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As the Augusta Masters approaches its denouement, we are reminded of a strange fact. The world’s five best golfers of the moment include no Europeans, only one Asian, and two members of a white African tribe numbering perhaps 3m people. Ernie Els and Retief Goosen are not merely new South Africans. They are Afrikaners and they symbolise the current state of Afrikanerdom.

When the two men were born in 1969, the tribe then ruling South Africa didn’t produce golfers. “To be an Afrikaner and play golf was unusual,” says Els. “We were rugby players.” Nor were Els and Goosen wealthy country-club Afrikaners. Goosen comes from Pietersburg (since renamed Polokwane), a country town at the end of the line, and Els from Germiston, a railway hub outside Johannesburg.

Yet each boy had a head start that a middle-class kid in almost any other country would have lacked: a cheap golf course a bike-ride away. Apartheid South Africa laid on everything for whites and many suburbs were built around golf courses.

By the 1980s, when Els and Goosen were teenagers, Afrikaners were starting to turn to what they call “gholf”. Rugby was then ceasing to be a tribal obligation and so Afrikaners also began flooding the South African cricket team. But golf had an additional lure. Isak Niehaus, an anthropologist at Pretoria University and himself an Afrikaner, explains that in the 1980s Afrikaners began leaving government jobs for the private sector. Golf was the game of business. Today even Springbok rugby players spend their free time during tours out on the course.

The traditional gung-ho Afrikaner approach to sport had awesome consequences when applied to golf. Goosen’s father Theo built a contraption with a wooden arm that kept his son’s head down. Now, his father notes, “he has the steadiest head in golf”.

But the story everyone knows about Goosen sounds like an ancient Afrikaner legend. As a teenager he was playing golf in Pietersburg when lightning struck him. All his clothes were burned off, he swallowed his tongue and stopped breathing. But he survived, albeit with an irregular heartbeat, and here he is in Augusta. It’s the archetypal Afrikaner story of victory over the African elements. You could imagine it commemorated with a carved rock in the middle of the veldt.

Goosen denies having been named after the Voortrekker hero Piet Retief, whose slaughter by Zulus in 1838 prompted God to hand the Afrikaners victory in the Battle of Blood River. But Goosen and Els are symbols of the Afrikaner today as much as Retief was then. Like so many young Afrikaners these days, both men have emigrated. They now live mostly in England. “South African whites are on a second Great Trek,” notes Julian Roup, author of the book Boerejood about Afrikaner identity. 

Both grew up speaking the Dutch-derived language of Afrikaans but like many new Afrikaners they now do most of their communicating in English, even if Goosen’s is ungrammatical. Even when speaking Afrikaans, Els throws in English words. One Afrikaner fan complains that watching golf on television once, he lip-read Els swearing in English. “And I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Ach nee man, Ernie, you must be a role model for all Afrikaner sons’,” writes the fan on one of many Afrikaner websites lamenting the demise of their language. Els should have sworn in Afrikaans, argues the fan. But, he concludes, “I also realise that ‘vir fok se onthalwe’ doesn’t trip easily off the tongue.”

When abroad Els and Goosen usually present themselves as “new South Africans”, a more crowd-pleasing identity than “Afrikaner”. Most other Afrikaner icons do the same.

Many foreign fans of the actress Charlize Theron would be surprised to learn she belongs to an ethnic group of which they have never heard, while J.M. Coetzee, the partial Afrikaner who won the Nobel prize for literature in 2003, writes in English and last month became an Australian citizen.

Many Afrikaners feel uneasy at seeing their icons get globalised. Afrikaners have lost so much since the fall of apartheid: their power, many of their people to emigration or intermarriage or the English language, and much pride in their history now that it turns out they were on the wrong side of it. Their great protector is now arguably Nelson Mandela, who last month showed up at the 70th birthday party of his old pal F.W. de Klerk and opened his speech in Afrikaans. Perhaps generosity is the cruellest form of humiliation.

Yet Els and Goosen also symbolise Afrikaner success. As a tribe Afrikaners may be dissolving, but as individuals some of them are conquering the world.

Els, Goosen and rising South African golfers such as Tim Clark, Rory Sabbatini and Trevor Immelman symbolise something else: how little South Africa has changed. Twelve years after apartheid, it’s still mostly whites who live near golf courses. 

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