TO Molefe

What Afrikaner separatists tell us about our differences

2014-08-05 11:20

A few weeks ago Redi Tlhabi posed a question on her Radio 702 show: "Dear you want your own homeland? Your independence? Should government even meet with the group mobilising for this?"

The topic picked up on news that the Boer-Afrikaner Volksraad was set to meet with either President Jacob Zuma or Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to discuss their demands. Led by Andries Breytenbach, these Afrikaner separatist want their own country. Predictably, some callers to Redi's show said they should just go back to where they came from.

It was not the most empathetic response. If you've been listening, you'd know many Afrikaners who want to secede have lost their ancestral ties to wherever in Europe they could possibly trace their origins. They couldn't go back as citizens, even if they wanted to - and many do not.

From this morass of separatism and disdain emerged one Leon Louw, founder of the Free Market Foundation, with the bizarre take-away that the callers were saying all white people should return from whence they came. He picked up stompies from a Facebook post on the topic by author Max du Preez, who'd recounted the mixed-race origins of Afrikaners to argue that they belong here as much as they belong in Europe.

Louw went on to write a truly strange column for Business Day in which he reduced that segment of the show to an instance of "gargantuan twaddle spewed by pseudo-intellectual, anti-white racists". But because he was picking up stompies, he missed the greater context and the more important questions the issue of Afrikaner separatists raise.

A history of white supremacy

As I've said, the response that Afrikaner separatists should go back to where they came from isn't particularly constructive. Nonetheless, I get where it comes from. Secessionist calls from Afrikaners are steeped in a history that holds forth race or at least ethnorace, the admixture of ethnicity and race, as the defining characteristic that makes people fundamentally different.

At its worst, this belief formed the justification for apartheid. It held that what made the "white man" different in this country was that he was superior in every way except demographically. This meant, as the reasoning went, that whites should create and maintain a system of domination over blacks, lest they be ruled by somebody inferior.

There's just no getting away from that, although, presently, the Boer-Afrikaner Volksraad and other separatists insist white supremacy has nothing to do with it. They maintain that they want to secede because their values are different and irreconcilable to those held by the rest of us. These supposedly fundamentally irreconcilable values vary from a woman's right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy (which they are against because it is "murder") to the existence of multicultural institutions (which they perceive as a threat to Afrikaner culture).

However, these supposed differences would not be irreconcilable to those held by the rest of us in this constitutional democracy without the belief that our ethnoracial classifications are deterministic and make our behaviour discrete. In other words, that someone born into an Afrikaner family should and would automatically believe that abortion is murder, and someone born into, say, a Zulu family would not.

Afrikaners oppressed?

I imagine equally galling to the callers fed up with the victimhood white supremacy in this country casts itself into is that, relatively speaking, most Afrikaners have it good. Take language for example, where Afrikaners are a subset of a linguistic majority. Afrikaans is spoken as a first language by 13.5% of the population, according to Census 2011, and is a second or third language for millions more people. This means that Afrikaners can begin grade R and progress all the way to PhD using the language spoken in the home they were born. And they can get by alright in this country even if Afrikaans is the only language they ever learn.

Economically, too, thanks to apartheid, most Afrikaners aren't doing as badly as millions of other people. Unemployment among whites is the lowest of any "race" group and, according to the last census, 7 754 white households live in informal dwellings. We don't know how many of them identify as Afrikaner, but these white households make up less than 0.5% of all households living in informal dwellings. Even if all the unemployed whites and those who live in informal dwellings were were, they'd be no more or specifically oppressed.

In fact, as a group, Afrikaners are still quite privileged.

Ethnorace is made up

Yet, the Boer-Afrikaner Volksraad have a meeting with at least one of the top two people in the presidency to discuss how oppressed they are. This is the same presidency that next week will pretend 16 August 2012, the day of the Marikana massacre, did not happen. Who knows, the government might even organise a big sport and music extravaganza near that day to distract us from remembering. They did that last year with Nelson Mandela Sports and Culture Day.

What does Marikana have to do with Afrikaner separatists? Nothing, if you believe the legitimate concerns the separatists might have about their future and prosperity in this country are fundamentally and irreconcilably different to what miners in Marikana are concerned about. But if you see, like I do, that the ethnoracial differences between us are just made-up labels, then you'll see the follies of advancing or entertaining interests advanced on that basis.

- Follow TO Molefe on Twitter.

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