De la Rey, FNB and unwanted guardians

An analysis for Moneyweb by former UCT Politics Professor Hermann Giliomee.

Two seemingly unrelated events have dominated extra-parliamentary politics over the past month: There was First National Bank's aborted advertising campaign about the grave crisis of violent crime, and then there were the concerted efforts by white and black commentators to discredit the enthusiastic response to Bok van Blerk's song calling for a heroic figure like the Boer War general Koos de la Rey to lead the Afrikaners out of their present state of political disarray and impotence.

Yet both events are intimately connected.  Both have to do with the ANC's enduring desire to impose its will over civil society. It has long been recognized that such domination is achieved not through extending control over each and every individual, but rather through the atomization of society.  The goal is, Leonard Schapiro observed, to reduce individuals to moral loneliness "by denying them the support of what Emile Durkheim called ‘intermediate societies'. ... Isolation of the individual was brought about with the aid of the party which was used to penetrate and render harmless virtually all institutions of society."

It is in this context that FNB's breaking of ranks to launch its anti-crime campaign, and the revival of Afrikaner patriotism which has finally found its anthem is felt as such a profound challenge.

One of First National Bank's senior board members told me that the phrase that caused most alarm in government ranks about its planned advertisement was the reference to "mobilizing the population'.  In the first meeting with Paul Harris and his team the Minister for Police demanded to know what this meant. Clearly he had visions of the mass demonstrations in the late 1980s of the Eastern European societies. Taken aback the FNB officials explained that by mobilizing the population they had merely meant getting the public to assist the police more effectively and purposefully.

According to reports, the De la Rey song was born after a very convivial evening in a pub. The idea of the creators of the song was to celebrate a heroic figure in the more distant Afrikaner past. Gen. Koos de la Rey was probably preferred to Christiaan de Wet mainly because it rhymes with the refrain "om weer die Boere te kom lei."

As it happens, no panel of historians could have chosen a figure from the Anglo-Boer War that speaks more tellingly about our present. In the South African War (1899-1902) Koos de la Rey, along with Louis Botha, Jan Smuts and other Transvaal Bittereinders, along with their Free State counterparts, fought a heroic battle against the might of the British army. 

It was the valor of the Bittereinders and the courage during the grim but ultimately glorious final two years of the war which prompted Smuts to write that ‘every child to be born in South Africa was to have a proud self-respect and a more erect carriage before the nations of the world.'

Farming in the western Transvaal, De la Rey was elected to the first Union Parliament as member of the Louis Botha's South African Party. The Union of South Africa was still young and the white euphoria accompanying the establishment of the new state quickly dissipated. The Afrikaners found it difficult to identify with many of the new state's institutions, for example, the military and the civil service.

The trigger of the armed rebellion that broke out in September was the decision of the Botha government to agree to the request of the British government to occupy German South Africa.  De la Rey now summoned armed burghers of the Western Transvaal to a meeting. His reputation was so great that thousands of burghers would rally to his call, particularly if it was cast as an attempt to regain the independence of the republics. But before he could address a meeting he was shot dead accidentally at a police road blockade. There were widespread rumors that he had been killed on government orders, but a judicial inquest later found that it was an accident.

In August 2006, at the Afrikaans festival Aardklop held in Potchefstroom, Bok van Blerk first sang his song calling on De la Rey once again to lead the Boers out of their state of disarray. Subsequently it sold an unheard figure of more than 100 000 CDs.

There are reasons why the song has been so stunningly successful, particularly among the Afrikaner youth.  As Martiens van Bart, a cultural critic on the staff of Die Burger wrote, it satisfies the youth's yearning for leaders of integrity (Jan Smuts called De la Rey ‘one of the whitest souls who ever lived'), for a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice to pursue justice and autonomy, for great courage under fire and above all for putting ideals higher than the sordid scramble for material gain and conspicuous consumption.

Above all it is prized because it satisfies the Afrikaner youth's desire for political incorrectness. How better to show up the Afrikaners in their middle age, who tend to live on their knees politically, by singing a song about a fearless leader in the past who was driven by his convictions and prepared to pay the price for unpopularity?

            One of the ironies of these affairs is that the ANC is currently weak and divided- and not itself able to enforce its hegemony over society. It has relied instead on its allies in business and the English press to try and bring FNB and the Afrikaner youth back into line. It was the presidency's loyal courtiers in the business community who blew the whistle on the FNB's campaign, thereby giving government the opportunity to squash the initiative and to kill any further business activism on crime. The presidency, it was argued, had be carefully flattered, placated and cajoled - anything resembling criticism or opposition was to be avoided at all costs.

 In the case of the De la Rey song certain commentators in the English press have set themselves up as guardians against the unwelcome news of Afrikaner discontent. The cleansing of the civil service of Afrikaner men, the relentless march of affirmative action, the increasing marginalization of Afrikaans as language of instruction, of business and of government, the near-obliteration of Afrikaner history in the new school textbooks, the planned changing of numerous historic place names, including Pretoria and and Potchefstroom  -- all these have been depicted as mere ‘phantom pains' and dismissed as legitimate reasons for complaint.

These self-appointed courtiers and guardians are doing the country no favours. The grievances of many Afrikaners are intensely felt and if the ruling majority wants to avoid storing up trouble for itself in the future it should take cognisance of them now. As far as the FNB campaign is concerned all the evidence points to the fact that the government only responds when confronted by a mobilised civil society that it cannot co-opt or control. Zachie Achmat's Treat Action Campaign is a perfect example of this. If there is one thing that the white and black public shares, it is the demand that the opposition to a bungling and unresponsive government should be tough, committed, brave and prepared to test the limits. Like general De la Rey did.   

* Hermann Giliomee was Professor of Political Studies at the University of CapeTown and is now writing full time. He edited several books, including The Awkward Embrace  on one-party domination in the unconsolidated democracies of South Africa, Mexico, Singapore and Taiwan (Harwoord Publishers)  and is author of The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Tafelberg). He lives in Stellenbosch.