settlers and the evolution of their descendants. In case you have never heard of the Boer War, and your image of Afrikaners was of people who had come to South Africa in the 17th century and degenerated into a racist bunch then you need to read this book and adjust your opinion.
It is a most up-front and moving book with a special emphasis on Afrikaanse music and poetry. Highly recommended to anyone who is interested in the complex political and social structure of South Africa or to people who are planning to visit the country for the first time. Read this before you go and you will understand the new South Africa much better then ever before.
Why the Afrikaners? Why write a book on a minority group with a language that few people outside South Africa, Holland and Belgium will be able to read or understand?? Is there a future for white Afrikaners in South Africa? Should we listen to their music? Read their poetry??
So many questions popped up after reading the book that I decided to direct these directly to the writer himself. Here is an exclusive interview with Fred de Vries for Soul Safari.
The book ‘Afrikaners, een volk op drift’ has been published in Afrikaans as ’ ‘Rigtingbedonnerd: Op die Spoor van die Afrikaner Post-’94 (Tafelberg/NB Uitgewers.Cape Town, SA)
the Afrikaans word “rigtingbedonnerd” (which suggests a person who has no sense of direction) has a wonderful resonance, since “bedonnerd” in Dutch means to be cheated. The word thus has a dual valency: Afrikaners feel cheated, and they do not know where the country is going.
Parts of this text based upon a report by Annel Pieterse -August 28, 2012 Stellenbosch Literary Project
1) Why did you buy a house in South Africa?
I had been in the country for two years and me and my South African girlfriend had this dream of a kind of retreat, a weekend house, a holiday home, away from Johannesburg, a place where you were closer to nature and silence. A place to read and write, walk the dog, eat healthy food etc. We had been in RhodesVillage, near the Drakensbergen, lovely place, but too far. We had also visited Nieu Bethesda where the Dutch Princess Irene has a farm and organizes healing sessions, a place with a ‘magic mountain’. Again, lovely place, but also way too far from Johannesburg. We wanted something within a two hour drive. First we went to Memel, a beautifully situated village in the Free State province. But an American had already bought all the empty places (sixteen or so). So eventually I settled for nearby Vrede, 1h45 from Johannesburg, also in the Free State, just where the landscape is getting pretty again.
2) Do you see the recent racial problems –like the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE)- as temporary and an inevitable consequence of a society in transition or something more permanent?
I think BEE and affirmative action (positive discrimination) were inevitable and necessary consequences of and responses to four centuries of racial repression. And I think that for a while they helped to restore the economic balance. Negative side effects were that many hard working, competent whites lost their jobs and were replaced with less competent “previously disadvantaged” people. But that was also inevitable and will slowly come right in the future.
I assume that the government at some stage will realize that BEE and affirmative action are no longer the best solutions to an increasingly dire economic situation. In fact, you can already see the populists (led by Julius Malema) move away from verbally attacking white South Africans to attacking the new black upper class which acts almost more callous than their white counterparts.
The problem is of course that it’s still very easy and handy to play the race card and blame apartheid for all kinds of problems. So as the economic and social situation slowly deteriorates, as political battles within the ANC heat up, and as the differences between rich and poor (read: between black and white) remain as striking as they are, the racial tension will remain and will be played out. It will take one or two generations to really diminish.
3) I have noticed that you have learned a lot about the situation of white Afrikaners in South Africa through their music. But few people besides Afrikaners and the Dutch speaking people will be able to understand the poetry or relevance of these Afrikaanse texts. To what extent is white Afrikaner music interesting for Western ears?? Why should we listen?
True, it’s hard for Afrikaans writers, poets and musicians to find an audience outside South Africa, Holland and Belgium. The authors have to rely on translations. And for some of them, like Breyten Breytenbach, Antjie Krog, Etienne van Heerden and Marlene van Niekerk this has worked wonderfully well.
For musicians it’s much harder. Of course language shouldn’t be a barrier, as long as the music is catchy or very original. After all, we also listen to Algerian raï, Asian hip hop, Danish prog rock and Norwegian death metal. The problem is that musically the Afrikaans sounds aren’t very special. Most bands play a kind of generic rock and the ‘poets’ sing slightly ordinary, folky songs. An exception is someone like Gert Vlok Nel who has a huge following in the Netherlands and the late Johannes Kerkorrel who was quite popular in Belgium.
But new outfits such as Die Antwoord and to a lesser extend Jack Parow have proven that it is possible to cut through to an international audience, playing modern electronic music with fat beats and using a mix of Afrikaans and English. Instead of stressing the language they focus on the universal appeal of the “white trash culture” and cleverly used the internet to advertise and promote themselves. It landed Die Antwoord with an American record contract and world tours.
4) In the book you mention briefly that the colored population has very different problems then the white Afrikaners although they speak the same language. But is it not true that the colored people, and especially the Cape Malay are closely related to the original Dutch settlers? Like for instance: most of the Cape Malay people still sing old Dutch songs that have vanished since long from the Dutch culture. And that Cape Malay groups and colored people alike cherish Afrikaans as their own language and identity??
The term “coloured” is of course a purely artificial label, given by the apartheid strategists to the people who weren’t ‘African’ but were too dark to be labelled ‘European’. So the coloured group comprises of a strange combination of mixed race South Africans, Khoisan (the original inhabitants of South Africa) and descendants of slaves that were brought from Asia. Some of them indeed feel very close to the Afrikaans language, because it initially developed as a kind of Creole with Dutch roots but also a lot of other influences, including Indonesian words like baie (very) and pisang (banana). Others hate everything to do with Afrikaans and Afrikaners with a passion because it reminds them of the inhumanities that were carried out in the name of apartheid. I think the majority, certainly those outside the well-educated Cape Malay group, have now very little in common with the Afrikaners. This was largely due to the forced removals that happened during apartheid, when coloured and mixed communities were uprooted and transported to truly unpleasant places like Manenberg in the Cape Flats.
Anyway, in my book I wanted to look at what happened to a people who held all the political power and lost that power in a very short space of time: the white Afrikaners. The coloured people were second class citizens during apartheid and under the new government they are still largely treated as such.
5) Has the original Dutch settler just imported their language or also their culture of sub-division and religiously based separation? Gereformeerd vs protestants vs Catholicism vs traditional African religion?
It wasn’t so really the original Dutch settler who did that, but his later descendants. I think the idea of racial and religious separation was much very influenced by Dutch religious theorists such as Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), whose notion is seen as the core idea of apartheid. Kuiper’s propagated the idea of ‘sovereignty in your own circle’, which meant a strong separation between various ethnic and religious groups. This idea caught on with the soon to be first apartheid prime minister D.F. Malan and his followers, many of whom had studied theology in the Netherlands.
But that said, the English colonialists were also very good at separating people. They came up with the 1913 Natives Land Act, which meant that black South Africans weren’t allowed to own land outside the designated reserves. This was probably the first real apartheid measure.
6) Is there some sort of knowledge or revival in today’s South Africa’s black heritage and it’s culture before Apartheid?
Not that I’m aware of. There is definitely a revival of Black Consciousness and Steve Biko (a new Biko biography came out recently), but that movement dates from the 1970s. I think the pre-apartheid, traditional culture is pretty much frowned upon, certainly by most of the young and urban blacks who long to be hip and modern. They have become very Americanized and are very happy to reap the fruits of liberation, which means they are obsessed with material goods (cars, cell phones) and have a fascination for American movies, music en celebrities.
7) Do you see yourself as a resident or as a fifo (flying in, flying out as you mention). And how easy/difficult is it to make friends in South Africa with other people than your own?
I definitely see myself as a resident. The main reason why I spent quite a bit of time in Holland the last few years was because my parents got ill and died, and because I also worked on a book about the music and literature of Rotterdam (Gehavende Stad, uitgeverij Lebowski), but otherwise my new home is here. In Johannesburg it’s fairly easy to meet people of all classes and races. Jo’burg people are chatty and open, much more than white Capetonians who are quite cliquey and still feel very European. So making white (both Afrikaans and English speaking) friends is quite easy.
Making real friends across the racial divide is a bit harder though. Mainly because people have been separated, both physically, socially and mentally, for so long and there are still so many racial hang-ups. I found it much easier to have black friends in Kenya and Uganda, where I lived before.
8) At the end of your book you present a lot of people who express their views on the future of South Africa. I miss a balance; what do black or colored people really think?
The question you refer to was not so much about “the future of South Africa”, but about whether the people I interviewed (white Afrikaans speaking South Africans) saw “a future for white people in South Africa”. My book was about these white Afrikaners, which meant that blacks, coloureds, Indian and English South Africans fell outside the scope of my research.
musical selection from Cape Malay -The Music of the Malay Quarter -Cape Town-sung by The Central Malay Choir (Gallo DLPA 165/6 -released 1973 South Africa)
9) Would you consider it wise to invest / immigrate at present time?? What is your personal impression right now?
Most of the people I interviewed in Australia had migrated “because of the children”. In other words: because they didn’t see a real future for their children in South Africa, mainly relating to education, safety and job opportunities. I find it hard to make broad statements about whether it’s wise or not to migrate now. I do think South Africa still has plenty of opportunities for those with a bit of guts and initiative, and I also think that the mythical “overseas” is highly romanticized. Life in the UK, Australia or Holland for that matter isn’t all that great for many immigrants. It’s much more expensive and competitive; integration is not so easy; and given the current global financial turmoil it’s not that easy to find a job.
South African emigrants also get incredibly homesick and they find it hard to deal with all the rules and regulations in “nanny societies” like Australia, New Zealand and England. South Africa is after all quite a “cowboy country” where rules and laws are pretty amendable.
On the other hand I do think that things like the decline of education, health and safety are real issues in South Africa, and a lot of your well-being here depends on whether you can afford private education and private health, because the state run schools and hospitals and police are definitely struggling.
10) Why did you sell your house in South Africa?
There were several reasons. The most important one was theft and vandalism. The house didn’t have high walls or a security system, so we had break-ins and virtually everything (washing line, fire wood, fruits etc.) was stripped from the garden. Then there was our new neighbor who decided to have seven yapping dogs in cages in her garden, which was a bit of an obstacle to the peace and quiet we were longing for. Also, the little town of Vrede was struggling hard (and probably in vain) to stay afloat as a thriving commercial center. Plans to have a nature reserve not far from our house were shelved because as soon as a gate and fence were placed at the entrance, they were stolen. Trees in the ‘reserve’ were cut down at an alarming rate and used as fire wood. The roads in town got increasingly worse, refuse was piling up in the gutters and the water started to taste very funny. There were several serious corruption scandals in the municipality. In the end, like many of the other small towns in South Africa, also Vrede seemed destined for a slow but irreversible decline.
All in all we didn’t have much fun going there anymore. The trips became more of an obligation than enjoyment. So it was time to sell… (which, by the way, wasn’t easy. We got mainly interested white people from cities like Pretoria and Vereeniging who were looking for a bargain. But they got a fright when they noticed that there were “blacks!” living nearby. I used to tell them that this wasn’t so surprising since 90 percent of the South African population is black. But that didn’t make them change their mind. Eventually we sold to a middle-aged man who wanted to live there with his mother).