Oh broeder, where is the volk now?

A sculpture of Hendrik Verwoerd overlooks the Afrikaner oasis of ­Orania (Paul Botes)

A sculpture of Hendrik Verwoerd overlooks the Afrikaner oasis of ­Orania (Paul Botes)


RIGTINGBEDONNERD by Fred de Vries (Tafelberg)

Back in 1978 when I was in standard nine (grade 11 these days) and found my first girlfriend’s father’s name at the back of The Super-Afrikaners: Inside The Afrikaner Broederbond, I knew something was wrong.

In their exposé of the extremely powerful, elitist and obsessively secretive Broederbond, Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom published a comprehensive list of 7 500 members. I had given the bestseller book to my dad, who was an outspoken Broederbond baiter, for his birthday. He just laughed when I told him that my girlfriend’s father, a dentist in our dorp, was listed in the book. It explained why her family looked down their Super-Afrikaner noses at mine. It probably also explained why our teenage love affair did not last.

The Broeders were found in positions of power in most positions where power could be manipulated for the Afrikaner cause, from the apartheid governments’ cabinets, university councils, the military top structures, the Afrikaans media, the SABC down to church and school councils in small towns.

As Max du Preez writes in an excellent new introduction to The Super-Afrikaners: Inside the Afrikaner Broederbond, those last 137 pages of Broeder names in the 1978 edition were probably the most photocopied of any book in South African history. “The book was regarded in much the same light as a porn magazine by Broederbonders and their families — it was taboo to be seen to own one but most were desperate to see what was in it,” Du Preez wrote.

At the end of last year, 34 years later, the book was re-released, almost like an extended, remastered classic record from back in the day. As the equivalent of B-sides and rarities, there is Du Preez’s introduction, leading into the original version of the book that shook the Afrikaner volk’s powermongers.

What makes the introduction so significant is that Du Preez takes up what happened to the organisation after the publication of The Super-Afrikaners in 1978, of “the pivotal role the Broederbond subsequently played in helping guide the Afrikaner towards accepting a democratic dispensation”.

So the unexpected but welcome reissue of the The Super-Afrikaners made me wonder, are Afrikaners the new black? You could almost think so because, in addition to this book, there are several other books about the volk on the shelves. For example, there’s the historian Hermann Giliomee’s The Last Afrikaner Leaders in which he intelligently assesses five of them: Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster, PW Botha, FW de Klerk and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert.

The journalist Edward-John Bottomley’s Poor White is an exceptional, thoroughly researched but lyrical book, telling an unusual “secret history” of the creation of the Afrikaner.

Although The Long Way Home, by one of the finest columnists and travel writers in Afrikaans, Dana Snyman, doesn’t focus solely on Afrikaners, their poignant stories are included here. He is a master storyteller, especially when it comes to ordinary, working-class and poor South Africans’ tales of survival.

Another important book is the Dutch journalist Fred de Vries’s book on Afrikaners post-1994, Rigtingbedonnerd.

Afrikaner soul-searching
Before I look in more detail at De Vries’s book, readers may want to ask why one should bother with this slew of books about the Afrikaners. The Afrikaners as a nation (if such a monolith ever existed, which I doubt) is so passé, so pre-democracy, so irrelevant, even though the latest Amps figures say there are five million South Africans with Afrikaans as their home language (third after Zulu, eight million, and Xhosa, 5.1-million). Surely there are more important books dealing with the nation as a whole?

A farm boy, I grew up in an Afrikaner household, went to Afrikaans schools and university and attended my parents’ Afrikaans church. I still speak Afrikaans to my family and Afrikaans-speaking friends and colleagues.

But I lost my appetite for Afrikaner soul-searching, identity interrogation and navel-gazing back in the lecture halls and think-scrums of the Rand Afrikaans University of the mid-1980s. I have since identified myself as a progressive South African, not a conservative Afrikaner. My home language is English.

The interminable debates in the Afrikaans press about the survival of the language and the volk bore me beyond tears — I don’t even feel like writing angry letters to these papers to tell these taalbulle (language bulls), to asseblief get over themselves.

But these books about Afrikaners should be published and, therefore, read because, as Jawaharlal Nehru said: “You don’t change the course of history by turning the faces of portraits to the wall.” Don’t repeat the mistakes made by those who came before you.

Like many things, the expression “rigtingbedonnerd” gets lost in translation. It is probably safe to say it means lost, or lost direction, not a bad title for a book looking at the Afrikaners after they  relinquished power after 1994.

De Vries is a respected Dutch journalist who lived in South Africa for three years, from 1992 until 1995.

“Gradually I started developing an obsession with the Afrikaners, like you can become possessed by a music group or an author,” he writes in Rigtingbedonnerd, intelligently translated from the original Dutch into Afrikaans. (I truly hope an English version is in the pipeline for a wider audience.) “Like a molecule that moves around a nucleus.”

This infatuation with the Afrikaners led to his return in 2001 and he has lived here ever since.

The first white generation
In reply to his repeated question about who these Afrikaners were, an acquaintance told him the story of four drunks who rode on horseback into Stellenbosch one late summer’s day in March 1707. They made such a racket at the watermill at the edge of the town that the miller threw them out. In passing, they even called his wife a whore.

Three of the hoodlums left but one, the 16-year-old Hendrik Biebouw, refused to go even when the magistrate arrived on the scene — he tried to hit the magistrate with a flour bag and threatened him with a whip. Biebouw then gave the magistrate a square look and spoke the historical words: “ ... ik wil niet lopen, ’k ben een Africaander” (I don’t want to leave, I am an Afrikaner).

Biebouw was one of the first white generation in the Cape Colony. His father had a daughter with a slave before he married Biebouw’s mother. Hendrik, therefore, had a black half-sister. He no longer saw himself as a European and that was what he wanted to stress when he told the magistrate that “Ik ben een Africaander”.

De Vries believes that was the moment when a volk was started on the southern point of Africa.

Biebouw’s stroppiness had an unhappy ending: he was thrown into jail and was later put on a VOC ship and died in 1719, somewhere across the sea.

De Vries uses Biebouw’s “urge for survival” as a metaphor for the Afrikaner throughout the ages until today as a “hamstrung minority trying to find their place in a new, democratic South Africa with the ANC at the helm”.

A truly skilful and elegant writer, De Vries sets the scene for the book by looking at what an Afrikaner is supposed to be. He enlivens the predictable historical takes with actual visits to places such as Blood River, the Apartheid Museum, the Voortrekker Monument and a Bok van Blerk concert, and takes you along to an interview with FW de Klerk.

As a good journalist, he manages to do so without the normal sniggering and patronising nudge and a wink one so often gets from foreign correspondents.

He brings characters to life with a few brushstrokes. Playing devil’s advocate with Pik Botha, he asks him whether he didn’t join the “hated” ANC in 2000?

“A cigarette. A flame. A drag. An uncontrollable cough. ‘No, that’s not true,’ he growls when the violent rattling in his chest subsides.”

Dainfern, where the rightwinger Dan Roodt lives, he describes as a postmodern Valhalla: “Where Orania is a humble variant of The Truman Show, this is a luxurious version.” At their first meeting, he says, “Roodt wore a suit and his hair was nattily taken care of. The aristocratic forelock that falls over his eyes, his trademark.”

The politician Pieter Mulder has “drooping Paul McCartney eyes but, with his flatly combed short hair, he reminds you of a schoolboy”.

The style of the author Antjie Krog’s fans is like hers: “Long denim skirts, comfortable shoes, little make-up, their hair longish and straight.”

Quo Vadis, Afrikaner?
So how lost or “rigtingbedonnerd” are the Afrikaners? In the next section of the book, De Vries deals with that question in a visit to Orania, the land question, Afrikaans and politics. My one concern is that he did not find progressive Afrikaners in politics — there are not many but they do exist.

But he does focus on progressive people in the next part, under the title “Ons is nie almal so nie” (We’re not all like that — also the title of a Jeanne Goosen book): Krog, a fellow author Kleinboer (aka Fanie de Villiers), the Bitterkomix collective and the rockers Fokofpolisiekar. He also includes the author Rian Malan in this section, although he is not a progressive by any stretch of the imagination — more of a “disillusioned liberal”.

One of the most powerful chapters is in the next section, “Quo Vadis, Afrikaner?”, on Pretoria’s poor whites, where the local dominee says, “I preach a lot about hope, because they have lost all hope”.

In his final chapter, De Vries says about himself: “Poor me. An Afrikaner I will never become. But finally I am no longer a Dutchman.”

He is also quite pessimistic about the future of “the Afrikaners”: “Afrikaners are South Africans and cannot en masse as one volk go somewhere else.”

My disagreement with De Vries is probably ideological: I don’t believe there is a monolith such as an Afrikaner volk — people with these roots are simply too diverse. To abuse the saying a bit, with every two Afrikaners there will be three, four views about the volk’s future, as De Vries found out.

Malan says that “the right-wing Boers have got a point: in Africa, a constitution is just a piece of paper.”

The writer-singer Koos Kombuis says: “Afrikaans will survive and develop further in a range of dialects. That is important to me, that type of freedom. The Afrikaners don’t mean much to me.”

The artist Mark Kannemeyer asks: “The future of the Afrikaner? I am not part of that group of people and I feel no shared destiny with them.”

The author Christi van der Westhuizen believes “we have to move from a society based on race to a society in which dignity takes a central place, and where human rights are protected without reservation”.

Charles Leonard


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