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28 May 2017 22:30 (South Africa)
South Africa

Analysis: As culture wars intensify, some white Afrikaners push back

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa
Photo: Afrikaans students take part in a demonstration defending the use of Afrikaans as the language of choose at the University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa, 23 February 2016.  EPA/KIM LUDBROOK EPA/KIM LUDBROOK EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

There’s something in the air. From private militias to private prosecutions, a certain segment of white Afrikaners are pushing back against perceived (or actual) threats to their lives, language and culture. They may not have political power, but there is still one tool: money, used to bolster groups like Afriforum and Solidarity, fund or defend legal actions such as the current school religion case being heard by the Johannesburg High Court, and punish businesses like Spur. By REBECCA DAVIS.

To find evidence that deep discontent is brewing in some white Afrikaans quarters in South Africa, you don’t have to spend very much time online. On Facebook in particular, pages abound with comment after comment expressing a profound sense that theirs is a community under siege: the victims of a government which has deserted them, a media which doesn’t hear them, and a liberal justice system consistently failing to uphold the rights of a conservative worldview.

In the perceived absence of support from any state institutions, such Afrikaners are building increasingly powerful private bodies to lobby for their interests. The most high-profile example of this in the last year was Afriforum’s January announcement that it had recruited state prosecutor Gerrie Nel to set up a private prosecutions unit to pursue cases that the National Prosecuting Authority declines to prosecute. That Afriforum had the financial power to headhunt a legal star like Nel says much for the commitment of its reported 190,000 private donors.

There have been persistent rumours that the ultimate aim of this unit will be to prosecute President Jacob Zuma. Directly asked whether this was the case at the Cape Town Press Club last week, Nel reportedly replied, “I’m avoiding [the] question,” with a smile.

Finding ways to act parallel to the state to support Afrikaners seems increasingly to be the modus operandi of groups like Afriforum. It was recently reported, for instance, that Afriforum had built a community centre in Vryheid. That would normally be the role of the government – but when the government doesn’t care about you, you have to do it yourself. ‘n Boer maak ‘n plan, as the old saying goes.

Rural security is being handled along the same lines. In March, Bennie van Zyl, the general manager of the Transvaal Agricultural Union, told the Daily Maverick that when it came to preventing farm attacks, “We are now doing it by ourselves”.

Van Zyl continued: “The closest helping hand you can get is on your own arm. We are creating farm watches, and carrying out training and reconnaissance. We are gathering intelligence by ourselves with our farmworkers. The farming population has its own plans.”

That conservative white Afrikaners are able to mobilise effectively via private channels should be evident from the revelation this week that this group’s boycott of the Spur restaurant chain has cost Spur millions already. It is a telling reminder: they may no longer be able to flex political muscle through formal structures, but there is still economic muscle to be flexed.

For a snapshot into the sense that this is a community which very much considers itself into siege, papers recently filed at the South Gauteng High Court are illustrative.

In the case heard by that court this week, where an organisation called the Organisasie vir Godsdienstige-Onderrig en Demokrasie (cheekily shortened to OGOD) is taking six Afrikaans government schools to court over their enforced Christian ethos, Afriforum and Solidarity have joined the case as amicus curiae.

Afriforum explains in its heads of argument that it joined the case because it “represents a portion of society who is directly affected by the case”. The language it uses in its arguments is highly revealing: the threat is one of “alienating communities”; of “strip[ping] religious communities of their freedom to practise religion, not only as individuals but also as a community”; of ensuring the “total deprivation of [Christian] rights”.

For some context, what the applicants are arguing is that schools funded with state money should not be allowed to promote one religion to the exclusion of others, and that religious observances may be held at the school but not be run by the school.

In a recent blog post, OGOD director Hans Pietersen clarified: “We have asked for equitable treatment for all religions in school, and for the ending of the religious apartheid that is currently in place at these schools. We want more religions in schools. We have never sought to ban religions.”

Nonetheless, Afriforum’s argument continues: “If the state was to buy into the form of neutrality that [OGOD] proposes and elects to expel religious practises from schools, it will in effect elevate the worldview of [OGOD] above that of the respondent schools… Those persons who do not conform, would effectively be ostracised from society.”

It warns: “If religious freedoms are completely washed out of public schools, it would lead to a withdrawal from public schools of a large portion of society who form part of religious communities… The more communities withdraw and become isolated from the public sphere, the more unstable and volatile society would become.” The result? “A foreseeable isolationist movement amongst different religious communities will probably arise.”

If that sounds to you like a bit of an over-the-top response to a proposal that state schools host prayer meetings after school rather than within school hours, you’re not alone. But the point is that for groups like Afriforum, a much wider principle is at stake: the need to protect the rights and traditions of a community which feels itself ever more pushed to the margins of the state.

We feel like the whole school governance debate is one that conservative organisations keep pushing back on,” SECTION27’s Faranaaz Veravia told the Daily Maverick on Thursday. “They’ve tried this around language, admissions, religion… These are debates that have long been settled.”

As long as perceived Afrikaner interests are threatened, however, and as long as there is still money to pay lawyers, you can expect the debates to be constantly revisited. Veravia sums it up: “There’s a political pushback here.” DM

Photo: Afrikaans students take part in a demonstration defending the use of Afrikaans as the language of choose at the University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa, 23 February 2016. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK EPA/KIM LUDBROOK EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa

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