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Analysis: Between a statue and a soft place – Afrikaners’ ongoing existential quest for belonging

On the same day that singer Sunette Bridges threatened to chain herself to the statue of former President of the Boer Republic, Paul Kruger, in Pretoria's Church Square, alternative rocker Francois van Coke, the voice of a post-Apartheid generation of Afrikaners, released his haunting and soul-searching solo album. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Ek voel ’n fok vir wat die mense sê
(I don’t give a fuck what people say)

Ek voel ’n fok vir wat die ander mense sê
(I don’t give a fuck what other people say)

Kop op ’n blok
(Head on a block)

Praat ’n gat in my kop
(spin me a line)

Ek voel ’n fok vir wat die ander mense sê
(I don’t give a fuck what other people say)

Francois Van Coke

While millions of ordinary, white, Afrikaans-speaking South Africans might no doubt have found themselves immersed in the quotidian rituals of daily existence, two newsworthy events on Wednesday provide a keyhole view of some of issues relating to contemporary Afrikaner identity, history and belonging.

Sunette Bridges is the daughter of the late Bles Bridges, a crooner with a penchant for colourful blazers and who once made Afrikaans tannies swoon as he warbled sentimental love ballads while handing out a trademark red rose. She, along with musician/language activist Steve Hofmeyr, has spent much of the past year in the headlines. The two singers are self-appointed spokespersons for a grouping of Afrikaans speakers who would and do call themselves “Boers” and who are under the impression that the “volk” are under threat, victims of a “Boer genocide”.

Bridges and Hofmeyr’s politics are as prone to hyperbole, kitsch and overwrought emotion as Bles Bridges’ ballads, and perhaps the political rhetoric of Julius Malema. They firmly identify as cultural Afrikaners – a group defined by a unique history, language and destiny – set apart from the rest of South Africa. There are, they believe, enemies everywhere – old colonials, English-speaking South Africans and then, of course, black South Africa.

Bridges and Hofmeyr staged a protest in Church Square in Pretoria yesterday, after members of the EFF had emptied green paint over the statue of Paul Kruger. The incident was one of many that have occurred across the country with EFF members targeting symbols of “colonial imperialism and oppression” in the wake of the #Rhodesmustfall student movement.

Bridges yesterday accused President Jacob Zuma of setting the tone when earlier this year he fingered Jan van Riebeek as the originator of the country’s political woes. Meanwhile the Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, has condemned the attacks on the country’s statues or “heritage”.

That the nuances of history have been stripped from some of the debate about redress and transformation, suits Bridges, Hofmeyr and Malema, of course.

That many white, progressive, Afrikaans-speaking South Africans – writers, activists, clergymen and journalists – bravely aligned themselves with the broader struggle for democracy is often overshadowed by the likes of Hofmeyr and Bridges, who provide better click bait than these fellow Afrikaans speakers. And because of their undeserved prominence, they provide traction for younger Afrikaners who might find themselves in more hermetic domestic and educational environments.

But then there’s Francois van Coke, the son of a dominee and the frontman for the hugely popular alternative Afrikaans punk band, Fokofpolisiekar, (and also the Van Coke Cartel) who has come to represent a section of that new generation, untethered from the symbols, rituals and limitations of the past. They inherited territory carved out by the “Voëlvry” generation of the 1980s and entered the 21st Century, defiant, provocative, rebellious, subversive and engaged in deeper existential questions. The likes of Van Coke offer young white (and other) South Africans alternative emotional and linguistic traction. You can still sing in your own language without feeling alienated and marginalised.

Van Coke and his band burst onto the music scene – part of the Bellville underground rock movement – in 2003 and soon, along with singer/songwriter Karen Zoid (and many others) gave expression to the questions and concerns of young Afrikaners eager to find their own space in post-Apartheid South Africa. While they sing in Afrikaans, their sentiments, outlook and psychology is 21st Century – located in broader society.

That statues, concrete and bronze mute conjurings of the past, should provide a rallying point for an ever-shifting national conversation about “becoming” should not surprise or shock. In an increasingly atomised and virtual public arena these physical, tangible and visual manifestations offer a communal public platform for the aggrieved. For the black students who are part of the #RhodesMustFall movement and for those, like Sunette Bridges, burdened by the weight of a past that intrudes on and haunts the present.

Many English-speaking white South Africans, have fewer spaces – both physical and creative – in which to engage with their history and future. So many of the young, white UCT students have claimed that Rhodes “means nothing to me” and “does not represent me”. To which a black student astutely replied, “If he means so little to you and so much to me, he should go.”

Queen Victoria or King George, too, do not loom large in the psyches of a younger generation of white, English speaking South Africans (particularly those of settler origin). Those who speak English but whose heritage is Italian, Greek, Portuguese or German (or generally European) carry baggage located in those cultures.

But for the generic English-speaker, cultural reference points remain decidedly British (or American). The BBC series Downton Abbey enjoys a considerable following in South Africa while global monolingual Western (US and UK) culture and music is what largely distracts white, English-speaking youth.

What is there then – other than the country’s fine crop of literary talents who write in English – to prod and provoke white, English-speaking South Africans?

That Bridges should threaten to chain herself to Oom Paul and that Van Coke should release his album in the same week that the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees is taking place in Outshoorn is not insignificant.

The annual showcase for mostly Afrikaans music, theatre, dance and fine art has taken place since and been well supported since 1994. This year Hofmeyr, who was a regular featured artist, was not invited. Organisers had begun to find his political activism on behalf of white Afrikaans speakers a liability. They were prepared to forfeit potential revenue in the interests of celebrating “the arts” unsullied by his brand of macho politics.

Meanwhile it is worth repeating that more books are published annually in Afrikaans than any other indigenous language and that Afrikaans music is a highly lucrative business for those artists who have found success.

Van Coke’s beautifully melancholic solo album exposes a more mature artist grappling with weighty existential (and universal) matters. He has collaborated with fellow artists, Karen Zoid, Arno Carstens, Laudo Liebenberg and Hunter Kennedy (of Die Heuwels Fantasties) and the album is threaded with anxiety and quiet despair (which might have more to do with Van Coke’s middle age than being an Afrikaner).

The 12-track album, a gentle combination of rock, folk and pop, kicks off with the anthemic and plaintive ‘Behoort Aan Niemand’:

Die son kom op sonder dat ek dit sien
(Sun comes up without my seeing it)

Tyd verraai die oë
(Time betrays my eyes)

Die aarde raak te klein vir ons
(The earth’s too small for us)

En ons koppe te groot
(And our heads too swollen)

Staan op uit die stof
(Get up from the dust)

Vreet van elke boom
(Eat from every tree)

Vir jou wat oor ’n toekoms droom
(For you who dream of a future)

Iets sê vir my:
(Something says to me)

Maak oop jou oë, dis hier waar jy die plot verloor.’
(Open your eyes, here’s where we lose the plot)

Behoort Aan Niemand
(Belong to no one)

Sluit oop jou hart
(Unlock your heart)

Deel in die smart
(Share the pain)

Staan terug vir niemand nie
(Don’t stand back for anyone)

Behoort aan niemand nie
(Belong to no one)

Jammer, ek is so geprogrammeer
(Sorry, I’m programmed that way)

Verraaier van sy eie mense
(Traitor to his own people)

Leef in die drukkoker
(Living in a pressure cooker)

Twee seuns hardloop weg
(Two boys run away)

Want pa skiet op ma
(Because dad’s shooting at mom)

Versigtig, onveilig en afgestomp
(Careful, unsafe, numb)

Iets sê vir my:
(Something tells me)

Knyp toe jou oë, dis hier waar jy die plot verloor’
(Close your eyes, here’s where you’ll lose the plot

So, somewhere between the hard places – the statues and relics that tower over contemporary South Africa, are the softer places – the emotional vistas of the Van Cokes and the Zoids, that offer an alternative space for self-reflection – in magnificent Afrikaans. DM

Watch Van Coke and Karen Zoid’s new single here.

Photo: Francois van Coke


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