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Jewish reflections at an Afrikaner shrine

I had never been all that enthusiastic about adding Blood River (Ncome) to my tally of battlefield rambles, and certainly never envisaged being there on December 16, once the Day of the Vow and today the Day of Reconciliation. The famous Voortrekker victory over the Zulus on that date became invested with profound meaning by the Afrikaner people, interpreted as a Divine sign that they were destined to rule South Africa. That dream came true for a little over forty years before world pressures, intensifying local resistance, economic decline and, in no small measure, a widespread loss of belief in this supposed national destiny forced the volk aside.

I was actually on my way to Hlobane (a battle the Zulus won, but against the British in 1879) when I passed the Blood River sign and saw numerous cars turning off there evidently to attend the annual commemorative ceremony. It would have been a pity to waste the opportunity to visit so important an historical site on such an occasion, and decided to follow them. When we arrived, there were already thousands of people present, with many more still to come. Some were wearing traditional Voortrekker dress. Others perched on several of the cast iron wagon replicas that so evocatively reconstruct the famous laager that once stood on that very ground.

I was keen to get to Hlobane (confused by the morning mist, I ultimately ended up climbing the wrong damned mountain, but that’s another story) so my visit was kept short. Nevertheless, it was all very interesting, particularly standing in the centre of the gloomy circle of wagons and imagining what it must have been like to have been inside there awaiting the charge of Dingane’s impis. No one could have known then how one-sided the battle would end up being — a gruesome demonstration of how superior weaponry could make nonsense of the most formidable numerical odds.

As I was leaving two conservatively dressed men stopped me, curious to see a Jew at the historic shrine on so traditionally Afrikaans an occasion. They turned out to be direct descendants of the legendary Voortrekker leader Sarel Celliers, who penned the text of the famous 1838 covenant. We conversed briefly. It was an interesting exchange, friendly but oddly disconnected. For one thing, my attempted icebreaker, namely that my wife, too, was descended from a famous Afrikaner leader (General Hendrik Kritzinger), proved to be a proverbial lead balloon. Had she really abandoned the worship of the True Messiah, the one man asked, sadly shaking his head?

The conversation mainly revolved around (as they saw it) the sad predicament of the Afrikaner people and the dire future facing the country as a whole. Like that of the Jews in the times of the old Temple, I was told, the faith of the Afrikaners had become a hollow shell, which was the reason for their situation.

Returning later to my hotel in Dundee, I discovered a sermon written for the occasion by Dr Willie Marais (‘Ope brief aan die Afrikanervolk’). Replete with Old Testament references, it, too, lamented the fallen state of the Afrikaner people, likening it to the Almighty’s punishment of the errant Jews of old: “Waarom het ons ons vryheid verloor?” it read in part, “Ons het verdien om van die kandelaar verwyder te word, want ons het die Here met ons sondes geterg net soos Israel van ouds gedoen het”.

As I read through this sad and often bitter tract, I recalled a meeting I once attended with three senior officials in the Department of Education in Pretoria. Their names now escape me, but two were Afrikaans males and the third, who presided over the meeting and was obviously in charge, was a black woman. The men were distinctly deferential to her while she, for her part, was poised and authoritative, perhaps even a touch haughty. Twenty years ago, I could not help guiltily thinking, she might have been wearing a doek and bringing in the tea.

A crucial aspect of South Africa’s transition to democracy was how Afrikaner civil servants adapted themselves to the changed political reality, dutifully changing their allegiance to the new power elite. They learned, in other words, how to make their way as a largely powerless minority again, taking the painful but pragmatic steps necessary to ensure their own survival. Ironically, in emulating traditional Jewish diaspora behavior in this way, they have probably far more in common with the Jewish people than their irreconciled and irreconcilable brethren, the bittereindes who cite the Hebrew prophets and cling with undiminished stubbornness yet surely ever-diminishing hope to the anachronistic neo-Biblical visions of their forebears.

Author

  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.