JUNE 2023. A mini-submarine, weighed down more heavily by its name, “Titan", than by the five people on board, plunges into the depths of the North Atlantic. The ocean is effectively kept out as the craft sinks deeper and deeper in pursuit of its own fantasy. The people inside feel nothing of the huge water pressure on every inch of its hull. They are spellbound by their absurd mission.
The moment the force of the ocean finds its first weakness is also the Titan's last moment. The crushing happens lightning fast, and it cannot be stopped.
How I and my generation grew up was in such a pressure tube — seemingly fortified with brute force, but in reality a fragile glass jar. Still, it was remarkably effective in isolating the mock innocence of a Pleasantville underneath and allowing it to thrive.
For us it was an Afrikaans world. The only English was that of the English teacher in school, and she was also Afrikaans. The Greek from the cafe, the Portuguese greengrocer, the Indian in his fragrant cloth shop, all spoke Afrikaans. The radio was constantly tuned in to Afrikaans. The newspaper was Afrikaans. Even the forbidden photo books we read were in Afrikaans.
We were surrounded daily by the ambient music of five pure Sotho voices harmonising as in an Italian opera. It was without meaning and without significance for us. When black people — domestic workers, garden workers, street sweepers, the unemployed — spoke to us, it was in Afrikaans.
That was the interior. Then we moved to the Cape. Where we were, there was not a black person in sight. What I marvelled at and listened to was the turbulent, sonorous Afrikaans that did not come from white people like me, but that echoed from across the gorge. Many years later, in a conversation with Valda Jansen, I would find out that we were contemporaries in the Strand, on either side of that gorge. Where I could swim, go to school, live, she could not.
That was one crack in my glass jar. Another was: we had English neighbours. A thin, shy woman with her little boy. Maybe she was too shy to speak Afrikaans. I learned more English at school. I started voraciously reading the English books in the library, excelling in English orals. Yet, when I was in English company for the first time I can remember, my tongue grew thick and lame.
I was afraid of the scissor-sharp consonants, the polished vowels, the words modulated like streamlined, expensive cars. But what pinned me down and stripped me naked was the cool look of judgment. We started taking notice of the meaning of “white gaze" much too late, but it has a neglected subcategory that one can call “English gaze". I know; I worked for two British companies.
But army, university, work, reading and travel lift you out of your narrow-mindedness. Your circle of friends expands around the world and it no longer depends on origin, language or dialect. Except that where one is English and one Afrikaans, I can bet you the medium of conversation will be English. With only a few exceptions, an English-speaking person will not deign to speak Afrikaans, even if she knows it.
For me it is never a problem, because I think I can rightly say my English is better than that of most English speakers in South Africa. And I often wonder if one can really be so proud of, say, the King's English, when Charles III complains about his consort who is always late or because a pen does not want to write. The old arse-squeezing of the mouth muscles, the vocals thinly stretched and odd, like sourdough strands. The whole hollow, superior affectation of it.
A Brit and an American married into either side of our family. Where we gather, we must follow the path of least resistance and speak English. Even the Lord suddenly cannot understand an Afrikaans table prayer if there is one English speaker there. We are partly to blame ourselves. We want to oblige; we want to show we can; we think we have a backlog to catch up on. This is how prejudice affects people. Ask any black person.
Ten years ago, my partner and I moved into a narrow Tamboerskloof street. All our neighbours were English. The street is named after an English battle that took place more than a thousand years ago. One evening, when we told friends at the table about a famous journalist who was our neighbour on the left, he exclaimed: “Oh, you're fucked!"
But it wasn't too bad; everyone kept to themselves. When we got home one evening, there was a note on the front door: “The doleful wailing of your dog while you’re out is unbearable.” I go on the charm offensive: invite her over for tea, offer my apology, undertake to take old Kristoffel with me when we go out from now on.
A popular journalist acquaintance tells us: “She's great, but wow, can she lie!" For example, was she really Bruce Chatwin's mistress? She once told Douw in the street: “I hate Afrikaners.” But I'm one, he protested. “Oh, not you, of course.”
The next time we heard from her was a hammering on the front door one afternoon. “I need help! I need help!” we heard through the wood. There she stood, ashen, a small, pitiful figure. Her hair clinging together from shock, her face distorted. There had been a break-in. Her camera, jewellery, her cameo, all she had left of her mother. We stayed with her until the police arrived.
After that we could do no wrong in her eyes. It was gifts, smiles and waves whenever we met each other. I told the neighbour across the street about the burglary. “Good!" he said. Only then did I hear about the feud between the two of them. Although she does not own a car herself, she apparently had his Porsche towed away from the front of her house while he was abroad for weeks or months. Then she had two huge concrete posts erected in front of her house so no one could park there. “I have permission," she said. Really?
As to what is truth and what is a lie, I cannot judge, except that I suspect her repartee is a rich mixture of both. There seems to be an equally charged mixture of disgust and admiration for the Boers. Not long after we left that neighbourhood for Greece, I came across one of her articles that had been published almost 20 years earlier in The Independent.
It starts with: “I've always had a soft spot for Afrikaner men. Once you get over the disappointment of not sharing a crucial understanding, they can be quite satisfying, and it is surprising how quickly you get used to communication by grunt.” And later: “… it was easier to see them as entirely physical beings, children of landscape, pullers of the plough. For many of us women, they represented the forbidden fruit of the gamekeeper.”
There is more, but you have to consider your hypertension.
Towards the end of the article, there is a less constricted appraisal. Since the advent of the new South Africa, the Afrikaner man has apparently improved himself by “… sharpening his jawline, tuning deltoids, tightening sphincter muscles. Overnight, he has become digitally remastered, slipping across continents, sauntering in Armani Emporia, feasting with beauty.”
Let it not go unsaid here how clever and witty her writing can be. And whether she still feels the same now, 26 years after the article, we don't know. What we can say is that the fascination with Afrikaners does not seem to have subsided. In this selfsame Vrye Weekblad, on September 22, she tackles Afrikaners once more. And, polite as we are, the article appears in English.
We gain insight into where the superiority (and probably at the same time the voyeuristic interest) comes from. She writes about a hotel manager: “They [her parents] were amused by her clothes, terrible trouser suits in elephant grey, her piles of golden curls, her cheap patent leather shoes and overdone costume jewellery. My ma would whisper behind her hand, ‘Afrikaans’.”
Her best friend at school is an Afrikaans girl, but her unconventional nature makes her acceptable. They are outsiders together. But in the end it cannot be ignored that the friend is of Afrikaner stock. The dark stereotype rears its head: her father gropes them in the bathroom. This matches nicely with the reverend's behaviour in the other piece in The Independent 20 years earlier.
But is this the truth? Maybe so, maybe not. We know well enough today how authority figures, and especially men of the cloth, abuse children from Canada to Ireland to Australia. But does it matter that the childhood friend is highly recognisable to everyone who knows her (yours truly included) under the translucent pseudonym she is given in the article? That the article must hurt her in a way against which there is no defence?
Apparently not. After all, she is only an Afrikaner.
Meanwhile, those who excitedly look through the peephole of the peep show stand outside in the street. All passers-by see is their backside.
♦ VWB ♦
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