Post-Apartheid Realities from the Cape Town Afrikaner
(names have been changed to protect the identities of those present.)
Last night an international team of Anglo-American University students met with Michael Stone, an activist and member of the Afrikaner NGO, Afriforum, in Cape Town. The group, labelled as a “interest organization and civil rights watchdog” on their website, claims to represent the cultural concerns of Afrikaners (offspring of white Dutch settlers), who, post-Apartheid, fear their way of life is under threat. The group has been called radical socialist by the far right and borderline fascist by the far left. And According to Stone, “…as long as it stays like this, we know we’re doing something right.”
In preparation for the meeting, the students were warned of the group’s unpopular views on issues like Affirmative Action, Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and the realities of Apartheid. They were cautioned to reserve any judgments and to come to the meeting as young journalists – to listen, to learn and nothing more. But with such an introduction, it was clear they were all prepared for a fight.
Entering the cozy pizzeria we had chosen for the event, however, we were all taken aback when Stone and his wife Melinda came into view.
They looked like magazine cut-outs from Conservative Christians Weekly. There they sat, still bundled up in their winter coats, well fed from their suburban middle-class lifestyles, and both with a look that combined bemusement and concern as our rabble of eleven battle-ready internationalists took their seats around the table. Such judgments may seem harsh but they should only serve to remind you that we expected something a little more, well, aggressive looking. Politicized Afrikaners have quite a reputation down here, and though full military fatigues may have been a bit much, IT guy meets insurance salesman was a long way from our expectations.
We ordered drinks and sat awkwardly while the team coordinator tried to ease the situation with small-talk. Meanwhile I discretely stared at the couple in a vain attempt to figure them out.
The quiet will always start riots, I thought to myself. This is what fascists look like. They hide away in their comfortable lives slowly building up layers of hate until one day, snap! It must have happened after ‘94, I thought. They must have felt the sting of post-Apartheid policy somehow, why else would they belong to such a group? But what was it? My wandering assumptions were halted when Stone began speaking.
It became immediately clear that this was not his first rodeo. With carefully crafted sentences, Stone explained his group’s qualms about the nature of South African politics. He spoke of corruption and of gross mismanagement of state funds; of a society beholden to values born out of racial liberation and Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation,” which in Stone’s view created misguided social engineering policies, that rather than facilitating equality, explicitly denied capable people (whites) job opportunities. These policies he spoke of, namely Affirmative Action and Black Economic Empowerment (an appendage of the former), aimed to give black and coloured citizens a better means of establishing themselves in the wake of Apartheid. But in Stone’s mind, without proper implementation, Affirmative Action led to the best man or best woman not getting the job simply because of racial quotas.
Racial equality aside, however, Stone considers these policies bad for South Africa as a whole and many agree with him. Spend ten minutes with almost any middle-aged white person in Cape Town and before long they’ll be spouting about how Affirmative Action has saturated the workplace with incapable idiots who should never have been given the job in the first place. “You know our former president Zuma?” a white woman working a market stall in Muizenberg once asked me, “He never even finished high school! Unbelievable!” I soon found out this was a popular story amongst the anti-AA crowd.
Stone is actually a historian turned civil engineer after finding out there were few opportunities in South Africa, “unless you want to be a teacher,” he said disappointedly. His wife, silent to this point, explained she was a clinical technician at a local city hospital. They are both born-and-bred Capetonians but live in the northern suburbs, a predominantly white area of working professionals far from the insecurities of downtown. When I asked about the racial makeup of their neighbourhood Melinda assured me it was, “very multicultural.” This seemed more a token of progressiveness than anything else; Afriforum is all about preserving Afrikaner culture, this has little to do with multiculturalism. Yet Stone was keen to address Cape Town’s ills and how to remedy the desperate circumstances of the city’s poorest.
He raised a series of general and predictable solutions to fixing some of this young democracy’s biggest issues, most notably education reform; “fixing the problems of inequality as early as possible, rather than waiting until it’s too late” I think he said. His ideas were worth agreeing with but this didn’t take away from how idealistic they were, if anything serving more to expose Stone’s lack of understanding of what life is like for a huge chunk of Cape Town’s population. It reminded me of how Czechs talk about “solving the Gypsy problem:” Take the kids, stick them in good schools, and break the repetitive cycle of gangs and unemployment. Easier said than done. Education is of course key, but so too is social outreach and community. At times I felt that Stone and his wife lived in a bubble – a bubble they wanted to keep all to themselves.
“We’re terrified of becoming the next Zimbabwe,” said Melinda as the food began to arrive. She was referring to the place once called Rhodesia, where white land owners, predominately farmers, were targeted and killed by the black liberation government of Robert Mugabe. In South Africa, whites who share Melida’s fears are leaving the country at an increasing rate – recent data shows approximately 26,000 South Africans per year, most of them white. Local T.V. channels advertise quaint British villages and peaceful rolling hills thousands of miles away; a constant lure to a life less precarious. Many of those leaving are often well-skilled and financially equipped, something South Africa cannot afford to lose. It’s a brain drain like any other but with glaring historical ramifications; a retreat perhaps, back to the lands of Europe, where they can once again be part of their own white majorities.
South Africa for the blacks then? Those who have their bags packed might think so, but for the majority of South African whites, this is their motherland, a land they now share with the black and coloured populations. What might these “remainers” say to those whites looking to get out of the kitchen? “Close the door on your way out!” Stone would certainly rather die than give up his ancestor’s legacy.
Interestingly, this brain drain of white professionals is being supplemented by thousands of high-skilled migrant laborers from across the African continent. Europe may be appealing to white South Africans but South Africa is equally appealing for citizens of almost all Sub-Saharan countries. In the four weeks I’ve been wandering Cape Town, I’ve met migrant workers from Angola, Botswana, Malawi, the DRC, Sudan, Namibia, Zimbabwe and others. As the largest economy on the continent, South Africa has ironically been accused of actually causing a brain drain itself. Nevertheless, the desire for Africans to move south is encouraging for South Africa’s future.
The food had now arrived and as we tucked in to a variety of pizzas, I noticed our couple oddly hadn’t yet removed their coats. At least an hour had gone by since we had arrived. Why does someone leave their coat on? I wondered. They’re looking to leave perhaps, but Stone was enjoying the discussion. Maybe they’re cold, but that seemed unlikely, the pizza oven wasn’t far away. Or maybe it was the neighbourhood, Observatory. Some might call it dodgy. The scruffy-chique corner of the city; a ragtag assembly of bygone hippies, new age hipsters, tousled surfers, and a myriad of homeless. Yes, that was the reason. Take your jacket off and you never know what might happen to it. It was a normal enough thing to do, I thought. But the action made the whole evening seem a little on edge, as if the apparent lack of trust they had in the place spilled over into their feelings about Capetonian society as a whole; a place much changed from the city they once controlled. Stone closed the discussion with hopes for a South African federation.
The creation of an Afrikaner federal state perhaps. I imagined a place where the endless problems of a white minority living in a mismanaged post-colonial melting-pot could be forgotten. Where policies are made locally, and the word government is removed from the dictionary for fear of it corrupting somebody. A place where the true vision of the disgruntled Boer can be realized. “NO BRITS OR BLACKS ALLOWED!” I can see the border sign now. The truth is, when the Afrikaner minority talks about federalism, they’re not talking about how to make the whole of South Africa better, they’re talking about how to keep what they have and shut everyone else out. I imagine the ultimate dream of Afriforum would be to declare independence from South Africa, but even they’re not that idealistic.
No doubt the challenges facing Cape Town and South Africa are immense, but they can only be faced as a united front. The same front that Mandela, or Madeba as he’s affectionately known, called the Rainbow Nation – yes it sounds like a bumper sticker for an 80s gay pride festival, and many South Africans say it doubtingly, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be strived for. Spending time in the younger parts of the city reveals how race is slowly becoming a secondary issue. Values that once defined the country are now being rejected, only to be replaced with better progressive ones. This same pattern is visible in almost all urban centers the world over and Cape Town can be the one to set the bar.
Our evening had come to an end. We got the bill and insisted on paying. Stone and his wife seemed shocked. He gave her a discrete elbow in the ribs to encourage a little gratitude. She complied. As they shook hands with all of us and left the restaurant, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. Their world is shrinking, and their incapacity to reach across the aisle has left them marooned in search of autonomy in a country and a nation that has little time for them or their concerns.