Steve Hofmeyr, ‘Die Stem’ and living in the past

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend it ceases to exist.” – Salman Rushdie

There is a small percentage of this country’s population who hang on to the past – a past rife with social injustices and littered with the blood, sweat and tears of the oppressed. You know them. You have seen them. They exist within our midst. And some of them choose to exist willingly, only among themselves. 

We know these people. They are a minority within a minority. They’re the odd person or family we see at rugby matches who think it’s okay to wave the Vier Kleur – just because it is. Our country allows it. Or they are (hopefully) the few who form part of a larger audience at Afrikaans music festivals, who can’t wait to feel nostalgic about the aforementioned past and patriotically participate in a rendition of Die Stem, led by an icon, their icon, Steve Hofmeyr – a man with so much power, but so little of it’s good. 

We ignore them. Some hope they will just go away. But there they are, using cultural festivals and gatherings, such as Aardklop or Innibos, to symbolise an “us” and “them” ideal with freedom of expression. It is offensive but okay. Not everyone who goes there is like that. But somewhere it is misconstrued that these events exist only for this handful to perpetuate and signify these ideals that have no place in this democracy.

These events are allowed to exist because our country values them. Do these people know this? I keep speaking about a “they”, which is ironic because it is the very thing that “they” do. But the thing is, when you continue to live in a fictional world where you believe that you and everyone like you is endowed with a superiority that cannot and should not be challenged, you force everyone else to exclude you. Or possibly ignore you.

This group of people’s continued movement within free spaces is not a new one. It is as old as our democracy, which now includes everyone else’s culture too. But it still should be a democracy worthy of nation-building instead of divisive malice.

Die Stem opens with the words “Uit die blou van onse hemel, uit die diepte van ons see (From the blue of our heavens, from the depths of our sea)” – it is a poem with imagery of a country that cannot be denied by any of its people. But it is uttered for the wrong reasons. When you skew the poem’s meaning, you change the “our” to “yours” and you steal from all the country’s people. To what end?

You are as free as anyone in this country. Many people have made sure that you are as deserving as anyone else of those liberties. Truths are truths – undeniably. You exist in a nation with a flawed government not just for and towards you and yours, but to other citizens too. And while many are still paying their debts towards discrepancies and injustices that you had control over, the country has undeniably changed for the better for everyone.

Appreciate that change and challenge your mind. Musical tastes change and can accommodate many genres – no one is asking you to support or not support Hofmeyr. Just learn to appreciate the change. There is always something to be found in it. You may have to part with ideals that make you feel superior, but it’s for a greater good. It’s for the sake of democracy, human rights and equality – fewer crimes against humanity and less political indiscretions.

Challenge your perceptions because you love this country. Do it because you realise you’re not isolated in that love. There are many who may have cultural, political and idealistic differences with you, but who love it all the same. They are not imposing their power on you. I realise you think it’s bad now, voiced by perceived vendettas against boers (farmers).  But can you think of something much worse? I refer you to YouTube, for a viewing of any few minutes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

Why not be a part of a constructive system, then? It’s a system that errs of course, but its people want to build this nation. Instead of engaging in hate speech disguised as nostalgia, why not utter words like democracy, accountability, responsibility or remorse? If not that, then at least just the word acceptance. If you cannot change your ideals or divorce other people from them, then at least acknowledge the ideals of others and accept them too.

It does not take a Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa or a Nelson Mandela to realise that this is an imperfect nation, striving toward acceptance and forgiveness. It is a nation that compromises and makes allowances for all of its people, and all of its people’s speech. It is a nation birthed out of the womb of reconciliation. Is it not better for everyone to just accept that and find it enlightening, rather than fight it?

Division festers in isolation. You are not invisible. We see you now. But if we’re not offended anymore, you have ceased to exist. 

This is not a challenge to try and offend some more, but rather an invitation to be part of something real, something meaningful. And if the die-hard ideals in you will not allow for enlightenment, that’s okay … but then at least allow for the enlightenment of others. 

And if ever there were a sing-off in the stadium of South Africa between Die Stem and the true national anthem of a country and its people that hold the potential you feel you need to deny, then my die-hard ideals (which I hope are the majority’s) is that your portion of the pavilion would not be expired but would be drowned out by the sound of possibility.


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