Lost tribe of the Rainbow Nation

Image of Simon Kuper

My parents come from South Africa, and we often used to go back on family visits. One Christmas about 30 years ago we left Johannesburg on a bus trip to a safari park. All the other people in the bus were Afrikaners: big healthy white families in shorts. With their handful of surnames, and heavy Dutch faces utterly distinct from their African surroundings, they were a tribe. Their forefathers had been the mostly Dutch-speaking Protestants who had come to South Africa over the centuries. We lived in the Netherlands, so we spoke Dutch to the Afrikaners, and they spoke Afrikaans back.

In those days of apartheid, Afrikaners were rulers of South Africa and pariahs everywhere else. Today the three million Afrikaners are mostly forgotten. In 1994 they handed power to Nelson Mandela and instantly became irrelevant. Fred de Vries, a Dutch writer living in Johannesburg, wondered what had become of them. His answer – a wonderful book of deep reportage – is about to appear as Afrikaners in Dutch, and Rigtingbedonnerd (“Directionless”, roughly) in Afrikaans.

Under apartheid, there was only one accepted way to be an Afrikaner. You belonged to the Dutch Reformed church, you liked rugby, and you voted for apartheid. Renegades were treated as traitors to the tribe. Suddenly, in 1994, everything dissolved. “The once so united Afrikaner people are like a box of night moths after the lid is lifted,” writes de Vries. “They blink their eyes against the bright sun, and flit confusedly in different directions.”

Many of the moths flitted away from South Africa. Crime had reached Afrikaner suburbs and farms (“Shoot the Boer!” sang the populist politician Julius Malema), government jobs were going to blacks, affirmative action was ousting whites from the private sector, and many Afrikaners simply felt irrelevant in the new nation. So they made another Great Trek. Some Afrikaner farmers resettled in Mozambique, or even Ukraine. In Perth in Australia, de Vries found whole extended families of Afrikaners, served by Dutch Reformed churches preaching in Afrikaans. “I cried so much that the sea-level must have risen,” one exiled woman told him. But Afrikaners adapt well.

It was largely the better-educated who emigrated. Meanwhile, many Afrikaners who stayed in South Africa have sunk into an African poverty. Perhaps a fifth of them now have family incomes below €300 a month. De Vries found Afrikaners begging at traffic lights, and living as vagabonds in squatter camps. (In true South African tradition, white and black squatter camps are largely segregated.) These are the arm wittes, the “poor whites”, the problem apartheid was meant to solve. When the Afrikaners took over government in 1948, the aim was to raise the weaker members of the tribe above their black neighbours. Struggling Afrikaners were given government jobs as postmen or receptionists. They earned enough for a small house and a black maid. Now many of these people have plummeted from first to third world.

However, most Afrikaners still in South Africa are flourishing. Excellent schooling for whites during apartheid set them up nicely. Many Afrikaners run businesses, and get on well with government. They have largely abandoned their villages for suburbs, and have built high fences, but otherwise the end of apartheid hasn’t overly inconvenienced them. “Economically, most Afrikaners are better off than before 1994,” writes de Vries.

What he doesn’t seem to have found is many Afrikaners merging into South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation”. Few young members of the tribe have shacked up with other colours. Afrikaners still remain distinct even from the majority of Afrikaans-speakers who are not white. According to de Vries, few Afrikaners believe in the “Rainbow Nation”. But South Africa’s rulers probably barely care what these marginal people believe. “I’m just a tourist / In my country of birth,” sing the alternative Afrikaner band Fokofpolisiekar.

Even thriving Afrikaners feel an overwhelming sense of loss, writes de Vries. “The Afrikaner rural idyll with its village square and little church” has gone forever. Although the feared apocalypse by vengeful blacks never came, the tribe’s institutions are dissolving. The National Party is gone. The Dutch Reformed church is giving way to American-style evangelical churches.

Many Afrikaners are struggling to find a new identity untarnished by apartheid. Most fundamentally, their language is probably dying. Scarcely used in administration, Afrikaans just isn’t much use anymore. Even at Stellenbosch University, the Afrikaner Oxford, only about 10 per cent of lectures are now in Afrikaans. Writers are an esteemed Afrikaner caste, yet Afrikaans authors (including the half-Afrikaner J.M. Coetzee) increasingly publish in English.

“That’s where the debate is,” explains writer Antjie Krog. Afrikaans, which became an official language distinct from Dutch only in 1925, may not survive another 87 years. Afrikaners can flourish as individuals in South Africa, but perhaps not as a tribe. They may eventually dissolve into white English-speaking South Africa, or into the white world.

The half-Afrikaner writer Rian Malan (who inevitably writes in English) prophesies that one day Afrikaners will be remembered as “that mythical race that once lived here”. Those families on the bus 30 years ago couldn’t have imagined that.


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