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Drinking with the Boers

by - October 21 2010

If you want to know what people really think, it is often best to talk to them when they are drunk. This was my noble motive when I wandered into a pub in a small town during my drive round the cape.

Everyone in the pub was white and most people were Afrikaans speakers, but, like most Afrikaans, they also spoke perfect English. I befriended a group of people, they bought me some shots, shared their butong (cured raw meat) with me, and we had an interesting chat.

They told me that the tensions that had previously existed between the English and the Boers had now essentially disappeared and that this was largely a result of the court decision that all schools must teach both languages (which also set off the Soweto Uprising). Since all white people spoke both languages, people no longer stayed within their separate social groups. English had moved into Boer areas, Boers has moved into English areas, and intermarriage had become standard. The man I was talking to said that he was a Boer, but he now had English people in his family. While there are still separate cultural identities, it is no more of a problem than between the different European groups in America. The key barrier had been language, and that barrier had fallen.

I got a strong reaction when I said I lived in San Francisco. As one man said: "I can't stand liberals. They are the people who fucked up my country. They don't understand Africa and they fucked up my country". The action they were objecting to was of course the liberal-led international pressure that led to the end of apartheid.

The opinion of the pub goers can be roughy summarised as: "The liberals had unfairly demonised the South African whites in order to make themselves feel good, while knowing that they were at a safe distance and would not have to face the consequences if the country collapsed. They imposed a form of morality on South Africa that they would never have imposed on themselves and weren't interested in looking at things beyond a simple 'black skin good, white skin bad' kind of way. They sought to atone for their own colonial guilt by punishing another group who had behaved no worse than they had. They looked at the black population and the ANC in an idealistic way and closed their eyes to the likely consequences of handing the country over to them. They refused to pay attention to the history of every previous African decolonization and assumed that somehow this time would be different. They failed to appreciate the positive results of white rule, such as building infrastructure, providing clean water, creating a strong economy, educating the population, ending famine, providing rule of law, providing it's black population with the best standard of living in Africa, and more generally bringing 'civilisation' to Africa. They greatly exaggerated the extent to which the whites had mistreated the blacks, relative to the way they treated black people themselves in their own countries. They looked only at violence by whites against blacks and ignored the fighting between different black groups. Although other western countries had given their black populations the vote, their black populations were a minority, and so for them it didn't mean handing their countries over to an African government and thus wasn't a fair comparison. The white population were now having to watch as the country they spent 350 years building was dismantled and converted into another poor African country.".

I thought that this would probably be a bad time to mention that several members of my family had played active roles in the international push to end apartheid, including my great uncle John, who had been director of the anti-apartheid movement.

It is unfortunate that the anti-apartheid movement was led by the British, who have a long history of appalling brutality against the Boers - including imprisoning them in the worlds first concentration camps during the Boer War. The British may see themselves as a moral exemplar to the world, but the Boers see them a bit differently.

Interestingly, the pub-goers repeatedly told me that they weren't racists and didn't like apartheid. A white in Joburg summed up what I think many white people believe as "apartheid was bad, but this is bad too.".