My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
There is a great paradox at play in political discussions and arguments about the manner in which “Afrikaners” and other “ethnic minorities” should position themselves and should behave in post-apartheid South Africa. This discussion has recently exploded into the open in the aftermath of judge Colin Lamont’s “Kill the Boer” judgment.
First, Adriaan Basson, Deputy Editor of City Press wrote an open letter to Kallie Kriel, the CEO of Afriforum, about the manner in which the organisation has positioned itself as a defender of “minority Afrikaner interests”. Basson berated Kriel because:
[Y]ou see yourself firstly as part of a minority group, whose constitutional and human rights are being disregarded by the ANC. The premise of AfriForum’s campaigns is one of victimhood. You regard the Afrikaners as a group under threat, a people whose basic rights to expression, association and movement are constantly being undermined by the black majority.
Basson suggested that one should position oneself as a South African first and only then, as an afterthought perhaps, as a person who happens to be Afrikaans speaking and white. Basson seems to suggest that “Afrikaners” should not view themselves as a minority at all, but if they do, they should recognise that “Afrikaners must be one of the most powerful, wealthy and diverse minorities on the planet”. In Business Day, Steven Friedman, similarly criticised the “Kill the Boer” judgment because it reifies the white minority’s economic and cultural dominance.
“Afrikaners”, this group argue, should not claim a special status for themselves as they are relatively privileged as a group and are thriving — both economically and culturally — in democratic South Africa. There are so many other, far more pressing, political and ethical issues that people in South Africa should be concerned about — hunger, unemployment, homelessness, to name but a few. In order to make South Africa a more just and equitable place, “Afrikaners” should rather make common cause with marginalised and oppressed groups. They should change their minds and their hearts and should stop acting liking perpetual victims — stop exuding the we-can-never-forgive-blacks-for-apartheid mentality — as this mentality will just have a polarising effect on politics in South Africa.
Others, including Kriel, Wessel Ebersohn and Herman Giliomee point to the deep sense of anxiety and fear amongst many “Afrikaners” about their future in South Africa. These feelings relate to fears about the “Afrikaner’s” continued economic prosperity and the physical safety of members of this “minority” as well as an unease or even deep unhappiness regarding the loss of status of their language (Afrikaans) and their diminished political influence.
They warn against the totalising effect of an ideology that valorises “unity” and abhors difference and diversity. If I understand these arguments correctly, they are based on the premise that “Afrikaners” are indeed very different from other South Africans, because of their race, because of their language, because of their wealth (and perhaps – but this is never stated – because of their intimate involvement in the oppression of black South Africans during apartheid) and that people like Basson must be naive to think that one could be a South African first and an “Afrikaner” second.
The paradox is that many people who valorise “Afrikaner” identity in this way and see “Afrikaners” as physically or existentially threatened, also warn that one of the greatest threats to our non-racial constitutional democracy (and, by implication, to the “Afrikaner” minority) is the tendency of many black Africans in South Africa to see themselves as black first and as South Africans second. The very people who fearfully condemn the deployment of an ethnic or racialised identity by black Africans when they criticise affirmative action, claim a semi-racialised ethnic identity for themselves and argue for its preservation and protection through militant legal and political action.
Why is it acceptable for “Afrikaners” to embrace their “Afrikaner” identity and view themselves as “Afrikaners” first and South Africans second, but it is not acceptable for black South Africans to embrace their racial identity and to view themselves as Africans first and South Africans second? After all, “Afrikaners” were the main (but not only) beneficiaries of affirmative action during the last 40 years of apartheid and used their semi-racialised ethnic or cultural identity in the most devastating way to oppress the majority of South Africans. It is dishonest and conceptually treacherous to claim that this identity is somehow more benign than the racial identity that some black Africans embrace. Either identity politics itself should be problematised and its effects minimised or its should be embraced, with all the negative consequences that flow from this for a supposed “minority” identity group.
Some might argue that there is a difference as “Afrikaners” is a minority and black Africans is a majority, but as Adriaan points out, the vast majority of the members of this so called minority have done rather well in the democratic era. There has been an explosion in creativity amongst “Afrikaners”, finally freed from the shackles of Afrikaner Nationalism. Goodness, there is even a DSTV channel dedicated to Afrikaans music (some of it admittedly rather pedestrian, but some of it hard-assed, vibrant and moving).
But the fact is that identity politics is popular in South Africa because it seems to work. If one wished to resist oppression, economic exploitation and white racism, one would be wise to embrace an African identity and to advocate the implementation of special legal and political measures to “protect” or “advance” the identity group one feels one belongs to. Similarly, if, as an “Afrikaner”, one wished to harness the economic power amassed on the back of apartheid and if one wanted to be taken seriously by the ANC, one would be well-advised to show a united “Afrikaner” face to the so called “enemy”: the black majority. President Jacob Zuma has never gone out of his way to meet with progressive “Afrikaners” like Adriaan Basson, but he did join Steve Hofmeyer – that “Afrikaner” opportunist par excellance – for a braai.
Of course, if one has far more sympathy for Adriaan Basson’s view (as I do), one is not completely left off the hook. We usually talk about the past and the devastating effects of apartheid and many of us support some kind of race-based affirmative action. Yet, we claim that these identity categories (on which race-based affirmative action policies must rely and which are perpetuated by those very policies), should stop defining who we are and should be no more than one of the many distinct factors that help to paint a picture of who we are.
We like to say that there are no ethnic minorities or majorities in South Africa and that there are only temporary political majorities and minorities. We argue that we might happen to be white and Afrikaans speaking, but that this does not define who we are. We are also male or female, gay or straight, rich or not so rich, HIV positive or not, ANC supporters or DA supporters, liberals or socialists, readers of good books or watchers of Glee, rugby fanatics or kwaito bedonnerd, nature lovers and city slickers.
However, I would contend that there is a fundamental difference between the two positions. Given the fact that South Africa is a country still haunted by the economic and social effects of racial discrimination and apartheid, given that whiteness as an ideology is deeply implicated in the continued marginalisation and oppression of black South Africans and given, further, that the white minority in general and “Afrikaners” in particular benefitted enormously as a group from apartheid, it is both ethically and practically unconscionable for whites in general and “Afrikaners” in particular to define themselves as a victimised and threatened minority in order to try and retain some of the special privileges they acquired during apartheid.
On the other hand, the effects of past and ongoing racism and discrimination against black South Africans can only begin to be addressed if well-designed and targeted race-based corrective measures are enthusiastically pursued. While some of us who agree with Adriaan Basson will therefore support race-based corrective measures, we do so not because we are ideologically or emotionally wedded to the identity categories that the “Afrikaner” group seem to valorise (in other words, we are not wedded to the idea that race or ethnicity is the defining characteristic that determines our moral worth), but rather because we believe that for the moment the deployment of race is required to right the wrongs of the past.
Our end goal might be to move away from a society in which there are seemingly permanent and monolithic racial or ethnic minorities and majorities, but we understand that this goal will not be achieved if the fundamentally unjust and skewed racialised division of economic and social opportunities available to people of different races in our country are not addressed.
Like Adriaan, I also see myself as a South African who happens to be white and Afrikaans-speaking, one who refuses to trade on his semi-racialised ethnic identity to gain special protection or retain for myself or my group special privileges. I proudly speak Afrikaans, I read Afrikaans novels and listen to Afrikaans music, I have attended the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (and as long as I stayed away from the Huisgenoot tent – o jirre, that place is scary! – and the more macho drinking establishments, I had a great time there), but I feel I have less in common with Kallie Kriel than with Jay Naidoo, Jacob Dlamini, Dikgang Moseneke or S’busiso Zikode, the President of the Abahlali baseMjondolo.
I do not wish to be part of an ethnic minority, some of whose members seem to be overwhelmed by a permanent sense of victimhood and grievance because of their loss of political power and influence in South Africa. Rather, my humanity is defined by how I interact with other South Africans of all races, genders, sexual orientation and classes and how I respond to the vast injustices I see around me — much of it caused by the lingering effects of a system put in place and maintained by people who proudly and chauvinistically called themselves “Afrikaners”.BACK TO TOP