In a recent discussion about South Africa’s struggle with its past, I stumbled on a festering wound of latent animosity that prevails between my white countrymen of which, we of the darker hue, are generally oblivious. Yes, I have always known of the discomforts that have existed between English-speaking and Afrikaans citizens, but have only understood them from a distance, as mere manifestations of negligible cultural differences. However, what I recently witnessed revealed what could be described as active fault lines beneath the surface, with a strong potential for major destabilisation if not managed with understanding.
I recently engaged in a discussion with Dr Piet Croucamp, professor of political studies at the University of Johannesburg, on Talk Radio 702. Our discussion centred on the ANC’s recent overtures to Afrikaans-speaking communities. He made an observation, mid-discussion, which seemed to touch a raw nerve. He said, “Many white South Africans seem not to have understood that apartheid was not a mere administrative bungle but a deep moral aberration.”
This statement seemed to open a Pandora’s box of anger and indignation, mostly from English-speaking white listeners who demanded an apology from Croucamp for making such a “generalised” statement. They voiced their vexation at “his arrogance to presume that he could speak for all white people in this country”. Notwithstanding the fact, of course, that Croucamp, an Afrikaans-speaking man, was merely voicing his own opinion and not pretending to represent white people per se. The vitriol that flowed from my white listeners for this statement was quite revealing and frankly took me aback.
They recounted their impressive “struggle credentials”, among which were heroic acts ranging from having relatives that were in the Black Sash and really loving their black nannies to one even confessing that she had once entertained the thought of engaging in an intimate relationship with a black man. Gripping stuff. Many of them were quick to point out the legislative cruelty of the Afrikaner Nationalist regime and how many English-speaking people, together with their black brothers and sisters, were subjected to systematic repression from the Afrikaans establishment and Afrikaans people at large. Heroics aside, I sensed a very concerning, deep-seated, unresolved and dare I say, desperate, contestation for legitimacy in the arguments presented.
Perhaps it should be said that for many black folks in this country, including myself, the differentiation between English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking whites had never been much of a preoccupation, hence our relative ignorance of this phenomenon. Darkies had other issues to deal with than be concerned with which language the “baas” spoke as he kicked you in the backside. In fact Afrikaans, even for English-speaking whites, was the official language of communication when speaking to black people back in the day and this continues today. Those who were addressed in English by white folks were very few and far between. These were those people who had broken through the general master-peasant relationship that defined their interaction, often at both their peril should such “familiarity” be discovered. I hail from that legacy, one that did not pay much attention to what language the white man was speaking as he dispensed his legislated superiority, and that is why the tribal spat between English and Afrikaans-speaking whites was not at the forefront of my political awareness.
However, consider this.The hostilities between English and Afrikaans-speaking whites in South Africa can be traced back to identifiable origins in history, from as far back as the pre-colonial contestations for “exploration and trade routes to the New World”. As the colonisation of the Cape took root in the mid-17th century by the insatiable Dutch East India Company, the early ancestors of the Afrikaners, the British Empire was also growing in power, influence and greed.
They later overthrew the Dutch, taking over the wealth and power which the Dutch had amassed. There and then were the seeds of acrimony and hatred planted between what would later become the white tribes of South Africa. In the 1830s, after literally centuries of hostilities between the Boers and British in the Cape Colony, the Boers sought independence from British rule and in a colossal exodus moved into the hinterland, an exodus known as the Great Trek. Many Boers died of hardship, disease and wars with the black tribes (the so-called Kaffir Wars) they encountered as they made their way towards what would become the Boer Republics. This deepened their resentment, hate and resolve against the British. This friction subsequently led to the Anglo-Boer wars with devastating consequences for all, including the black tribes, which can still be felt to this day. This is why these wars became known later as the South African wars because the casualties were not only amongst the English and the Boers, but thousands of black people were also killed in the fighting.
In 1901 the British and Boers, realising the futility of war, signed a treaty at Vereeniging to end the war. Britain’s scorched earth policy had decimated the landscape, its concentration camps had killed more than 27,000 Boer women and children, there were thousands of casualties amongst the fighting men on both sides – including the thousands of unrecorded blacks who were seen as mere collateral damage in these wars.
That is where, through the loss of life and limb, the outpouring of blood, sweat and tears on the African soil, the individual destinies of South Africa’s peoples were forever infused and the white tribes of Africa were born. Theirs was an alliance of necessity rather than one of principle, against the possible backlash of a reality created by sheer will and military might. This alliance was safe for as long as the conditions for its existence persisted. Those conditions were the appropriation of the land and resources of this part of the continent, the creation of a thriving economy using the labour of a conquered people through military subversion and other later forms of coercion. This uneasy alliance was sure to continue as long as the control of these resources remained in either one of these white tribes’ hands.
It must be said that the exploitation and dominance of other tribes by stronger ones is not a uniquely white trait, it is a universally human phenomenon. So this piece should not be mistaken for an exercise in black angelisation.
It cannot be overemphasised that the basis of the reality which became known as the Republic of South Africa was predicated, indeed fundamentally premised, on this strategic alliance between the white tribes of South Africa and their exploitation of the resources and subjugation of the conquered black tribes of this part of the globe. This is important to understand in order to appreciate two inevitable truths.
Firstly, it is impossible to continue having a successful notion of the Republic of South Africa without the involvement of these tribes because the whole system, its economy, legislation and politics was fundamentally conceptualised and developed by them with merely reactive involvement from the black tribes.
Secondly, so committed were the forefathers of these tribes to the idea of creating a new homeland for themselves in the Dark Continent that in most instances they broke their ties with Europe so completely that many of them don’t really know how to relate nor identify with their continent of origin, Europe. The only connection they have is that of their skin colour and vague cultural sentiment.
They have identified and imprinted on this continent in a profound way, differently perhaps to our black tribes, but a real and deep connection all the same. It is a connection similar to that of an abandoned orphan to his adoptive parents. Sometimes such a connection is more intense than a biological one. That is why I call them the white tribes of this continent. They know no other home.
The reality is that the black tribes have contended for their place in the administration of South Africa and the white tribes are no longer in control. This development is dissolving the reason for the alliance of the white tribes and now the fault lines are surfacing through hostilities such as that which I witnessed. There is a desperate clamouring for legitimacy, many times by attempting to identify with the black struggle for equality by those who did not really want it. They could not have wanted it because their world, their lives, their reality depended on this very inequality. This is unfortunate because the black struggle was exactly that, a struggle for equality from white domination.
When white tribes-people, in their desperate attempt to fit into the popular political narrative of this new dispensation, cast stones at other white tribes it makes them look disingenuous, even pathetic. Truth be told, the black struggle would have been counter-productive to their original purpose, which was to dominate and subjugate the very black tribes in order to create a comfortable homeland for themselves. It was a feat that was largely achieved and, let’s face it, thoroughly enjoyed.
Indeed, there were members of the white tribes who saw the injustice of this dominance and joined with the black tribes to bring about a normalisation of the situation. But it must be emphasised that the success of the economy depended on this injustice, an injustice which is now widely denied in one form or the other by many members in our white tribes. It’s a denial represented by attacking the other not-so denialist white tribes.
The key is in honestly accepting the historical roles each of our tribes played in bringing about the present status quo. This way no one needs to point fingers at one another because there is genuine acknowledgement of our respective parts. There would be no need to constantly demonise other white tribes or have them demonise each other. Such an acknowledgement would require a rare maturity and would reveal a new vision for a shared future.
It is important to understand that our tribal hostilities and the reasons for our squabbles do not determine whether we are legitimate children of the soil or not. It is our authentic love for this land and the sacrifices we are willing to make to ensure its survival and the survival of its children, of all colours, which determines whether we are of this continent and indeed of this country. We all need to come to a crucial understanding that we cannot do without each other, that our destinies are inextricably linked, regardless of the accidents of history. Perhaps we need another Vereeniging. DM