'People are too critical of South Africa' - Deon Maas

Witboy in Berlin: Adventures in the First World, written by Deon Maas and publised by Jonathan Ball Publishers.
Witboy in Berlin: Adventures in the First World, written by Deon Maas and publised by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

Controversial television and film producer Deon Maas takes a long breath when asked what he misses most about South Africa.

"Familiarity," he says. "Walking into a bar and knowing everyone."

Maas spent the past two years in Berlin in Germany, writing his latest book called Witboy in Berlin. It is this search for familiarity, and really, identity, that is the overriding theme of the book, which is a sequel to his book Witboy in Africa, published in 2010.

"The Welsh have a word for it. They call it hiraeth… It means that you will always hope to find a place where you feel like you belong, but that you'll never find it because that place doesn't exist anymore. It is in your head. It existed in a previous life," he explains over a whiskey in the bar of the trendy new Silo hotel in Cape Town.

"That is kind of sad. It makes me wonder, is everyone in the world sad or is it just us white Africans who are sad because we feel like we don't belong anywhere?"

Just before he and his wife left for Germany, Maas, 57, who became a household name in South Africa when he became a judge for KykNET's Afrikaans Idols in 2006, discovered that his forebears, George Michiel Maas and Katharina Köhl moved from Berlin to Cape Town in 1860. This added a poetic turn to his move back there more than 150 years later.

He doesn't want people to think that he left South Africa because of the crime or other oft cited reasons. In fact, from an outsider's perspective, he says South Africans are much too negative.

"I think people are too critical of South Africa. People should start focusing on the positive. If people spend more time being constructive rather than breaking down there can be change," he says.

That said, he does sometimes wonder what his forebears were thinking to emigrate from Europe to South Africa. They must've had a sense of adventure and hope for a better future, but the result of their actions so many years ago is that today he finds it difficult to feel at home anywhere.

"There is a very strong anti-white sentiment in South Africa currently with the EFF's far-right rhetoric that borders on hate speech. So on the one hand I have those people saying that I can't call myself an African because I'm white.

"My counter argument is that my great great great grandfather may have been a colonialist, but I'm not. I just have a white skin and am just part of another tribe in Africa. But it does make you wonder if you aren't maybe European. But then you get there and you see that you are definitely African. The way you think and do things are conditioned by your circumstances and where you're from."

In Berlin nobody recognises Maas and he finds this liberating.

Every day is a new adventure and every day he discovers something new, whether it's a new washing detergent, type of bread or interesting German habit.

He sees a lot of similarities between the Germans and Afrikaans people: the "zef" gene, patriarchy, a love for beer, he says with a twinkle in his eye.

"The way of the world is no longer such anymore that you can precisely define what your identity is. Either that or we have too much time to think up shit."

*Read an extract from Witboy in Berlin: Adventures in the First World

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