Following is the English version of a column published in Rapport today, 11 April. This is a translation of the submitted original, thus prior to sub-editing. There are minor variations in expression and a few editorial additions (for the sake of nuance or precision) to the English translation.
Every now and then I fall down a rabbit hole on the internet. A few months ago, I wandered through a maze of broadly white right-wing South African blogs and forums. Some present a dry, professional political image with historical and constitutional analyses, seeking legal precedent and constitutional justification for a white Afrikaans volkstaat. Some factions seek an all-white volkstaat, other factions feel anyone who speaks Afrikaans as mother tongue might be welcome.
There are many factions amongst this broad movement of white dissatisfaction with the New South Africa. Some talk about armed resistance, while others caution against such ‘irresponsible’ talk. Some blogs focus on recording violent crime statistics, especially where crime victims are white. However, some blogs have now started to include all violent crime, irrespective of the victim’s race, so as to avoid accusations of racism.
Some of these blogs are conceptually and mildy racist. But several blogs are filled, post after post, comment after comment, with hysterical, ugly racist vitriol and with a sustained, tangible rage. Much of this can also be found in comment threads on any online newspaper’s site.
It would be easy to dismiss most of this as a far-right ‘loony fringe’. Sensitive readers may even feel soiled by reading one or two posts, and click on through. I initially felt soiled, at times feeling even personally attacked because of the racist rhetoric.
But if one looks past the racist language and past the sensationalism, the emotional tones of many of the posts and comments of white dissatisfaction are hard to ignore. There is rage, yes, but also heartbreak. In a culture that has in its history a strong agricultural connection with the land and a strong literary celebration of landscape and belonging, it is not difficult to see and understand this rage as a product of heartbreak, among other things. An easy, cynical and unsympathetic analysis would be that this heartbreak and rage is simply the product of a loss of power; that all of this are the hysterical fulminations of a segment of South Africa struggling to come to terms with a loss of political power. It certainly is this, but it is also more than this. And it is heartbreaking.
I would venture that this is also the expression of people who are not part of the super-comfortable economic classes, but the working-, lower- and average middle classes. Working people, the self-employed and small business-people of all ages who pay a range of taxes but who feel that these taxes bring them nothing, most importantly lack of personal security and education and employment opportunities for their children. These are all ordinary South Africans. Among some factions, for instance, critics dismiss Dan Roodt as a snobbish pierewaaier (fop, coxcomb, popinjay) who cannot hope to represent the average Afrikaner.
I don’t have space to discuss all the real and perceived causes to this dissatisfaction. But underneath all this rage and heartbreak lies a sense of disempowerment. Whether one feels that this disempowerment is real or perceived, justified or not, the anger and heartbreak are authentic.
Why call it heartbreak? And why does it in turn break my heart to read these blogs and comments, even as I may be a target of its racism?
It is heartbreaking because it is, firstly, a cry of heartbreak. It is heartbreaking because the vitriol and hatred are an index of a prior love – or a warped expression of that prior love.
And further, behind all of this rage, it is clear there is a sense that the lament is not being heard – which adds to the rage, to the heartbreak, to the further loss of love. Most importantly, it makes the sense of disempowerment more acute because, going largely unheard by government and treated often with scorn by the mainstream media, it is not recognised and it is misrecognised. Even the echoing crags do not resound.
Surely the lamentation of the unheard must break any heart?
But my sympathy for this misrecognised heartbreak is not an exercise in paternalistic pity. Instead, it is because I recognise myself in the lamentation. I recognise myself in its anger and frustration, despite the racism which misrecognises me.
Anyone who grew up black during apartheid must surely recognise themselves in this raging, heartbreaking expression of heartbreak and disempowerment. Among the many political and economic disenfranchisements of apartheid, that political system can also be read as a rejection or denial of love. The refusal of real citizenship to its majority of people was a slap in the face. The denial of broad agricultural rights since 1913, and the Separate Amenities act which also carved up and divided natural spaces, for instance, sought to deny one aspect of that love – an unproblematic relationship with the SA landscape. And thus it is possible to understand and recognise the emotional dimension of this present, far-right dissatisfaction.
And I recognise my father’s rage also in this: in the face of his emasculation through unequal pay, even though he often was the best mechanic at a garage, or when he couldn’t take his children to a safe beach.
But the heartbreak of contemporary white dissatisfaction is also heartbreaking because, through its racism and its praise of apartheid, it misrecognises several things. It misrecognises the heartbreak caused by apartheid. It misrecognises that most black South Africans remain disempowered; media images of rich black people represent a very small section of South African society (media cover mainly black politicians and celebrities). Most importantly, it misrecognises, through its vitriol and racism, even the possibility that a black person may recognise him or herself in a white Afrikaner’s expression of disempowerment.
How can we continue like this, misrecognising each other’s heartbreak? These misrecognitions breed further rage, and if one looks at comments threads online in South Africa, most represent people withdrawing into their respective laagers, whether it is race, language, culture or religion. A hardening of differences as we refuse to recognise ourselves in each other and recognise that we actually share a common heartbreak.
This is not a suggestion to rightwingers to improve their PR. I have no answers. But I want to know, how do we start recognising each other?
Pierre de Vos, On being white and feeling ashamed, at Constitutionally Speaking, 27 June 2011
Ariel Dorfman, Whose memory? Whose justice? Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, delivered on 31 July 2010
Buti Manamela, The pitfalls of national and class Struggle: What role for the youth (Chris Hani Memorial Lecture, 9 April 2010), in Bottom Line, 7 (7), 22 April 2010
Eusebius McKaiser, Hoe moet ‘whiteys’ in dié vreemde plek leef?, in Die Burger, 25 July 2011
Marianne Thamm, The white thing to do, at Collateral Damage, 3 July 2011
Samantha Vice, How do I live in this strange place?, in Journal of Social Philosophy, 41 (3), Fall 2010, pp.323-342