‘Apartheid’ as metonym for Afrikaners

In a multiethnic society like South Africa, groups will always blame each other for their lack of wealth, education, political power, and so on. In this respect, SA is no different to Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, Belgium or anywhere else.

Apartheid is a national obessession. To some extent it has imparted some sort of inverse identity to the so-called New South Africa where people wonder whether we are really the 51st state of the USA, the southern province of Zimbabwe or part of the British Empire. Of course, one of the first steps after 27 April 1994 was to rejoin the Commonwealth so in a sense that made many people feel “whole” again.

Apartheid is, however, also a metonym. Being an Afrikaans word, sometimes the only Afrikaans word that many people know, it stands for “Afrikaners”. A statement like “apartheid destroyed black wealth” decodes as “Afrikaners destroyed black wealth”. The massive participation of Afrikaners in education between 1948 and 1994, mainly because the angelic English owned all the mines and industries, may therefore be seen as “de-educating South Africa”. At one point 50% of teachers in English-language white schools were also Afrikaners. Soon these “deprived” Engelse will be blaming Afrikaners for not having won more Nobel prizes for science, not having founded Google or Microsoft or not inventing the Ipod. Instead, they were “forced” to read Somer by CM van den Heever or some Afrikaans poetry in their second-language class, which “dehumanised” them.

Of course, Afrikaner teachers also taught millions of people science and mathematics, but as some minister once said: “Verwoerd made it too difficult, because he was a racist.” Fortunately Kader Asmal introduced “mathematical literacy” which is is the non-racist version.

As Paul Berkowitz so eloquently argues in How do you solve a problem like Apartheid?: “In the end, perception usually trumps truth.” Someone will have to be blamed for the fact that the average black South African does not enjoy the same standard of living as the average citizen of Luxembourg or Norway. Nor does the average white, of course, but that is besides the point.

Apartheid, like Satan, still lurks within dark corners of South Africa, usually on farms or in Afrikaans schools or within the homes of poorer Afrikaners living on smallholdings such as in Muldersdrift or Kameeldrif.

Within the metonymic logic of South African ethnic discourse, eliminating apartheid is easy: you have just have to eliminate Afrikaners. This can be done in three ways: putting them all on a boat to Australia, assimilating them completely, or by killing them en masse. Or maybe one by one, family by family.

In Muldersdrift, Kameeldrif, on farms and even in the cities, the clarion call to “eliminate the last vestiges of apartheid” is being responded to with vicious enthusiasm. Remember that Lord Milner or one of his contemporaries also used those terms on the eve of the Anglo-Boer War: “eliminating the last vestiges of Afrikanerism from South Africa”. Afterwards 500 000 British soldiers and 100 000 armed blacks put the Boer women and children in concentration camps and burned everything to the ground, homes, barns, even churches. In fact, the British were the only Western people to have burnt churches in the modern era.

According to historians, it took Germany 120 years to recover from the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) when a similar “scorched earth policy” had been followed on its soil. However, no-one – least of all the omniscient apartheid theorists of today – has ever argued that the Anglo-Boer had any economic effect whatsoever. On the contrary, the economic effect is generally seen as positive, in having put control of the economy firmly in English hands. Confiscated Boer livestock and grain were sold to the British army by English companies whose names have changed since, some of which are today listed on the JSE. “Apartheid capital” therefore metamorphosed into “English entrepreneurial flair”. This was the first form of BEE, or British Economic Empowerment. Arguably, the current form of BEE still benefits bankers and stockbrokers more than it does blacks, because these rake in huge fees for enriching a few high-profile blacks.

After the war, irate letter writers from Natal castigated Milner and others for not having killed all the Boers and “cleansing the country for England”. That would have been one way of nipping apartheid in the bud, as it were.

But it is never too late and we can all agree that apartheid is being eliminated every day, whether metaphorically by erasing Afrikaans names of towns or streets, or physically by terminating the bearers of the disease. There is an uncanny resemblance between the gentlemanly style of the British in 1900-1902 and the methods of the current crop of freedom fighters, who appreciate that children, especially girl children, represent the next generation and it therefore makes sense to eliminate them first. The names of Alyssa Botha and Danielle Esterhuizen come to mind, but there are many others too.