Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa


Curiously, despite the breadth of its conquests, Afrikanerdom’s rhetoric has never been that of a master race.  Instead, it is the complaining tone of a persecuted, lonely tribe, first oppressed by the powerful British, then struggling for survival in a hostile black sea.  Today, when fewer than 3 million Afrikaners control a government that has the atom bomb, rules of a nation of 40 million, and economically and militarily towers over every other country in the continent, Afrikaners still talk to you as if they are on the verge of extinction.  “We are,” an Afrikaner editor in Johannesburg once said to me plaintively, referring to the rest of the continent under black rule, “being Finlandized.”  At times, Afrikaners even sound like leaders of a colony still struggling for its independence.  “If there is one question which will have to be resolved in the years ahead,” recently declared Andries Treurnicht, leader of South Africa’s far-right Conservative Party, “it is that the white man in South Africa has the right to his own homeland.”

We are accustomed to thinking of the Afrikaner sense of martyrdom as beginning with the Boer War, when 26,000 Afrikaner women and children died in British concentration camps and the Afrikaners were universally seen as victims of horrendous mistreatment by a much larger empire.  But in fact that sense of victim’s identity begins much earlier, with the events leading up to the Great Trek, the Trek itself, and, above all, the story of Piet Retief.  For he and his men were the victims of such treachery at the hands of the Zulus.

Or were they?  If we go back carefully over Retief’s ill-fated journey and try to see it as it must have appeared to the Zulus, the whole expedition begins to look quite different.  When I first began reading about this period, I thought of it as one of a clash between peoples, I see it now as also a clash between rival streams of memory.

(Hochschild, Adam. (1990) The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey.  Viking Penguin: New York, pg. 66)

Some days it feels like everyone in this country harbours resentment.

At work, my black colleagues complain about the Afrikaner directors.  Although it’s common for tensions to exist between employees and employers, it’s impossible to deny to the racial element to this particular conflict.

At the same time, the Afrikaner directors barely hide their hostility and frustration towards black people: “why can’t they just understand what I want?”  How many times have I heard my boss speak incredibly patronizingly to the various black employees.  He talks to them like they are children and he is deigning to take the time to explain his superior point of view.

Or how about the black youth I meet on the street?  The teenage boys that yelled at my friend and I for driving to an obviously black beach outside of Cape Town.  She told me that kids that age make her nervous, especially in large groups.  I agreed.  But I also think they deserve to be angry.  And we deserve to have their anger directed at us for supporting a system of disempowerment.

Or what about the young adults that I hang out with here?

A few weeks ago, a white (non-Afrikaner) man tried to convince a group of Canadians and South Africans that he isn’t racist because he’s willing to jump in a fight for white AND coloured people.  In fact, he’s done it before.

As my Canadian friend retorted, however, “The fact that he had to differentiate kind of proves his racism, doesn’t it?”

Not exactly.  It shows how aware he is of race, but also that he’s trying to overcome these differences.

His friend, however, another white South African, told us about Uhuru.  The word represents an uprising that will take place when Nelson Mandela dies in which the black people slaughter all the white people.  Apparently if a black man taps his wrist (like tapping a wristwatch), it means, “Just wait.  Your time is coming and then we will kill you.”

(I have yet to see this.)

“Why do you think we’re all armed?” the young white man said.  “We’re prepared!  We have to be!”

In general, I have not hung out with many Afrikaners here.  Apparently they keep to themselves.  They don’t associate with non-Afrikaners (and “definitely don’t marry them”), although I suspect the prejudice goes both ways.  I’ve met many whites who make fun of Afrikaners for being so conservative and backwards and racist – but they don’t realize their generalizations make them look like the discriminatory ones.

Collective identity is important.  I recognize that. 

But you can’t let it disempower others.  Or yourself.

As one of my colleagues once joked, “Where do you hide something if you don’t want a black person to find it?  In a book.”

“Don’t say that about yourself!” I exclaimed.  “You’re really, really smart!  You know seven languages!”

“Relax Beth.  It’s just a joke.”

But it isn’t funny.

South Africa’s history is based upon racial conflict and colonialism.  Then again, so are a lot of other countries.  Consider the Native Americans in both the United States and Canada, the Opium Wars in China, the rest of Africa.  What makes South Africa so different?  Why is the vocabulary of “us versus them” still so incredibly prevalent?

I don’t have any answers yet, but I’m thinking about it.  More on this later.


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