By Mark John Burke
Europe is a great place, it really is. You step off your plane onto a train that takes you to your destination and once there trams and buses stand ready to take you to wherever you want. Europeans have perfected recycling and they go to great lengths to ensure everybody’s safety. It’s absolutely fine for a young student to walk home at 1am every day and never once be concerned about becoming a fourth-page story in the local newspaper about yet another rape or murder. If students get bored with fully equipped lecture halls and overqualified tutors they can take cheap flights to the south of France and go spot film stars in Monaco.
The north of Belgium and the Netherlands are especially interesting destinations for adventurous and privileged young South Africans. There Afrikaners can speak their native language with a bit of an accent and actually be understood. If African-Americans go to Johannesburg and Cape Town to “rediscover their cultural roots”, then the land of the Flemish and Dutch is where young white Afrikaans speakers should go to rediscover their heritage and history from 350 years ago. It’s an excellent place to admire good architecture as well — dreamy spheres and protruding balconies next to beautiful bay windows all make for great pictures.
The reason why all Afrikaners should go to Europe is deeper, though. It’s not to appreciate meat more, although after spending one week in Europe Afrikaners undoubtedly will. It’s not to love South African weather more, although that too will happen on the first day abroad. It is to learn, to see and to understand. It is to later return to our country and know that we know that we do not belong anywhere else.
We need to learn that it’s not only possible but perfectly normal to have more than one cultural identity. If you ask a student in Leuven to tell you about himself he will most likely tell you he is Belgian and after further enquiry that he is of Flemish descent. They consider themselves European citizens with a particular history. By no stretch of imagination have any of these young people forgotten their heritage and they are as proud of their people’s history as they are of their country. As Afrikaners we have too often been told that we have to be proudly Afrikaans and be that to the detriment of anything and everything else. Proven by example it is clear that we can be South Africans as well as Afrikaners.
It is also important to come to Europe to see that we should not settle for anything less than what and how things should be. When South Africans speak up about crumbling infrastructure, poor service delivery and ridiculous schedule overruns it should not be viewed as privileged pandering. Being on time and diligent as well as expecting the same of your fellow citizens is not a western concept, although the west manages to do so quite well, but instead is in everyone’s best interest. Employees that show up on time because the metro system runs efficiently, ensures a more effective workforce. It is an absolute necessity to compete with developed economies and we should not be content with anything less because we are afraid to offend others.
Afrikaners should come to Europe to understand the importance of language and how it can bind people together. People in the former low countries speak Dutch, which is one of the three official languages of Belgium. Flemish Belgians are particularly proud of their language and much like Afrikaners they tend to only speak English in an emergency. However, the current Belgium prime minister barely speaks a word of Dutch. He is an openly gay, socialist, Francophone leader of Italian descent that advocates for the continued union of Flanders and Wallonia. The only reason that people can find to dislike him, though, is his language abilities (or lack thereof). Language matters to people everywhere. Imagine the possibilities for young Afrikaners in the future of the new South Africa if we can learn to speak one or two indigenous African languages (apart from Afrikaans). Elio Di Rupo, like most Europeans, speaks several other languages. To learn a new language is a great investment of time and effort, with the benefit of being able not only to speak to people’s minds, but to their hearts.
Language consideration is also important because privileged South Africans only need to spend a few nights in youth hostels in Dresden or Paris to find out how wrong we are in our subconscious or even conscious assumption that not speaking a language well, makes you incompetent. Some of the smartest and talented people with vast life experience are not capable of expressing themselves perfectly in their fourth of fifth language. We would not dare call them stupid. Who then are we to look at black South Africans that can speak Sesotho, Setswana, isiZulu, isiXhosa as well as English and sometimes Afrikaans and make judgments about their ability based on their accent?
Most importantly, Afrikaners live like caged animals in Europe. Any honest, law-abiding South African student in Belgium will tell you they feel constantly monitored here. The food is not nearly as good and the people not nearly as friendly as back home. Europe is essentially individualistic and the downfall of one individual or family rarely affects the rest of a community. Ask someone what the surname of their neighbour is and they would not be able to tell you. South Africa, for all its inequality, relies on the basic principle that our humanity is inextricably intertwined with those around us. Although not often grasped, it is a great principle that binds us together. Sometimes that bond is uncomfortable and frustrating, but it is infinitely better than facing life alone. You need only face a disgruntled employee at a chain convenience store in Germany to realise how much you miss the toothless smile from the kind lady in the Paarl.
Afrikaners should come to Europe so they can go home.
Mark John Burke is a proud Afrikaner, currently completing his MSc thesis in Europe on a Mandela Rhodes Scholarship under the Erasmus Mundus programme.