The broken heart of the Afrikaners

Hermann Giliomee revisits old predictions of what was likely to come to pass

One of the most remarkable of South African poems is “Chess in South Africa”, by Louis Leipoldt. He was an Afrikaans poet but wrote this particular poem in English. Its only appearance in print is in John Kannemeyer’s biography of Leopoldt (1999) that was published in 1999. Kannemeyer’s only comment on the poem is the rather bland statement “clearly [the poem] has bearing on race relations on South Africa.”


In all probability Kannemeyer came across a copy while researching Leipoldt’s papers for a biography. Kannemeyer does not say whether the poem ever was published. He also does not discuss the poem in his authoritative Die Afrikaanse Literatuur in Suid-Afrika (1652-2004) that has a section on Leipoldt.

André. P. Brink includes some twenty of Leipoldt’s poems in his three-volume anthology of Afrikaans poetry comprising 1299 pages, but “Chess in South Africa” is not included. The most likely reason is that poems written in English by Afrikaans poets were omitted. The poem reads as follows:

Chess in South Africa

The much belauded Fool
Looked wise
And pondered what he saw:
"I think" he said, "that if
He tries
White still might make a draw!"

The Master smiled and
Shook his head:
"You've left it all too late.
There is no doubt of it" he said
"It's black to move and mate.

I only discovered the poem in 2012 when I read some of Kannemeyer’s literary biographies in preparation for a lecture on him that I gave at the March 2013 Woordfees of Stellenbosch. Kannemeyer died at the end of 2012.

Also forgotten is the bleak prediction, made in the late 1950s, by the leading Afrikaans novelist Etienne Leroux, in a letter to Jan Rabie, who had just published a searing indictment of apartheid in a novel Ons, die Afgod (We, the idol) 1958.

Leroux wrote:

“And now, Jan, I’ll tell you what will happen. Our god has been vanquished, the knight lies emasculated in the cellar, the foundation of the fortress begins to crumble and there are only three different outcomes possible: to: put on a sack cloth and step out to meet the enemy; to  defend the fortress with blood, tears and shame; to withdraw and think back  longingly about a glorious past while  awaiting the death-blow.”

Leroux continues:

"To be honest I do not know if there is any solution. If fact, the word solution is wrong. A natural process is unfolding: the substitution of one civilisation by another, the supremacy of numbers. Who has the right to condemn the new civilisation? But who has the right to condemn a civilisation that is waning? Don’t’ talk about justice. Rather talk about multi-colouredness and social dynamics, if you wish. I like the sentence in your letter: ‘We are a young nation asked to do a super human thing: to recognise that our will to survive can contain something evil’.”

Like Graham Greene, the French politician and philosopher, Jean-Francois Revel visited Leroux on his farm in the Free State. Leroux was impressed by Revel’s bool Without Marx or Jesus (1970). Leroux wrote Revel:

"Africa is a puzzle. After years of colonial rule, really very little of the best of Pax Britannica, the French connection, the Flemish touch etc. remained. This is a Dark Continent in the Jungian sense. So much of the collective unconscious is smouldering under the surface - a primordial racial memory that is trying to break through in new and meaningful symbols that can be reconciled with a world of the mind and technology and peaceful co-existence in a materialistic sense. I do not know how the people of Africa will tame this Black Bitch - because Africa has a feminine darkness of things unknown, dangerous and creative. [….]

When Robert Sobukwe mentioned to you that the whites are not realistic and when the whites (unknown) expressed the same belief with regard to ‘reality’ to you, they only expressed their wish for a universal conformity in terms of their ‘tribal’ beliefs. Africa has no inkling of democracy. Or the freedom of the individual. Africa's only claim to freedom lies in the fact that the rulers are allowed to be unpredictable.”

Leipoldt was a medical doctor in Cape Town and Leroux a Free State farmer. The question is whether their views could be considered as representative of the Afrikaners at the time. Here, Hennie Aucamp, perhaps the leading short story writer in Afrikaans, makes an interesting distinction between the political experiences of “Boers” and Bolanders”.

Aucamp, who grew up on a farm in Dordrecht in the Eastern Cape, wrote that the history and ways of thinking of Afrikaners in the Eastern Cape differed starkly from those of the Afrikaners in the Boland. During the Anglo-Boer War there was strong support for the Boer cause from some Afrikaner farmers in the eastern Cape Colony, which led to British soldiers ransacking the farms of suspected Boer supporters. By contrast, in the western Cape the Afrikaners offered virtually no resistance to the British war effort.

In a short story, published in 1975, Aucamp tells how moved he was reading the Meintjes biography of President M.T. Steyn of the Republic of the Orange State. He explains why.

“We may in the near future yet again wtness the death of the Boer—a death that may exact everything and even the death of that which is most treasured --- the Boer’s language.”

He concluded:

“The Boer in the interior and the Afrikaners of the Boland are two different species. The Boland’s beautiful mountains form the shield which keeps out the stink of the spilled blood of Boers in the war. That is why the Cape remains so Dutch, which in fact means British.”

The perspective helps one to understand why Stellenbosch Unversity simply capitulated on the language of instruction issue. It is undoubtedly the most severe blow Afrikaans as a public and literary lnaguage has suffered since 1990.The university management and those members of Senate that support the policy claim that it stems from the desire to promote transformation, but a close look at the admittance figures show that the great beneficiaries are white and brown English-speakers, who already have access to three English-medium universities in Cape Town.

The figure for brown Afrikaans-speakers, which should be the real target for advancement by Stellenbosch has hardly moved from 1129 to in 2004 to 1443 in 2017. The attempt of Stellenbosch University to climb in the world rankings of universities has failed. Recently two respected American authorities in the field wrote that only exceptionally well-endowed universities can compete in the game of rankings. e. Other universities should have as their primary obligation service the duty to the local community.

One is tempted to conclude this story with a reference to J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which appeared in 1980. In his biography of Coetzee entitled `n Geskryfde Lewe (2012) Kannemeyer rejects the tendency to interpret the novel as anticipating the Afrikaners’ political downfall at the hands of the “barbarains.” In fact, the “barbarians” do not exist or are not about to appear at the gate. Hence they are unable to offer a solution. All that is real is the floundering military force on the frontier zone and its murderous subjugation of those who fell foul of them.

Hermann Giliomee’s book “The Rise and Demise of the Afrikaners” (Tafelberg) has just been published.

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