The roots of Afrikaner rage

2014-07-29 11:45

Using Die Boeremag’s Soweto bombing in October 2002 as a springboard, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela reflects on the position of Afrikaners in South Africa, who also have a long and bitter history of struggle

‘These were places black people were forbidden to go,” says my mother as we approach a restaurant in an upmarket Cape Town shopping centre.

“And now we can come to the same places as whites, walk into a café, and pay the same money – just like that.”

For some white South Africans, mingling with blacks in urban shopping centres is a welcome change from the racial isolation of the past.

Some are simply resigned to this post-apartheid reality, and merely tolerate the presence of black people in these places.

But for others, the appearance of black faces in spaces that were previously reserved for whites only is seen as an invasion of what belongs to them – things they worked so hard to build, their pride, their fatherland.

This has evoked bitterness, and unleashed their wrath and violent outrage.

Having been a child and an adult under apartheid, and having grown up in a family and community of dispossessed and disenfranchised adults, I can understand their anger. For the sake of the nation’s future peace and unity, I hope everyone concerned will consider its sources.

Seeds of hatred continue to fester among Afrikaners who feel the new democracy in South Africa and the freedoms enjoyed by blacks have robbed them of their heritage.

While the buzzword in South Africa has been ‘reconciliation’, and while the rest of the world has praised the political transition in this country as a miracle – and a civil war that didn’t happen – some Afrikaners feel marginalised by a process that has ended decades of legalised oppression of blacks by a white minority government.

They hate the power that the democratic changes have bestowed on a black government.

They lashed out in vengeance with a bombing spree that saw former president Thabo Mbeki’s government seizing arms caches and arresting suspects in the hope of destroying a network of right-wing militants.

The cry of the extreme right-wingers is for an “eie staat” (an own state), what their forefathers fought for, and what was later written into apartheid laws.

In 1952, prime minister DF Malan responded to the leaders of the ANC and the South African Indian Congress, who had jointly led the defiance campaign in June that year, by writing: “The road to peace and goodwill lies in giving each group the opportunity of developing its ambitions and capacities in its own area, or within its own community on its own lines, in the service of its own people.”

Back then, those words were intended to seal the fate of black people, who would be evicted from their homes and banished to nominally independent “homelands”.

Now, under a black government, the concept of an “eie staat”, for which Afrikaners fought and died under British rule, and which served them when they were in power, is still being invoked.

Some see the rising tide of discontent among Afrikaners as evidence of racist attitudes that won’t go away. This might be so.

But we must also consider the bitter memories that have been unleashed by the transfer of power to a black government.

Most Afrikaners carry in their consciousness the spirit of survival; there is always an “other” against whom the volk must be protected. They suffered serious loss and humiliation in their war with the British, the Anglo-Boer War.

In that conflict, which began in 1899, British troops destroyed thousands of Boer farms, blew up homesteads and set land and cattle ablaze.

Thousands of Afrikaner women, children and elderly men were sent to internment camps, where many died from disease and cold. Official estimates place the number of Afrikaners who perished in British camps at between 20?000 and 27?000.

In 1902, homeless and humiliated, the Afrikaners lost their fight against British domination.

Former president PW Botha, raised when memories of that war were fresh, was the father of apartheid’s “total strategy” against opponents of the South African state in the worst period of apartheid violence,the 1980s.

Many Afrikaners were brought up to believe that fighting for their survival was the very essence of their identity.

It will take something other than force to break the cycle of hatred and the desire for vengeful violence.

Speaking about reconciliation in 1997, former president FW de Klerk referred to the “devastation” the British had visited upon the Afrikaners.

“It deprived us of our hard-won right to rule ourselves,” he said. “But somehow or other, we have succeeded in putting most of this bitterness behind us.”

After the British, there was another enemy. De Klerk apologised to South Africans who were oppressed by apartheid laws “in a spirit of true repentance”.

Yet the ghosts of the past have not been laid to rest, at least not completely.

The dialogue initiated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission must continue in order to forge and strengthen a spirit of compromise and tolerance.

Acknowledging the loss that Afrikaners feel would be a start.

The task of picking up the pieces of a society shattered by violence is not easy.

My mother, who grew up in rural KwaZulu-Natal, remembers the loss of her family’s land, and witnessed the humiliation of a father who had to seek work in that faraway place which black people called Gauteng, “the place of gold”.

She and my father were married in Cape Town in 1951, a year in which the apartheid government passed more than 70 oppressive laws. She, like many black people I know, has every reason to remember with bitterness and to harbour a desire for revenge.

But she prefers to live without that burden.

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