Posturing or genuine dialogue?
The ANC met with conservative Afrikaners last week - an event one critic labelled as 'dangerous'. Charles Leonard reports.
There were no strange handshakes, but the behind-closed-doors meeting between senior ANC leaders and representatives of 19 Afrikaans and Afrikaner bodies reminded one a bit of a certain aspect of the old secretive Afrikaner Broederbond.
One could only become a member of the elitist Broederbond after close scrutiny to see whether you were a good Afrikaner – but then only by invitation.
At last week’s Afrikaner summit, which was held at the Balalaika Hotel in Sandton – “a haven of peace and tranquillity reminiscent of an English mansion from a bygone era” – representatives of conservative bodies such as the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuurvereniging, the Afrikaanse Taalraad, the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools and the Afrikanerbond (the open, new version of the Broederbond) were invited to discuss language, culture, education and land reform with ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and treasurer general Mathews Phosa.
Also at the summit were Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, former Public Enterprises Deputy Minister Enoch Godongwana and the convenors of the ANC Progressive Business Forum, Renier Schoeman and Daryl Swanepoel, who organised the summit.
As with the Broederbond, it was not only significant who got invited, but also who did not. Four prominent Afrikaners who were not there were Solidarity chief executive Flip Buys, commentator and founding editor of Vrye Weekblad Max du Preez, University of the Witwatersrand academic and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power Susan Booysen and University of Pretoria sociologist and musician Andries Bezuidenhout.
Buys and his organisation were invited but decided not to go.
“The problem is that discussions over the years between the ANC and Afrikaner or Afrikaans groups have borne no fruit,” Buys said in an opinion piece in Rapport last Sunday. “Promises which were made and undertakings which were given were completely forgotten after those meetings.”
Buys said Solidarity detected a similar pattern with last week’s meeting and said “nee dankie” (no, thank you) to an “ANC image-building” exercise.
The ANC’s Schoeman told the Mail & Guardian this week: “Solidarity had right up to the last minute not accepted and then withdrew (if that is possible in such circumstances) as a gimmick.”
About Du Preez, Booysen and Bezuidenhout, Schoeman said: “The intention of the exercise was not to round up people like those because they are ‘nearer to the ANC’. In terms of proximity we judged [Motlanthe], [Phosa] and other senior leaders present were near enough.”
Du Preez believed the real reason he did not crack an invite was that he was “disliked in equal measure by the ANC and by people who pose as representatives of Afrikaners”.
Bezuidenhout said: “I have no constituency or influence in Afrikanerdom.” For Booysen, “it was an event for those who try to speak on behalf of ‘the Afrikaners’. I simply do not qualify, it is simply not part of my identity – and I guess (wow, phew!) that it is well recognised.”
The invitation said minority groups had to be more than just a critical voice. “The expectation is that this meeting, in the national interest, will lead to a significant dialogue, which will facilitate constructive communication and co-operation between the ANC and Afrikaans-speaking interest groups.”
But beyond the platitudes, Du Preez was unsure what the real meaning of the summit was. “Perhaps an effort to demonstrate the present ANC leadership’s commitment to nonracialism? A pre-emptive strike because of pending unpopular decisions on land redistribution? Or perhaps to please those Afrikaners (Marthinus van Schalkwyk and the other remnants of the old National Party) already in the ANC?”
Booysen said it was important for the ANC to demobilise this constituency, preventing it from becoming available to a new de facto (and broader than political party) alliance of shifting opposition forces. “The ANC engages them and draws them into a loop of talking and waiting for feedback, somewhat akin to the imbizo (that became ‘presidential outreach’ under [President Jacob] Zuma), this one in the ANC (as opposed to government).”
There was some “nation-building” potential as well, she said. “These ‘talks’ also serve the ANC in its centenary year when (judged especially by presidential rhetoric) it tries to recast the ANC circa 2012 in the image of the reconciliatory ANC under [former president Nelson] Mandela.”
The court victory in the e-toll affair was most probably a wake-up call for the ANC, said Bezuidenhout. “Matters such as increases in costs of living, the decline in the international currency of our matric certificate, Johannesburg’s billing debacle, the e-toll drama and crime are all leading to increased activism in the white middle classes and elites.”
Schoeman denied there was a danger that these types of meetings might lead to the entrenchment of certain ethnic stereotypes instead of moving towards a nonracial South Africa. “In the context of the inclusivity of the ANC’s policies and the Freedom Charter and our Constitution, the suggestion that what we are doing can in any way counter anyone’s move to a ‘nonracial’ South Africa is illogical and does simply not make any sense.”
Du Preez strongly disagreed with him. “I think any meeting between government and ‘Afrikaners’ is actually dangerous and not in the interest of white Afrikaans-speakers. It perpetuates the view among especially black South Africans that Afrikaners are different and separate from the rest of the nation. It is in Afrikaners’ interest to be simply viewed as South African citizens.”
Even if this was a vote-catching exercise - strongly and sincerely denied by Schoeman - the ANC seems unlikely to make any significant inroads into the Afrikaner community. Political scientist Albert Venter recently wrote in Beeld that less than 1% of Afrikaner voters would make their cross next to the ANC in the next election.
But there was still potential for growth, albeit limited, said Bezuidenhout. “Given the ‘racial’ integration in the formerly white working-class suburbs, there may be scope for expanding ANC membership. But then the ANC would have to rediscover its nonracial, working-class history. For now, Solidarity trumps them with an alternative nationalism.”
Du Preez said “perhaps two or three” Afrikaners would now join the ANC. Booysen quipped: “If Renier Schoeman and Daryl Swanepoel – the die-hard Nats among the last of the Nat remnants that eventually joined the ANC not out of principle but out of desperation for a little place in the ambit of political power - could, then the sky is the limit.”
This weekend the ANC’s national executive committee was expected to discuss an office for minorities to be run from Mantashe’s office. Buys suggested that it could go wider than an office in the ANC – a ministry of communities, such as India has. This ministry, he said, had to be based on article 31 of the Constitution, which makes provision for different language, cultural and religious groups.
Booysen cautioned against too high hopes after meetings such as last week’s. “As the ANC moves into an era where it is difficult to escalate delivery and transformation, ‘national unity’ endeavours are more targetable. Because of South Africa’s ethnoracial past, it is guaranteed to attract attention.”
Rebels would have been too busy to attend
There has been a long tradition of progressive Afrikaners who showed full commitment to the struggle against apartheid and other injustices – for them it was obvious to side with the oppressed.
They include people such as lawyer Bram Fischer and Bettie du Toit, a prominent trade unionist and leftwinger.
Fischer, who as a young man played scrumhalf for the Free State against the British Lions in 1928, led the defence for Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other ANC leaders in the Rivonia trial. In 1966 he was found guilty of violating the Suppression of Communism Act and conspiring to commit sabotage and sentenced to life. “At least one Afrikaner should make this protest,” he said from the dock about breaking immoral laws.
Du Toit also committed her life to fighting apartheid. In an article two years ago in Umrabulo, ANC MP Andries Nel wrote that, while studying in Moscow, Du Toit described her upbringing as “Afrikaner”.
People such as Fischer and Du Toit would probably have cringed at last week’s exercise in toenadering (rapprochement) from the ANC, of being “elevated” merely for being Afrikaners.
“If they were alive today, Du Toit would most probably have been too busy organising street traders into unions to take notice,” said University of Pretoria sociologist Andries Bezuidenhout.
“And Fischer’s preparations in a case to stop the Red Ants from evicting people in Johannesburg’s inner city would have kept him from following the story closely.
“My Afrikaans-speaking friends who work in unions and other civil society organisations weren’t there,” he said. “But we are not the issue here. The point is that many people still self-identify as Afrikaners and have very real concerns.
“One also has to consider that they control vast resources and have critical skills. Given the fragmented nature of the South African public domain, there may be merit in such engagements.”
About the toenadering with Afrikaners, commentator Max du Preez cautioned: “‘The Afrikaner’ doesn’t exist any longer; white Afrikaans-speakers are as diverse in their political outlook, probably more diverse, than any other language group in South Africa.”
– Charles Leonard