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
Dankie vir die stuk in Rapport. Ek het dit daar gelees en hierheen gevolg. Dit is ongelooflik bemoedigend.
Dankie vir die lees, besoek en kompliment, Ali.
[…] But I want to know, how do we start recognising each other? We can make a start by recognising in one another that need for a stukkie grond we can call home. A longing for belonging in safety, security and progress. Apartheid negated that belonging for the majority of South Africans in too many ways: taking the land, causing mothers and fathers to be removed from their families, taking away the right to quality education, and the list goes on. And now it is the white man’s turn for this kind of misery: I am surrounded by elderly couples whose children had to go and find jobs overseas. There seems to be no end to the circle of misery and anger. I’ve never felt that I belong, even while envying those who talk proudly of their ancestors and their roots, no matter how bloody the trail often is. Apparently all my forefathers were a bunch of colonial, racist bastards, and I have nowhere to call home. […]
Dis nie net hartseer nie tjom!Dis haat!!!Dis n tipe haat wat selfs binne die beste van Afrikaners wroeg!Ek is 22 jaar oud en het in die “nuwe Suid-Afrika” groot geword!Ongelukkig vind ek dat daar daagliks teen my gediskrimineer word oor my taal en die feit dat ek n wit Afrikaner is.Ek is glad nie regs nie,maar die mate van optrede vind ek as Nieu-Apartheid.Ek praat nie eers van die duisende boere wat vermoor word nie!My familie kom al n lang pad met landbou in SA so ek sal weet wat op ons plase aangaan!
Ek self was ook al in n gewapende rooftog en al n hele paar keer waar hulle ons letterlik weg gedrae het!Maar die punt wat ek wil maak is dat Suid-Afrika ons land is en ek sal vir geen rede my land op gee nie.Te veel van my familie het gebloei vir die land ,net sodat ek my identiteit kan weg smyt en in Nieu-Seeland te gaan bly.
Die Afrikaans-sprekendes(bruin,swart en wit) dra die land!Ons moet net n ruggraat kry!
Mooi geschreven! Ik hoop dat meer mensen bereid zullen zijn/blijven te emphatiseren met anderen, hoe afstotend hun gedachtengoed op het eerste gezicht ook lijkt. Alleen dan kan er aan wederzijds begrip en respect gewerkt worden.
Beautifully written! I hope more people will become/stay prepared to emphazise with others, how repulsive their ideas may seem at first view. Only then can one work towards mutual understanding and respect.
@Frank dank je wel vir die besoek en kompliment.
This post is for lack of a better phrase, ‘n riem onder die hart. I hope many South African read it. It can heal in many directions.
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And in all this rage the reality of life is lost. Can anyone contest the fact that we are all born equal and will be so again when we die?
What then is the spoken language of the unborn and the dead? For that matter, what is the colour of the the unborn and the dead?
Let us debate what makes us the same. Then let us then plan to ensure that we all survive our brief journey through life without delivering new reasons for grievances amongst our fellows.
I think you are on to something but I feel ambivalent about your argument. White poverty exists and has increased. Do and can they access government services as any other South African? Or is that their own percepetion as white sees them as being above such help? Do lobby groups such as AfriForum not derive their legitimacy from poor white people, by again, insisting on a special case – poor white people need special attention? Do Afrikaner lobby groups and their leadership enough to overcome racial apartness? Or are they rather mobilising to ensure the survival of Afrikaners and thereby enforcing apartheid race thinking? Where is the leadership that tries to imagine a new way of thinking beyond race? The forces for non-racialism are stagnating, see how little attention Ahmed Kathrada’s project gets, while mutual separate race thinking is in the assent.
Soon autumn, hurry to say goodbye to summer!).