Bridge over Blood River: The Rise and Fall of the Afrikaners by Kajsa Norman - review by R W Johnson

R W Johnson

Volk Tales

Bridge over Blood River: The Rise and Fall of the Afrikaners


Hurst & Co 274pp £17.99

When I was growing up in South Africa, English speakers like me knew few Afrikaners. Most kept themselves to themselves, had a variety of rude names for English speakers and lived entirely within Afrikaans institutions – Afrikaans schools, the Dutch Reformed Church, the National Party (and its various groups for women and youths), Afrikaans professional and business associations and the Broederbond. We had one Afrikaans neighbour – already an outlier for living in an Anglophone neighbourhood – who was approached to buy an insurance policy with the Afrikaans company Sanlam. He declined because he already had insurance with Old Mutual, an Anglo-South African company. It was put to him that he ought to consider cancelling that policy and transferring to Sanlam. He refused. A National Party representative then called on him to put the case more strongly. He still refused. The minister of the local Afrikaner church then called on him. And on it went. In the end he was sent to Coventry by the local Afrikaans community, his church included. There were not many like him: the Afrikaans community had learned that it was powerful when united and solidarity was all.

We English speakers were very different. To be sure, there were strong anti-Afrikaner prejudices going all the way back to the Anglo-Boer wars, but there was no feeling that we had to be united and indeed we weren’t, publicly arguing and quarrelling with one another all the time. The oddity was that we behaved as if we were the natural ruling class, while the Afrikaners, who were the ruling class, behaved like a suspicious subaltern group with its fists up against all-comers.

Today, all that has gone. The old nationalist rigidity and arrogance have disappeared, along with apartheid. For the first time in over a hundred years Afrikaners and English speakers have found that they can be friends – and they very often are. The fact that this is usually born out of a shared dislike of the results of black majority rule matters less than that there is a real pleasure in ‘finding’ one another after such a long period of cold war.

Kajsa Norman’s attempt to depict the Afrikaners’ fight for survival reminds me a little of when Conor Cruise O’Brien was out here. Conor explained that he had been commissioned by an American magazine to write about South Africa and that he was much taken with the idea of the Afrikaners as the Israelites of Africa, trekking off into the wilderness, guided only by their trekboer Moses and their unflinching faith in Calvinism. Put in these terms, they were the Elect or Chosen People, like the Jews. He believed that all this had led to the dogmas of apartheid – that the Afrikaner republic played the same symbolic role for its people as the Jewish state did for Jews. Liberal Afrikaners explained to him that this was all wrong, that he was merely accepting as reality the nationalist myth-making of Verwoerd, that Afrikaners had been very divided until the 1950s, that the trekkers simply had the Bible and no notion of what Calvinism and Lutheranism were. Conor listened, smiled and then published his article, incorporating all his original views.

The point is that the Boers have long caught the world’s imagination and it is not easy to be dispossessed of the mythology surrounding them. Norman’s strangely episodic book – many chapters are only one and a half pages long – dwells a great deal on the Battle of Blood River (1838), when Andries Pretorius, greatest of the trekker leaders, headed a band of 464 Boers against some 20,000 Zulus in order to avenge the atrocities inflicted on the Boer community by the Zulu chief Dingaan. More than three thousand Zulus were killed that day but not one Boer, an almost miraculous result brought about by supreme generalship – there had been many earlier and disastrous expeditions to ‘punish’ the Zulus. (When the Boers finally built their capital city they naturally named it after Pretorius; the ANC decision to rename it Tshwane, after an obscure African chief, is hotly resented.) There is much of interest to be learned here about the rival attempts by die-hard Afrikaners on the one hand and the ANC on the other to commemorate this battle on the banks of the Ncome River in diametrically opposed ways, leading to a frigid standoff that says much about contemporary South Africa.

The other focus of Norman’s book is the little settlement of Orania on the banks of the Orange River, where an all-white group of Afrikaners lives in a small, self-governing colony, claiming that this is the only route to Afrikaner survival. I know Orania: it is an interesting community. The people there are not unsympathetic and are seldom the unreconstructed racists they are often made out to be. But they number slightly less than a thousand and simply cannot bear the weight of the construction that Norman wishes to lay upon them. There are at least two and a half million white Afrikaners left in South Africa (with a huge diaspora abroad), as well as another two and a half million Afrikaans-speaking Coloureds. (It is odd that Norman never mentions the latter, or the fact that they created the Afrikaans language, drawing on the Dutch spoken by the white population.)

Norman concentrates, in other words, on the gothic aspects of Afrikaner history. It is similar to writing about the American South largely in terms of slavery, the Civil War and the KKK. While those things were all realities, they tell one little about today’s Sun Belt, with its car factories, high-tech defence plants, spreading white and black middle class and fifty years of civil rights. To write about Klansmen as if they still represent the modern South, even in the age of Obama, would be absurd. Something rather similar applies to Orania.

The Afrikaners’ struggle for survival today is largely the product of two things: their historic association with apartheid, which leads to much vengeful discrimination against them by today’s ruling elite, despite Mandela and despite the constitution; and the sheer success of the Afrikaner nationalist movement, which has brought about the volk’s embourgeoisement. As Heribert Adam and Hermann Giliomee showed in their seminal work Ethnic Power Mobilized (1979), Afrikaner nationalism successfully turned a poor, rural people into a largely prosperous middle class in an unequalled feat of collective social mobility. The National Party was part reactionary racist party but also part labour party, empowering poor whites. It was by far Africa’s most successful nationalist party, which is why the ANC tries so hard to emulate it today. However, this success has led to a certain degree of Anglicisation, with the result that almost all the Afrikaans universities now use English.

The picture today is complex. Black rule has forced some Afrikaners back down into the ranks of the poor and unemployed – hence the scores of Afrikaans squatter camps and the many white beggars. Afrikaans seems on the point of extinction in higher education, yet the number of non-fiction books published in South Africa in Afrikaans far surpasses the number published in English. Afrikaans patriots are up in arms about the threat to their language, yet the Afrikaans music scene has never been livelier or more influential. Afrikaners still dominate rugby, but they now also provide more of the national cricket team than English speakers do. South Africa’s most valuable company always used to be Anglo-American-owned, but now the list is headed by Naspers, an Afrikaans firm that used to publish most of the nationalist newspapers but which today owns a hugely profitable electronic media portfolio and has large holdings in China. A proper study of these conflicting currents in the Afrikaner struggle for survival is still to be written.

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