South Africa


Existential crisis of land, language and self-definition prompts FF+ growth

Existential crisis of land, language and self-definition prompts FF+ growth
Wouter Wessels, Freedom Front Plus MP and national head of election and strategy. (Wikimedia Commons)

In her tender, recently published biography ‘Cul de Sac’, penned at the age of 95, Elsa Joubert, considered one of the greatest South African writers of her generation, reflects on the 21st Century existential crisis of Afrikaner identity, inexorably linked to land, language and a putrid history. The electoral gains of the FF+ reflect this mood of some Afrikaans speakers who hope to find a meaningful political heimat in a free South Africa.

Why do I still need to tell them who my people and I are? Who are we now that we are no longer hated nationalists or apartheid people? Do I need hefty volumes and thousands upon thousands of printed words, do I need to barricade myself in my study behind lofty, toppling heaps of impressive, bulky tomes for it to get through to him [an English-speaking visitor] that Afrikaans is more than the hated apartheid language?… I realise I am more than just language. They are precious words in which my emotions and thoughts involuntarily, intuitively, embody themselves and I never want to be without them.’ – Elsa Joubert

Wouter Wessels, Freedom Front Plus MP and national head of election and strategy, has emerged as one of the key faces and voices articulating the vision of those 21st century, mostly Afrikaans-speakers, who gifted their vote to the party, rendering it the fifth largest in the National Assembly.

Now 34, Wessels cut his teeth as a former member of the Free State Legislature while current ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule was premier of the shattered province. Wessels served in that legislature on the Social Services, Public Accounts and Finance, Economic Development and Infrastructure Development committees. He was the party’s national youth leader from 2011 to 2016 before taking the oath as an MP in the National Parliament in 2017. He currently occupies fourth place on the FF+ list.

So, brace yourself for more airtime not only from the FF+ in the 6th Parliament, but also from Wessels, a lean man with an angular face with traces of US actor Jeff Goldblum around the eyes.

Some of the party’s growth has come, leader Pieter Groenewald told tjatjarag eNCA senior political reporter Samkelo Maseko, from “brown” South Africans who support the vision of the party. Confronted on his use of the apartheid-era classification, Groenewald referred Maseko to the relevant definition in the country’s current Equality Act, saying the definition was not his but the present government’s.

Can’t argue with that one.

At present, those South Africans currently classified as coloured – at around 5 million – outnumber 4.5 million white compatriots.

That’s the new, new, new South Africa where everything has shifted. Nothing is as it seems while everything is exactly as it seems.

This new, new, new South Africa, cushioned by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is slowly sloughing off the past (although it is always near at hand) and shrugging on a new and complex identity after 25 years of democracy.

Daily Maverick political correspondent Marianne Merten opined that the FF+, at least in Parliament, “is very pedantic about its commitment and full support of the Constitution” as well as its commitment to justice and equality.

Speaking to Daily Maverick, Wessels said “we believe diversity is the building block of South Africa”.

How far we have come.

But wait, there is more. The FF+, in its manifesto, states that the party is committed to “preserving human rights not only in South Africa, but also worldwide”.

Those seeking to fix the FF+ as a manifestation of an old order of “baaskap”, of racial nationalism, or who define the party as alt-right, will miss the nuances that have inspired some South Africans to locate and identify themselves outside of the catch-all “rainbow-nation-we-are-one” post-apartheid ideal.

One of the key pillars of the FF+ is its support for “self-determination and the protection of minorities”. And while these ideals are both already embodied and enshrined in the constitution, as well the protection of language and cultural rights, the party views these as paper guarantees at present.

Article 235 of the Constitution recognises a community’s right to self-determination within the framework of the Constitution. But as of yet, there is no legislation which spells out how article 235 is to be applied. This is an issue the FF+ is bound to raise in future.

Afrikaners, Wessels told Daily Maverick, were a “unique white tribe” which, along with other linguistic and cultural groupings, were guaranteed non-territorial autonomy.

While Orania in the Northern Cape serves as an Afrikaner homeland of sorts (it will be represented in Parliament by Wynand Boshoff, grandson of HF Verwoerd; Boshoff is an FF+ member), it has not been a massively popular option with mainstream Afrikaners. In 2011, its population was recorded at 892.

Carel Boshoff, Boshoff Jr’s father and founder of the Orania Movement, said in 2018 that the notion of cultural self-determination was a subject that “can be discussed in polite conversation”, considering a resurgence of debate about exactly this in Europe.

Anna Vrdoljak, of the University of Technology, Sydney, in a thesis titled Self-Determination and Cultural Rights, writes that “self-determination and cultural rights sit uncomfortably within the classic human rights framework.

This has much to do with what they have in common. Both rights can, and are, held and exercised collectively. Both are motivated towards ensuring the perpetuation of the group. This emphasis on the group as opposed to the individual right holder makes it difficult to place them in relation to other human rights; and problematic for states. It also goes some way to explaining why cultural rights are the most neglected category of human rights.”

In its manifesto, the FF+ plus states that it “aspires to a political system based on Christian values that is characterised by the principles of justice, truth, love of one’s neighbour, respect for life, loyalty and a peaceful co-existence”.

Of course, the last time politicians tried “peaceful co-existence” the country ended up with almost half a century of apartheid, the creation of “homelands” and violent state dispossession and repression that would “disappear” the country’s black majority as citizens of fictitious independent bantustans.

But that was then.

This is now, a country where the white minority, what is left of it, has accepted and embraced majority rule. Many white South Africans vote for the ANC or the DA or other black-led parties. Those who vote for the FF+, says Wessels, are not racist but are seeking to be seen, heard and understood in their own right.

The real, potentially violent white alt-right – both English and Afrikaans-speaking – have a range of white supremacist parties or groupings to choose from including the right-wing Front Nasionaal. All of these parties exist freely in democratic South Africa. None of them will be represented in Parliament, however.

In its policy position on language the party states “the FF Plus views every language as infinitely more than just a medium of communication. A language is like a home. If one is deprived of your mother tongue, you are essentially left homeless, your human dignity is affected and you are left disorientated.”

A home”, “left homeless”, “left disorientated” – strong words in an election manifesto.

For many monolingual, white English-speaking South Africans, these thoughts of blood and belonging do not churn and gnaw along with other anxieties in the 21st Century mental maelstrom that keeps the troubled from sleep.

Sure there are other worries, crime, corruption, the economy, but not language.

Many whites have simply upped and left, with colleague Ferial Haffajee pointing out that according to mid-year 2018 population estimates by Stats SA, 114,995 people classified as white were set to emigrate between 2016 and 2021. Between 1985 and 2016, over half a million white people left South Africa.

Wessels told Daily Maverick that 10 of South Africa’s indigenous languages have been underdeveloped at the expense of the lingua franca, English. And while he acknowledged that Afrikaans as a language was thriving, removing it as a medium of instruction in schools and universities poses a threat to its continued existence.

So too, the underdevelopment, particularly, of nine marginalised languages – including Sesotho sa Leboa, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu – need nurturing and development since 1994.

The development of Afrikaans as an academic language – one that is able to deal with “higher functions” – serves as inspiration for the development and survival of the country’s other nine official languages, added Wessels.

The survival of all languages depends on the survival of Afrikaans. If it dies, the others will suffer,” Wessels said.

Wessels conducted many interviews in the lead-up to the poll on 8 May and, of course, in the slipstream of FF+ gains. The party increased its support from 0.9 percent in 2014 to 2.38 of the national vote in 2019.

Much of the support too has come with moves to expropriate land without compensation. Land ownership, for Afrikaans-speakers, is as existential and practical a matter as it is for the black majority.

The FF Plus understands the emotional impact that land ownership has on all South Africans. Thus, land must not be viewed through a commercial lens. Afrikaners want the assurance that a part of African soil belongs to them too.”

The party is “strongly opposed” to expropriation without compensation and believes “there is enough land available for redistribution, but that administrative stalling is causing delays to the detriment of the country”.

The power to expropriate property, says the FF+, “should reside with a high court, seeing as there are fundamental constitutional rights at play”.

Highlighting the land issue and obtaining international support, for this as well as the concerns of the Afrikaner minority, was a lesson, said Wessels, that the FF+ learned from the ANC “during their struggle to internationalise the fight against apartheid”.

There we have it.

Wessels occasionally speaks from his book-lined study in Bloemfontein where he lives. The backdrop reveals a wide selection from the mandatory Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Boris Johnson’s Churchill Factor to Rhoda Kadalie’s In Your Face, as well as a tribute by former students of University of the Free State Department of Philosophy to Professor HJ Strauss (1912-1995) and titled, Op al sy akkers: Gedenkskrif aangebied aan Prof. H.J. Strauss.

Wessels comes across as a decent, polite man, raised to respect others. He speaks Afrikaans and English fluently and would love to learn more Xhosa than he currently knows.

He was born in East London in 1985, the year that then-President PW Botha declared a state of emergency in 36 of the country’s 260 magisterial districts. In six months, while Wessels was suckling, 575 people were killed in political violence – more than half killed by the police.

In 1994 he was nine years old when Nelson Mandela was elected as the first president of a democratic South Africa. He has only been actively engaged in South African politics for 14 years, which has provided rough terrain at the best of times.

At 95, however, Elsa Joubert is left with her memories, many of them rooted in an era which so scarred all whose lives it affected.

How come I still dwell on the old apartheid-era things? How could it be otherwise? And the incidents that recur so unbidden to me are all from my childhood, the Twenties and Thirties, almost two decades before apartheid became official. My memories are pockmarked by it. I hammer with clenched fists against the glass. I don’t want to believe that the thing of apartheid could ever have been, but that is how it was and it can’t be wiped out.”

Joubert finally lets go of her worrying lack of self-definition in the retirement home where she has gone to spend her twilight. There, she says, she has learned to establish new bonds.

A bond with other people who extend our boundaries. I feel a bond that goes beyond language. I am glad to be free of the old things of the restrictive past. How these people [those who speak a multitude of tongues who surround her] enrich me. Sorrow and pain have no boundaries.”

For Joubert now, the point of view is clear, and she has the benefit of hindsight, lots of it.

Let go of the group thinking or group identity. Cultivate the little plot of ground you have been granted, and all else will follow.”

Wessels and the Freedom Front Plus might disagree, but in the end, history will be the judge. DM


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