Of ciphers and little favours

THE FIFTH COLUMN

It’s often forgotten that apartheid and the Afrikaner nationalism that underpinned it weren’t quite as monolithic as they would appear when viewed from the perspective of the struggle against apartheid.

One is reminded of the inner divisions of Afrikanerdom by Ton Vosloo, in his memoir Across Boundaries: A Life in the Media at a Time of Change. He worked for the Nasionale Pers group for nearly 60 years, as a writer and editor for its newspapers and later as director of Naspers. He’s in a position to talk about the investment in Chinese company Tencent, which has made Naspers very, very rich, as well as ancient instances of broedertwis in Afrikaner politics.

The Broederbond itself — dedicated to ensuring the supremacy of Afrikaners —was split into verkrampte and verligte tendencies — “cramped” versus “enlightened”, if you put them into English.

There was also a north-south split in both the National Party and the media that served Afrikaans readers, though the Afrikaans media, overall, was firmly embedded in the Afrikaner-dominated polity: Cabinet ministers sat on its boards and so on. Vosloo, who represented the more liberal wing of the Afrikaans media, writes that the influence went both ways, and that the Nasionale Pers publications were able to push Afrikaner and government politics in a slightly more open-minded direction.

Vosloo was the first Afrikaner journalist to write, in a column in 1981, that it was unavoidable that the white nationalists and the ANC would have to sit down and negotiate South Africa’s future. He was condemned by the verkramptes, and the book has some scarily amusing accounts of then president PW Botha’s legendary screaming fits directed at anyone who crossed or insulted him.

In a letter reacting to one of Botha’s tantrums, he is quoted as complaining about the Nationale Pers representatives seeming to ask for favours, using the word “kado’tjies”. That’s translated as “handouts” in the text, which is perfectly adequate and idiomatic, but the word itself is interesting. It means, literally, “little gifts” but the word for a gift or present in Afrikaans is “geskenk”.

Kado’tjies has to come from a French word embedded in old Dutch, which has a lot of French vocabulary subsequently lost in Afrikaans: French for gift is cadeau. You’ve got to wonder where, in PW’s linguistic memory, he found that little old word.

There’s another interesting word moment in the book. Vosloo tells the story of how Perskor, the other big Afrikaans media group, inflated its circulation figures by dumping copies in an abandoned mine called Syferfontein. “Syfer”, of course, means number: if, in Afrikaans, you were to say: “Show me the numbers” or “Let’s see the figures”, you might say “Wys my die syfers.”

Syfer is also cipher, which has branching meanings in English, one of which implies concealment. And it comes, ultimately, from the Arabic word for zero. But that’s another column. 

Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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