Monday, November 14, 2011

Taal debate at Stellenbosch a step backwards

The new South Africa?

I have been tracking developments among Afrikaners since 2001. With apartheid gone, I wondered where had the strong and powerful ethnic nationalism gone? After all, Afrikaners, as settlers in Africa, not only had brought us apartheid and devastating border wars in Angola and Mozambique, fought the mighty British Empire with its 400’000 troops on South African soil, but they also had created an imagined community and a cohesive nation within a short 20th. century. Where had all this concentrated ethno-nationalist might gone after it was clear that their Europe-in-Africa project was a pipedream that had brought much senseless pain and suffering to the African continent and its indigenous peoples? Nationalist and ethnic fervour - vanished into thin air? Yet, I also felt that Afrikaners, particularly young white Afrikaans speakers, got a bad rap in the media, in South Africa and abroad: they were usually described as somewhat remorseless, somewhat racist and still hankering after the bad old days of racial privilege.

Over the past years, I interviewed young Afrikaners and we talked about their lives, the past, what a possible future could look like, and how they related to black people. The diversity of opinions and life stories was huge; hence, it is difficult to write of ‘the Afrikaners’, as if it was one coherent group. Some were optimistic, some pessimistic, some racist, some anti-racist, some arch conservative, some left-wing progressive, and so on - you get the gist. Overall, there was a sense that things would be better, that a dismal past, with too many conflicts and confrontations could be overcome, and that they and the country would change for the better. Even the rather conservative Afrikaans newspapers carried a sense of possibilities. That was in 2005.

Now, in 2011, it is more than ever time to sober up. A new language war is taking place at Stellenbosch University and the self-anointed defenders of the Afrikaans language mobilise and insult with little compunction, occupying the Afrikaans media. They bemoan that hard earned tax money is not even used for education in their language (as if apartheid injustice did not help accumulate that money in the first place), their opponents are insulted and besmirched, even beaten up; yet, that seems all very normal – so much self-absorbed suffering by the volk seems to justify continued intolerance and self-righteous arrogance. The proven racist Dan Roodt, who claims that black men are somehow genetically prone to violence, now a member of the Freedom Front Plus party, is not censured: his musings get yet again published in the English and Afrikaans media. And the white and Afrikaans public does not see a problem with that. It is as if the political turmoil on the national stage is a licence to bring out the old discourse of the racial insult, a tradition we could do without.

Julius Malema is now the black man that any white person is allowed to hate – no false pretences required. It is as if the abdication of white political power serves as a justification for continued racism and exclusion. White minority status allows for apartheid melancholia and victim status. The spectre of black nationalism legitimizes white racism. Continued racial exclusion as cultural protection is justified by demagogic race baiting. It was and remains tit for tat. Whites who were happy to forgive with Mandela are now eager to fight back against Malema, by all means necessary.

Culture and language have replaced race. The language fighters at Stellenbosch are always fond of claiming that most Afrikaans speakers are black and that they support the defence of Afrikaans. If this is the case, why then are so few of these black Afrikaans speakers at Stellenbosch, enjoying their tertiary education in Afrikaans and why do they prefer to be taught in English?

In place of the necessary soul searching and how the need to understand how apartheid exclusion continues today, Afrikaners as a minority and as the implied victims of the black majority, are legitimized to defend ‘their’ culture (and their race). And so the past continues.

How could any true democrat be against language diversity? But trying to focus on language alone and ignoring how it is related to race is na├»ve. Believing that you can fight for your language and contribute to racial inclusiveness is plain wrong. Even among Afrikaans speakers, the question remains how inclusive is your white Afrikaans? Unless white Afrikaners start to listen to, to talk to, and to take black people seriously, to see them as people with whom they can empathise, they will continue in their self-absorbed nostalgia that inhibits the creation of a future, the country’s and foremost, their own.