By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
PRETORIA, South Africa -- A white pastor spoke of the "tremendous amount of hurt" his fellow Afrikaners feel in black-ruled South Africa. A man complained that racial quotas keep white children off school sports teams. Another fretted about dwindling education in Afrikaans, the language of Afrikaners.
The guest of honor at the gathering of Afrikaner organizations last month, former anti-apartheid guerrilla Jacob Zuma, stood and smiled. He apologized for his "problematic" Afrikaans, which he had learned during a decade as a political prisoner, then delivered his message: Just as I cherish being a Zulu, so should you cherish being Afrikaners.
"I've always said we are a unique country. We've got a tribe, a white tribe, that is African in every respect," said Zuma, leader of the nation's ruling party, which is expected to sweep elections next week that will deliver him the presidency. He received a standing ovation.
Fifteen years after Nelson Mandela negotiated power away from the white Afrikaner government that ruled for half a century by means of a web of racist laws, South Africa's small Afrikaner population now struggles for political clout. Afrikaner organizations and scholars say many feel sidelined in a land where their language and culture are in decline, even resented. But though few are expected to vote for his party, some see a hint of hope in Zuma.
His party, the ruling African National Congress, has been wooing Afrikaners -- descendants of mainly Dutch and French settlers whose presence here dates to the 17th century -- and other minority groups with renewed vigor. Afrikaners make up less than 6 percent of the population, 9 percent of which is white.
Analysts say the efforts are partly a response to a new opposition party that has threatened the ANC's dominance by energizing disillusioned white voters and partly a cynical fanning of ethnic pride. But some say they also reflect a real concern within the ANC -- which claims to represent all South Africans -- that the party had evolved under then-President Thabo Mbeki into an organization seen as only for blacks. According to one recent poll, blacks make up 96 percent of its supporters.
"People actually feel that government is not governing or serving us, they're actually governing against us," said Kallie Kriel, chief executive of AfriForum, an Afrikaner interest group whose members, he said, remain skeptical of the ANC outreach. Still, he said, "Jacob Zuma shows more sensitivity to these issues."
Zuma, a down-to-earth populist, visited a squatter camp of Afrikaners last year. Last month, he sent an ambassador to the most extreme example of Afrikaner nationalism, the desert town of Orania. There, Afrikaners have carved out an all-white enclave where they hope to create an independent state dedicated to preserving a culture they fear is being swallowed up.
"Zuma has admitted that there is a place for the Afrikaner," said François de Vos, 63, a pecan farmer in Orania, which Zuma is expected to visit soon. "He truly believes in a very distinct Zulu culture, and when we talk about Afrikaner culture, he truly understands it."
But as South Africa heads toward its fourth democratic general elections, it is not necessarily clear just who Afrikaners are anymore. A strong cultural identity was forged by the iron-fisted apartheid state, which forced blacks to learn Afrikaans and live in teeming townships. But while advocates say most Afrikaners accepted the sudden reversal of their political fortunes in 1994, some contend the changed nation has caused that identity to fray.
For that, some Afrikaner organizations blame the ANC government. It has closed or made bilingual 90 percent of the Afrikaans-language schools that existed in 1990, AfriForum says, and changed street and town names honoring Afrikaners. Affirmative-action laws have squeezed Afrikaners out of work, it says, and even the famed springbok mascot of rugby -- a sport something like a religion for Afrikaners -- has come under attack as an apartheid-era symbol.
Worst, some say, is that young Afrikaners raised in democratic South Africa feel saddled with blame -- something not helped by high-profile racist incidents such as one that erupted last year at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, where Afrikaner students produced a video in which they appeared to force black female workers to drink soup in which a student had urinated.
Some Afrikaners have retreated into suburban isolation. Political analysts say many do not vote; of those who do, most vote for the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, which derives much of its support from whites. Many others have emigrated. Some research suggests that 1 million whites have left South Africa since 1995, an unknown number of whom are Afrikaners.
Among them is Johann Rossouw, 38, a philosopher who led an Afrikaans cultural organization until last year, when he departed for doctoral studies in Australia. Many of his high school classmates have left because they feel "unwanted by their own country," he said. Proper use of Afrikaans is eroding, he added, and consumerism is the new church of traditionally Christian Afrikaners.
"The signs of what I perceive as decay simply became too painful," he said.
The complaints are overdramatic, even offensive, to some observers, who say that Afrikaners' small numbers made their marginalization inevitable. Critics note that while poverty has increased among Afrikaners who might once have been guaranteed government work, the group remains overwhelmingly well-off in a country with a vast poor black population.
"Afrikaners in general, white South Africans as well, we lost privilege. But we haven't lost rights," said Tim du Plessis, editor of Beeld, an Afrikaans-language newspaper. Without an apartheid government to coddle Afrikaans culture, he said, Afrikaners now "must actually get off their backsides and work for it."
To a casual observer, Afrikaans culture hardly shows signs of dying. Rugby matches, where ruddy Afrikaners eat barbecued boerewors, or farmers' sausages, are wildly popular. Afrikaans-language literature sells well, and TV shows in the language are common. Rock music in Afrikaans is exploding. While scholars such as Rossouw lament the new media as superficial, others say they provide cultural space for young Afrikaners.
But young Afrikaners say dealing with their heritage in a changed nation can be a balancing act. Jay Schutte, 29, a mop-haired graduate student, has been the music director for an African dance troupe. He long ago abandoned his real first name, Jan, and sometimes waits to reveal his last name to his black students because he fears "they will see me through a certain lens."
Even so, Schutte said, he feels confident he has a place in South Africa.
"If you work hard enough and you do your best, I don't think it's going to affect you," said Schutte, who started a Facebook group, Afrikaners Against Racism, after the Free State University scandal last year. Afrikaner identity "is no longer something to do with politics," he said. "It's a cultural, ethnic identity. That's where it is and where it should belong."
For most Afrikaners, du Plessis said, the biggest concerns are bread-and-butter issues such as crime, corruption and traffic, not cultural demise.
That was evident at Zuma's meeting with Afrikaners in Pretoria, where audience members asked as many questions about topics such as human rights and local governance as they did about Afrikaner-specific issues.
The audience seemed charmed by Zuma, if unpersuaded to vote for the ANC. Kriel said Afrikaners are more inspired to vote in these elections than in any previous, largely because the new opposition party -- led by a black former ANC politician who speaks fluent Afrikaans -- has made them feel their votes might matter.
Among the new white voters will be Ella, a farm owner who lives not far from Orania and said she plans to vote "for the first time since the new South Africa," probably for the Democratic Alliance. She said that the ANC had never represented her but that she never resented it.
"You get Afrikaans people that don't see any hope for South Africa," said Ella, who did not want her last name published because her husband holds a government job. "We must now adapt. That's the main thing."