From Vanuatu ‘our’ flag and penchant for imitation
South Africa, especially these days, is trying to decide whether we should emulate Idi Amin’s Uganda or some cargo cult on the island of Vanuatu. You could call the system here a “cargo-cult democracy” and as long as we spend about a billion dollars or so every five years on an election, in between elections it’s anything goes. Anarchy, or close to it.
However, elections only serve to give the imprimatur of “democracy” to a system in which power changes hands elsewhere: in the ruling party’s headquarters or in dark deals cut with whomever benefits from the system financially.
Speaking of Vanuatu, I first became aware of the existence of this island in the early nineties when I noticed the remarkable resemblance between “our” flag and that of Vanuatu. If there were such a thing as plagiarism in flags, South Africa would be guilty of it. Yet, South Africanness, at least after the decline of Afrikaner influence, is proudly imitatory. The closer one gets in passing oneself off as British, the more “South African” one becomes. Plagiarism at university, at both under- and postgraduate level, is absolutely rife as students “copy and paste” the words and thoughts of others in order to obtain one of our increasingly worthless degrees.
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In other societies a lack of authenticity, or ersatz, showing no originality, or being a copy of something else, a simulacrum, is frowned upon. Not so in South Africa. It is part of “our” colonial heritage. Paradoxically, those revolutionary blacks who fulminate against “colonialism and capitalist exploitation” are the first to adopt the outward trappings of what they imagine a British gentleman to be. They play golf and drive expensive cars. They also drink whisky, of the expensive so-called “single malt” kind, in copious amounts. The English proclivity for drink, getting drunk, even the pub culture, has taken root in South Africa. In fact, in its aspiration to become more and more English, the country has produced the second-biggest beer company in the world, SABMiller. This is a remarkable feat, given that our GDP is only about an eighth of that of Germany, another beer-drinking nation, who was no rival to us in the beer business. As we shall see, beer and being “a nation of one beer” is fundamental to what is called the “new South African identity”.
The English and American taste for drugs has also been adopted. The other day my 18-year old daughter visited the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand and spoke to some first-year students there. (Despite its Afrikaans name, “Wits”, as it is colloquially known, is a decidedly English institution.) According to her, all they could talk about was drugs, what different narcotics they had already tried and what others they still intended to experiment with. With her Afrikaans upbringing and schooling, my daughter takes a keen interest in literature, art and philosophy, and was looking forward to an intellectual exchange with people who may have different perspectives to hers. Yet, alas, all they could talk about was drugs. There is a kind of snobbery around drugs and the English look down upon others who do not use narcotics. I strongly suspect that a lot of the opinions that we encounter in English newspapers or in the media in South Africa, were also concocted while on some form of stupefying substance. The French word for drugs, stupéfiants, expresses it very succinctly, for in the act of drugging oneself one also succumbs to stupor or becomes stupid. South Africa has plumbed such levels of stupidity over the last few years that we are regressing back to primitive, early Stone Age, or even hominid levels. Very soon South African English, which is already considerably creolised and ugly, will consist of screeches and grunts. Like the vuvuzela, a monotonous plastic instrument habitually blown at soccer matches, all communication will eventually descend to a very basic level.
There is something tragic about English consciousness, which is fundamentally unhappy, hence the need to be drugged, inebriated or numbed. Perhaps this has some connection with the global multicultural project, which aspires to the destruction of all identity, including personal identity. Only when we achieve an undifferentiated herd consciousness, an atavistic “we”, are we to become “fully human” or whatever cliché it may be called. In South Africa’s business schools, they even teach courses in “ubuntu” as an ethical principle which translates into “I am a person through others”, another way of expressing the longing for a collective, hive consciousness.
Today in South Africa, it is part of the English creed that we should in no way be “divided”. This is almost a world-wide Anglo-Saxon principle. All progress towards becoming an undifferentiated human mass, a bit like the science-fiction concept of “the Borg” in the American Star Trek series, is applauded. Anyone relinquishing his language and culture in favour of English is seen as having taken a step towards becoming part of the “greater mass” which may even be seen as a global or planetary mass.
Being English in South Africa, and not quite British (yet), is a very painful experience. Like the person who does not quite pass his matric or does not quite make the team, he is forever devoured by “what could have been”. This explains the radicalism, hatred and extremism of many English people who have committed terrorism or espoused communism or Boerehaat (hatred of the Boers) as their motto and been prepared to kill or attack civilians in the name thereof. Why is South Africa so alien to the English mind? one may ask. Of course, there is the ordinary anglophone South African, not part of the academic, media or political elite, and who is probably not seething with Boerehaat and Marxist ideals. But he or she hardly plays any role in defining what it means to be English in South Africa.
At the risk of digressing somewhat, let us look for a moment at what George Orwell had to say about being English. Among Afrikaners, the French, Germans, Spanish and many other nations, reflecting on one’s national identity, style and character is done almost naturally. To Afrikaners, it is even more, a national obsession. The reason for the Afrikaner obsession with identity is not hard to find: it is because we have been forced to share a country with a peculiarly nihilistic, overbearing, colonialist group that is so destructive of identity and culture that we have had to constantly question ourselves.
Why do they hate us so much? Why do they want to prohibit our language, traditions and customs? Is there indeed something wrong with us? The Afrikaner, being given to guilt-ridden, Calvinist introspection and self-doubt, is always trying to locate the problem within himself instead of looking at his hostile, sneering compatriot and his pathological intolerance to any other culture besides his own. In fact, although thousands of novels, essays and theses have been written about what it means to be an Afrikaner, no Afrikaner has ever tried to understand the Englishman. I could have written this essay in Afrikaans, but probably people will only agree with what I have to say and it will not be seen for the unique piece of analysis that it is, an attempt to find out what it means to be English today, in South Africa, but perhaps even globally. I strongly suspect that much of what we experience here, is also felt by people in other non-English countries. The recent essays of Richard Millet (2012) on the decline of French literature in favour of global Anglo-Saxon bestsellers, come to mind.
George Orwell is normally associated with his two dystopian novels, 1984 and Animal Farm. However, he was also one of the few English authors who ventured to reflect on what it means to be English, in his essay “England your England”. Among other things, he has this to say:
“Here are a couple of generalizations about England that would be accepted by almost all observers. One is that the English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual. They have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need for any philosophy or systematic ‘world-view’. Nor is this because they are ‘practical’, as they are so fond of claiming for themselves. One has only to look at their methods of town planning and water supply, their obstinate clinging to everything that is out of date and a nuisance, a spelling system that defies analysis, and a system of weights and measures that is intelligible only to the compilers of arithmetic books, to see how little they care about mere efficiency. But they have a certain power of acting without taking thought. Their world-famed hypocrisy – their double-faced attitude towards the Empire, for instance – is bound up with this.” (Orwell 1946)
There is a kind of cliché that one may often find in Afrikaans newspapers and uttered by know-it-all Afrikaner academics: that “the Afrikaner feels inferior to the Englishman”. Of course, being an Afrikaner academic today means that you have actually accepted, not only the Anglo-American world-view, but also the ANC and Communist Party’s way of thinking, otherwise you would not have a job! So such opinions do not carry much weight. Here I am merely signalling that such a notion exists.
However, I have come across very few Afrikaners who actually feel that way, or who see themselves as inferior. Most of the time, it is the opposite. As Afrikaners dominate the English in most English sports and games that they actually play, there is rather a complacency in the Afrikaner mind that he is physically and mentally superior to the Englishman. The idea that the English are lazy and tend to concentrate on activities that are both lucrative and require little effort, is also widespread. As a farmer once explained to me, in the English-speaking province of Natal (now officially Kwazulu-Natal) sugar plantations became popular as the cane plant “grows like a weed and does not need any special attention, unlike most other agricultural crops”.
On the other hand, I would say that the liberal or communist Afrikaner has interiorised a sense of inferiority. That is because many of them have actually been to some extent anglicised, living and working in an English world, often associated with politics or the universities, where not subscribing to English stereotypes of Afrikaners would be detrimental to their careers. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, the liberal politician, as well as author André Brink are two such people. Brink has even gone so far as to proclaim that “my people do not deserve to exist and should disappear”, thereby fully embracing Anglo-Saxon ideology. Bram Fischer, the communist leader who lived in Johannesburg, surrounded by mostly internationalist communists, is another case in point.
Regarding Orwell’s observations above, the lack of artistic talent among the English, especially out here in the colonies, is highly evident. Even people without any artistic training or talent, such as William Kentridge, to name but one, are eulogized as great artists by the English media. Wherever there is artistic endeavour in South Africa, there have always been Afrikaners. Even the Nobel prizewinner, Nadine Gordimer, was first introduced to writing and literature by an Afrikaner, Uys Krige.
This is the first cause of anglophone animosity towards Afrikaans and Afrikaners. One of the first things that the new English administration did after 1994, was to destroy all cultural institutions created by Afrikaners, such as the provincial arts councils, after which Afrikaans schools and universities were attacked. Recently, the minister of higher education and leader of the South African Communist Party, Blade Nzimande, announced that “there were no longer any Afrikaans universities”, by which he meant that the anglicisation process had been completed.
In many respects, white English people and blacks share a common rancour towards Afrikaners. “Why do you think you are so special, with your own culture?” they often ask. Having a culture and language of one’s own, a strong identity, is taboo and one should join the Borg. But underlying all of this is also envy and jealousy. There will never be another Voortrekker Monument in South Africa, or the Afrikaans Language Monument at Paarl. Until recently, ninety percent of all monuments in South Africa had been erected by Afrikaners! The efforts expended by Afrikaners in commemorating their history or in maintaining their language are seen as daunting, even intimidating. There is something “unnatural” or “fascistic” in wanting to construct one’s own culture and tradition when you could be out there on the golf course, or drinking in the pub and making jokes.
Recently, the English principal of the University of Pretoria decided to ban the study of European philosophy at that institution, ostensibly as it was suspected of leading to “racism”. Studying Kant, Descartes, Bergson, Nietzsche or Heidegger was not politically correct when one could peruse American feminism, multiculturalism, gender studies, black studies, as well as Anglo-American language philosophy. Not so long ago, a female member of staff with an interest in Nietzsche wrote an article critical of feminism on a website and she was immediately threatened with disciplinary action and eventually hounded out of the university. English “tolerance” has its limits! But the suspicion that in the dark corners of European thought, especially as read by Afrikaners, could lurk ideas challenging the Afro-Saxon and Anglo-Saxon hegemony in South Africa, led to this Soviet-style ban on Continental philosophy.
So the great European philosophers have been reduced to silence in South Africa, in our “becoming English”. But some of our English are even calling for the silence of the white race itself. A few years ago, an English professor of philosophy at Rhodes University, Samantha Vice (2010), caused a stir when she argued that whites or people of European descent should remain completely silent in relation to a black government. Even where that government engaged in corruption, mismanagement, cronyism, nepotism and abuse of power, we had “no moral right to criticise”. That must certainly be the height of English political correctness. Her essay was aptly entitled, “How Do I Live in This Strange Place?” What is even more odd, is that the title was derived from an Afrikaans song from an album by Bernoldus Niemand, but as Vice opines: “While I am not an Afrikaner and so have escaped the taint that identity brings with it, I am a white South African, undeniably a product of the Apartheid system and undeniably still beneﬁting from it.
While Vice wallows in her white guilt, aided by the American concept of “whiteness”, she cannot help but add as an aside that Afrikaner identity is “tainted”. But at least she refers to an Afrikaans song, just like many English people are irritated by the majestic sight of the Voortrekker Monument to the left of the highway as one enters Pretoria from Johannesburg. Some years ago, another would-be British movie critic and man-about-town, Barry Ronge, said that the Voortrekker Monument should be painted pink and turned into a gay disco, which expressed his particular appreciation for Afrikaans culture. He also repeated various anti-Afrikaans slurs such as “rock spider” and “rocks”, which led to complaints from no fewer than 26 Afrikaans organisations to the South African Broadcasting Complaints Commission (1999):
“Barry Ronge: ‘I have always looked at that old stupid monument to the past, called Voortrekkermonument and have decided that the only sensible thing to be done with is to paint it pink and turn it into an enormous gay disco at which they can have drug crazed raves. Now that would be exactly what it deserves. (instemmende gelag) They are not going to do that, BUT they’re going to make it rock. Now how the rocks (rocks =rock spiders, rock heads =neerhalende term vir Afrikaner, Boere) that built it will feel about it (lag van plesier) a rock concert being held at the Voortrekkermonument a du du … but the people that are doing that very thing are with me in the studio, Graham Scott who is the guy who came up with this idea and Claire Johnston who is going to be there Mango Grooving her way through the first ever rock concert at the Voortrekkermonument – amazing stuff, your wicked mind mister.’”
Needless to say, the Commission found Ronge’s comments to fall entirely within the ambit of free speech, whereas the opposite would have been the case if any Afrikaner had had to have insulted an English monument, let alone a black English one.
According to Orwell then, lack of artistic talent and suspicion towards ideology, or at least attempts to systematize one’s understanding of a culture or discipline, are two characteristics of the English. The third one, hypocrisy, or what he politely calls “the power of acting without taking thought”, we also have experience of. Whereas throughout our history, Afrikaners have mostly had to deal with blacks directly on farms or in the state administration, the Englishman has kept himself aloof, residing in all-white suburbs but at the same time fulminating about “racism”. This is a common complaint also levelled at liberal journalists and academics in the United States, that something like 96% of them live in majority-white neighbourhoods, send their children to majority-white schools, and so on. These same people will then intone endless jeremiads about “the lack of integration” and “rising inequality”. Most English people in the South African government, black or white, actually send their children to private schools, use private healthcare, apart from staying in the “formerly white suburbs”. It would be too much to expect of them that they should practise their anti-racism and move to Soweto or Diepsloot, places whose “vibrancy” and “warmth” they praise in articles and books.
Even on a personal level, one must be aware that English people rarely speak their minds and would falsely bring you under the impression that they agree with you. Only later would you find out that you have actually made a tremendous mistake and it was all a ruse. During the twentieth century, Afrikaners have not only suffered a devastating betrayal by their own leaders, but also by the entire Anglo-Saxon Empire. Here and there a figure like Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher stands out, but for the most part it was one betrayal after the other, by the local and the overseas English. Many of our forebears had fought on the Allied side during the two world wars and in Korea, but eventually we were simply thrown to the dogs! That includes the patriotic English South Africans and Rhodesians. Ian Smith, the former leader of Rhodesia and an RAF fighter pilot who nearly died several times during World War II, suffered the same fate. It is simply mind-boggling that Anglo-Saxons can betray not only their friends but even their own people for the sake of currying favour with the likes of Robert Mugabe or the devious little East European communist, Joe Slovo, a former leader of the South African Communist Party.
There seems to be a fundamental duplicity at work in English thought and culture that is having devastating effects on the world. Some honest Americans feel the same way about their country and what it is doing to the planet. Paul Craig Roberts (2014)recently said the following about Washington:
“The fraud perpetuated on the world by the United States in the 21st century is extraordinary. Nothing comparable has ever been witnessed in history. Not only are there the frauds of the numerous wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, almost Iran and Washington’s illegal military actions within the borders of Pakistan and Yemen), but also the vast financial frauds perpetuated on the world. Among the costs of Wall Street’s frauds are the European debt crisis, the infringements of national sovereignty of European countries by the IMF bailouts of sovereign debt, and the impoverishment of ‘rescued’ Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, along with Eastern Europe.”
Often have I wondered: Do the Anglo-Saxons have no principles? It is fine to quote Lord Palmerston, “England has no eternal friends, England has no perpetual enemies, England has only eternal and perpetual interests”, but did our local English and the wider Anglo-Saxon world really serve their interests in betraying South Africa, which will in the long run lead to Chinese domination in South Africa, as well as in the rest of Africa? Perhaps due to their hostility towards systematic thought, they “act without thinking” in a piecemeal fashion.
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