Saturday, July 17, 2010

Some thoughts on the Dutch-Afrikaner connections

During the World Cup, The Nation's Aaron Ross had an interesting examination of the tenuous and contested relationship of South Africa's Afrikaners to the Dutch, divided as much as united by elements of a shared historical, cultural, political and religious heritage, in his "A World Cup Final in the Shadows of History". Some people have said that the final games of the World Cup were almost home games for the Dutch, especially but not only when the Dutch team was playing in the Cape Town founded by the Dutch and where the descendants (of all races) of the Dutch colonial enterprise still predominate. Ethnicity and nationality, as are their wont in events like this, became highly (and annoyingly) contingent.

Now, with the game approaching, the Netherlands stood poised to claim its first-ever World Cup title and to do it on South African soil. It wasn’t quite France about to triumph in Algeria, but for a country in which the memory of apartheid remains so raw, the political subtext has been inescapable. When the Dutch team arrived in South Africa a little over a month ago, the national press had been fixated since March on the controversy surrounding Julius Malema, leader of the African National Congress Youth League, who had revived an apartheid-era song featuring the lyrics, “Kill the Boer”—“Boer” an often derogatory term for Afrikaners.

But for many black South Africans, politics did not harden them to the Dutch fans’ renowned charms. When it comes to the world’s biggest sporting events, the Dutch are the guests at the party that everyone wants to have a drink with. The Afrikaner population accounted for much of the local support in South Africa, but Dutch fever transcended racial barriers. When the Netherlands played Uruguay in the semifinals in Cape Town, an orange monsoon swept through the coastal city, as South Africans and Dutch visitors alike sported orange garments of every variety. Politics was a distant afterthought. At Madiba too, I met Afrikaners supporting Spain and black South Africans supporting the Netherlands for no other reason than they liked the way their favored team plays.

The political element was not completely absent from the equation, though. Tassha Ngolela, a black South African visiting New York from Pretoria, cited South Africa’s historical links to the Netherlands as one of the biggest reasons she was cheering for the Dutch in the final. “We speak Dutch,” she explained to me, before going on to clarify that Afrikaans, the Afrikaner language now spoken by South Africans of all races, is not exactly the same thing as its linguistic forebear.

Other black South Africans have been less enamored by their compatriots’ apparent embrace of their colonial past. The Netherlands’ semifinal victory in Cape Town prompted widespread invocations in the local media of an old Afrikaans slogan, “Die Kaap is weer Hollands” (“The Cape is Dutch again”), to which a friend from Cape Town complained, “I don't have a problem with enjoying the soccer for what it's worth but when so many are using terms that relate to colonization to now support and to indicate Dutch favor, that to me is not only a matter of discourse!”

In reality, the ties between the modern Dutch and Afrikaners are thin. The biggest wave of Afrikaner immigration—which included Germans and French as well—occurred between the 1650s and 1790s. Today, most South Africans, Afrikaner and otherwise, don’t perceive any real relationship between the Afrikaners and Dutch. Stephen Ellis, a member of the African Studies Centre in Leiden, The Netherlands, observed that Afrikaners view the Netherlands as a foreign nation, although some derive great amusement when you speak Dutch to them, as it “sounds very old fashioned and archaic.”

The Netherlands also had one of the strongest track records on apartheid among Western nations. After some initial displays of solidarity with the Nationalist government in the 1950s, the Netherlands became one of its most vocal European critics beginning in the 1960s. The antiapartheid movement was especially strong, with some young Dutch people even joining the underground liberation struggle. [. . .]

Still, after centuries of insisting upon their “Africanness” to justify their claims to the land, Afrikaners’ newfound kinship with the Dutch can rankle. Another friend in South Africa reported someone at his gym saying before the semifinal that he was going to support his “distant white cousins.” Despite the Netherlands’ mostly clean hands in South Africa’s racist history, even its merely symbolic ties with that past, from apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd’s Dutch descent to Afrikaans’ Dutch roots, are enough to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many blacks.

The connections with the Netherlands are more substantial than that. After the definitive loss of the Cape Colony at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch regained an interest in South Africa only in the 1870s, consequence of an interest in the religious and linguistic offshoot of the Netherlands in South Africa along with a certain imperialism-associated interest in the South African republics as a potential market. A certain migration to South Africa from the Netherlands continued up to the 1970s, when Dutch economic success and the growing problems of South Africa made migration unattractive. Even after the development of Afrikaans as a language distinct from Dutch, cultural ties remained, for instances in regards to the Calvinism shared by some Dutch and most Afrikaners, and certain language linkages remain (Afrikaansophones work quite well for call centres marketed towards the Netherlands and Flanders).

The odd thing? Despite this vast and irregularly maintained web of connections, and despite the transformations of the white population that reduced its share to perhaps a tenth of the 2010 South African population owing to South African whites' relatively earlier and more complete demographic transition and the post-apartheid white emigration of perhaps a million people that's as much brain drain to the North as white flight, there seem to be hardly any Afrikaners--or any South Africans--living in the Netherlands. Wikipedia's Afrikaner article quotes figures of twenty-five thousand Afrikaners in the Netherlands and another fifteen thousand in Belgium, and presumably there are other South Africans, but yet there doesn't seem to be a significant concentration of South Africans in Netherlandophone Europe. I wonder why this is the case. Is Britain a more natural European destination? Have there just not been any substantive human links formed?


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