Monday, July 20, 2009

Herd Instinct

I was invited to join a Facebook group touting a nationalistic Afrikaner line about independence of the "boerevolk". It was very kind of them to think of me, but I simply had to decline. My first response was "Come on guys, quit trying to divide SA even more than it is already - the Boer War ended a hundred years ago - catch a wake up!" Nevertheless, it prompted some deeper thought on the subject.

A friend of mine pointed out "
It's always been their instinct to break away and form their own little country. When the Brits took the Cape Colony they went and formed the Republic of Natalia. When the Brits took that, they went and formed the ZAR. At some or other point, they also formed the Orange Free State. In 1948, they basically turned the whole country into an Afrikaner Vaderland. Now that we're a democracy, they want a volkstaat.

I don't blame them though; being descendants of Dutch, German and Huguenot settlers, the whole independence, autonomy and national self-determination thing is practically in their DNA.

While I am of German, French and Dutch descent myself, I jokingly commented that there is no Brit in me. By this I mean that while I share the same history and culture - and in all likelihood the same DNA - I'm not likely to pack an ox wagon and start trekking north anytime soon waving a
Vierkleur while singing "Sarie Marais".

My first Engela ancestor - the root of all Engelas in South Africa today - arrived in Cape Town aboard a sailing vessel from Europe called the
Beukesteyn" in 1738. His name was Thomas Wilhelm Engela and he was a mercenary for the Dutch East India Company (VOC). He left his hometown of Minden in Prussia to seek his fortune here. His wine estate still exists today in the Cape, though it was sold off by one of his descendants soon after his death. I have taken a great deal of effort to try and trace my family history. My mother's family was Dutch and French. The Durants were French Hugenots, exiles from Catholic France. The first SA van der Westhuizen was also a soldier with the VOC, in fact the first "van" in SA married Jan van Riebeeck's sister. Back in the old SA that used to be something to brag about, but now it is something of an air-pie you keep in the bottom drawer for the sort of conversations you have after a little too much wine - but am I proud of my heritage and my family? Yes I am.

Does it make me feel superior to other people because of it? I think not.

Is it wrong to be proud of your heritage?

Being proud of your heritage shows an interest in where your ancestors came from, and an interest in history. I am also proud of my heritage and my ancestors - but let me ask you this: Is it pride in your heritage to campaign for a nationalist and separatist state and to foster an "us" and "them" attitude in society? That is what that group and the many others like it are all about. There are many examples - such as the Afrikaner Weerstands Beweging (AWB) and the Boerestaat Party, which also had a uniformed paramilitary wing called the Boere Weerstands Beweging (BWB) and had a little fascist propeller-motif of its own. Such groups are quite clearly separatist and also anti-diversity. Most often these groups, and the BSP in particular, are also patently anti-gay. Strangely enough groups such as these consider themselves to be Christian, giving lengthy if implausible explanations to why they are using clearly fascist symbols an rhetoric to justify their quest for nationhood. Believe it or not, even the swastika was once a symbol of good luck - but that doesn't make it any less fascist or any less a symbol of evil today.

Thus I think you can see that such nationalistic groups are not just advocating being proud of their heritage, but to be a separate group on their own. An isolationist policy, autonomy and autocracy. And what would be the consequence of this? The Afrikaner people under its own rule, enforcing its own language and culture and without the intrusion of "foreign languages" to taint its 'purity'. I think it is fairly easy to see where this leads. The path of racial purity and institutionalized cultural superiority - and the use of racial eugenics to oppress sexual diversity which they, as did the Nazis - see as a threat to the "fighting strength" of their race. What we have in SA is a vast undercover network of neo-Nazi cell groups and front bodies like the BSP and AWB.

The Boerestaat Party's website, , the party states among other things (that seem motivated by eugenics and other obscurities): ""Ons staan vir die beskerming van die tradisionele familie wat boustene van ons Boere Volk is. Ons staan vir die natuurlike orde van manlike mans en vroulike vroue en is totaal gekant dat dieselfde geslag mense mag trou of `n verhouding mag hĂȘ." - translated into English, "We stand for the protection of the traditional family which is the building block of our Boer Nation. We stand for the natural order of masculine men and feminine women and are totally opposed to same gender marriage and relationships."

I'm not sure I like that idea - for one thing, Gothic script on everything ( might be very appealing to some, but it is hard to read - and for another, goose-stepping may look awfully nice, but it gives me thigh cramps.

Slogans like "White Pride World Wide" (with yet another quaint looking propeller-device logo) remind me of a saying by Groucho Marx to which in this particular instance I wholeheartedly agree: "I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member".

I guess what all this nationalism highlights is the difference between wanting freedom and equality for all people - and just wanting it for yourself, even at the expense or detriment of others. The question I want to ask is does the National Intelligence Agency know about such groups? Do they know what they are saying or what kind of future they tout for this country? Do they? Or are they living up that generalization we apply to all government departments in SA today? (If they are anything like the Department of Home Affairs, then God help us all.) Christian fundamentalism, racism, heterosexism and violent nationalism - an explosive mix awaiting just the right spark to come along.

Another rumor doing the rounds as peddled on the internet and through various newsgroups is the "
Night of the Long Knives" in which it is said that upon Mandela's death all White people in SA will be murdered en masse. While it sounds all very dramatic and I am sure it makes fascinating reading, what exactly are the chances that such an event (ostensibly planned by a government which cannot even adequately manage its own energy supply or it's own mouth-piece public broadcasting service properly) - could materialize? And yet I know of some people who are stocking their basements with munitions, tinned food, candles and gasoline for just such an event.

Right wing? Yup. Christian? Doubtful. Fundamentalist? Without a doubt. Paranoid? Let's just say that just because you're not paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

But let's take a moment to blend family history with touted rhetoric about Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa:

My paternal great grandfather was Thomas Willem Engela. In his time, South Africa was on the frontier of civilization, and always a hairs breadth away from open war. Two British colonies and two independent Boer Republics weaved a web of intrigue and cloaks and daggers between them. This erupted into the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. Being of German descent and adoptive Afrikaans/Dutch lingo, I think it is a straight forward conclusion which uniform he wore.

Be that as it may some years later his son, my grandfather - Thomas William Engela, was in the SA Army at the time of World War One. In 1915 he marched north with General Louis Botha to Windhoek (then Windhuk) the capital of the German colony at our northern border to place it under the British and South African flags. Back then, things were difficult and strained between English and Afrikaans speakers in SA - even taking into account that in many families there were people of mixed descent and marriage.

My maternal grandfather, Peter James van der Westhuizen, served in the SA Army during WW2. As you may guess by his first names, he was an English speaker. In 1942 he was diagnosed with cancer and was sent home to die one month before he would have been shipped out to Italy. He had to walk all the 15km home from the train station because all the Afrikaans farmers who passed refused to offer him a lift. Some even spat at him for wearing the Union uniform. His wife? Helena Catherina Durant - an Afrikaans lady who was mother to their seven children.

In the end, of those seven children - two were English speaking, and five were Afrikaans speaking. And most of them went on to marry people who spoke the other language as their home language, as did their children. Not that this played any part in their choice of partners mind you, it was just the way it worked out. Incidentally, this particular lady was schooled in Dutch and not Afrikaans, because Afrikaans was only officially recognized as an actual language in 1928 and she was already married by then. She lived to a good 91 years and in her time she saw horse carts, motor cars, tube trains, independence from Britain, Apartheid, radio, TV and even space shuttles.
I often wonder what she would have thought of this "new, new, new (new, new)" South Africa that keeps re-inventing itself every other day.

My point? That
try as you might, you will struggle a long time to find South African families today who are strictly all English or Afrikaans speaking. And please folks, pronouncing last names like "Horn" with an Afrikaans "r" does not change the fact that you have some 'rooinek' in your blood somewhere. Nor does it in any way help to try and "Anglicize" a surname like "van der Merwe", even if your home language happens to be English and you carry a UK passport. We are what we are, and we should be proud of that. And if you can't find anything in what you are to be proud of, then make something of yourself that you and your children and those around you can be proud of. What I mean is that after all this time, we are no longer separate, isolated nations - the lines are blurred - and in some cases no longer even indiscernable.

In my extended family (including the "
aangenaide lappies") I have surnames such as Engela (Prussian), Durant (French), van der Westhuizen (Dutch), Hiscock (English), Thompson (English), Collen (English), van der Walt (German), White (English), Rentzke (German), Nel (German), van Rensburg (Dutch), Landman (German). Add to this the fact that despite the racial policies of past SA governments, there was a great deal of fraternization between the races. Which is why it is very likely that for every family name that can be traced to Europe, there is most likely a darker branch of relatives on the family tree. Which is why today there are "Coloured" van der Westhuizens, "Whites" that aren't - and even Indian Engela's.

As a South African I honestly cannot understand how people can't see South Africa as a uniquie nation, united by ties of history, bonds of suffering, victory, struggles, hope - and in more ways than I ever before thought possible - blood.

As we all know, the scars left by this ridiculous latent English-Afrikaans enmity of the Boer War and the events leading up to it still run deep in South Africa - even today we feel its after effects, when we see groups on the web and in the political arena crying for an independent state for the "Boere volk". And it seems that more than a century after the end of this war, some of the decendants of its victims and combatants are still fighting some idiotic war that was more about the control of diamond and gold mines than land or nationhood - and are still asking for the independence of something that really doesn't exist and probably never has - a separate 'Afrikaner' nation. Take a look around you, folks - this is it.

You have many Colored and Black folks whose home language (and even surnames) are in fact Afrikaans - and who include many of the sayings and traditions of their former oppressors. Many of them played with our parents and grandparents as children "oppie plaas" and were as close as family. Are they not as much entitled to call themselves 'Afrikaners'? What is this "separate homeland" story? It says "we are better off on our own". It says "we don't want to be part of this country, or together with the rest of you anymore". It also says "you're not playing nice with me and I'm going to sulk". What's the matter folks - the kitchen getting too hot for you?
SA is messed up enough as it is, and it is hard enough just trying to make progress in building us all up as a single nation, with one national identity - without some groups wanting to sulk, form a "laager" and declare themselves independent, don't you think?

Pride of who you are does not necessarily mean having a "laager" mentality. Please do not think that I do not agree with the idea that people should be proud of being Afrikaans or of their language - that really is not what I am saying. I grew up listening to Laurika Rauch, Nataniel and David Kramer (weird, I know) along with Boy George, Depeche Mode and Queen - and one of my favorite Afrikaans local artists today is Chris Kameleon. I grew up at my Ouma's feet while they were tapping to the "Boereorkes Kompetiese" every Saturday night. At school I was fully bilingual and even wrote sci-fi stories in Afrikaans as I now do in my own home language - English. I simply disagree with the nationalism that is so often closely related to such movements. As a matter of interest, I find even similar nationalism in UK movements such as the BNP (British National Party) equally offensive, self-serving and fascist.Nationalism is what makes some people think they are better than others and just as often inspires delusions of superiority. Why do I dislike nationalism? First it starts with "birds of a feather flock together" and it gradually becomes more a case of "my dog is better than your dog" with knives in it.

Nationalism is what gave form to racism in this country. Nationalism leads to all sorts of nasty things (even Nazi things) like fascism and war. Even comments on this group wall proclaim SA as belonging to the "Boere" and that they must "take it back". ( Dangerous sentiments indeed in todays world. What makes SA any more or less mine or yours or Siphiwe's? We were all born here. We all have to live along side each other, each with the right to be proud of who we are without elevating ourselves above the other.

Such movements are clearly not about who lives with or next door to who, or just being proud of your language or your culture - which would be just peachy with me - they are about
who gets to run the show. It is about "us" and "them". It is about separation - and whose dog is better.

The best way for diferent groups to get to know each other is to not only work together but actually talk to each other and make an effort to be be friendly and a good deal less touchy. Fear of the unknown and ancient stereotypes are what still separate us today. Even so, in those terms this country is so much better than it was 15 years ago. At the end of it all, hopefully people - straight, gay, black, white, pink or green with yellow spots - will one day realize the meaning of the words of that old Depeche Mode song - "people are people" - and then start acting like it.


If you would like to know more about Christina Engela and her writing, please feel free to browse her website.

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