Stepping out of the laager: adventures on the margin


Stepping out of the laager: adventures on the margin

From Geloftefeeste to De Kat, ALBERTUS VAN WYK tells of his often stormy relationship with The Volk.


THE numerous “Geloftefeesterreine" on the platteland were often built on the tightest of budgets. Buildings had to be erected in every town to renew the Vow every year on 16 December, and as earthly monuments of a sacred oath to an omnipotent Supreme Being these were not to be taken lightly.

Despite this, the idea of having a building complete with foundations and working ablutions that would be used for only two hours a year did not sit well with the pragmatic boere who were usually on the planning committees.

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What's more, it was an interdenominational project, or even a pre-denominational project, because at a time when it was thought that either the vrome ouderling (pious elder) Andries Pretorius or the vrome prediker (pious preacher) Sarel Cilliers had written the Vow (depending on which story you believed), the worst of the internal politics in the Dutch Reformed churches was yet to come. While trouble was already brewing in 1838, the split between the  Gaatjieponders, Doppers and Stoepsitters would happen only a decade or so later.

Most of the halls and monuments for commemorating the Day of the Vow were built later, during the upsurge of Afrikaner nationalism in the decades after the South African War. Church politics at the time prescribed that Dutch Reformed local church councils would spend just enough on a Day of the Vow project to make it stand, but also not so little as to accidentally make the Hervormdes or the Gereformeerdes look good. It would be an even bigger disaster if the rowdy Apostolics were to benefit unintentionally. God forbid.

16 December: as hot as it gets

It should therefore not come as a surprise to hear that on 16 December 1981, the paltry Day of the Vow-feessaal in our dorpie in Mpumalanga did not even have a ceiling under its low zinc roof. Needless to say, it was a sweltering day. Stuck between the wide black trouser legs of Brylcreem-haired ooms and the stockinged legs of sweaty tantes in boxy shoes and respectful church hats, my 10-year-old brain was at the point where it started aiming unrealistic promises upwards in exchange for an end to the suffering.

Fortunately, my imagination found refuge in the inscription on the cornerstone of the small Geloftemonument with its little fenced kampie and its ornate iron gate to the veld behind the hall. The monument itself was a roughly plastered red phallic construction with a wagon wheel at the top, about two-and-a-half metres high.

The original wording on the cornerstone has been lost, but it was basically an instruction from the founders of the monument in 1916 to their Voortrekker descendants to wait until 2016 to break open the turret, where they would find a knapsack containing documents and artefacts. That was it.

At that stage, my brain was filled with the adventures of Mikro's mysterious Boer War tale Die Ruiter in die Nag, Karl Kielblock's rebellious pirate boy Lafras Cuyper sailing the great oceans of the world, and best of all Leon Rousseau's science fiction detective Fritz Deelman.

The year 2016 was then still 35 years in the future, but already I imagined what would be in the knapsack. The skin of the lion that Paul Kruger shot as a 14-year-old? Dolosse from Dingaan's kraal? A few Webley revolvers used by Boer officers from the war? Perhaps a Mauser rifle? Maybe a leather bag with uncut diamonds from Kimberley, or, even better, some real Kruger pounds!

I never found out what was in the knapsack. In the four decades since then I moved far away from that place and those still commemorating the Day of the Vow. A few years ago, out of sheer curiosity, I tried to find someone from the community who might know something, but to no avail. If I had to guess, I would say the knapsack contained a naive message on a yellowed roll of parchment warning The Volk to keep their eyes to the future and their trust in God. And maybe a rusty penknife.

Different in the Free State

A year later, in 1982, I was to find some relief from our dreary version of these events when a family friend invited us to their local commemoration, 300km away near Verkykerskop in the Free State, at the Bo-Cornelisrivier-Geloftefeesterrein. Here I saw how your average white Afrikaans Free Stater placed significantly less emphasis on the Gelofte than on the fees.

First, this community's festival, held on the plains in the most beautiful part of the eastern Free State, lasted for a week and not just an hour or two. The festival site had a hall in the middle, with a laager of about 12 “tabernacles" surrounding it.

Apart from the less-than-subtle symbolism of being a Chosen People that the word “tabernacle" evokes, these were actually very nice. A tabernacle was something like the headquarters of a family — the Van Niekerks, Conradies or Venters, for example. Each family would invite their extended family and friends to come and camp with them on the festival grounds. A bit like the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, but without the blood.

The tabernacle was in most cases a permanent pole structure with a grass or reed roof and open sides. In the week before the start of the festival, the family would cover the sides of the tabernacle with hessian or fertilizer bags, and suddenly a village would arise on the plains. In the tabernacle they would eat and drink and practice for the concert and sommer net kuier.

Even as a child, and before I had much of a political consciousness, the more ostentatious parts of Afrikaner nationalism did not appeal to me: the long-winded, melodramatic, fire-and-brimstone preachers, cadets at school, the love of military-style order, the show of force, all those borrowed European songs in the FAK songbook, and most of all Volkspele.

There was none of this at the Free State version. No young man ever wore an embroidered waistcoat and no young woman ever wore a Voortrekker dress. Except for that one time when the official speaker was picked up at the highway in a wagon pulled by a full team of oxen. Even that was cool, because when else would you have the opportunity to be on a kakebeenwa?

Yes, there was a debate night, but also the only one I've seen where people would roll on the floor laughing because nobody took it seriously. There was also the retired Free State chief justice who would tell quite gruesome ghost stories from the steps of his caravan to the camp's children in the evenings. Some children later had such difficulty sleeping that there were whispers from certain quarters of “demonic influences on the children".

Many of the farmers would bring horses to the festival, and anyone could ask at any time to ride, or even to be taught how to ride. There were trampolines, a pond to swim in, and of course jukskei. For the teenagers, the best part was the late-night games in the hall.

The games, complete with penalties which usually involved a consensual kiss, were an elaborate kind of hormone-driven flirting and courtship ritual. Relationships would form and deepen as the evening unfolded, with coffee-drinking in the tabernacle that sometimes continued until dawn.

It was far from a prudish affair. There would be drinking, albeit discreetly and under control. I even remember a newspaper joint being passed in a poplar grove.

Politics was at a distance

There was a moratorium on political discussion at the feeste, as the families involved had different political convictions. This had to do mostly with events in the National Party in 1982, when Andries Treurnicht's Conservative Party broke away. Supporters of the Progressive Federal Party, or, God forbid, any liberation movement, would not have felt welcome at a fees in any case.

I remember the first time when I understood that inclusion in the idyll of these commemorations came with specific conditions. It was 1986 and I was 15. I stood close to a fire where some of the ooms were braaiing. By then they were quite talkative. I deduced from the conversation that one or more of them were intelligence officers in the South African Army's reserve force, the old commando system.

They spoke of certain enlightened Afrikaners who were beginning to show undesirable tendencies. South Africa was in a low-level civil war at the time. The future was uncertain, and opinions were bitterly divided in the inner circles of Afrikanerdom.

The man at the fire who spoke the most, with his sturdy forearms and curling moustache, said: “Yes, and then you also have De Kat, which spreads all these liberal ideas. They are going to come short. I will smack that editor so that he will sit down on his backside.”

I knew then and there that I was in trouble, and probably would be for the rest of my life, if this was the mainstream view in moderate white company. I struggled to understand what was so bad about De Kat, except for its horrific layout. Little did that man know what was waiting. I never heard his opinion about Max du Preez's Vrye Weekblad two years later, but I doubt it would have been flattering.

Nor could I have known how consistently and relentlessly this insider-outsider distinction would be maintained by the insiders. Of course, the relevance of this for the rest of South Africa mostly disappeared alongside the loss of power by the Afrikaner inner circle.


The party was over

I have to give the feeskomitees of the time some credit. They saw that things were changing irreversibly. The custom was to invite dominees and others to speak and preach at these events. Often, they would be prominent figures from the city. In the late 1980s, they invited several speakers who were seen in the white Afrikaner context as liberal or progressive. Even people who could slightly challenge the status quo.

At one stage, Johann Symington, who was the closest you could get to a celebrity dominee, was the official festival preacher, and later also a speaker at the same event. I can easily imagine that De Kat would have visited Symington at home for a story. Maybe it did.

The other speaker I remember was Dr Louw Alberts, a nuclear physicist. It seems funny to think that my parents referred to him as an open-minded and even liberal man at the time. He was certainly a charismatic and exceptionally clever oom, and could foresee a little more of the complexity that lay ahead for “Die Volk" than most people at the festival, but he was also the deputy president of the Atomic Energy Council. More of an Afrikaner insider you could hardly imagine.

It's too long ago to remember the details of all the speeches and sermons, but I do remember that Symington and Alberts tried to give more context to the story of Blood River; to move away from the “us versus them” narrative, or that of “the black masses against the white chosen ones”. I think there was a realisation that something that was previously seen as an excluding miracle was actually an interwoven part of an origin myth in a postmodern world.

It was always going to be a challenging project, because the Vow was one of the primal myths on which the idea of a white Afrikaner people was constructed. Once you started messing with that idea, you would also endanger the very reason why all these people camped together once a year.

Without the Vow and notion of a nation, all you are left with is a random bunch of descendants of French, German and Dutch people who were not good enough or lucky enough to carve out a meaningful life for themselves in Europe, and were then washed out by global powers onto Southern African shores where they tried to make the best of a bad thing. This is a dark and depressing thought compared to the more attractive vision of white people being chosen as the bearers of light on the dark continent.

New insiders

A decade after I had last attended a Geloftefees as a child, I returned to Verkykerskop just before 16 December, this time as a news reporter for the SABC. I was curious to see how the idea of the Vow had survived in the new South Africa, then about six years after it had been born.

At that point I was living in a different kind of temporary idyll. I was at the SABC just before the new millennium arrived, a time that must surely be considered a golden age for news reporting at the corporation. Apartheid's vicious corporals were disappearing like fog before the morning sun, and the ANC's new apparatchiks under Snuki Zikalala were yet to establish their control. The newsrooms were controlled by editors who were not mere puppets.

I was surrounded by interesting people of all races and backgrounds: experienced SABC reporters; old ANC freedom fighters who came there to learn how to be reporters; youthful and energetic people from Soweto; young coloured women full of ideas who had just finished studying in the Cape; old UDF activists turned journalists. It was a stimulating and authentic experience, and people made sure I felt at home. The idea of Afrikaner insidership was far from my mind.

It's hard to judge how my observations might have been influenced by my now more critical and less innocent disposition, but I saw a festival that had lost some of its vitality. There were fewer people and some of the tabernacles were empty, which gave me not only a physical but also a symbolic sense of desolation. I interviewed several young people there, and the clear theme was one of uncertainty.

Once outside the laager

The boundaries of Afrikaner insidership have remained a theme throughout my life. Make no mistake: it always remains. I never longed for insidership, but in some professions it helps not to be a complete outsider, such as when you are a senior editor at an Afrikaans safari magazine or an agricultural magazine.

Sometimes you long for aspects of it. For me it mostly has to do with language. But also with the friendliness and warmth you find in Afrikaans communities. The way stories are told. And the jokes, always the jokes. I strongly identify with a good Tolla van der Merwe story, or even a Nico Nel story. It warms my heart every time I hear the late Dr Jan Spies was a liberal, even a leftie. I don't know how true that is, but it seems as if the insiders will make room for anyone if they are sincere and amusing enough.

A few years ago, and after quite a few drinks, a friend and I were sitting in a braai restaurant and talking. A whole lot of the other men had already left after our lunch; all of them closer to the boere-binnekring than me.

I complained to my friend that I had noticed some of the guys keeping their distance from me after an earlier public spat on Twitter between me and Steve Hofmeyr. I had rather crudely insulted Hofmeyr and his followers.

So I said to my friend: “But tell me, Pieter, you're actually just as liberal as I am. Why aren't they so mean to you?"

And then he said something I won't forget: “Yes, but I don't shout it out from the rooftops."

There you have it. You can keep enjoying the jokes and the pancakes and the biltong and even the offal, as long as you don't make too much noise with your critical ideas. This is the truth.

♦ VWB ♦

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