By Staff Reporter
As black South Africans rally against symbols of white domination, questions are raised about Afrikaner identity in post-apartheid society, writes Daily Maverick
Afrikaans singer Sunette Bridges chains herself to a vandalised statue of Paul Kruger in Church Square in Pretoria, South Africa.
Afrikaans singer Sunette Bridges chains herself to a vandalised statue of Paul Kruger in Church Square in Pretoria, South Africa. Photograph: Greatstock / Barcroft Media/Greatstock / Barcroft Media
South African singer Sunette Bridges yesterday chained herself to the statue of former Boer leader Paul Kruger, known as the father of the Afrikaner nation, in Pretoria to protest against calls for its removal.
The statue was covered in green paint on Sunday night by members of the ANC Youth League and the Economic Freedom Fighters, following the successful #Rhodesmustfall campaign to remove a statue of British coloniser Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.
Amid an ongoing row about historic symbols of colonialism and white domination, questions about Afrikaner identity in post-apartheid South Africa have come to the fore.
One response to these questions comes from those such as Bridges who, along with the musician and language activist Steve Hofmeyr, has become a self-appointed spokesperson for a group of Afrikaans speakers calling themselves “Boers” who believe the “volk” are under threat. They fear being victims of a “Boer genocide” by the black majority.
Sunette Bridges is the daughter of the late Bles Bridges, a crooner with a penchant for colourful blazers and who once made Afrikaans women swoon as he warbled sentimental ballads.
Bridges and Hofmeyr’s politics are as prone to kitsch and overwrought emotion as Bles Bridges’ ballads. They firmly identify as cultural Afrikaners – a group defined by a unique history, language and destiny – set apart from the rest of South Africa. There are, they believe, enemies everywhere – old colonials, English-speaking South Africans and then, of course, black South Africa.
‘Cecil Rhodes’ colonial legacy must fall – not his statue’
Bridges and Hofmeyr’s action in Church Square on Wednesday is a reaction to the events of the weekend, where protestors emptied green paint over the statue of Paul Kruger, president of South Africa from 1883 to 1900. The incident was one of many that have occurred across the country as symbols of “colonial imperialism and oppression” have been targeted in the wake of the #Rhodesmustfall student movement.
Bridges yesterday accused President Jacob Zuma of setting the tone when earlier this year he suggested Jan van Riebeek – a Dutch colonial administrator and the founder of Cape Town – as the originator of the country’s political woes. Meanwhile the Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, has condemned the attacks on the country’s statues and “heritage”.
A new generation
That the nuances of history have been stripped from the debate suits Bridges, Hofmeyr and Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters whose members have participated in many of the protests.
That many white, progressive Afrikaans-speaking South Africans – writers, activists, clergymen and journalists – bravely aligned themselves with the broader struggle for democracy is often overshadowed by the likes of Hofmeyr and Bridges.
But they do not speak for all Afrikaners. Yesterday Francois van Coke, the voice of a post-apartheid generation, released a haunting and soul-searching solo album that allows for a different way of answering these questions about identity. .
Van Coke, the frontman for the hugely popular alternative Afrikaans punk band Fokofpolisiekar (and also the Van Coke Kartel), who has come to represent a section of that new generation, untethered from the symbols, rituals and limitations of the past. They inherited territory carved out by the Voëlvry movement of the 1980s that used rock music to celebrate Afrikaner pride.
They entered the 21st century, defiant, provocative, rebellious, subversive and engaged in deeper existential questions. The likes of Van Coke showed young white South Africans that you can still sing in your own language without feeling alienated and marginalised.
Van Coke and his band burst onto the music scene – part of the Bellville underground rock movement – in 2003 and soon, along with singer/songwriter Karen Zoid gave expression to the questions and concerns of young Afrikaners eager to find their own space in post-apartheid South Africa. While they sing in Afrikaans, their sentiments, outlook and psychology is located in broader society.
That statues, concrete and bronze conjurings of the past, should provide a rallying point for an ever-shifting national conversation about “becoming” should not come as a shock. In an increasingly atomised and virtual public arena in South Africa these physical manifestations of history have become a rallying platform for the aggrieved. Both for the black students who are part of the #RhodesMustFall movement and for those, like Sunette Bridges, burdened by the weight of a past that haunts the present.
Many English-speaking white South Africans have fewer spaces – both physical and creative – in which to engage with their history and future. Young, white UCT students have claimed that Rhodes “means nothing to me” and “does not represent me”. To which black students have replied, “If he means so little to you and so much to me, he should go.”
It’s significant that Bridges should threaten to chain herself to the Kruger statue and that Van Coke should release his soul searching album in the same week that the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, an Afrikaans language arts festival, is taking place in Outshoorn.
Van Coke’s beautifully melancholic solo album exposes a more mature artist grappling with weighty existential matters
The annual showcase for mostly Afrikaans music, theatre, dance and fine art has been well supported since 1994. This year Hofmeyr, who was a regular fixture, was not invited. Organisers had begun to find his political activism on behalf of white Afrikaans speakers a liability. They were prepared to forfeit potential revenue in the interests of celebrating the arts unsullied by his brand of macho politics.
Van Coke’s beautifully melancholic solo album exposes a more mature artist grappling with weighty existential (and universal) matters. He has collaborated with fellow artists Karen Zoid, Arno Carstens, Laudo Liebenberg and Hunter Kennedy (of Die Heuwels Fantasties) and the album is threaded with anxiety and quiet despair.
So, somewhere between the hard places – the statues and relics that tower over contemporary South Africa – are the softer places, the emotional vistas of the Van Cokes and the Zoids, that offer an alternative space for self-reflection for Afrikaners.