my Afrikaner myth of meaning

December 15, 2007

Tomorrow is 16 December. This is a difficult post to write in English, I hope that I can actually do this. I write this for my fellow Afrikaners. But I also write to everyone else that would like to understand the Afrikaners, but cannot read Afrikaans. I write, especially, to a younger generation of Afrikaners, who struggle to remain Afrikaner, not being real proud of what we’ve done.

I’m also trying my hand at writing history, always fearful that Aldi or Magriet might read my post, they are real historians in my eyes, I’m just a sad attempt at writing whatever comes to mind. I’m not going to try and go into the critical detail of the vow (“gelofte”) right now, let it suffice to say that the real history is not quite that we were taught at school.

In the 1830’s a number of farmers in the Cape got fed-up with the government (or at least, what was called a government, it didn’t do much governing thought, that was part of the reason for getting tired of it), and started leaving in groups, going north, they are called the Voortrekkers. The leader of one of this “trek”s was Piet Retief. I grew up in the little town called Piet Retief. Voortrekker history was an important part of my early school career. But I never really found any meaning in what I learned, maybe because my parents never found much meaning in it.

In December of 1938 the Piet Retief trek got some trouble with the Zulus, who was to be blamed I’m not gonna discuss. But they were in trouble, they were just a few hundred people, against thousands of Zulus, but they had guns. They defeated the Zulus, and the place was called Blood river, because the river got red with the blood.

It is told that in the days preceding the battle, a vow was made to God that if God would help them, they would keep this day as a Sunday, and do some other stuff, and teach their kids to do the same. The day of vow wasn’t really separated at first, actually only something like a hundred years later (This is a very sensitive point for many Afrikaners though, not something we traditionally learned).

OK, long introduction, to get to the day where I found meaning in the Voortrekkers. I’m not generally considered to be a very good Afrikaner. I blog in English, I don’t really care for Apartheid, I think the ANC did a pretty darn good job (although they messed up like most political parties do), I don’t fight for Afrikaans on our campuses, actually think it would be better if people got introduced to having class in English. And so forth. But, I got mad at the English for what they did in the Anglo-Boer war, yip, sorry to all my liberal friends, you are much better people than I am, but I struggled with this. I really got extremely mad for concentration camps, scorched earth, and all the other stuff about it. Maybe, just maybe, I got mad because of a big nation oppressing a smaller nation, and not because it was Britain, would that be more acceptable? OK, not the point.

I struggle with the day of vow, because I struggle to see God killing thousands of people. I don’t want to thank God for that. But on the day of vow, many thank God for helping their forefathers out of a tight spot, I can’t say they are wrong, can I?

A few months ago I had to entertain a Professor in Ethics for an afternoon, my task was to take him to the Voortrekker monument. He was from Austria. Now, on the entrance level of the monument you find the story of the Voortrekkers, also of Blood river, made in the sand stone walls. I don’t know if he really wanted a guided tour, but I couldn’t see how you will understand the images if someone didn’t explain them, and since I had quite a heavy dose of Voortrekker history from school, as well as a bit of history from university, I took the task upon myself.

But something happened while I was explaining this to this international theologian. I got to see the story anew. Everything I ever learned about myth suddenly seemed to fit my own history, even though it only happened 150 years ago. This was the Afrikaner myth of origin. This was how we became the Afrikaner volk, how we differentiated ourselves from the Netherlands, also from France, Germany, and especially from Britian. It was by moving.

But as with myth, it is only looking back that the stories get told, and then they are told to find meaning for today. And since the stories were told in the days of Apartheid, they were filled with meaning of black against white. The blacks gave us trouble, we conquered them. This was the meaning that was given to our myth of origin. There was other stuff as well. This was a people that could face hardships, the myth said; they could go barefoot over the mountains. It said something about our woman, they were not afraid of anything, they could do what the men could do, they were important in our history (I don’t think much remained of this part of the meaning of the myth later on). But an important part, maybe the most important part, was sadly forgotten.

This was the story of a people who objected against an unjust government. It was a people who were willing to give up everything in order to rebel against this government, and find better grounds, also find a better way of living. It cost them dearly. It cost them everything they had, it cost them their farms, it cost them their lives. Someone once told about a painting of one of the rich Voortrekkers in front of his homestead in the Cape, with all these possessions, but only his wagons to carry it, and much simply had to be left. We forgot that part of the myth, why we originally left, and sadly focused on how why fought the blacks.

Of history I still understand little, but what I do know is that there might be myth with meaning for younger South Africans within our myths of origin. No, we do not need to focus on the black-white struggle, there is also the struggle for justice in our own story, and in that I find meaning, with that I am more comfortable, and that, I believe, or maybe I simply hope, lies closer to what was behind the Groot Trek than the black-white struggle.

OK, so there. I wrote something patriotical, I think? I am still Afrikaner, other than Deon Maas, and other who want to retire. But I am Afrikaner attempting to understand who I am in a new South Africa. I attempt to find to neglected parts of my history which I believe hold meaning for a new South Africa.

6 Responses to “my Afrikaner myth of meaning”

  1. pursuitofmeaning Says:

    You might find my blog entries about the Afrikaner very similar to yours.

    http://pursuitofmeaning.wordpress.com/category/being-an-afrikaner/

  2. susan Says:

    The vow at the ncombe river was splendid, in the following sense: these people did not merely asked to be rescued; by boldly asked for the enemy to be given into their hands. You must remember, this happened after the murder of Piet Retief and his group of 70, and after the brutal murders of blaauwkrans and weenen, where 500 men, women and children were murdered in the most brutal way. Approximately 400 against a force of 10 000 – 15 000. God did not kill the 3000. He helped the voortrekkers to defend themselves. The trekkers wanted to BUY land. They spesifically wanted to buy that piece of land because it was empty! Remember, the Zulus were the agressors (this time). And how terribly bloody their aggessions were – they impaled the Retief group, at bloukrans and wenen women were found with their brests cut of and the babies impaled with assegais on these mutilated bodies. Read the eye-witness accounts written by Preller. If you ask the help of God against your enemies, surely you expect them to be killed? And you are wrong about the celebrations of the vow. The church of the vow was built in 1848 already and since then it has been celebrated.

  3. Dr Elma Ross Says:

    Susan, I totally agree with you. The way the anonymous! writer of the “My Afrikaner myth of meaning” explores the issue, one would think it was all paradise before the Voortrekkers moved into the country. The countries that did not experience the intervention of the Voortrekkers and their decendants are markably worse off.

  4. Cobus Says:

    Markaby worse off might need to be explained a bit. What is this referring to? South Africa is listed as one of the most dangerous countries in the world because of crime; We have the most HIV infected people in the world; We have the highest gini-coefficient in the world; We have a lower life-expectancy that Zimbabwe at the moment! So although it’s true that the ‘intervention’ of the Voortrekkers might have helped in the building of the strongest economy in Africa, it would seem that this strong economy doesn’t really benifit the country, but only a small portian. So why are others markedly worse off? There seem to be more than one side to the ‘intervention’ of the Voortrekkers…

  5. Elizabeth Says:

    Cobus – which country in Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding perhaps the old Rhodesia) provided as many schools, hospitals, tarred roads, universities, welfare workers, jobs, etc. to BLACK people as did the Afrikaner government? Please name one. Nigeria, perhaps? Or the Congo? Oh yes, maybe you have prosperous Rwanda in mind …


  6. […] 20, 2010 Going on to three years ago I wrote a post titles “my Afrikaner myth of meaning“. It was births from an experience in explaining the wall images from the Voortrekker […]


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