Posted on February 13, 2007

De La Rey Rides Again

Tim du Plessis, Financial Mail, Feb. 9, 2007

In the mid-1990s, when white Afrikaners were struggling to come to terms with the political changes taking place, Canadian sociology professor and scholar of SA politics Heribert Adam used the phrase “phantom pains” to characterise what the Afrikaners were going through. Phantom pain is the pain people with amputated limbs feel. It is real pain, but it comes from a leg or an arm that is no longer there.

Adam’s theory of phantom pains explains much of what has gone on in the collective mind of white Afrikaners in the past 12 years.

We confused loss of privilege and political power with loss of rights. We became depressed and melancholic, believing, wrongly, that we were being stripped of our rights—whereas we had only lost privilege.

But the Afrikaans community is not a static one. It had no choice but to adapt to the changing landscape. They complained, but they adapted. Nelson Mandela made it easier, Thabo Mbeki less so.

Many left the country, something once anathema to everything they were taught for generations about the Afrikaners’ God-given claim to SA.

Quite a few emigrated inwardly, to use Nick Binedell’s apt description of the process where whites emotionally and psychologically “leave” the country, but physically remain behind in gated suburbs and fortified houses.

The era in which the theory of phantom pains could be used to understand what was going on in the white Afrikaans community is now coming to an end. There is a new generation of Afrikaans whites with no first-hand experience of privilege and political power. They are without amputated limbs, so to speak.

But they are here and they are starting to find their voices. I don’t know how many readers of the FM have heard of the Afrikaans rock singer Bok van Blerk and his nostalgic, if rousing song De la Rey. Van Blerk and De la Rey have been all over the Afrikaans newspapers, magazines and media since last spring.

Bok van Blerk is the stage name of Louis Pepler, a 28-year-old Pretoria boykie with a degree in construction site management. The song is about Anglo-Boer War general Koos de la Rey, known in Afrikaner folklore as “Die Leeu van Wes-Transvaal”.

A true Afrikaner patriot and democrat, De la Rey opposed Paul Kruger on going to war with Britain, warning that the Boer minority of the Orange Free State and Transvaal would not prevail against the mighty empire.

But once the decision was taken, he fought gallantly, emerging as one of the heroes of the British defeat at Magersfontein. When Kruger was safely on his way to exile in Europe, De la Rey fought on until the bitter end.

The song’s rousing refrain—“De la Rey, De la Rey, sal jy die Boere kom lei”—has for some reason struck a hitherto unknown chord among white Afrikaners of all classes. And not only because it’s a damn good piece of rock music.

I am told that when the song is played in pubs and drinking holes in the Free State and other towns and villages in SA, young and old Afrikaners jump up, do the right-hand-across-the-chest salute and sing along, full throttle.

This is sometimes followed by the singing of Die Stem, the previous national anthem, though Van Blerk has publically disassociated himself from the old flag, which is occasionally waved at his concerts.

I have an Afrikaans friend in a very prominent corporate job in SA. This friend has lived abroad for a substantial period and regularly hobnobs with the black power elite—a “new South African” if ever there was one, totally devoid of all nostalgia for the past. This friend was simply blown away by Van Blerk and De la Rey and has, since hearing the song for the first time, been playing it night and day.

The De la Rey CD has sold more than 100 000 copies—huge by SA standards. Van Blerk’s concerts are sold out, week after week. In Margate, over December, young holiday makers pulled their cars in a circle, opened doors and windows, slid the De la Rey CD into the CD players and on cue hit the play button, blasting the KwaZulu Natal seaside town with the song’s stirring lyrics and beat.

The De la Rey phenomenon has been analysed to near pulverisation in the Afrikaans media. It’s the “rudderless volk” looking for a leader. It’s young Afrikaners “rebelling against affirmative action”. Some even say it’s the early phase of an Afrikaner rebellion Euro la the IRA. And so on.

Max du Preez, English-speaking SA’s favourite interpreter of all things Afrikaans, says it’s phantom pains, bad old attitudes refusing to die and an inability to adjust.

I’m not so sure. I cannot speak for 2,5m white Afrikaners. But from my observation post at Rapport (1,6m readers), I do get the sense of a gear shift taking place. People are feeling more assertive than before. As if they want to say: we are fed-up with being singled out as the only scapegoat for all the evils of SA’s racist past. Was it only white Afrikaners who benefited from apartheid? Is our whole history sullied and compromised? Did we do only bad things? We feel as if we are constantly being delegitimised and we are gatvol.

Like the Soweto generation of 1976, who brushed aside the “quiet diplomacy” approach of their parents, the De la Rey generation of 2006 is telling my generation (50-plus): “If you feel hesitant to reclaim your Afrikaans identity, then make way. We don’t.”

University lecturers who are in regular contact with smart young Afrikaners say there is a steely determination among these youngsters that has been absent for quite a while. They come to the universities to equip themselves to stand on their own feet. They no longer complain about affirmative action because they believe to do so is futile. The are asking no favours from the new SA.

They know the public sector is a no-go area and they don’t care. The corporate sector is best avoided also because of affirmative action and black economic empowerment (BEE) rules.

As one student put it: “I want to qualify as a professional or start a business where I can work for myself, be comfortable, but remain small enough not to be bothered with BEE. Or become well-qualified so that I can work anywhere in the world.”

White Afrikaners, even progressive ones, firmly believe that only cities and towns with Afrikaans names are being targeted for name changes.

And they were quite upset to learn that the, mostly white, military conscripts who died in the conflict in Namibia and Angola in the 1970s and 1980s will not be honoured in the proposed wall of remembrance in Freedom Park in Pretoria, while the names of the Cuban victims, who fought with the ANC and Swapo, will be there.

Does all of this mean an Afrikaner rebellion is brewing? I don’t think so. Rise and resist to achieve what? End up in C-Max like the Boeremag trialists?

No way, though some people did feel a tinge of sympathy, especially when seeing the gloating presence of police commissioner Jackie Selebi in court following the arrest of the two fugitive trialists three weeks ago.

Afrikaners are merely migrating to a new space. It’s a natural, spontaneous process without the erstwhile marshals of the Nat party, the Broederbond and the Afrikaans churches.

It’s not the dead-end radicalism of the Boeremag, but it’s also not ANC co-option personified by the acquiescent presence of Marthinus van Schalkwyk in the Mbeki cabinet.

They had no choice but to become new South Africans. Now they want to be new Afrikaners.