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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.

21 Comments

  1. ons kan ons kan 2 October 2008

    I agree that we have a lot in common with Jewish people. But it was the fact that Jews over the ages did not integrate with others and where always able to have exclusive Jewish cultural neighborhoods and organizations that enables you to exist as a Jew today, irrespective of what you think of it today. Interestingly the whole Orania movement is a direct copy of Zionism in our attempt to preserve our language and culture, yet yours is praised main is frowned upon. Criticism of yours is called anti-Semitic; criticism of main is considered good judgment. There are Orthodox Jews who cling to old ways, do I as an Afrikaner have the right to write critical damming articles on them, no that to will be called anti-Semitic. Leave the Boers alone that is all we want, why don’t you write another article on the Jews in Zimbabwe and how there overzealous condemnation of white rule proved self destructive in the end, 10 years from now the last Zimbabwean Jew would be buried. You are part of a large nation, my nation only consist of +- 3,5 Million. With large scale emigration numbers nobody knows how many are left, we have no political or military power to speak of, yet you somehow found the time to condemn, Congratulations you win!!

  2. ons kan ons kan 2 October 2008

    On another note, perhaps I should organize an Afrikaner visit to the Wailing Wall and comment on the bitterender orthodox Jews and congratulate rather those that chose integration with Arabs and accepted Islam as to conform to the majority of Middle Eastern inhabitants. Today the Jewish population in S.A are half of what it was in the 1970’s, will some Jewish writer from Canada perhaps 70 years from now write about how they are burying the last SA Jew. Those bitterenders are the ones that are not going to emigrate, that will continue the practices of our culture and language. Those Afrikaner civil servants you praised, if they are in fact still working there, will die there like the Jews of Zimbabwe there will be no young ones to replace them. Because we are white our existence seems to disturb people, there is a word for that it is called racism but of course it only applies to white people according to this world. And if you are thinking that I am some old bitterender, you are wrong I was a child when apartheid ended. I have always supported Israel and am somewhat of a fan of Jewish culture but how did we come to this Rabbi, where self-inflicted cultural and racial genocide is preached as a moral obligation if the nation involved is white, it is not our fault we where borne white. We are what we are; I do not need a definition to exist!

  3. Old,female,paleface Old,female,paleface 2 October 2008

    Your culture and beliefs are identical to Afrikaners. Traditions do differ.
    How dare you judge their values when you are identical in many of their cultural beliefs. Like JEWS –
    They are a ‘tribe’ with taught value systems and Patriarchal traditions.
    The “chosen” ones. Purity of bloodline (white) as only a Jewish Mother can give.
    Were humilated and downtrodden by Imperialism and fought and died
    for freedom from their oppressors (English) as the Jews fought and died for Israel.
    THE OPPRESSED sadly (both) became OPPRESSORS, Israel today.
    They believe in the Old Testament Laws of Moses – live by “their” Torah.)
    Practise their traditions daily in their life. They have a code of their own.
    (English mongrels are just too damn liberal.)
    Afrikaner beliefs are theirs, as is yours.
    Black people have theirs.
    Their tribes differ too.
    Why attack one another for birth in a specific tribe.
    It is not for me to judge others’ values, except when it endangers my country.
    I am a mongrel so can adapt – as you should in your purity and not ridicule
    ancient, sacred beliefs.
    The Boere are trying, swallowing their enormous cultural pride. (Except for the minority of diehards.)
    The Hugenots came here to avoid RELIGIOUS persecution –
    is that not ‘your pogroms’ ?
    Afrikaners understand and respect “tribal” discipline and values of our black citizens
    far better than other South Africans.
    WHY STIR UP MUD?
    BLOOD RIVER is sacrosanct to Afrikaners, it became their covenant.
    Is your Covenant not sacrosanct?
    You may be chosen but you are not a superior being.
    I am a pure South African of ENGLISH ancestors. BUT
    South Africa is my tribe, my culture, my tradition and ultimate value.
    I will criticise South African attitudes and behaviour, not different traditions or perceived idiosyncrasies.

    If you leave a nation without threats from outside,
    (that unites them against a common enemy) –
    they will fight amongst themselves.
    As a mongrel in South Africa – in 2008 I see it action. Tribalism rear its head?.

  4. Castor Troye Castor Troye 2 October 2008

    I respectfully disagree with the post and its comments. The tendancy to compare any group of people to one another must be done very carefully and sensitively as all people’s have different histories and circumstances. That said, the Jewish people have a similar history of suffering to that of the black people (both African and African-American) rather than to Afrikaners.

    Both blacks and Jews have held the title of being the underdogs in a western society (granted the Jews managed to break free from this marginalization in the past 100 years with no help by their often hostile neighbours).

    I personally take offence to placing a Jewish Diaspora in the same light as an Afrikaner Diaspora. For 2 thousand years, Jews have based their culture as a response to the odds almost always against them. While Afrikaners have had rough times against them (and not to belittle such sufferings), the base of their culture survives on the dominance of that culture in mainstream society. Unfortunately, for the Afrikaners, such a basis has eroded with their culture becoming less mainstream in modern day South Africa.

  5. Cool Down Cool Down 2 October 2008

    David
    I am sure you are able to read and understand
    Afrikaans,so I am a bit perplexed at your
    conclusion that ‘the Afrikaner saw it as a Divine
    sign that they were destined to rule South Africa’.
    If that was the case thy would never have left the Cape and Establish two ‘Boere republics’.
    After the defeat of the Boere and their republics
    the English signed a peace treaty with the Boere
    and excluded the Blacks who somehow did not
    count although they made plenty use of them to
    defeat the Boere.
    The peace treaty contained a promise that one day the Boere would be independent again.
    So the South African Whites and not the Blacks became the successors to the British rulers and
    what followed is history.

  6. Scarface Scarface 3 October 2008

    I like your hat David, where can I get one?

  7. Zooks Zooks 3 October 2008

    Interestingly enough, my husband and I stumbled across the Blood River memorial when we were traipsing through the backwaters of northern-KZN… what I found very interesting about the memorial was that there is a zulu memorial also commemorating the battle on the same site. However, this is housed in its own building and has a TOTALLY different view on the historic occurance!

    kind of a west bank vs jeru situation was how it struck us….

  8. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 27 January 2009

    Nothing in life is static.
    During and in the aftermath of the Anglo Boer War, the Afrikaner had significant world-wide empathy.
    People from all over the world came to fight for the Boer’s cause, even 450 Jews (10 times as many fought on the British side).
    However, for various reasons the Afrikaner lost the goodwill of the world.

    In the post-World War 2 period, the Jews and the black people gained goodwill.
    This paved the way for the formation of Israel and the decolonization of Africa.
    However, the wheel is turning. The empathy of the world outside the USA is moving away from Israel towards Palestine http://www.israel-vs-palestine.com/gz/?stats
    World opinion is getting fed up with black Africa as it is with Israel.
    If I am David, I will not be so smug.

  9. Paul Paul 31 January 2009

    Wow David now we hear about how hard done by the Afrikaner is. More chest beating and flagellation. A small nation alone against the whole world. I can hardly hold back the tears. How long before we start hearing about the horrors of the camps and the women being fed broken glass by Kitchener. All this retrospection is designed to trap people in the past. The De La rey song is a prime example of this sort of self pity. Why don’t Afrikaners embrace the world. That is what Jan Smuts wanted, but no the Volk chose isolation and apartheid back in 1948 and now they are reaping what they sowed. I ask you what vision of the future the Smuts vision or the Malan vision would have been a better choice in 1948?

  10. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 3 February 2009

    Paul, it is Ok for the Jews to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive but it is wrong for the Afrikaner to remember the 27,000 (from a population of less than 300,000) children and woman who died in the concentration camps on the altar of British imperialism and capitalism? One set of rules for the Jews, another for the Afrikaner?

    As far as Smuts is concerned, do the English, French or any other nation honor traitors? The British and French hanged what they considered traitors after WWII. Why should the Afrikaner honor or follow traitors?

    The Afrikaner embraces Africa and the future. We even named ourselves after the continent. The Afrikaner, as Zuma pointed out, does not carry two passports. We do not have dual loyalty.
    South Africa is the only African country where a significant number of Europeans remained after Uhuru. Why? Because the Afrikaner have no “Home” to run to. In staying, they provided, unlike Zimbabwe, the critical mass for people like you and David to remain even if you might not consider it a long-term‘Home’.

  11. Paul Paul 6 February 2009

    I was wondering how long it would take before the old matra of Afrikaner nationalims was raised on this blog. Give us all a break. The Afrikaner would have been wiped out or absorbed into the local population if it was not for the British and the Uitlanders who turned this country into a modern capitalist society. I see lots of Afrikaners running away to London or Sydney. It seems the old ties no longer bind. One wonders if they ever did or was it all the creation of Nationalist historians who pushed the Great Trek down everyone’s throat at high school. Tell me Ernst how come there were more National Scouts than bitter einders at the end of the war. At least Jan Smuts and Louis Botha fought to the end. I think a lot of latter day Nationalists did not have such a glorious history.

  12. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 7 February 2009

    Paul,
    You raise a number of interesting points.
    You are right about the National Scouts and Hanskakies outnumbering the Bittereinders. However, it is the Bittereinders in every nation that is the inspiration for that nation. Israel honor Masada, the British “The Few” and the French “The Burghers of Calais”.

    Jan Smuts had turncoats shot. Why Smuts, Louis Botha and Deneys Reitz, all Bittereinders later fought for the British, I and most Afrikaners can’t comprehend. Maybe David Saks can answer it in respect of Ronnie Kasrils. (At least Ronnie is consistent – he is opposed to Apartheid in whatever form it manifests itself).

    Botswana is, unlike most African countries, well run and successful. Uitlanders (they call them Expatriates) are not welcome. It is extremely difficult to become a citizen. Botswana develops at the pace that the Batswana are comfortable with.

    We are, with the exception of the San, all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. However, do you consider this your “Home” or is the home of your heart elsewhere? I trust that those Afrikaners who “ran away” to England, Australia, Canada assimilate in those communities just as the French Huguenots’ identified with the countries that gave them a home.

  13. Paul Paul 7 February 2009

    Ernst
    Jan Smuts believed in the end in an inclusive SOuth Africaness. He did not extend this to Africans but if he had won in 1948 I am pretty sure this would have developed. The Afrikaans nationalists who worship at Blood River were exclusive and parochial. They considered themselves the only true SOuth Africans. Jews, English speakers Portuguese, Coloureds, Blacks, Indians etc were not. They retreated into a laager and lost everything. If they had embraced the world like Smuts did the history of SOuth Africa would be very different. By the way I am writing this in SOuth Africa

  14. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 8 February 2009

    Paul,
    The reason why the Afrikaner “lost everything” has nothing to do with David’s interpretation of the revoking of the Afrikaners so-called divine right to rule over South Africa or that the majority of Afrikaners did not follow Smuts. It has everything to do with demographics. The same demographics that will in the long run “solve” the Israeli-Palestine problem.

    Unlike Australia and other countries settled by the British, the native population increased in Southern Africa as the Voortekkers moved in. Prior to the Voortrekkers, the Zulus decimated the other black tribes. During the period of NP rule (1948 to 1990), the life expectancy of black people increased from 40 to 64. Since then, it has fallen dramatically.

    I personally would rather life under a black-ruled government that put South Africa first than to be ruled by a quisling whose primary loyalty was the Empire.

  15. Paul Paul 9 February 2009

    A few years ago I had to go to the British High Commission in Tswane to apply for a work permit. I spent a year there and returned to SA. There were many young Afriknaners also applying for such permits. They were excited about seeing the outisde world and the opportunities it gave them to be world citizens. I thought to myself that this is what Jan SMuts wanted. South AFricans to be citizens of the world. WHat the Nats wanted was for Afrikaners to hide in a laager. For them to remain inward looking and locked in the past. The parochialism of Afrikaans universities like Pretoria or Bloem is a good example of the negative side effects of thsi approach. Teh English universities like UCT and WIts were great places of thought and learning. RAU has only changed now because it is the University of JHB an English medium university

  16. Ernst Marais Ernst Marais 9 February 2009

    Paul,
    You get two types of Afrikaners (and I presume this is true of any nation).
    1. Those that ingratiate them with the new ruling elite. Douglas Gibson said that if England is to invade South Africa, Jannie Momberg will be at Bloubergstrand waving the Union Jack. In the public sector including the (former) Afrikaans universities you get a large number of these Afrikaners.
    2. The other type of Afrikaner prides them in their heritage even if it has no longer any economic value. Similar to the Scotts. Fortunately I am not dependant on the State and count myself under this group.

    The interesting question that you must ask yourself is why English speakers send their children to traditional Afrikaner universities. It can’t be all that parochial for the enlightened English. Or is it that the English is more afraid of the Swart Gevaar than the Afrikaner Gevaar? Or is it that in spite of the Afrikaner’s many faults, they value higher education and make good teachers/ lecturers?

  17. Paul Paul 9 February 2009

    I hate to break this to you Ernst but when I went to varsity the only English speakers who went to Afrikaans universities were those who did not get high enough marks to go to Wits or UCT. As the old joke went “What does RAU stand for? Rejected Applicants for Unisa” The standard is simply lower at the Afrikaans universities

  18. Ernst Ernst 21 February 2009

    Oh, and another thing: Afrikaners’ victory that day is usually chalked up to superior weaponry. But consider that the English also had superior weaponry. They didn’t fare as well. My point being, maybe Afrikaners did have a tiny bit of a reason to think a higher power was involved

  19. Molly Molly 31 December 2009

    Yes Paul and you benefited just as much as the Boere from Apartheid. If there is one thing people like you are good at it is to be friendly as hell in front of the very same people (black/Afrikaans) that you will slag of later in private. I know nice English South Africans but sorry to say – there is large number of them who are ugly racists and believe themselves to be superior to most of SA’s residents.

  20. Natovr Natovr 14 January 2011

    Afrikaners never had a God given right to rule in *South Africa*, but every ethnic group in Africa has a God given right to exist and rule in Africa, and Afrikaners have a similar right to exist in Southern Africa, and rule there, even though they may not be ruling South Africa as a nation, but possibly their own nation.

    The most stable nations in Africa have a single over-all ethnic group in charge. I believe (as a maybe naive teenager who spent half his life out of Africa) that Apartheid was originally trying to achieve this. Giving each ethnic group their own nation. Bophuthatswana established Sun City with its own laws, this is still successful. But Apartheid failed miserably, and became twisted by “bad apples”.

    Again, as a person who has spent half his life out of Africa, I don’t believe South Africa is for us. My view is that we the Afrikaners, should stop trying to be so persistent to rule South Africa, whose borders were manufactured by European, and not tribal, powers.
    South Africa is not mine, I do not want to go back to SA. I want to go back to my people. I want to be neighbours with other peoples, but be “at home” with my people.
    Those are my views, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m wrong or many people disagree. I haven’t had a conversation like this outside of my family for a very long time.

  21. eishmael eishmael 10 September 2011

    hahahaha you all are just so funny, english and afrikaners have practically the same culture and they look the same, the only difference is the language and the boer war, stop being assholes and judging people, why cant they run away why should our lives be in danger with this countries high crime rate, why should you wait to get mugged and assualted??? Afrikaans and its culture is dead, so is most nations and cultures even china.

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