Shortly after the first Dutch settlers made their home in the Western Cape some 350 years ago, they were visited by a senior member of the Dutch East India Company who used the Cape (and the services of local farmers) as a staging post and resupply depot. He argued that they should not become too attached to their new abode, to which a local white settler responded “but we are Afrikaners” (Africans). They went on to develop their own language, occupy and subdue South Africa and establish small isolated communities in many other African States.
They carry the blood of many people – the Khoi Khoi, East Asians, Europeans and others. Their progeny today, control some of the largest Companies in the World and at least one, Nasionale Pers (Pty) Ltd. is a major investor in China with its Afrikaner Directors all speaking Mandarin. They are a tough, resilient lot with a strong sense of community and common faith (Calvinistic and conservative).
My own forefathers came much later – the first major influx of English and German settlers arriving after 1800 with my own Great Grandfather arriving as a Baptist Missionary in 1867. My wife’s forefathers arrived after 1840 with German and English settlers, her great grandmother coming out on a sailing ship and lowered over the side into a small boat to go through the waves to the beaches of the Eastern Cape.
Our history in southern Africa has been turbulent and violent. We have fought each other (English and Afrikaner) and the regional tribes. We have fought liberation wars (the Boer War of the Afrikaner people to rid themselves of domination by the English and which was the first liberation war in Africa and the first real guerilla war in modern history) and remain a small, but significant minority group in the region.
We are responsible for bringing out to this part of Africa, the idea of constitutional Government, the rule of law (Roman Dutch law) and the creation of a modern economic system with paper money, Reserve Banks and commercial banks. The people amongst whom we settled did not have the wheel and had only a limited knowledge of iron and steel. Our military prowess meant that we were able, with tiny numbers of men on the ground, to subdue vast swathes of land and impose our will, language and culture on the people we subdued. It was not pretty, it was ruthless and in many cases cruel and self serving.
With us came our faith – predominately Protestant and Calvinistic and we regarded this as being “superior” to the indigenous religious beliefs. In fact these were deemed to be demonic in character and to be discouraged or even banned. But with all of these characteristics came many thousands of deeply caring and committed Christians who built schools, provided hospitals and tried to help local communities with critical basic services. By 1950, the majority of the indigenous peoples of the region owed their education and health to the Church in all its different forms. The unintended consequence of this massive effort was that the new indigenous leadership of the region was nurtured, trained and developed by the Church.
There never was any chance of the white settler population maintaining its grip on power in southern Africa and one by one, regional States have elected governments dominated by indigenous people. In this process white Africans have found themselves a reduced minority with a heavy burden of their record as conquerors and suppressors. Our amazing achievements in all spheres are largely brushed aside and we struggle with our identities and role in these new dispensations.
The Afrikaners have done rather better than their English speaking counterparts. They have been able to maintain their language, culture and identity and have accepted their role as a minority group with influence, rather than power. However they remain under pressure and for many the temptation is to take the easy way out, use your background as someone of European extraction with valuable skills and knowledge, to leave the continent of your birth and try to build a new life somewhere where whites are still in control.
The many hundreds of thousands who have taken this route find themselves strangers among communities that they thought would have been totally familiar. African blood runs in their veins and many find it difficult to settle. A new phenomenon is emerging where the next generation of those who have fled the battle grounds of southern Africa, are returning to the land of their ancestors in search of identity and in an effort to reestablish themselves on the continent.
But the struggle remains, what is the role and the future of white Africans on the continent of Africa, the sole continent that is dominated by human beings with a dark pigment in their skin. Even the description “white” is a misnomer. We are every colour under the sun and really should be called, as they do in America as “EuroAfricans”. The only problem being that most of us have no sense of our “European” ancestry, the title used by many of “Mabunhu” or “farmer” classifies us by our most common means of living. In reality we are just Africans and want to be recognised as such, nothing more.
This is not a peripheral or inconsequential issue. My son went to the USA for the first time a few years ago and when he came back he said almost wistfully, “Dad, those Americans are so patriotic – they fly flags in their gardens and can recite the National Anthem and parts of the Constitution”. He went on to say that he wished we as Africans might one day feel the same way about our countries. The main issue is one of acceptance.
Rhodesians were passionate about “their” country and worked hard and enthusiastically for the country. They beat mandatory sanctions, civil war, accepted deprivation and hardship, even death in defense of the land of their birth (and their own interests). White Zimbabweans, by and large, do not feel the same way about Zimbabwe and this is partly because they do not feel accepted and recognised as citizens of value.
Confronted with the new leadership of the country who are not influenced so much by the historical struggles of Africa to find freedom and dignity, they respond strongly and emotionally to any signs of real acceptance of them as Africans in the land of their birth. We in the MDC fought hard to win them dual Citizenship and the right to all privileges that come with citizenship in the new Constitution. Now if you are born in Zimbabwe or to Zimbabweans parents you are a citizen. At Church yesterday I met a young white Zimbabwean couple who had returned to Zimbabwe to claim citizenship for their new born child – it was granted.
Some years ago I travelled with Morgan Tsvangirai to Europe and while in Britain we were asked to travel across London to a Church hall to meet a group of young Zimbabweans – we found the hall packed with about 600 young people – very mixed, but majority white. During his speech he assured them that they could come home once he was in power and that we would grant them their citizenship rights on arrival, he was astonished by the reaction, there was an outpouring of support – many in tears.
Last week I attended the AGM of the Commercial Farmers Union. There I heard one of the most amazing speeches I have ever heard on the future of Agriculture in Africa from a tall Afrikaner who has been elected as President of the Pan African Federation of African Farms Unions. He represents the new white African generation who have overcome the obstacles of their history by the sheer force of his commitment to the common good and the special skills he brings to the table. He is, in many ways, the future, and not the past, of white Africans in the continent of their birth.
Eddie Cross is MDC MP for Bulawayo South. This article first appeared on www.eddiecross.africanherd.com