Of Boers, rockspiders and exceptions


Of Boers, rockspiders and exceptions

Yes, unfortunately, there are still English speakers who believe most Afrikaners are rather crude and ignorant. But such ethnic chauvinism and stereotyping are a worldwide phenomenon, writes MAX DU PREEZ in response to Lin Sampson's article on British colonial attitudes in last week's issue.


“Unwilling to work, and unable to think; with a mind disengaged from every sort of care and reflection, indulging in excess in the gratification of every sensual appetite, the African [Afrikaner] peasant grows to an unwieldy size, and is carried off the stage by the first inflammatory disease that attacks him."

Sir John Barrow's influential An Account of Travels into the Interior of South Africa in the years 1797 and 1798, published in two volumes in 1801 and 1804, provided the British with their first insights into Afrikaners of the late 18th century. His deep contempt for Afrikaners laid the foundation for Anglo-Saxon stereotyping of the Afrikaner that persisted long after the Empire era.

He characterises the typical Afrikaner woman as a dirty, fat, lazy and stupid baby factory: “Most of them can neither read nor write, so they have no mental resources whatsoever. Luckily, perhaps, for them, the paucity of ideas prevents time from hanging on their hands. The history of the day is that of their whole lives." (Quoted from The Afrikaner as viewed by the English 1795–1854, by Michael Streak, 1974.)

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Human chimpanzees

It wasn't only Afrikaners who were vilified by the Anglo-Saxons during those times. The Irish were also depicted in the media as primitive barbarians. Cartoons in Punch portrayed them as demonic primates. The Victorian writer (and priest) Charles Kingsley wrote: “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw [in Ireland] … I don't believe they are our fault … But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much…" (From LP Curtis's book Anglo-Saxons and Celts, 1968.)

This prejudice against the Irish persisted even into the mid-20th century, with notices on shop and restaurant windows that read “No Irish. No blacks. No dogs" now preserved in museums.

It was the arrogance of Empire. At its height about a century ago, the British Empire was the largest the world had seen, covering a quarter of the world's surface and ruling over roughly 500 million people. And everywhere, in Africa, Asia and Australia, the local people were considered inferior.

Rule, Britannia, rule the waves!

In Britain, Western Europe and America, Poles in particular were characterised as an inferior race — Polacks — even though this nation produced brilliant individuals such as Frédéric Chopin, Marie Curie and Roman Polanski. “Exceptions."

The Rhodies and the Japies

The caricature of the Afrikaner persisted in Britain's white-dominated colonies. In old Rhodesia, in particular, Afrikaners were openly disparaged, even though Afrikaans-speaking policemen helped keep the white Rhodies in power. They were referred to as “Japies". And when the country became independent, many of them ran to South Africa.

There is no denying that most of the early ancestors of the Afrikaners were rough individuals. The officials and soldiers, mostly Dutch and German, of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that occupied the Cape from 1652 were not exactly the best human material. (The French Huguenots were rather more cultured, but there were only 200 of them.)

It became even rougher when the new settlers of the Cape Peninsula and surrounding areas moved inland and became trekboers, probably the people Barrow was writing about. It was a tough pioneer existence in an inhospitable environment for people of European origin. There were few educational opportunities and, naturally, no libraries, art galleries or ballrooms.

And when more than 10,000 of them began trekking further north into the interior from 1835 onwards, it only got worse. They also further fundamentalised the staunch Calvinism of their Dutch and German forebears. (Dancing is a sin, except if it's volkspele, folk dancing.)

Senior members of the National Party (from left) Jan de Klerk, his wife, Daan de Wet, his wife, and Jim Fouché at the party's 50th anniversary in Transvaal.
Senior members of the National Party (from left) Jan de Klerk, his wife, Daan de Wet, his wife, and Jim Fouché at the party's 50th anniversary in Transvaal.

But by the beginning of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, there was already the embryo of a strong Afrikaner intelligentsia, not only in Cape Town and the Boland but also in Pretoria, Potchefstroom and Bloemfontein.

Field Marshal Jan Smuts was one of them, and during the time of World War 1, he became a national hero in Britain, Boer accent and all.

For those who despised the Boers, it was not a contradiction — Smuts was an exception, an aberration. It always works this way with racists and ethnic chauvinists: sing the praises of one or two respectable members of the group you despise, and you don't feel so bad about your prejudice.

Hardcore white racists, for example, do it with Nelson Mandela. Non-Afrikaans-speaking South Africans did it with Van Zyl Slabbert, as well as with Beyers Naudé. (In this article 20 years ago, the same Lin Sampson did it with the writer Rian Malan, heart surgeon Chris Barnard and poet Breyten Breytenbach.)

I have personal experience of this. When we stood up against apartheid and PW Botha in 1988 at Vrye Weekblad, we were the darlings of many non-Afrikaners; we were “alternative Afrikaners". We hate the bloody Boers, just not you. It endlessly irritated me.


Miserable savages

Dutch and British colonists stereotyped the indigenous inhabitants of South Africa as dirty, primitive and untrustworthy, especially the Khoekhoen and the San (Bushmen). There was no understanding of the culture and spirituality of these groups, the world's oldest people.

Some of the writings about the Khoekhoen by early European observers remind one of Barrow's words about Afrikaners. In 1620, Augustin de Beaulieu wrote that the Khoikhoi were “the most miserable savages which have been discovered up to now". In 1685, the French missionary Guy Tachard wrote: “Whatever good opinion they have of themselves, they lead a wretched life. They are nasty even to excess, and it would seem that they study to make themselves hideous." In 1694, Christoffel Langhansz wrote: “As to their religion, they have none, but live like the unreasoning brutes from day to day."

Unfortunately, it is true that much of this prejudice and ignorance about the descendants of the Khoekhoen, San/Bushmen and slaves still persists among many white South Africans.

It is even more inexcusable than the English stereotyping of Afrikaners.

Postscript: I found Lin Sampson's article a delightful piece of writing and wasn't at all offended as an Afrikaner. It was more self-deprecating than insulting. Perhaps those who reacted so angrily missed her last sentence: “Had my parents only known it, they had a lot more in common with Afrikaners than with the expat English."

♦ VWB ♦

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