Trinket Box showing the Voortrekker Monument

Norman’s book takes a close look at the rise and fall of the Afrikaner

Bridge over Blood River: the rise and fall of the Afrikaners [Book review]

Professor says he sees scant chance of the survival of the Afrikaans culture in the long-term or even the survival of the Afrikaners as “a people” in new book

Trinket Box showing the Voortrekker Monument

Norman’s book takes a close look at the rise and fall of the Afrikaner

It has taken a London-based Swedish journalist and author, Kajsa Norman, to unpack the impact of the political transition in South Africa on the once omnipotent minority Afrikaner tribe.

Coming from Sweden, which was the main Western backer of the ruling African National Congress, it is ronic that Norman should have developed an empathy for the Afrikaners that few foreigners have achieved. And she did so mainly during a 12-month stay in 2011 and 2012.

Bridge over Blood River provides new insights into the rapid emasculation of Afrikaner power in the post-apartheid era and asks whether Afrikaner culture, language and influence will be totally airbrushed out of the political landscape in the future.

Kasja Norman and Book cover
Kasja Norman, author of Bridge over Blood River

Few ethnic or cultural minorities have had to change so radically and so frequently in such a short space of time in order to maintain their identity.

It is 365 years since the first Dutch settlers arrived at the Cape but no more than 180 years since Afrikaner nationalism gained momentum and barely 100 years since Afrikaans was formally recognised as a language.

Bridge over Blood River is the most insightful examination of the Afrikaners by an outsider since the 1979 award-winning, four-part television series White Tribe of Africa and two subsequent sequels in 1980 and 1990.

The recurring metaphor throughout the book is the seminal Battle of Blood River on 16th December, 1838 when 464 Boers armed with rifles held off a Zulu army of 10 000 warriors armed with spears without the loss of a single Boer soldier. Some 3000 Zulu warriors were slaughtered in the battle and the Ncome River ran red with blood.

The Boers had made a Covenant with God before the battle that if they were victorious they would build a shrine and treat the day as the Sabbath. They later built the Church of the Vow near the battle site as a symbolic recognition of the pact which formed the basis of the Afrikaner’s subsequent claim that they were God’s chosen people.

Norman focuses on the symbolism of a bridge which was built as an act of reconciliation across the river joining the museum of Blood River with the Zulu heritage museum on the other side of the river. It was inaugurated in 2014 but remains locked because the two sides cannot agree on how the bridge should be managed.

To Afrikaners, the 16th December became known as Geloftedag – the Day of the Vow – and to black South Africans it was known as Dingane’s day after the Zulu King who had ordered the attack on the Boer laager, the enclosure of ox-wagons arranged in a fort-like rectangle.

Just as the Vow and the bloody victory over the Zulus became the foundation of Afrikaner identity, so the 16th December has become the most symbolic day in South Africa’s political calendar and has been used by both white and black South Africans for landmark events and anniversaries.

Mural at Voortrekker Monument, Pretoria
Mural at Voortrekker Monument, Pretoria

The Afrikaners have used it to mark the rise of Afrikaner nationalism after the first Anglo-Boer war in 1881; the reconstruction of the devastated Afrikaner tribe after the end of the second Anglo-Boer war; the launch of the Great Trek to escape British rule in 1838; and the inauguration of the granite-like Voortrekker Monument in 1949 to commemorate the Boer leaders of the Great Trek.

Black South Africans have used the date to mark symbolic days in their struggle against apartheid.

On 16th December 1961 the late Nelson Mandela, who was to become the country’s first black President, announced the formation of the military wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) to step up resistance to apartheid.

And when President Mandela took charge following the first democratic elections, after the decisive ANC victory at the polls, he chose 16th December as national Reconciliation Day in a bid to unite adversaries and forge a shared history of the country’s violent past.

It was the Afrikaner fear of black domination that first drew me to writing a book about the Afrikaners,” Norman said in an interview. 

“When I first moved to South Africa in 2011 I remember being very surprised at how many Afrikaners’ wanted Mandela’s dream of a Rainbow nation to fail,” she said. “The climate of constant fear permeates everything.”

But she says that the final trigger for the book came when a group of male Afrikaner bankers stared her down after she refused to heed their warnings by standing on the wrong side of the barbed-wire at a demonstration by the ANC Youth League then led by Economic Freedom Front leader Julius Malema at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange..

Norman does not dodge the difficult issues in present-day South Africa. A chapter entitled Vagina Dentata confronts the shocking rape statistics and violence against women.

Another deals with the Afrikaners’ Calvinist ambiguity towards pornography and how an Afrikaner entrepreneur hit the jackpot in the dying days of apartheid with obtaining the rights for Hustler magazine and founding a home-grown porn magazine called Loslyf (literally: loose body).

Norman’s quest took her on two missions to the strange rural settlement of Orania where a small band of about 1000 Afrikaners have built an all-white post-apartheid community where all the menial labour is done by whites and no black South Africans are employed nor likely to wander although the Orania residents have to observe the law of the country.

Norman’s reporting in her interaction with some of the more unfortunate inhabitants of Orania, provides some poignant and moving insights into the characters on the margins of Afrikanerdom who have fallen by the wayside in the building of a new South Africa.

She also spent time in a white squatter settlement – one of an estimated 400 or so in a country in which some 600 000 whites (out of a total than less the 5-million) are now considered to be below the breadline. In a chapter ironically entitled The Brothers of Sunshine Corner, she visits two brothers living in squalid conditions in a make-shift shack but she discovers their humanity and tells their personal stories.

Two white men in squatter camp
Two residents of squatter settlement interviewed by Norman

She befriends an almost toothless inmate, Riaan, living in stable-like quarters which have undergone a mild renovation when Norman returns to Orania some months later. Riaan is so excited to see her that he forgets after a while to hide his toothless smile of which he is clearly ashamed. He presents her with the “national flag” of the Orania settlement as a parting gift.

Before handing Norman the flag, he folds it carefully.

“Then using both hands in an act of great reverence, he hands it to me,” Norman wrote.

“ ’Orania has been good to me,’ ” Riaan says.”

Norman does not minimise the horrors of the apartheid era, but she does delve into the paradoxes of the Afrikaner in their perpetual quest for survival: despite their often brutal form of racism they were also capable of humane acts.

They had a blind faith in leaders who repeatedly deceived them: firstly, by insisting that apartheid could be justified on grounds of “separate-but-equal” and then cajoling them to embark on a course which was clearly headed for majority rule.

Following the ANC’s loss of three major cities to the right-of-centre Democratic Alliance in recent local government elections, political change is in the air ahead of next year’s ANC elective conference and national elections in 2019 which could see the ANC fall below 50% of the national vote.

Norman’s attempt to assess the Afrikaners’ chance of survival rests largely on an interview with the leading Afrikaner historian Professor Herman Giliomee.

Carel Boshoff: founder of Orania settlement

Giliomee, whose own daughters have both married English-speaking husbands, sees scant chance of the survival of Afrikaans culture in the long-term or even the survival of the Afrikaners as “a people”.

There are six percent Afrikaners in South Africa. We built our entire identity around a language and a sense of history. How will we, and what we have built up, survive in the future?” Giliomee asks.

He says that without the reproduction of education through literature, a language cannot survive. He warns that the gradual disappearance of language from university campuses could signal the death-knell of the language.

Norman notes that many Afrikaners have already emigrated to Europe and North America and some Afrikaner farmers, weary of being targeted in violent attacks and facing expropriation of their land, have set up as farmers in neighbouring African countries.

Some who remain, eschew their Afrikaner identity in favour of a broader South African one and insist on their children being brought up in English-speaking schools.

Giliomee throws the survival question back at the author. He points out that European countries like Sweden with ageing populations who rely on immigration for future growth will also eventually lose their identity like the Afrikaners.

Norman says that South Africa will not have become a normal post-apartheid society until white domestic helpers working for black middle-class families and white petrol attendants, refuse collectors and street sweepers become commonplace.

She suggests that the experiment in complete self-reliance in Orania could help marginalised Afrikaners regain their dignity with hard labour and serve as a potential bridge to the realities of the new South Africa.

An intriguing option perhaps for Afrikaners living in poverty, but not one that the majority of Afrikaners would contemplate. Orania remains so far on the fringes of South African society that most have never heard of it let alone been there.

With Bridge over Blood River, Kajsa Norman has made a significant addition to available literature on the Afrikaners.

John Battersby is a London-based journalist, author and consultant and commentator on South Africa.

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