Notes from ‘New Zilland’


Notes from ‘New Zilland’

As a bus driver in his adopted country, NEIL SONNEKUS hears Afrikaans everywhere, but feels sad that so many young South African families end up there.

  • 25 August 2023
  • Free Speech
  • 5 min to read
  • article 9 of 23
  • Neil Sonnekus

FIRST, my credentials as a half-Afrikaner, as opposed to a true one. That is, Afrikaner in the old sense of the word.

Afrikaans is no doubt changing, which is neither good nor bad. It is — to adopt that particularly annoying expression they use here in the constipatedly pronounced New Zilland — what it is.

My parents, as a Sonnekus and Bezuidenhout, grew up Afrikaans but decided to speak English and worship a blue-eyed Methodist bore. That is, God. Then they sent us to Afrikaans schools.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

My brother took this so seriously that he decided he was Afrikaans, so that is what he spoke to them and what his children and grandchildren became. I stuck with English so mine didn’t, but then he doesn’t read Afrikaans. I do.

After all, if you can read another language’s literature in the original, it’s like discovering an extra cave of treasures. I’d consider my life much the poorer if I hadn’t read, to name just a few, ’n Ander Land, Toorberg and anything by Breyten Breytenbach.

The beautiful language

I partially blame my Afrikaans teacher, Ina Nel, for “selling" me this beautiful language. And I fully blame her for encouraging me to continue writing, thereby consigning me to a lifetime of exhilarating but abject poverty. 

All my besties were Afrikaans and cool, so we didn’t listen to Groep Twee. The first time I heard the opening electronic strains of Gypsy by Uriah Heep, care of Frikkie Venter, I had multiple mental orgasms.

I liked the language so much that I went to Rhodes University to study under that generous, cultivated man, André P Brink, who promptly left for the University of Cape Town. But at least I played the lead in a forgettable Belgian play he directed before he left. This wasn’t because I was a good actor, but because I was the only drama student who could speak the lingo. 

Then I married a Dutch woman who was born in England but has a Polish name and whose parents were brought to South Africa by one Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd in the 1960s. This was to form a white buffer zone against the swart gevaar. We speak Afrikaans to each other and have a perfect marriage.

We also regularly remind each other that the reason we can’t get divorced is because, if we did, to whom would we speak Afrikaans? I frequently think that if she uses just one more English expression while speaking Afrikaans I’ll … well, never mind.

I am aware that I’m inclined to romanticise the so-called White Tribe of Africa, like one tends to do with people who can no longer speak for themselves because they’re, you know, dead. I mean, for some reason when I speak to some Afrikaners, they almost instantly switch to English. May they all be banned to Orania. Permanently.  

All I hear is Afrikaans

Anyway, lying next to my bed here in New Zilland is Katalekte by Breytenbach. I wish the Nobel literary committee would just give him the bloody prize and have done with it. I mean, his “Re: versoek om lêplek, in which a man asks the fathers of a small French town to kindly make a little space for him in their cemetery — he’ll even change his name if that would expedite his request — is the most heart-wrenching poem I’ve read.

It’s a poem that speaks to every migrant and exile in this migrating world, so here I am, driving buses (at a measly R300 an hour) on a small island about an hour by ferry outside Tamaki Makaurau, aka Auckland. And what do I hear everywhere? Afrikaans.  

I see and hear young families, full of optimism and hope. I try but sometimes fail not to get upset about this. The word “bewoë" comes to mind. It somehow seems so wrong, them being here, but then — hello — so am I.

However, a strange thing happens when I respond to them in our language. They’re either blasé about it because it’s become so common, or there’s a kind of embarrassment about them. I’m not sure if it’s because there’s this late-aged guy speaking their language — a white bus driver — or because they also feel like traitors and don’t want to discuss their reasons for moving.

Worse, when I do get to have a conversation with them, I find I have almost nothing in common with them except this language. We migrate towards kindred souls, I’ve discovered, regardless of culture.

We also note, with much interest, that it’s no longer just whites who are migrating here. Anyone with a bit of balls and some kind of skill is coming, regardless of colour. More about this next time, if there is another time.

Still missing home

But here we are, still pinching ourselves that we’re in Aotearoa-New Zealand after more than a decade, still missing home, each with their own reasons why they’re here.

One of the most original of those comes from my friend, fellow Kiwi and writer Zirk van den Berg, who says that if anyone is going to fuck up his life, he insists on doing so himself.

* Neil Sonnekus is an author, award-winning filmmaker, playwright, journalist and editor. His third novel, Sotho Blue, is due to be published in early 2024.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.