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Chapter One: The Spectrum
Afrikaners complain that outsiders depict them monochromatically, as white racists. In fact, until President F.W. de Klerk's February 2, 1990, speech heralding the end of apartheid, it was not widely known that Afrikaners are to be found all across the political spectrum.
On that momentous day, dubbed "Red Friday" by right-wingers who opposed F.W.'s National Party and considered his policies "communistic," the relative silence and conformity of the white tribe shattered. Distressed, hopeful, scared, and ebullient, Afrikaners of all convictions were eager to talk. Their diversity erupted into public view. A handful are members of the African National Congress (ANC), more are neo-Nazis, some refuse to align, many are confused, a few are women who have rebelled against their patriarchal tribe.
The first two Afrikaners in this chapter are a young man and women the man mildly right of center, the woman decidedly on the left. Though they are both close to thirty years old, one might have been raised on the moon and the other under a barrel for all their similarity to each other. The third Afrikaner, a man in his fifties, has spent his adult life questioning the authoritarian system, a rare (and discouraged) activity in this constricted society.
A two-and-a-half-hour drive east of Johannesburg across the mildly undulating plains of Africa called the highveld(*)-tamed to grow potatoes, mielies (corn), cattle, and sheep, watered by lonely windmills, mined of its coal, and gold, blemished with man-made mountains scraped from inside the earth-lives Dominee (Reverend) Pieter Nel. In 1992, two years after de Klerk's speech, Nel reminisced about "once upon a time" in the days of Hendrik Verwoerd, prime minister from 1958 to 1966.
"I was born in 1962 and I can remember in the days of Dr. Verwoerd, those people were not ashamed to talk about Christianity," he said.
Brown-haired, light-eyed Nel looks scrubbed and cheery and handsome. His wife, Gerda Brits Nel, has the thin physique of the long-distance runner she is. With their two children they live in a middle-class ranch-style house surrounded by a low decorative fence in the small farming town of Bethal.
"Making room for communist atheism to govern," that's where the Nationalist government was going wrong, Nel said. "We're giving the forces of evil, the forces of the antichrist, room in our government. That's the ANC."
Nel believes the white man in South Africa is "asking for the wrath of God." The right-wing Conservative Party (CP) is "misusing the Bible," while the ruling National Party is "forgetting it," he said.
"I'm not saying the CP itself, but many of its members. These fanatics that say the black people are not true human beings, and they're monkeys and can't be saved, you know that's nonsense. I mean, that's terrible. There's no biblical foundation for those arguments. Then, of course, there's a great bit of materialism in this Conservative way of thinking. They don't want to give away what they have."
Nel is slightly right of the fluid middle of the Afrikaner political spectrum. He doesn't believe apartheid can be justified biblically, but "for practical purposes the government should keep people apart" because that way they maintain their Christian values best. "The Bible is my authority," Dominee Nel said over and over. What about other people who read and interpret the Bible differently?
"I don't think it is a matter of interpretation," he said. "The Bible says if we don't acknowledge Christ, we are the antichrist. It's not something difficult to understand."
Nel said he had "strong roots in a Voortrek house." He is related to the Voortrekker, or pioneer, Sarel Cillie, who participated in the Great Trek.(*) He was at the Battle of Blood River on December 16, 1838, an event mythologized in Afrikaans culture. In that battle only three pioneers were injured while the Boers and their black servants shot and killed three spear-wielding Zulus, in retribution for the Zulus' killing 270 Boers and their 200 servants in an earlier ambush. In Afrikaner history December 16 became the Day of the Covenant because legend had it that the Voortrekkers had promised God to honor Him if they were victorious.
"God planted the white South Africans here with a purpose," Nel said. "And that was to spread His word, to do missionary work. The French Huguenots came here because of their faith. And Jan van Riebeeck in 1652.(*) Ever since they landed here, they had churches and people that looked after the sick. Somewhere along the line we neglected missionary work. That's why we are in this crisis. Ever since I was four, I've done missionary work, I spoke to them [blacks] about Christ. I mean, it's part of my life, that's how I read the Bible. But when the government neglects its duty to God, it's asking for trouble."
As a dominee Nel is performing a political juggling act, trying to keep his congregation happy. He ministers to fourteen hundred whites in the Bethal Dutch Reformed Church, who think as he does or, in many cases, are to his political right.
"My congregation is divided into forty sections, where each has an elder and a deacon. Of those forty sections, nine are farming sections and the rest townspeople. But all the people work with the land. We live close to the earth. People here are much closer to the Boers as we know them, you know of a few years back. Biblically as well they are conservative. They are real Calvinist, much more than you get in the cities.
"In the cities you get this individualism. Each one believes what he likes. With the urban people there is more immorality, an antichristian way of living. It's just humanism, like forcing everything together and saying that's New Age. I'm saying why should we all be in one huge pan of scrambled eggs?"
Annica Marincowitz, who lives in the "one huge"-i.e., interracial-"pan" in Yeoville, a bohemian suburb of Johannesburg, is an Afrikaner of a kind scarcely visible a dozen years previously. He rented apartment spoke for her, because she was far away in Japan, teaching English to the Japanese.
Books, many more than in Nel's office, are stacked along a shelf in the entrance hall and crammed in boxes under the beds in the three-room apartment. Afrikaans and English books, many used in classes at the Harvard of the Afrikaners, Stellenbosch University, about 850 miles southwest of Johannesburg.
A few rough-hewn antiques from the old Boer days of the Great Trek are sprinkled around the ground-floor apartment: a yellowwood and stinkwood chest, mellow from years of having beeswax smoothed into it; a foldable pioneer table that could easily have been heaved onto an oxdrawn wagon during the mid-1800s trek inland away from British colonial rule. There is an ultramodern hand-painted coffee table, and a large length of Indian fabric is draped on the wall.
Anarchic prints by South African artist Shelly Sacks hang on several of the fifteen-foot-high walls. In the hall outside the kitchen is a collage of snapshots of Annica's family and friends. Posters of Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane are affixed high in the kitchen, looking down like lords on a cheerful table, hand-painted with daisies. A mammoth portable stereo sits on a hall table. Photos of this woman's heroes and heroines are glued to the walls: the black American Communist Angela Davis, the novelist Nadine Gordimer, the American musician Paul Simon. Pages from a calendar have been spaced around the kitchen walls at chair-back level like decorative tiles: photos of elderly black Namibians in uniform who fought in the 1980s war with South Africa, little boys with toy AK-47s fashioned from scrap wire. In the bathroom is a photo of a flower-toting, naked black man with splendid torso. In a separate, small toilet room the walls are decked with pictures of Renaissance and medieval madonnas and contemporary photocopied articles. One tract is fable about an era on earth when women were worshiphed by men, when men tried to make "holes" in themselves similar to women's so they too could give birth. The result predictably gruesome. Also plastered to the walls is an enlarged newspaper column on abortion rights and a cartoon that attacks sexism and lauds women who "were built like cars." On one skinny wall a life-size posters of a female Greek statue makes the close-size room seem crowded with people. On the door is "The Twentieth Century Witch Chant" which ends:
"As for the boys playing with their powers toys, entoad them all."
The woman who decorated these walls is about the same age as Dominee Nel-she turned thirty-two in 1992. Although a daughter of the volk, she represents Nel's nightmare, the urban antichrist. In a newspaper photo on the kitchen wall she is shown marching at the second annual "Pride March" organized by the Gay and Lesbian Organization of the Witwatersrand (GLOW). She holds one end of a banner that reads WE LOVE WOMEN, WE ARE WOMANDERFUL. All. the O's are transformed into the female symbol.
Like Pieter Nel, Willem Saayman is a Dutch Reformed dominee (minister). Unlike Nel, Saayman, who is in his early fifties, has asked questions all his life and has gotten into trouble for it. He spent years as a missionary in Ovamboland in Namibia, which used to be called South West Africa and was administered by South Africa from 1920 to 1990. Surely Nel, with his missionary concern, would approve of Saayman for carrying out God's intent in Africa. But Saayman turns out to be no ordinary Afrikaner missionary. His questioning began in the hallowed halls of the University of Stellenbosch in the sixties.
"I can very, very well remember the first time that I asked a critical question in a theological class there," Saayman said. "How my heart was absolutely dancing in my chest. Because you don't question authority. And I mean, here I had the authority of the whole church. Stellenbosch, you must remember, has this tremendous dignity as the center of Dutch Reformed theology: it's Calvinist, it's over the ages, and here I, first-year little student from the Free State,(*) stand up and I say to the prof, "Sorry, but I don't agree with that.' I knew before I stood up that I'd be the only person that thought so. The others all agreed with him."
What was his objection?
"I can't remember, something about allowing black people into the church, joint worship or something like that."
So what happened?
"Wooh, ja[yes], I got hit on my head from all sides."
For asking a question, or for stating a disagreement?
"Ja, ja, for even questioning why whites have their own church and blacks have theirs. That was not just questioning a human institution, that was questioning the will of God. God willed it so, so how on earth can you be so stupid as to ask such a question?"
You're not supposed to learn the will of God by questioning?
"No, no, no. No."
None of that talmudic stuff?
"No, no, no," Saayman said, grinning. "Our central doctrinal work is called the Heidelberg Catechism.(*) You see the German connection. The Heildelberg Catechism gives the question and then provides the answer. You learn them both. So you don't ask your own questions and you don't question the answer. There are fifty-two questions; that's enough. You have to ask nothing more to know in heaven and on earth to be saved.
"Today if I go and teach at the white theological school or even preach in a white church and say, `Please speak up if you don't agree, please ask me questions,' there is a shocked silence.
"There's another thing about us-the Teutonic. It isn't necessary for us to know: the leaders know. We want to watch rugby on a Saturday and cricket in summer, and we have braaivleis [grilled meat], and a few people up there decide what is good for us."
Dominee Saayman lives in Pretoria, that haven of the Afrikaner, and the administrative capital of the country. At the end of the summer, March in the Southern Hemisphere, the grass on the veld glows orange like a Scot's hair. By then the breathy lavender blooms of the jacaranda trees from November's spring have been forgotten in the earth's sienna dust, which floats almost as finely as chalk powder into carpets and curtains and eyelashes.
"I don't think I can last outside of Africa," Saayman said. "It's too green. The land is too green. Land must be brown and dusty."
He was comparing it in his mind to Canada, where he his wife, and four daughters lived for six months in 1983 while he was a visiting professor at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax and the Toronto School of Theology.
Saayman, still a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, is also professor in the Department of Missiology at the University of South Africa (UNISA), a mammoth correspondence university consisting of concrete building stretched lengthwise, like decks of old computer punch cards, across the southern hills of Pretoria. UNISA's faculty dining room nestles cavelike in the side of the hill, all gloomy inside, and vaguely reminiscent of a monastery. Faculty members sit at long tables eating subsidized, cafeteria-style meals. After a long conversation in the dining hall, Saayman strolled back up the hill to his small office. He murmured, "I want you to know that we're not the only people in my office." He knew his office was bugged. Suddenly it seemed like South Africa in the bad old days of the 1980s State of Emergency, the days of the National Party's ideology of "total onslaught," when communist were suspected to lurk under every bed and certainly at the universities in the guise of every opponent of apartheid.
Of course his office was bugged. Saayman is, after all, chairman of the Central Pretoria branch of the ANC, which in 1992 had more than three hundred white members, mostly Afrikaners. Somebody out there, the National Party, Military Intelligence, somebody, still wanted dissident Afrikaners in their sight (and sometimes their gunsights).
The tale of Saayman's brave renunciation of apartheid involved his daughters and his wife, a woman who is as pleasing to be around as a favorite flower and who was nearly killed by shots aimed into their house by a death squad called Witwolve (White Wolves). Growing up within the volk, knowing the Afrikaners intimately but also having lived and worked closely with blacks, Saayman had the perspective necessary to explain his people.
"Apartheid has not failed." Saayman said. "It has succeeded tremendously well in building two worlds, in keeping the white and back, the rich and poor, words apart. Black people always had to move into the white world, so they knew how the white world worked. But white people never had to move into the black world, so they know nothing about the black world. If I begin to tell them some of the things which are going on, they find it more or less impossible to believe." He knew about how most Afrikaners thought, based in part on experiences in his own family.
"Let me tell you a story, that's where I am at my best," he said. "My daughters have always been very active in the liberation [anti-apartheid] movement. One weekend we had to go to Kroonstad in the free State to my wife's parents, my parents-in-law. It was the weekend of the first public march here in Pretoria, it was a women's march. That was before the legalization of the ANC. They said, "We are going to march, it will be peaceful, we don't have permission but we are going to march in any case.' So my two eldest daughters stayed behind, and we went to Kroonstad.
"That evening on the eight o'clock TV news, [the announcer] said, ja, it was violent protest march and the women threw rocks at the police so the police had to retaliate and fourteen women have been arrested. So we immediately phoned home and got my second-eldest daughter. The eldest was one of the fourteen in prison. The second-eldest one saw on old woman being trampled and bent down to try and protect her, and as she bent down a policeman simply ran over her from behind. She said to us, 'You know Pretoria as well as we do, where would we in Schoemann Street find stones to throw at the police?' She said, `It was totally peaceful, when they just chucked tear gas at us and baton-charged [clubbed] us.'
"My eldest daughters was very angry, so she had an altercation [with a policeman] and was arrested. The second one was hit over the head and tramped. My wife spoke to our daughter, then told her father and mother what really happened. My father-in-law said, `I don't believe you daughters. The police will not do something like that without reason.'
"The police are our great protectors." Saayman said sardonically.
He emphasized that "scores of people" were being killed and injured in black areas of South Africa in 1992 while police failed to protect them, but most whites ignored the carnage, claimed not to know about it, or rejected the idea that whites and the government were somehow responsible for it. "It is incredibly difficult to get people to understand what is really happening because they only know the white world."
Like Saayman's father-in-law, Afrikaners have been socialized to trust their leaders. It's habit not easily broken.
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