I attended the screening of Afrikaner Afrikaan, a documentary film that dealt with Afrikaner identity at the Encounters Film Festival in Johannesburg. The audience at the Bioscope Theater in the centre of the city, a hip place with an ‘indie’ feel and which will hopefully one day develop into a real Cinémathèque, was dominantly white and Afrikaner which made me wonder whether black South Africans had already given up on their white compatriots and did not expect much from the film and the discussion with the author and two of its protagonists.
In the documentary, two opposing perspectives on Afrikaner identity square off against each other. There are those who want to turn away from Afrikaner exclusive ethnicity and nationalism, and try to find new ways ‘of being’ in a diverse country. They are quarreling with those who believe Afrikaners should be proud of themselves, their culture and history, and did not need anyone’s approval and sympathy. While the former see themselves as opening up to the ‘Other’, embracing Africa and black people, the latter call for the defense of Afrikaners, their language and culture.
The former are represented by Deon Maas, a media personality, and Johrné van Huyssteen, from the pop-rock band Ddisselblom. Both were in attendance. The ‘ethnicists’ or ‘culturalists’ are represented by Sean Else who rose to prominence as the producer behind singer Bork Van Blerk and his hit song De La Rey, a celebration of a South African War General, and the Blut und Boden musical Ons vir jou, a nostalgic tour the force of Afrikaner history and culture; in short, the stuff of which nationalism is made of.
In the film, Else denied that he wanted to indulgence in right-wing nostalgia but argued that Afrikaners should be proud of themselves - in the same way that Zulus were. He said that he was looking a black man in the eye with pride; in contrast, Johrné would try to avoid the black man’s eyes, and turn away in shame and guilt. So ja, it is then all about how Afrikaners are today relating to black people and this sought-after audience was absent.
Another question that came up was whether musicians who celebrated the Afrikaner past and Afrikaner heroes were doing it for the money or if they were truly indulging in historical revisionism and rightwing politics. I suspect that both go together – celebrating the Afrikaner past puts bums on seats and sells CDs. After all, over decades of Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid, Afrikaners indulged this kind of ‘cultural’ national chauvinism, and it surely meets a consumer demand.
For Maas, Van Huyssteen, and author Jooste, the ‘De La Rey’ song was an example of the resurgence of nationalist exclusion and even racism among Afrikaners. That was made clear in the ensuing discussion. The general mood in the audience seemed that Else’s productions were an expression of a rising ethnic mobilization, even racism among Afrikaners. Only one young member of the audience argued that a liking for nostalgic music was not necessarily an endorsement of a right-wing and racist agenda.
In my own research, I came across the same ambivalence: attempts to appreciate, even salvage the past, no matter how tainted it is, go together with feelings of shame, awkwardness over racism and abuse in the name of Afrikaners. So a celebration of Afrikaner culture and ethnicity is not necessarily a yearning for white supremacy and racist apartheid. Nostalgia is an attempt to relate the past to the present. Yet, the question remains. Will nostalgia help Afrikaners to find a new pride in their history to become part of the new South Africa, as Else would have it? Or is the danger real that nostalgia for an honorable, Afrikaner past, one that ignores the abyss of white supremacy and apartheid domination, leads to racism in the present?
The irony of the South African post-colony is that the position of the progressive ones, Maas and Van Huyssteen, had been strongly criticized by black South African intellectuals. In one of his songs, Van Huyssteen sings of the white colonial immigrant who falls in love with a black woman. By doing so, he is claiming black African ancestry for himself and Afrikaners. Such claim of black ancestry, and its socio-political usage in contemporary South Africa has been rejected as an attempt to bury history and unproblematically claim adherence and belonging to an Africa and Africans that until recently were denigrated.
The same irony was at play when Maas was responding to a question that addressed the work of artist Anton Kannemeyer and his recent publication Pappa in Afrika. Maas supported the work and said it was the best contemporary satire in South Africa, even better than what renowned cartoonist Zapiro, had done. In a recent feature article in the Mail and Guardian weekly newspaper, Khwezi Gule, curator at the Hector Peterson Museum in Soweto, had criticized Kannemeyer for perpetuating racism under the guise of art that was supposed to shock and challenge stereotypes and racism. While the celebration of folkloric pride and ethnic identity, if not chauvinism, amongst Afrikaners and Zulus appears to have been endorsed by President Jacob Zuma, debates among progressives how Afrikaners can belong to an African South Africa, are far from achieving a similar consensus.
Despite all the risks associated with it, more discussions on identity, the past, and inclusiveness are desirable - across the colourline.