The humdinger: “There will come a time when those of you who speak Dutch will be in the minority, and then a real challenge awaits.”
Antjie Krog was delivering her acceptance speech after being awarded the Gouden Ganzenveer, the most prestigious literary prize in the Netherlands, in the Council Chamber of the restored the Grand Hotel in central Amsterdam on 19 April.
The chamber, clad in ornate engraved and carved wood panels, and with its seductively droopy art deco chandeliers, is the heart of this historic hotel, which once offered a bed to kings, princes and queens.
The oldest part of the building dates back to 1411, long before Dutch navigator Jan Van Riebeeck, his wife and his son set sail from Texel for the Cape of Good Hope. The arrival in South Africa in 1652 of these Dutch officials on contract to the Dutch East India Company, and later the migration of French, German and Dutch settlers was, in the long run, to have devastating consequences for indigenous and first peoples of South Africa.
Those of us today who speak and understand Afrikaans – those of us who do so because we were forced to learn it (and later came to love it – or perhaps not) carry this history in our mouths and on our tongues. All the more relevant, then, that Krog also prodded and provoked the European audience, reading poems translated from the now-extinct /Xam and performed by German voice artist Christian Kesten.
Languages die if they are not treasured or supported. This is the lesson Krog brought/brings not only to the Dutch, but also to multilingual South Africa, where the country’s eight other official languages have suffered because of the considerable investment in English and Afrikaans as official languages.
For Krog, the connection between Dutch/Flemish and Afrikaans cannot be about an enclave of mother-tongues, of white intellectual elites – but has to be about what Moroccans, Indonesians and black and brown South Africans who speak Afrikaans bring to Dutch, and how this can affect its intellectual and literary traditions.
“You can learn from the language of pain and the language of freedom and colonialism and post-colonialism. I would like to see Afrikaans enriched by this, as well as the movement of Muslims to the Netherlands,” Krog told journalist Rudolf Stehte later.
Dutch, she added, could be enriched by the diversity of Afrikaans itself, a language that could only survive in the hearts and minds of black and brown South Africans.
“The different voices describing ways of life and places, describing what has not yet been written about in literature – and definitely not in English in South Africa. This is the incredible contribution that Afrikaans brings to South Africa – and this is why the Netherlands is reaching out to us; through our impurities, our messy wrestling and the amazing sounds that we bring forth in the process.”
But back to the night when Krog told the Dutch that they would soon have to learn what it would be like to be a minority in their own country and to embrace the changes and opportunities this could bring.
Krog referred to this as a “global correction”, reminding Europeans that the desperate refugees who were fleeing to Europe in boats did so because they could no longer survive in their home countries.
“There is a global and crucial correction occurring that I do not think you should resist but encourage,” she said.
This is a hugely provocative statement to make in Europe, a continent that feels itself “under siege” or threat, particularly from Muslim immigrants. This has seen a growing rise of right wing, nationalistic, populist and exclusionary politics.
But Europe has always been a place of refugees, genocide and war. You feel it still in the monuments to the dead, the slaughtered, the murdered. The Fields of Flanders, the holocaust memorials, the graveyards.
“So what do you think about what Antjie said?” I turned to ask diners – some of them members of the academy of the Gouden Ganzeveer – seated at my table after the award ceremony.
My invitation to the prestigious event, let me confess, was something of a charade. Both Krog and myself are friends of the much-lauded Belgian-born writer Tom Lanoye, who incidentally was the first non-Dutch author to receive the same award. This was back in 2007 and caused something of a stir, as Lanoye – in the eyes of the Dutch at least – was not a Dutch writer but a Flemish one.
Either my question fell on deaf ears or the audience had been so stunned by Krog’s apparently unthinkable suggestion that they were left bereft of any coherent reply or comment.
Lanoye had heard me ask the question, and our eyes met as not one taker at our round table offered an opinion or a thought. The conversation immediately turned to something else.
Pity, I thought. Back home it would have been picked up like a lost R100 note on sidewalk.
That, perhaps, is the curse of a culture secure and hermetic in its own corner of the world. That it might one day not be the dominant one is unthinkable. Unlike Krog, an Afrikaner, who has embraced the shifting hegemony of South Africa and her place as part of the white minority. Krog has opened herself up, and in so doing freed not only herself but her mother tongue and her writing.
There is no doubt that there will be those who seek to reconnect what appears to be the European and Dutch/German/French roots of Afrikaans rather than its origin as a “dialect” from the mouths of the slaves brought to the Cape from Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere.
Krog controversially said that the future of Afrikaans no longer lay with wealthy, white Afrikaners, who preferred to educate their children in English.
“Afrikaners sal Afrikaans soos ’n drol in die gras los as dit hulle affekteer,” (Afrikaners will leave Afrikaans like a turd in the grass if it affects them) said Krog, adding: “A language should also be allowed to die.”
To some extent, the beautifully renovated Zuid-Afrikahuis on the Keizergracht is an attempt to circumvent this possibility by keeping alive the roots of Afrikaans in the Netherlands.
Zuid-Afrikahuis houses the biggest library (54,000) of South African books in Europe and also offers cultural, musical and literary events as well as research and writing facilities. It reopened in February 2016 after extensive renovations, some of this paid for by Koos Bekker and Naspers.
From Zuid-Afrikahuis one can hear the bells of the Westerkerk that still peal every day. These are the bells Anne Frank heard, hiding in her annex on the Prinsengracht as she hid from the Nazis.
It was after the Second Boer War, Krog told NRC Handelsblad editor Nynke van Verschuer, that Afrikaners began to identify with Germany rather than Holland which they regarded as “too small”.
“And this admiration for Germany carried on, also after the Second World War, when the Afrikaners largely backed Hitler. And while racism was banned in Europe after the war, it became law in South Africa,” she said.
History always looks over our shoulders and breathes down our necks.
A singular irony of the Zuid-Afrikahuis building at 141 Keizersgracht is that it exists because of compensation by the British government for annexing a railway line between Pretoria and Maputo (then known as Lourenco Marques) built in 1894 by the Netherlands Railway Company (Nederlandsche Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorwegmaatschappij NZASM) on request of President of the South African (Boer) Republic, Paul Kruger.
NZASM was liquidated in 1908 and funds were used to establish the Zuid-Afrikaansche Stichting Moederland (ZASM) “dedicated to the advancement of cultural and economic ties between the Netherlands and South Africa”.
It was ZASM which purchased the building in Amsterdam, to house the organisation’s archives and collections, and which has now been handsomely renovated and restored.
There is, in fact, a massive portrait of Kruger in one of the many rooms, which some visitors to the centre enjoy posing in front of for selfies (and which they clearly do not post on South African social media). The portrait could so easily be rendered less iconic or offensive, and the notion of what Kruger represents today could be undermined should those who are tasked with cultivating the ethos of Zuid-Afrikahuis juxtapose it with one of a Mandela – Nelson or Winnie.
Either way, it is those who will speak Afrikaans in the future who must claim the space and make our/their mark in the 21st Century and beyond.
Krog’s husband, architect John Samuel, who attended the ceremony at the Grand Hotel, later pondered how the couple would transport the 193×36 feather, cast in 14-karat gold, weighing 53,2 grams and mounted on a little plinth of Orion stone from India, back home to South Africa.
Would it survive in the checked-in luggage? Could it be regarded as a hazardous implement should they tuck it into their hand luggage?
Hopefully the golden goose feather made it our shores intact, so that one of South Africa’s greatest poets and writers can proudly show it off – or at least wave it under someone’s nose. DM
Sheep wool never sheds.