Mhambi has been redeployed.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Are Afrikaners the planet's worst racists?

Imagine you are walking down the streets of London, Amsterdam or New York. You randomly ask passers by, name a place, person or people that most strike you as racist. Chances are* that a number of them will say, South Africa, white South Africa, the Boers, or "that chap with the beard and the horse".

(* Provided those you ask are not African immigrants or Asian).

To many in the Western world, white South Africa, and Afrikaners in particular are associated with racism par excellence.

David Goldblatt

Johannes van der Linde, farmer and major in the local army reserve, with his head labourer 'Ou Sam'. In the manner of respectful indirect address used in Afrikaans as between a parent and child, van der Linde asked, 'Old Sam, does the Baas swear at you?' To which the reply was, 'No Baas, the Baas does not swear at me.' Near Bloemfontein, Free State, 1965.

The policy of apartheid, western reaction against colonialism, and continued media coverage of racist behaviour of Afrikaners have over decades cemented this belief amongst Westerners in particular - Afrikaners are racist to the core.

I will examine the negative media coverage of Afrikaners in the Western media in some detail in another post, but today I want to explore the extent and nature of Afrikaner racism.

There is no doubt in my mind that many Afrikaners are deeply racist, and that some of this racism is in a very ugly way. But I will argue, that they are not more racist than the English or indeed other South Africans considering their particular context.

I will argue that the kind of racism amongst Afrikaners is a very particular kind of racism, but also that the kind of racism Afrikaners are prone to are changing.

Afrikaner racism & intimacy with black South Africa

Celebrated jewish South African photographer David Goldblatt recognized and captured the peculiar nature of the racism of Afrikaners in the 1960's.

Goldblatt had grown up on the West Rand town of Randfontein in the 1940's:

"At school, Afrikaans was a compulsory subject that I disliked intensely; it was a harsh language, like the people who spoke it. It is ironic that my mother sent me to Krugersdorp High only after I experienced serious incidents of anti-Semitism and even sadism, first at Pretoria Boys High and then at Marist Brothers in Johannesburg, both English-medium schools. I was happy at Krugersdorp High, also an English-medium school. I finished high school in 1948, the same year the National Party came into power. I remember on their election poster outside my father's shop in the main street of Randfontein a caricatured Hoggenheimer, the archetypal Jewish capitalist. Besides the swart gevaar, Jewish capitalists were the ultimate evil in the eyes of the party.

In my father's shop, serving Afrikaners, I found, almost in spite of myself, that I liked many of them and, to my surprise, that I was beginning to enjoy the language. There was a warm straightforwardness and an earthiness in many of these people that was richly and idiomatically expressed in their speech. And, although I have never advanced beyond being able to speak a sort of kombuistaal, I delighted in our conversations. Yet, withal, I was very aware that not only were most of these people Nationalists, strong supporters of the Party and its policies, but that many were racist in their very blood. Although anti-Semitism was now seldom overt, they made no secret of their attitude to blacks, who at best were children in need of guidance and correction, at worst sub-human. I was much troubled by the contradictory feelings of liking, revulsion and fear that these Afrikaner encounters aroused in me and felt the need somehow to come closer to these lives and to probe their meaning for me. I wanted to do this with the camera."

David Goldblatt -
Making a coffin for the body of a neighbour's servant whose family could not afford to buy one, Bootha Plots, Randfontein, Transvaal (Gauteng), 1962.

Goldblatt was onto something - the peculiarity of Afrikaner racism.

Kinds of racism

Racism is a one size fits all word to describe many kinds of behaviour of one group to another. Often these concepts overlap. The form racism takes often has dramatically different results.

There is something like competitive racism. The racism where two groups compete over resources or cultural hedgemony. Like the Kikuyus and Luo's in Kenya today. Or the Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

There is chauvinistic racism where one group perceives themselves to be superior to another group. This is often how most people interpret the term racism. The Nazi's treatment of the Gypsies can be used as an example of chauvinistic racism.

Theres is the flip side to chauvinistic racism, this is where one group sees themselves as having been oppressed and inferior to another group - the inferior racist. The Hutus in Rwanda and their resentment towards and genocide of Tutsis spring to mind as an example.

And then there is paternalistic racism. It is a racism where the racist sees the other as inferiors in need of guidance. It's a peculiar racism, because it militates against separation, and often is combined with intimacy between the parties. Quite often the two groups in question are dependent on each other.

Goldblatt again:

"I had begun to use the camera long before this in a socially conscious way. And so I began to explore working-class Afrikaner life in our district. I drove out to the kleinhoewes around the town. I would stop and ask people if I might do some portraits of them or spend time with them while they went about whatever they were doing. In this way I became intimate with some of the qualities of everyday Afrikaner life in these places, and with some of its deeply embedded contradictions.

An old man sits for me. A black child comes and stands next to him, looking at me with curiosity. The man turns and says to the child, 'Ja, wat maak jy hier, jou swart vuilgoed?' (Yes, what are you doing here, you black rubbish?), the insult meant and yet said with affection. How is this possible? I don't know. But the contradiction was eloquent of much that I found in the relationship between rural and working-class Afrikaners and blacks: an often comfortable, affectionate, even physical intimacy seldom seen in the 'liberal' circles in which I moved, and yet, simultaneously, a deep contempt and fear of blacks."

David Goldblatt
The farmer's son with his nursemaid, on the farm Heimweeberg, near Nietverdiend in the Marico Bushveld, Transvaal (North-West Province), 1964.

Comfortable, affectionate, physically intimate but also deep contempt and fear

Afrikaner racism is often misconstrued to be similar to that found in the West, say to the Klu Clux Clan, or France's National Front.

Superficial western reporting clearly demonstrate this misinterpretation of Afrikaner racism. Just last week the Red Star Coven blog recorded an instance of this:

"I just watched the episode of Tropic of Capricorn that deals with South Africa. It was on TV last week, but I missed it.

The programme includes a visit to Louis Trichardt (I think it's still called that - I know there was some kind of mix up about name changes recently). The 'journalist' - who's name I didn't bother to catch - walks through the streets of the town and wonders at the fact that there are so few white faces around, playing spot the Boer - "look, there's one, coming out of the bank with money". He choses to misinterpret his Black guide's explanation and muses "under apartheid this would have been different. You wouldn't have seen Black faces on the streets".

What horseshit. Even in the darkest days of apartheid, the town centres - the streets and pavements - were thoroughly multiracial.

Recently a colleague of mine misinterpreted an event in South Africa as being outrageously racist, while it was actually a more benign paternal racism he witnessed.

When foreigners visit South Africa they expect to see racism they know well. Recently a prominent left wing activist and academic sociologist Kim Scipes visited South Africa. In an article comparing Venezuela and South Africa he said:

"What I saw -- and remember, I only saw a tiny bit of the country -- surprised me. There was much less racial tension than I had expected to find. There was almost none among the political activists that I met. It was somewhat mind-boggling as an American white male to be hugged by blacks after they had been only told I was a "comrade," but it happened a couple of times. And even when it didn't, it seemed to take almost no time at all to create bonds solid enough for deep and critical conversation about the current situation. Among the general public, too, whether on the street or in a few malls that I ended up visiting, the level of overt racial tension was amazingly low (at least to my eye, though the blacks in the same situations might notice what I didn't. Nevertheless, while this was my first trip to South Africa, I have lived most of my adult life in multiracial, if not people of color-dominated, areas in the US, in both African-American and Latino communities, so I have some experience on which to make these observations.) "

Even when mining and industrialisation had taken a firm root in South Africa and black and white South Africans flocked to the cities from the country side, Afrikaners, were the primary interface between white and black South Africa.

As the working class to wealthy South Africa, they were the nurses, the policemen, the railwaymen.

In a recent documentary about Eugene Terblanche and the far right Afrikaner Weerstand's Beweging (AWB), His Big White Self, director Nick Broomfield ends the movie on a positive note. This ending, is a great narrative device for the director, because it shows that the characters have gone through some transformation. At the very least they have realised that they have to fit into the new South Africa and are working to better the lives of blacks.

Broomfield shows former AWB member JP, an ambulance driver picking up black patients, while Anita, also a former AWB member, is nursing black kids in a hospital. The problem is of course that Anita and JP has always done exactly this as working class Afrikaners under apartheid.

I recently travelled to the little rural town of Trompsburg in the Free State. In the local hotel many a racist remark was made about the government's competence. The town's water supply was off that day. But one of the racists told me:

"Spare a thought for the (black) township, they have not had water for a month. My daugther who teaches at the coloured school has been transporting water to the pupils using our mobile farm tank."

The much publicized and very recent racist video by University students at the Free Sate University is yet another case in point of this peculiar Afrikaner racism. It is clear from the casual interaction that the university cleaners and staff knew and trusted the students. The workers were not coerced into making it. There is a strange familiarity between them. The young students arrogance and their sense of entitlement to mastership is a given for them.

Even the condemnations by many Afrikaans pundits included the oft expressed indignation that these boys were brought up by women like those in the video.

Why do Afrikaners loath and fear and still live among blacks?

What can explain this peculiar kind of racism?

It is the Afrikaner's context that gave them this attitude.

Afrikaners lives are integrated with black South Africa to the extent that they are dependent on them.

It is precisely this intimacy and everyday interaction with black Africans and black culture in particular that has helped drive the fear and loathing.

Goldblatt explains how on his travels, he discovered Afrikaners and how they colonised South Africa even in the remotest places:

"Travelling through vast, sparsely populated parts of the country with my camera became a major part of my life at that time. I think that our landscape is an essential ingredient in any attempt at understanding not just the Afrikaner but all of us here. We have shaped the land and the land has shaped us. Often the land was unforgivingly harsh. Yet, the harsher the landscape the stronger the Afrikaners' sense of belonging seemed to be."

Colonisation was a violent process. Black tribes would not always let them in unopposed. If you live by the sword you die by the sword. Afrikaners have lived for long in mortal fear, deep in the country side, without state protection. They were scared of death at the hands of black marauders. Still, never did they travel without their black servants and slaves.

Does familiarity breed contempt?

But the violent nature of colonisation does not explain this fear completely either. Other continents were colonized in the same fashion, but has no comparable post-colonial history of violence and racism.

About one year ago the supposedly tolerant UK erupted with indignation when Jade Goody (a white English lass with a working class background) had a racist tirade against Shilpa Shetty, a Bollywood star on Celebrity Big Brother.

The press initially crucified Goody, but after a week many commentators especially on the left, in papers like the Independent and the Guardian jumped to Goody's defence.

The basic argument was this. Goody is working class, lives in South London and is much more likely to have lived in a multi-cultural Britain than her liberal detractors in the broadsheet papers. She is the one with Jamaican neighbors, and a Pakistani shopkeeper, and has had to ride in buses where she might well be the only white.

The Guardian published a very long opinion piece ‘How racist is Britain’ by philosopher Julian Baggini, in which he defended Goody's attitude as prevelant amongst Britains and to be expected:

"But understanding is and will always be limited, not least because almost everyone - including, especially, the liberal middle classes who pride themselves on their openness - lives in a distinct social niche, largely cut off from whole sectors of society."
Afrikaners are not cut off from the whole of South African society. They are immersed in it.

Afrikaner fear and loathing of black African culture stem from their everyday close interaction with it.

To Afrikaners in contact with black Africa, African culture seemed then and seems now decidedly dangerous. Afrikaners see in African culture the antitheses of progress, they see greed and they see a lack of concern for life of others, even the lives of other Africans.

Are these extreme fears justified? Any student of African history can see that some of these fears are not unreasonable.

Does Afrikaner's particular racism excuse Afrikaner racism? No, it does not. But it does put it into context. Afrikaners are no different from the English with respect to their propensity to be racist, but they do live in a totally different society.

It helps one understand why even under the apartheid Nationalists (particularly Vorster and Botha) a massive transfer of wealth from whites to blacks took place through progressive taxation and social spending. Afrikaners saw their role as guardians of the interests of the inferior black South Africans. Compare this to Kenya: the Kikuyus have not done anything similar in respect of the less connected black tribes in that country.

This integration and dependence on black South Africa shows why, unlike other colonial examples, annihilation and genocide of the local population was never attempted by Afrikaners.

It also is the main reason apartheid proved to be unworkable. As FW De Klerk noted, try as they might, apartheid strategists could not unscramble the multi-cultural South African egg.

Does this mean Afrikaner racism is not chauvinistic, inferior or of a competing kind? Some Afrikaner racism clearly do fall within these categories, but in the past it has primarily been paternalistic.

Afrikaner racism is changing

Andries Bezuidenhout, a singer and sociologist has recently remarked that the nature of Afrikaner racism is changing.

Increasingly pushed out of the public service and with the loss of political power this is perhaps inevitable. They are in no position to be paternalistic, and they think - sometimes rightly - that they have ample reason to be resentful.

Where in the past they saw themselves as the providers of wealth, leadership and education, they are coming to see that they are now competing for resources, status and power.

Ironically it might come to be that the new South Africa, outside of the corporate boardrooms and consumer adds, could become less integrated than the old.

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Walton said...

An excellent and very important post. I hope lots of people read it.

More than anything else, I think Afrikaners have a PR problem. That's what comes of being blunt.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece, thanks and I am an Afrikaans speaking person, but view myself as a person from Africa who speaks Afrikaans.
Very interesting points about the closeness to black people.

Anonymous said...

I suspect, having read a few of your other posts, that you are embarrassed by your roots....and more than somewhat naive?
If, of course, you are an Afrikaner by birth...

Wessel said...

Pray tell Doodler, why am I naive?

I am no more ashamed and proud of being an Afrikaner than I think I should be. Afrikaners have allot to be proud of. For all their foibles there is little doubt in my mind that South Africa would not be as powerful, wealthy and important a country without them.

In fact the country as we know it would probably not have existed.

They bequeathed to South Africa, Africa's best infrastructure by a mile. A rare thing round these parts. I would hazard a guess that every Afrikaner in Africa is worth 3 international NGO workers vis a vis the continents development.

Afrikaners were one of the planet's and Africa's first freedom fighters, and very successful at that. Culturally they have allot to be proud of, Africa's first cinema, and the most extensive gay literature on the continent is in Afrikaans, there is a thriving Afrikaans comics sector, Afrikaans music is exploding.

That does not mean I should be a sycophant and support everything they do.

Anonymous said...

Hallo Wessel,

I put up your essay on my blog. I did put up two links to Mhambi blog, as I think it might be refreshing for some of the old bokkoms to read what you have written.
If you wave your cursor over the title of the post you will see it is a direct link to this blog as is the link from the authors name.

However, if you do not want any of your writing appearing on my blog, that is also fine.
Ain't no pain honey.

tvoh said...

Well done. In this country, there is no one so poor that he lacks someone to accuse of racism. The truth is usually a bit nuanced as this post reflects.

Flemtar said...

Decent article, for sure. Well done.

But the Afrikaner's supposed total immersion in and dependence on blacks is only part of why the Afrikaner are the way they are.

Most Afrikaner's truly believe that they are not colonists, and that South Africa is their one and only home. Afrikaners recognize that they can't go back to the Netherlands (not being citizens, unlike many British South Africans who can claim British passports through ancestry) if there were ever a pogrom against them (the most violent periods of apartheid were during the decolonization era where pogroms against white settler populations were well known by Afrikaners who feared the same thing).

On the same note that Afrikaners don't view themselves as colonizers, they believe that the British are the ones who are the colonizers. They destroyed their homeland in former Cape Colony and again hunted them down, stole their land and annexed their republics (Natal, Orange, Transvaal). This memory and nostalgia of the Afrikaner states is well ingrained in their collective memory.

The Afrikaner question can be explained by simple comparative sociological observation. For example...If you ask the average Canadian in the streets what the most racist part of Canada is....8/10 would probably say Quebec. Quebeckers, like Afrikaners, don't see themselves as colonizers but rather the colonized. Likewise, 8/10 Spaniards would probably say the most racist parts of Spain are the Basque Country and Catalonia. As you say, does the historical position of say Quebeckers, Basques and Catalans as subjugated minorities excuse racism? No, I don't think it does. But as you mentioned, it certainly puts it into context.

It's easy for a historically dominant group of people such as the British to throw around the word racist and think of the Afrikaner as barbarians since the British (at least the English) have never in their collective memory had the idea that their culture and language was under siege from anyone more powerful and dominant than they. To walk a mile in the shoes of the modern Afrikaner isn't easy - they are having a difficult adjustment period post-Apartheid.

Apartheid has been likened to "fascism for blacks, capitalism for the English and the Jews and socialism for the Afrikaner". Now that Apartheid, the Afrikaner social safety net is gone, the "middlemen" as you described them - the train engineers, the police, the soldiers, the nurses, the bureaucrats - now have an uphill battle (Black Economic Empowerment and Black favoritism in the government sector, previously the Afrikaner domain, especially) to wage to preserve what little is left of their economic and cultural status.

Much of what you say about the Afrikaner is true...But as with everything, it's also a bit more complicating.

truthteller said...

Well,well let see! As a black person who lived briefly in South Africa(6years)in the post-Apartheid era. This is my opinion on Afrikaners or Boers. I even learned to speak their language called Afrikaans,so I'm open-minded and a cultural anthropologist.YES,racism exist in South Africa, an everyday thing.Apartheid shaped South Africa like that.However to say that Afikaners are the most racist people on earth is wrong. Apartheid was the most racist system of the 20th century,that's true. Apartheid did favor White people,therefore since Afrikaners form the majority of Whites South Africans,as well as the middle to low income, had jobs as cops,soldiers,firemen. They were in the position to enforce the Apartheid law, and used any means to achieve that,physically,psychologically,or by propaganda. Afrikaners went through brainwashing, telling they were more superior than Black people or natives. Remember was not an Afrikaner invention,but a British invention from that 'criminal'John Rhodes who didn't Southern Africa to lose its White supremacy. The National Party applied it years later see. Today South Africa has made tremendous progress in terms of race relations,could even be used as an example to coutries with deep racial problems. However further progress need to be made.Afrikaners are just normal human beings like everyone else,they just to be more educated in terms of racial relations. The stereotypes they had about Blacks were unbelievably ridiculous! Trust me I even attended school there being one of the first Black to attend an all-white South African, I know what I'm talking about and I was one of the smartest kids, always maintained an A-average, this suprised the teachers and pupils as well. The South African racial system put all groups at odds with each other. However with integration and more Black people becoming educated and wealthier, this will eventually kill the stereotypes Boers have about Black. Afrikaners are suprisingly African to me' despite the skin color, I perceive them more African culturally than my European friends I lived with earlier. Although, they were physically separated from Blacks,they absorbed the Black South African culture somehow,funny ain't it!We should not demonise Afrikaners as whole many of them are great people,who aren't always racist, but normal loving human beings. It the system that needs to be erased. Many Afrikaners actually fear Blacks, because they don't know them. Thus they are somtimes very aggressive towards Blacks which is wrong! Also the fear that one day natives would make them pay for the past regime. Afrikaners should know that the Apartheid created such great inequalities between Blacks and Whites, this is why they are targets for criminal attacks,poor Blacks trying to avenge on 'rich'whites,which some may call 'reverse racism'. Those Afrikaners who say that they built South Africa are liers! They forgot about the so cheap Black labor! If South Africa today is among Africa wealthiest,richest coutry is not because of the Afrikaners, rather because of Western nations backing,investments and less interference from Western Nations in their politics,unlike what was the case in most of the continent.Remember the cold war!Western Nations secretly supported the South African government even during the Apartheid era, for example in the Angolan war, South Africa was supported by the CIA, see. Afrikaners are people like everybody else,need to be educated on certain things. I have made many close friends among Afrikaners and they are wonderful people. Despite the fact that I'm a black person, and know the past of this country really well, I managed to see beyond that and saw them as a people, If more people become like that,racism in South Africa would become just a thing of the past.

Anonymous said...

A good article. In my experience, as a Black Brit who lived in SA, the difference between the English and the Afrikaneer is that the latter is blatant about their racism whereas the Anglo is subtle but of course, it doesn't mean that one is more or less racist than the other. They are the same. J. Malema's performance on CNN I guess you could call racist but then CNN showed another clip (afraid I don't know the name of the man being interviewed or the black woman) set in an SA studio where a black presenter was conducting a debate between a black woman and a white man. The white man clearly became insensed to the point he threatened on live TV. Stunts like this you would not see in the UK but I guess it means that South AFrican whites are honest about their racism.

Natasha said...

Nice piece, but one problem for me, pointed out by a SA friend. Asking Canadians who they think are the most racist within Canada and excluding on assumption that those 10 Canadians asked are not Quebeckers is faulty logic, no matter who the most racist would be. As well, Quebeckers have the odd position of having been colonised and of mistreating First Nations people, a position no English Canadian can claim.