One evening I was listening to an interview on radio and the guest was Dr Wynand Boshoff of the Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus). Boshoff is also a grandson of the apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd and a resident of the white-only enclave Orania, situated in the Northern Cape province.
Boshoff was invited to speak on the radio not only because of his family history, as I understood, but also for the fact he would be a first time parliamentarian after his party increased seats following the recent elections in May 2019.
To be honest, it was for the first time I listened to an FF Plus politician with some attentiveness and also with some will to understand what they had to say. This piece is therefore on the impression that Boshoff made on the issues of cultural freedom and expression for the people of Dutch-extraction, or Afrikaners as they prefer to call themselves.
For those who are less familiar with South African history, people’s identities are all embodied in words rather than on anything else that make sense. Apartheid policies advocated for the separation of racial groups and placed white Europeans at the apex of the food chain.
For example, all people who originate from or reside in Africa are normally referred to as Africans. Afrikaners, which also means African in the English language, is for those who trace their lineage mainly from Europe, namely the Dutch and French Huguenots. They are white and speak a language called Afrikaans. But they share this language with a group of non-whites, who were called Coloured under apartheid.
Coloureds are similar to all other black Africans but only differ in terms of language, and perhaps culture. However, matters of racial politics are not absolute. There are way too many overlaps between the different racial groups in terms of culture, features and identifications. That is exactly what made the system of apartheid ludicrous and extremely confusing.
Nonetheless, apartheid created these divisions and we still carry them long after this brutal system ended. Apartheid was not just about race but it also determined who could own the means of production as well as who could access certain privileges in the economy and society as a whole. With race as a central point of reference, it guaranteed the white race unfettered access to economic opportunities, education, health, etc. Apartheid created a white supremacist structure that made whites to be superior compared to other races in all aspects and gave them advantages.
The end of apartheid did not dispossess whites to create an even society, so by implication, whites still enjoy better standards of living in comparison to the black majority that continues to live in squalor. Not only that, but the beneficiaries of apartheid insist that they have what they have because of hard work, and some claim that they are the ones chosen by God. As a result, they have been less willing to share and or embrace the black population, who are the victims of apartheid a system created by the whites’ forefathers for them. Whites own much of the land and the economy as well as good schools and hospitals. They have the money and means to sustain themselves.
Going back to the Boshoff interview.
Keith Gottschalk (Anti-Apartheid poet and Political Analyst) explains that from its early days the FF Plus represents ‘those who felt former President FW de Klerk had betrayed the “Afrikaner volk” to black people, the ANC and the Communist Party.’ And Dirk Coetzee (co-founder and commander of the covert South African Security Police unit based in Vlakplaas) opines that the policy of the FF Plus ‘is centred around the ideal of a Volkstaat, or an autonomous region within South Africa with a high level of community autonomy, especially cultural self-determination.’
The FF Plus often cited the Belgian arrangement of cultural councils as a model that should to be considered in South Africa to protect the Afrikaner people and their language and culture. As time went by, it appears that the Volkstaat policy lost favour somewhat. And since 2016, the FF Plus remodeled itself as ‘a party for minorities – and not only Afrikaans-speaking white people’. In the last elections, it teamed up with Peter Marais’ Bruin Bemagtigingsbeweging (BBB), or ‘Coloured Empowerment Movement’.
In addition, its policy opposes black economic empowerment, employment equity and land expropriation without compensation. During the last elections, the party used the slogan ‘Slaan terug/Fight back’ as a symbolic fight against affirmative action. But it also tangibly promised ‘to support the white and coloured victims of affirmative action and black economic empowerment.’
Boshoff spoke at length about the cultural dimensions but chose to focus less on the need for redress with a view of creating an equal society that is not based on the apartheid model. Notwithstanding the Coloured vote, the performance of the FF Plus in the elections appears to suggest that identity, including the preservation of the Afrikaans language and race-related issues, are important to its voting base scattered all over the country.
The FF Plus seems to have a point about the culture and language for the Afrikaner population. Everyone has a right to be even under the conditions of multiplicity of cultures and languages. There is no culture that should be placed above others and nobody should be forced to speak a language he does not prefer. But the challenge with this notion of cultural democracy is that it cannot take place outside the present and historical realities. This is one thing that Boshoff, FF Plus and other conservative right-wing formations like AfriForum and Solidariteit/Solidarity are failing to properly contextualise.
The insistence on maintaining Afrikaans as the primary language of tuition in schools and tertiary institutions like the Universities of Pretoria and the North West could appear reasonable in different circumstances. But the material and class (including race) differentials as a result of the previous dispensation negate this because it is more like a continuation of apartheid. These universities were adequately resourced compared to the traditionally black universities. So, using language in a country with a terrible history such as ours is quite difficult to understand. Afrikaner populations have generally failed to reciprocate the ANC government’s policy of non-racialism. In this regard, they should be thankful to the former liberation movement than ridicule it. Afrikaners wouldn’t have a say if the ANC chose to go very hard against the white minority population.
Nevertheless, in societies like Belgium and Switzerland, cultural and language divisions appear to work because it is an arrangement amongst equals. For example, in the case of Switzerland there is little or no difference between Geneva and Lausanne (French) and the German areas of Berne, Zurich and Basel in terms of economic development and use of language, although it feels like one is in two different countries. The same cannot be said with Bishops Court in Cape Town and Tsomo in the Eastern Cape. But also, the Xhosa language still does not enjoy the same status as Afrikaans in society and business.
Boshoff correctly maintains that the South African situation is complicated by the English language. This minority language has positioned itself as a ‘compromise language’ for different races and cultures. Also, English is already a dominant language outside South Africa. The FF Plus has a valid point when it rejects the English language but it fails to clarify how parity can be created between Afrikaans and African languages. The Afrikaans language is in an advantageous position because a large section of its speakers have private resources and means to support it. Afrikaans comes from long periods of support and development by the apartheid regime. The same cannot be said about African languages: many are struggling to hold their own in business and government. They are only relevant for social and informal settings.
Instinct dictates that Afrikaners should protect themselves since they are minority. But proponents of Afrikaner nationalism tend to divorce themselves completely from the social project of reconstructing a new South African state. It is easy for the likes of Solidarity to accuse Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi of acting like Stalin, and of ‘declaring war on the Afrikaans language.’ In a statement dated 20 May 2019, Solidarity attacks Lesufi by saying, ‘The smoke screen of equality with which you are trying to cover this does not fool anyone – you are making it clear that you are targeting Afrikaans as language of instruction.’ Afrikaner groups have not articulated their position on equality except for acting like victims.
Lesufi this week celebrated a court order that allowed the change of a school name in Pretoria from Hoërskool Hendrik Verwoerd to Rietondale Secondary School. For AfriForum, Solidarity as well as FF Plus, they see absolutely nothing wrong with the continued use of Verwoerd’s name. They view the change as an attack on their culture. It cannot be that names of people who were responsible for apartheid can still be used at this moment.
The UN characterised apartheid as ‘a crime against humanity’. Apartheid atrocities are similar to the ones committed by the Nazis in Germany but the two countries appear to deal with their experiences differences. The Germans banned all Nazi symbols and use of the names of people who presided over the Third Reich. Germans don’t hide behind the notion of culture in order to name a school or airport after Adolf Hitler or Paul Joseph Goebbels. There is something that Afrikaner conservatives have to learn from their German cousins before they act as victims. Based on the reconciliation model, they should have volunteered and made concessions in efforts to destroy apartheid and its legacies. But they chose not to, that is the reason we still have the same heated debate well over two decades after apartheid officially ended.
The pretence of embracing the Coloured population in Northern Cape and Western Cape should be encouraged but not for nefarious reasons such as to frustrate change. Issues like land reform and economic ownership have to be deliberated on for the benefit of everyone. Trying to hide behind the minority tag to oppose change in South Africa is not acceptable if indeed a new South African society has to be created. The FF Plus and similar groups have an obligation towards this reconstruction. They have no choice contrary to what many of them believe.
And as much as the issues they raise are important, they need to realise that Afrikaners and their language don’t exist in a vacuum. For instance, Afrikaner capital and wealth cannot be sustained without the large number of black people who consume their products and services. Labour of blacks is equally important for the production and delivery of those products and services. Even this country would not have been where it is right now without the blood and sweat of black labourers.
The point is that whites did not create South Africa on their own, as this white segment wants to make us to believe.
Therefore, it is not advisable that they always want to be distinct without pushing harder for the upliftment of millions of black people whose dignity is yet to be restored. That is not the sole responsibility of government – the Afrikaner community needs to initiate changes to show commitment to South Africa, a place we all call our home.
The modus operandi for FF Plus, AfriForum, Solidarity and others needs to be alert to the present realities and their leadership must remember that there is no space to return to the previous arrangement of racial separation.
The white population at large should not act like the outgoing WC premier Helen Zille whose psyche when it comes to racial matters signals someone who needs help. She may be playing politics with the hope of attracting verkrampte (conservatives) who have turned their backs on the DA in favour of the FF Plus. But one thing is clear she is going in an undesired direction.
Zille dismally fails to appreciate that a simple notion like white privilege exists. In her tweet to Thuli Madonsela she wrote: ‘Well you clearly don’t understand black privilege. It is being able to loot a country and steal hundreds of billions and get re-elected …’ Besides the strong belief that colonialism was good, Zille suggests that blacks are the only ones responsible for looting and criminality in this country. Her views are contestable and also seek to divert attention from the real issue of how do whites contribute in normalising South African society.
In conclusion, the right of existence for the Afrikaner population, culture and language should be encouraged at the same level as that of other groupings. Members of this community need to come to terms with the fact that they live amongst other people and within a greater South African polity. We need social cohesion more than anything else.
English and Afrikaans remain de-facto official languages in South Africa. Ghanaian scholar Kwesi Kwaa Prah calls this an ‘an expression of the societal power of these two groups, and also dialectically a source of the societal power of the English and Afrikaans home language speakers.’ Language and or identity are therefore linked to power.
Our situation in South Africa is unique. Minorities have more power than the black majority. If lessons cannot be learned from similar countries in Asia and Latin America, then the insistence by the pro-Afrikaans groups for better or preferential treatment will escalate social tensions rather than decrease them.
By Siyabonga P. Hadebe
Image by Reuters/Juda Ngwenya