Over the past nine months, a seemingly innocuous song about a Boer War general named Koos de la Rey went from the esoteric fringes of Afrikaans rock music to being cited on the front page of the New York Times, the London Guardian, Le Monde in Paris, and by every newspaper, radio and TV station in South Africa. On July 21, the Financial Times of London devoted 3,300 words to the song.
Why so much attention? In South Africa, some Afrikaners have treated “De la Rey” almost like a new national anthem, with people standing at attention at concerts where it is sung, and waving old Boer republican flags. In bars, school halls, wherever it is played, Afrikaners of all ages and persuasions assemble, some swaying to the music, others standing at attention, with everyone deeply moved, even to the point of tears. In the summer heat of last December, a group of young people parked their cars in a kind of wagon circle or laager on the beach, pushed the buttons on their CD players at the same moment, and blasted an entire seaside town with “De la Rey.”
There are even reports of American troops in Iraq taking to “De la Rey.” Some 8,000 Afrikaner soldiers and security men, unable to find work in South Africa because of race preferences, work for the US Army in Iraq. As the song spread among Afrikaners overseas, it was only natural that it penetrate the barracks and fortifications in Iraq.
When the local mass circulation magazine, Die Huisgenoot, did a front-page article on Bok van Blerk, the boyish singer of “De la Rey,” the magazine asked the black Minister of Culture, Pallo Jordan, what he thought of the song. Mr. Jordan warned against “the hijacking of the popular song by a minority of right-wingers who do not simply see De la Rey as a war hero, but who want to mislead parts of Afrikaans society with the idea that it is a struggle song, a call to arms.”
Suddenly the song was banned at the rugby stadium known as Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, home of the famous Blue Bulls. A few days later, the rugby union “unbanned” the song, but some radio stations—notably the one on the campus of Pretoria University—refused to play it. Of course, fueled by the controversy, sales soared and Bok van Blerk earned at least 2 million rand (about $300,000) in royalties in nine months, in addition to appearance fees at a host of venues around the country and before expatriate Afrikaners in Britain, Australia and Canada.
Who was Koos de la Rey, and why is a song about him causing so much controversy? Is our esteemed Minister of Culture right about a “call to arms?” Here is an English translation of the Afrikaans lyrics:
On a mountain in the night
I lie in the dark and wait
In the mud and the blood
As cold rain soaks me.
And my house and my farm were burnt to ashes
So they could capture us,
But those flames and that fire now burn
Deep within me.
De La Rey, De La Rey come lead the Boers,
De La Rey, De La Rey
General, General, to the last man we shall fall for you.
General De La Rey.
Against the British laughing,
A handful of us against an army of them
With the cliffs of the mountains against our backs
They think it is over.
But the heart of a Boer is deeper and wider,
They will still realize.
On a horse he is coming,
The Lion of the Western Transvaal.
De La Rey, De La Rey come lead the Boers
De La Rey, De La Rey
General, General to the last man we shall fall for you.
General De La Rey.
Because my wife and my child
Are rotting in their camps,
The British running over us,
But our nation shall rise once more.
De La Rey, De La Rey come lead the Boers, etc.
Koos de la Rey did not want to fight the British, and argued for compromise. When war with the British Empire seemed inevitable in 1899, De la Rey is said to have told the Boer national assembly, the Volksraad: “You will get your war and I will have to help you fight it. However, long after you have all surrendered, I will still be in the field.”
These words were prophetic, as De la Rey became one of the bittereinders or bitter-enders. During the war, he pioneered guerilla tactics, as well as the use of trenches at the famous battle of Magersfontein on December 11, 1899 where he humiliated the Scottish Highlanders led by Major General Wauchope. Wauchope himself was killed in the nine hours of intense fighting, after which the decimated British beat a disorderly retreat.
Apart from his courage and military intuition, De la Rey was also the perfect gentleman who refrained from unnecessary killing. On one occasion he released hundreds of captured and wounded enemy soldiers because he thought that they would be better treated in superior British field hospitals. During the guerilla phase of the war, he evaded capture time and again, some say due to the presence in his ranks of an eccentric prophet, Siener or “Seer” van Rensburg, who was widely believed to be able to tell the future.
n 1914, De la Rey was involved in the so-called “rebellion” against South African involvement in the First World War. While on his way to a political meeting on September 15, 1914, he died in a hail of police bullets at a night-time roadblock. The police apparently mistook his car for that of the notorious Foster criminal gang that was active at the time.
Despite his courage and Hollywood- script life, many people believe the composer of “De la Rey,” a half-Irish half-Afrikaans youngster called Sean Else, chose him from among many Boer War generals because his name rhymed with the word lei, to lead, which is in the refrain that has now been echoing all over South Africa for almost a year:
De la Rey, de la Rey,
Sal jy die Boere kom lei?
De La Rey, De La Rey
come lead the Boers
Clearly, the popularity of “De la Rey” has rattled many South African blacks who still fear the Afrikaner capacity for resistance despite being hugely outnumbered and dominated under the current system. During a panel discussion on the song in May organised by the left-liberal weekly Mail & Guardian, black columnist John Matshikiza claimed that the Afrikaans word for British soldiers used in the song, “kakies” (referring to their khaki-coloured uniforms) was seen by white Afrikaners as “darkies” or “kaffirs,” the derogatory word for blacks in South Africa. According to him, “De la Rey” could be interpreted as inciting Afrikaners to rise up against their black rulers.
Most Afrikaner commentators have downplayed any political significance to the song, emphasizing that it was simply a folk song dealing with the ancient history of conflict between Boer and Briton. In reaction to black suspicions of an Afrikaner uprising against racial domination, they portray Koos de la Rey as “a man of peace” because he opposed war with Britain. A columnist in the Johannesburg Beeld, Ferdi Greyling, went so far as to compare De la Rey to Robert E. Lee, who opposed secession but fought valiantly for the South. Unlike Robert E. Lee, who was turned back at Gettysburg and forced to surrender at Appomattox Court House, De la Rey never suffered defeat.
So what does the reaction to “De la Rey” mean? Above all, it points to a trend in Afrikaner youth culture which is deviating from Western youth culture that anomically celebrates consumerism and multicultural ideals. Contrast Bob Geldof’s crusade for Africa’s poor with singer Bok van Blerk’s vibrant call to nationalism. There is a host of other protest songs about anti-white discrimination and violence against whites. A good example is the album Genoeg (Enough) by Hoezit Music. Sub-titled “the voice of young South Africa,” the CD contains no fewer than 19 Afrikaans protest songs in a variety of rock styles, many of which are far more radical and politicized than the De la Rey song.
At one level, the romantic, bearded figure of General Koos de la Rey represents an unlikely youth icon. But so were Mao or Ché Guevara in the 1960s. Our Afrikaner youth are not like the spoiled brats of Western consumer society who benefited from the post-war economic boom, and developed a penchant for radical chic that idealised Third-World rebellion. Young Afrikaners are expressing their anger and alienation in the face of systematic anti-white discrimination the like of which the world has never seen.
South Africa’s system of radical race preferences—known as “transformation”—all but prohibits large companies like banks, mines or telecoms from hiring whites. Although experienced white managers or technicians sometimes find jobs simply because there are no trained blacks, young, inexperienced whites are told not to bother to apply. Despite their intelligence and high levels of education, they can work only in family businesses or small firms. Add to that the racial quotas imposed on universities, where only the most brilliant, straight-A white students can study medicine, law or accounting, and one understands the immense sense of frustration among young whites who feel that they have become third-class citizens.
As we know, South Africa is not at peace. There is enormous racial violence on the streets every day, masquerading as “crime.” First we had “farm attacks” in which marauding black gangs tortured and killed defenseless whites, usually women and children or elderly men. Now the Institute for Security Studies, an academic think tank in Pretoria, has coined the phrase “house attacks” for similar black-on-white violence in the suburbs.
The outside world has focused on the problems in Zimbabwe under its notorious dictator Robert Mugabe, but most Americans and Europeans are unaware of deteriorating race relations in South Africa. Even the liberal editor of the Afrikaans Sunday paper Rapport has started to compare our president, Thabo Mbeki, to his Zimbabwean counterpart. Tim du Plessis recently wrote in his weekly column: “Nothing carries more weight with Mbeki than race. Just like Mugabe.”
Within this context of rising racial tension, it is perhaps not surprising that a song like “De la Rey” should have become heavily politicized. In my view, its popularity is due to an underlying mood of disaffection and even rebellion among white Afrikaners that just needed a trigger to come out into the open. Bok van Blerk’s song provided that trigger. Afrikaners instinctively recognize in it a resurgence of the age-old Afrikaner spirit that has sustained us since the pioneering days of the Great Trek in the 1830s.
Most Afrikaner intellectuals now recognize that the imposition of black majority rule in 1994 has been a complete disaster, and that we are not going to regain racial equality or any significant form of freedom without a major liberation struggle that might even include a guerilla war against the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The De la Rey song has lifted spirits in the Afrikaner movement. The rebellious mood among our young people, who are reaffirming their identity in the face of official attempts to eradicate our language and culture, is seen as a godsend.
Since the 1970s, Afrikaner nationalism had been in decline, and the surrender of F.W. de Klerk to the ANC in 1994 must be seen as its nadir. Britain, with the backing of the United States, reasserted control over South Africa and dictated to us that we should accept permanent racial and cultural domination by one of the most radical Afrocentric organizations the world had ever seen.
After 1994, English also became the de facto official language of South Africa, with the express aim of marginalizing Afrikaans. At the same time, the notion of white guilt that has become almost the norm in the English-speaking world was inculcated through the mass media, the churches, universities and schools. Not so long ago, our language and culture, as well as the ideal of an independent, white nation on African soil for which we fought for more than two centuries, were declared dead.
The slogan of the ANC and its mindless black voters responding to black racial nationalism is something like that of the Borg in the Star Trek movies: “We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. We will assimilate you.” Just the other day, a leading black commentator, Rich Mkhondo, wrote in the Johannesburg Star that the pace of integration was too slow, and that there were too few mixed marriages between blacks and whites. Afrikaners are supposed to be racially and culturally assimilated into the Borg-like New South Africa founded in 1994.
The De la Rey song, as well as the boom in Afrikaans protest music are signs of a resurgent Afrikaner nationalism that asserts a specific white Afrikaner identity. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of the “grand plan” for South Africa, hatched in the liberal West and currently applied by Thabo Mbeki, which requires our Borg-like assimilation to the African masses.
The De la Rey song marks a radical change in Afrikaner nationalism, which has become almost mainstream. Afrikaans newspapers now openly criticize the ANC’s racial policies, something they were loathe to do only a year ago. Accordingly, the fairy tale of racial reconciliation that the global media served up in 1994 when Bill and Hillary Clinton, together with other heads of state, flew to Pretoria to celebrate the “South African miracle” is turning sour. We face the same intractable problems of racial coexistence as before.
The multicultural model with its black racial domination through numbers is not working. Despite its anomalies and deficiencies, apartheid was an exemplar of fairness and justice compared to the ANC’s “transformation,” which combines the worst of both right-wing and left-wing 20th century totalitarianism to achieve a kind of racial communism in which everyone will be equal and whites will have disappeared. We shall either be driven out as in Zimbabwe or killed in an orgy of violence as happened to the Tutsis in Rwanda. Certainly the degree of violence—attacks and massacres of entire white families—is already alarming.
Within the next few years, the age-old ethnic strains and divisions combined with the current anarchic violence may well result in full-blown civil war. We face an uncertain and increasingly violent future. Small wonder, then, that a clean-shaven young man called Bok van Blerk singing a nostalgic, patriotic song about a time when our people resisted the might of the British Empire against all odds should be dominating the airwaves.