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An Afrikaans arts festival and fish out of water…

I always wondered about that phrase, “a fish out of water”. To me, it always seemed like a chosen emotion. That is, you can only be a fish out of water if you chose to be one. In my head, any situation can be accommodated by opening yourself up to it, learning about it and experiencing it open-heartedly. And it always works in your favour if you know enough people who are willing to take you into the context and guide you through it. After all, that’s probably the reason why so few people in the South African context fear cross-cultural experiences – because they don’t know anyone well enough, or don’t feel secure enough to ask someone to take them with and embed them in a situation supportively so that they can have the experience for themselves. Am I wrong?

Now we all have preconceived notions that we can’t get away from when it comes to other cultures. Sometimes we fight them, at other times we merely suppress them and sometimes, the most we can hope for is just to be aware of them – conscious that they do in fact exist somewhere within us.

Here’s mine: A personal history of prejudice against Afrikaners. Now at this point I will probably try and defend that statement by saying “I have plenty of Afrikaans-speaking friends, some of them very close to me” etc. etc. And look, I will be completely honest here, I will openly preach my ignorance and say, I do know that there is a difference I am just not always sure what it is. So to clarify in light of all of this then, I have a prejudice against Afrikaners, not Afrikaans people? Yes. Okay.

Disclaimer: It is necessary for me to openly admit this shortcoming because in light of my experience, you should know that I am not Ghandi or Mother Teresa or Lady Di. I am a flawed human being with problems, and I am not blaming my existential crises on anyone but myself.

A casual conversation with colleagues made me aware of the fact that my experience was no different to anyone else’s. South Africa as a country does contain these separatist forums, whether they art festivals, book fairs or museums (and they do deserve a space, I absolutely agree) where you will only find the same, the same. And that, I think, out of everything is why I am so keen on experiencing them and I have. But in my personal experience never before had I encountered this deeply-rooted otherness (well not since school) as when I went to Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom. So much so that it is now three days later and the uneasiness of how different I was in that context is still niggling at my white bones.

And no, people were not mean or openly racist (like they were at said school). Nobody pointed me out and shouted “Look, the only gay (or the only brown person) in the village”. A practical gesture of “othering” me did not occur and was not necessary in order for me to feel exceptionally “othered”.

It rose from me, organically, until some part of my personality was flailing about desperately to make sense of it all by trying to just fit in or often times, walk away, observe, and say nothing at all- “I am the fish, and I am definitely out of water”, I thought.

I missed other people. Other people who were not white and Afrikaans. Who could perhaps talk about the same things in very different ways. I missed understanding something, anything, myself even. And no, I did not miss them in the sense that I wished I was not in Potchefstroom (because I did want to be there) and hoped instead to be somewhere more dynamic – in terms of language and colour and culture, I just wished they were there with me. To challenge the status quo, to take it all in with me, and to know what it felt like. Because after a while, even the friends I knew started to become strangers. Foreign to me. They seemed to have changed from how I knew them outside of the context to the festival and morphed into just one big smudge of the same as everything else. I was acutely aware of how strange their behaviour, actions and conversations felt to me. And then I realised that they were not different to how I knew them at all. I am the different one really, and it became very obvious to me in a very deep place, and I can’t explain what it feels like. Lonely I guess.

I was switched on, all the time. Constantly aware of all of this unfolding or revealing itself. Was I just blind before? Naive? Is it easier to be who you really are when you are unchallenged by say the prerequisites of a more colourful city like Johannesburg and you can exist plainly and simply just as you want to be with people who are exactly like you in a place like Potchefstroom? Or was I just not trying hard enough to be accommodating? (This of course is met with the very harsh fact that it is harder to accommodate multitudes of the same people then it is for them to maybe accommodate you, as the “new” one to the environment?) (Read introductory paragraph on support etc.)

I had a post-mortem conversation with a friend yesterday (one who in fact wittily keeps questioning my incessant need to be surrounded by Afrikaners and their culture and also my choice to go along to Aardklop) and I remember saying to her, in hindsight: “Aardklop is all a bad dream. I felt like I was stuck in a weird carnival parallel universe where everyone was strangely familiar and familiarly strange. The things I thought would be most weird about it, were not weird at all. The whole energy and the entire memory of everything seemed like a dark painting and still very white and out of all the freaks at the circus, I am the biggest of them all. The last act. The draw card. The strange little gnome who went along to the parade to see what it was all about and now feels a bit damaged by it.”

Perhaps I am reading too much into this, perhaps it is every person for themselves and the fact that I felt so awkwardly out of place to the extent that it hurt is just again my prejudice, my lack of growth, that innate feeling I pre-empted in knowing I was probably going to feel like that anyway. The difference is though, that I did try. And it is always going to be important to me as a human being to try. The lesson here, is to not expect anyone else to recognise that – regardless of how well they know you. Although, if they did, if everyone did, we all might want to try again. Isn’t that the point of learning about other cultures to begin with? To want to try again?

To not be met with disdain and deafening silence when I said the experience was overwhelming and a culture shock. (I can see the thoughts steam forth and whisper, “then why did you go?”)

Of course it was. Again, of course it was overwhelming and a culture shock! And I am not sorry if that is disappointing to everyone else who was not out of their comfort zone or never experienced what being out of your comfort zone feels like to this extent.

But that’s not ever going to be a good enough reason not to do something, is it?


  • Although Haji Mohamed Dawjee should be putting her degree in music to better use she suffers from stage fright so instead she spends her time at the Mail & Guardian as the social media editor. Besides pushing the M&G's stories on Facebook, Twitter, Google + and Instagram, Haji also throws together social media news and views for our readers and keeps an eye on our competitors' social media stats. Her other eye is used for cat-naps and her ears are on the ground so she can hear the buzz around the latest trend. She's a little funny, slightly quirky and she smells good most of the time. Pigeons are her Kryptonite and she shoots apostrophes. Follow her on Twitter: @sage_of_absurd


  1. JC JC 1 October 2013

    Just so that you don’t feel too alone – I’m a so-called Afrikaner (and Afrikaans speaking), and I have even performed once or twice at Aardklop, yet I have never felt as alien in my life as at Aardklop (and Potch generally, for that matter). It’s like a massive kerkbasaar.

  2. Kreef Kreef 2 October 2013

    Had the same feeling when I attended a funeral of a black friend . Never felt so out of place and out of touch . Was it a booze party ? Was it a cultural festival ? Was I the only person who thought it was a sad occasion ?

  3. impedimenta impedimenta 2 October 2013

    I’d like to have heard about some of the things you saw and heard that made you feel like ‘a fish out of water’.

  4. The Creator The Creator 2 October 2013

    Potchefstroom is a very, very strange place. I got out of it as soon as it was possible,

  5. PrettyBelinda PrettyBelinda 2 October 2013

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, you jumped out of your familiar territory and occupied another for a while. Seems like you swam far out and deep into the psyche of this festival. Bravo!…but I do too find the finer details lacking….a bit disappointing, sketching little scenarios would add the flavour i needed to fully appreciate the fish out of his own waters. What I can say Innibos must be a dream festival in comparison to Potch….

  6. Willem De Jager Willem De Jager 2 October 2013

    What an important lesson it is you’re sharing here Haji -thanks for that. As an Afrikaner in Japan I’m confronted with that same situation every day. Should I view the Japanese as xenophobic/ racist because they aren’t changing who they are to accommodate me more? Of course not. It was my choice to come here. But I can learn this: We are the most natural, free, empowered and sincere when we are operating in our mother tongue amongst those who share a native understanding of who we are. Of course we should go out and explore; comfort zones make us lazy. But we also need a place where we can just be our native selves and that is not racist or xenophobic. Racism is deplorable. Nurturing one’s native state is natural.

  7. Blommie Blommie 2 October 2013

    I know the feeling very well. Yet I still go to wherever I can experience the difference in culture. The feeling of fish on dry land … I have come to enjoy and when I don’t understand I have friends whom I ask. Just as I encourage my multi-everything friends to ask me if they experience culture shock in my surroundings. It’s not always fun, it’s not always happy but it’s always and interesting experience.

  8. Alois Alois 2 October 2013

    @Willem De Jager. Your point is indeed culturally beguiling. And you have cited a population whom I’ve always admired and respected, the Japanese. It must be exceedingly comfortable culturally to be Japanese since everyone in the country, save for tourists and the like, are culturally identical, Japanese. Of monumental importance to the Japanese psyche must be that Japan was the creation of Japanese resourcefulness and industriousness without recourse to slavery and immigration. Put another way, Japan is homogeneous. In that sense, the Japanese escaped those insurmountable divisive and cultural traps such as immigration and slavery. I’m always impressed that when dining out at a Japanese restaurant in Western countries, the theme is Japanese completely, no knives and forks, no Western waiters/waitresses. So, yes, Willem De Jager, your post is not only culturally valid but didactic at the same time. Unfortunately the “Afrikaaner,” unlike the Japanese, has built a culture that is built race prejudice.

  9. Willem De Jager Willem De Jager 3 October 2013

    @Alois – being able to use chopsticks hardly makes you an expert on Japanese culture, let alone history. Care to explain how both the Ainu and the Ryukyuan peoples of modern day Japan became so obscured that their languages and cultures hardly feature outside of their immediate communities? I’m sure the industrious Japanese can tell you a thing or two about that. Also about their colonisation of Korea, China and a host of other nations during various periods in history, including that especially saucy bit about the World War 2 medical experiments in China.

    But I’m not here to discredit Japan. Neither the UK for their imperialism or claiming to be multi-cultural with a small 10% minority non-caucasian population Or for their ‘scorched earth’ policy that saw Afrikaner farms and homesteads burnt to the ground and women and children rounded up in concentration camps where 26000 eventually died, after which the British then extracted the gold that was found in the former ZAR for the majority of the 20th century; imposed the Natives Land Act of 1913 and supported racial segregation which the Afrikaners upheld and during apartheid which, as you will recall, we abandoned.

    I’m not here to discredit America, Australia and New Zealand for killing the natives or marginalising them whilst pretending to be multicultural (as long as it’s English) either.

    But I will remind you that South Africa didn’t start with apartheid and neither did the Afrikaner. We didn’t end…

  10. Japie Japie 3 October 2013

    @Alois. Your statement “the “Afrikaaner,” unlike the Japanese, has built a culture that is built race prejudice” is baseless and deplorable at least.

    For one, racism amongst Asians is rife and well documented. Japanese hatred of and genocidal atrocities against Chinese during their imperial wars and the first and second Japanese-instigated Sino-Japanese Wars, the latter during WWII, clearly demonstrates this and contradicts your statement.

    Two. EVERY culture in the world has evolved over thousands of years of conflict with other cultures and is built on components of ethnic and/or racial prejudice. You can not single out and demonise the Afrikaans culture. I challenge you to name only one nation/culture without this trait.

    Did you know the racist k-word, from the Arab word ‘kafir’ meaning ‘unbeliever’, was introduced into western civilisation through British and Portugese emperialism and slave trade? The Afrikaner never invented this. Likewise the derogatory term “coolie” for Indian and Chinese people comes from Britain. The British CIVILISATION is based on racist exploitation of India, China, Middle East and Africa. The English language, intertwined with English culture is so rife with racism that your Afrikaner-bashing statement falls flat. The US culture is built on the back of slavery/racism. The Zulu nation? Makwerekwere? A derogatory term used by SA black people against foreigners.

    EVERYONE stands guilty of racism, not only Afrikaners

  11. Willem De Jager Willem De Jager 3 October 2013

    Sorry “…racial segregation which the Afrikaners upheld and during apartheid…” should read “…racial segregation which the Afrikaners upheld during apartheid…” without the “and”.

    I can’t read the last line of my previous comment which should read: “We didn’t end with it either.”

  12. Derek Marshall Derek Marshall 4 October 2013

    Festivals are held for fun. Enjoy yourself or not, but is it necessary to always find some reason to moan & complain.

    If you don’t want to swim, stay out of the water.

  13. Henri Le Riche Henri Le Riche 4 October 2013

    Great description of how you felt.

    Must say though, it is good o travel and open your mind. I am surprised at the ignorance in South Africa on different racial groups, from people that you would expect be open minded.

    I’ve been to Indian weddings, Township gatherings, Bazaars, Festivals where I didn’t understand a word and stood out like a sore thumb. Even with all this I enjoyed the experience and the people. Taking I am an Afrikaner you’d think I’m supposed not to. That’s if you love stereotypes. South Africans have stereotypical ideas of one another. Sadly, due to political propaganda specifically there is a lot about the Afrikaner. Most of it are lies.

    South Africa is a huge place. I’ve grown up on a small farm, town, city, bigger city, London, New York, Sydney. All places I lived just to name a few. Every time the ignorance I encountered on issues of the Afrikaner due to a certain perception is in many ways just sadly, amazing. The ignorance goes beyond what any normal person can imagine sometimes. Funny.

    If Bantu education kept black people dumb, then ANC propaganda is not far behind.

    People seem to judge a whole people, on their limited life experiences and perceptions.

    Lots of ignorant people under Apartheid. Looking at SA now it would seem nothing has changed under the ANC. Clever people are still being kept “stooped”, and what’s bad is, it spreads like a virus.

    Stupidity is forever. However, ignorance can be cured. Sadly many…

  14. Leen Leen 8 October 2013

    You’re stimulating very constructive debate, thanks for that. As white Afrikaans person I have complete empathy with your situation, because I’ve felt othered myself by said group. Only it must have felt worse to you concidering our racial past and your resulting prejudice (which is justified). Good on you for trying something that scares you, I think more south africans should make the effort. Hope there’s a follow up to this!

  15. rmr rmr 8 October 2013

    Thanks for this, which I found interesting. I am a (white) Afrikaans speaker and I share you feeling of strangeness in relation to one group – white English speakers, particularly those who live in enclaves such as the southern suburbs of Cape Town. Their language inability, that being so stubbornly stuck inside English, translates into a wider intolerance and assumption of cultural superiority for which I can find no justification. Of course it is accompanied by a studied ignorance of history which is used to found an assumption of English innocence which is then used, in turn, to justify a direct racism towards people not like them. They will not voice their feelings about people of colour where they can be held to account, but they are quite willing to tell people like me that all Afrikaners are backward. As such they have not evolved at all from the kind of racism that informed the holocaust in South Africa at the turn of the previous century. I have often wondered why I find this particular group so unpalatable.

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