This is a blog, not a scholarly paper. I hope that its title is not too misleading. I have written a narrative, rather than a “balanced” article of pros and cons leading to an academic conclusion. But as an Italian South African who grew to maturity between the mid-fifties and the mid-Seventies, my experience of the English-Afrikaans thing has been so markedly different from that of many others that I feel compelled to offer mine as a corrective view. I haven’t a drop of either’s blood in my veins, and therefore no prior allegiance to either group. What I have done, is simply to tell the story of my relationship with both.
But first, I must declare an interest. I regard myself today as an Afrikaans-speaking South African. I made the transition during the course of my army days, as a direct consequence of my personal experiences. I was once told that I am “very pro-Afrikaans”, as though there is something wrong with this. The underlying presumption is that to be “pro-English” is to be objective, whereas to be “pro-Afrikaans” is to be biased. This is both untrue and untenable. I made a choice for Afrikaans as principal language of communication. In terms of the “popular” prejudice, I made the unpopular choice. But “pro-” or even “anti-” is in this case beside the point, since most of my experiences pre-date that choice. It is the experiences that determined the choice, not vice-versa. Interest declared. Now for my story.
I was born in Cape Town, the son of Italian immigrants, on 4th July 1955. My dad was a professional barber. He owned the Ritz barber shop and hairdressers at the old Ritz hotel. I spent my early childhood in the Italian-Jewish suburb of Sea Point during the late ’50s. It was an easy-going community. Right from those tender years, I imbibed strong values from my dad. My grandfather was interned in Koffiefontein during WW2, though he was an an anarchist, not a fascist. As a result, my dad had to leave school a month before his Matric finals to re-open the barber shop. Before this on many days, with the shop closed, the only breakfast he had before going to school was black, sugarless coffee. But my dad was neither vengeful nor prejudiced. He never wanted his children to suffer the poverty he did, nor the fate of being treated as foreigners in the land of their birth. So for our early years, he was reluctant to speak Italian with my sister and me. He taught us to be pro-South African and bilingual. He drilled us on our Afrikaans. By the time my sister and I were adolescents, like my dad, we spoke Afrikaans as a good second language. That was the best one could hope for in a Natal English-medium school. But this is jumping the gun a little.
To Durban, then, I came…
When I was 5 years old, my parents decided to move to Durban. I suppose that if they wanted to make a change, the right time was when I was due to start school. Mum, whose only official language is English, was quite happy to do so. For my sister, who has my mom’s fair skin, straight, chestnut hair and green eyes, this was also fine. She fitted in easily among the largely blonde, blue-eyed, fair-haired Durban English-speaking children of the time. For me on the other hand, a swarthy little boy with black, tightly-curled hair and dark brown, almost black eyes, the very image of my Neapolitan grandfather, the move was to generate a tsunami of woes.
Durban was in those days a stronghold of English-speaking liberalism. They referred to Afrikaners as “Dutchman!”, “Hairyback!” “Rock-spider!” “Crunchie!” “Kydaar!” etc. One popular joke was “If English-speaking children go to a nursery, where do Afrikaans children go?” Answer: to a rockery. My friends’ parents spoke all the time of England. They seemed to prefer it to their native South Africa. They weren’t going to be guilty of racism or discrimination or apartheid. The reality was significantly different.
A good number of my friends’ parents supported the Progressive Party, others the United Party. This is how I experienced their liberalism, their tolerance for other races:
- They used the term “touch of the tar brush” to refer to me. Only much later did I realise that this phrase actually impugned my mother’s virtue – fortunately not at the time. I would probably “go to Mansfield High” where most of the other “darkies” like Greeks, Lebanese, Portuguese went, as well as people of questionable racial origins (i.e. classified white but with presumed "coloured" antecedents). I was seldom asked to the birthday parties of my peers, though there were one or two who invited me home after school. I mostly was sent home quite early.
- My nickname amongst my fellow pupils was “kaffir” – no joke! “Don’t use his pencils, they stink,” “Don’t swap sandwiches with him, his mother puts s-h-i-t on them” are the sorts of things they used to say. Did they think up these attitudes all by themselves, these Grade 1-4 children? I very much doubt it.
- I remember that in English we once had to compose a description of a fellow pupil and see if the rest of the class could recognise whom we were describing. Ashley Forrest’s description was: “He smells like a kaffir and eats like a kaffir and looks like a kaffir…” by which point the whole class had identified me raucously. The teacher’s response? “Ashley, dear, it isn’t nice to say things like that.” Nothing more – in a liberal English-medium school.
I think that had I been of the race classification “coloured”, they might have been kinder. But a darker-skinned person classified as “white” was definitely persona non grata in that particular community - too close for comfort, perhaps? This, in turn, suggests something of their real, underlying attitudes towards other races.
I raise these issues not to engender hostility, so much as to show how Natal English-speaking liberals reacted when confronted with “other races” so close to home. They had some other choice cirumlocutions, too. For example: “We don’t need the Group Areas Act. They could never afford to live in our area.” It is not difficult to work out who “they” were, either. As a young outsider, all this was my first experience of Natal English-speaking Liberalism. I was very much on the receiving end. I had never encountered racism like this before, and it shook me, even though I was still only a small boy.
At the same time, I was constantly hearing about the wicked prejudice, the stupidity, the mental inferiority of the (verkrampte) “Dutchman” and his hateful prejudices against the blacks. Another “joke”: What do you call an English-speaker if you take out half his brains? Answer: A moron. And if you take out all his brains? Answer: An Afrikaner. You can imagine a little kid taking all this at face-value. If the “Dutchman” was worse even than the English-speaker, how terrible must he be in comparison? This experience formed my background to the whole English-Afrikaans thing. My first encounter with it, then, was with the Natal English-speakers and their practical racism as compared with their theoretically liberal politics. It was against this background that I later met my first Afrikaners.
But as yet I had not met a single identifiable Afrikaner – nor, in all likelihood, had most of my peers and their parents – though with hindsight, there were two kids with Afrikaans names in my Grade 3 class, namely Stephanie van der Westhuizen and Bruce Marais. Both, though, were fluent English-speakers. I have no idea what language they spoke at home, and it would never have entered the heads of anyone at Sherwood Government Primary School to ask.
My first two years of high-school were spent at Kearsney College, a boarding school at Botha’s hill (pronounced Boh-tha’s Hill), which was run on the British model, with hospital corners and prefects’ dormitory inspections, lots of caning and slippering, quite strong regimentation and very serious cadets every Friday. Our everyday school uniform was kakie drill, and we marched (but not in step) in squads of two columns from the koshuis to the school, dining room etc. At Kearsney I got to know several Afrikaans-speaking teachers, all of whom taught me…well, Afrikaans. Mnr Zaayman, Jannie Storm and Gerrit Burger they were. They were all pretty ok guys, very much like all the other teachers. No notable prejudices, all three highly intelligent and interesting. The phenomenon of the Afrikaans-speaking teacher thus passed right over my head. Jannie Storm was my Housemaster, and as a bit of a tearaway, I did get caned by him with fair frequency. But that had nothing to do with his being Afrikaans as such. Otherwise, nothing particular struck me about them.
Then my folks moved to Pinetown, and they wanted me at home. I was enrolled at Pinetown High School (PHS), a massive bilingual state school. As was the practice in Natal, it was parallel rather than dual medium; that is, the English- and Afrikaans-medium streams were separate rather than mixed in the same class, as was the tendency in the Cape. It was here that I got to know Afrikaners on a day-to-day basis for the first time. The familiar prejudices of my English-speaking peers remained the same, but they were unsustainable over and against the teachers and the pupils I saw in school every day. The Afrikaans kids were just like any other kids to me. There was no evidence justifying the sneering hostility the English-speaking kids showed towards them. The Afrikaans teachers were much like the others; perhaps a little tougher and more direct in their mode of expression. That was ok for me; in fact, I thrived under them. One of them, old Mnr Stemmet, was a bit cane-happy, but so were a couple of the English-speaking teachers. I was a lazy little sod, but my Std. 8 class-teacher, Mnr A.L. Venter, got me up from about 20th into the top three with, amongst other things, his firm but kindly discipline, his excellent teaching and his eina and particularly whippy thin cane. He gave me, I think, my very first taste of vasbyt.
The other memory of the English-Afrikaans thing also comes from Grade 10, my first at PHS. Of the 15 prefects, one was from the Afrikaans stream; a big, tough guy named André Nel (ironically, one “l” short of a later army buddy). The general opinion amongst my classmates in the English-medium stream was that he was there solely because he played in the 1st XV. One first break, quite near the beginning of the year, as I walked down towards the field, a number of guys walked past, making kissing noises at me. I was then felled by a smashing kick to my behind by one of the bigger Matrics. Quite a crowd joined them. I was totally confused, not to say intimidated.
At once the crowd parted. A booming voice cried out: “Los hom uit!” It was André Nel. He helped me up and removed from my back a sign saying “Kiss me or kick me”. “Is jy oukei, boet?” he asked. When I nodded, he turned to the others. “Julle los hom uit!” he warned, turning away. The others left me one by one, not without comments such as “Your stupid rock-spider chum!” I wasn’t too concerned by them at this point. I was gawping after André, who had rejoined his fellow Afrikaans-speaking Matrics. He saw me looking at him and winked. I turned away, embarrassed at having been caught staring.
From that day I rather hero-worshipped him, and from time to time found the odd excuse to talk with him. He was always very kindly, spoke his excellent English with me. I had not yet reached the point of realising that I probably owed it to him to try and speak a little Afrikaans. If I was seen talking to him, the usual remarks were made later, in class – as soon as he was no longer around.
This was the state of my thoughts as I finished my Matric, and prepared myself for the ordeal of military service. I had grown up in the midst of English-speaking prejudice, which had been directed against both me and Afrikaners. My only, limited, experience of Afrikaners at high school, was either neutral or positive (André Nel, Mnr Venter and our very stimulating history teacher, Mnr JP van der Westhuizen, who was a classic Afrikaner liberal). None of the prejudices of my English-speaking classmates seemed to have any foundation in fact. Perhaps I should mention that in Matric we did Afrikaans with our German Deputy-Head Ulrich Oellermann, who was very positive towards the language and probably my best Afrikaans teacher.
5 SAI Ladysmith
My first major exposure to a largely Afrikaans environment was in fact in 5 SAI, Ladysmith. In the army, everything takes on an extreme form, and the English-Afrikaans thing was no exception. In this place I was to learn both the extent of these prejudices, and also the profound depths of their untruth. My Afrikaans comrades at Ladysmith were not neutral background characters, as were most of the Afrikaans pupils at my school. They accepted me as one of them, and stood by me during the early days of my diensplig, when I was a weakling who barely survived the (as it was to me then) agony of army PT.
One major discovery here was the sheer degree of prejudice arising from the Durban English-speakers. Nowhere in the country was there a group more hostile to Afrikaans and Afrikaners, who hated the very sound of the language. They referred to it as “forced down our throats”. Most of them had no doubt never heard about how brutally English was forced down the throats of Boer children after the War. I will not speculate on what their response to this might have been.
Two stories illuminate the general attitude of Natallers on this issue rather well. In one, a visiting American academic had been invited to a wealthy home in Kloof (pronounced "kloef"). At the dinner table, he tried a line of poor, heavily-accented Afrikaans. In the ensuing silence, the hostess said to him, “Professor, you can be forgiven, as a visitor, for not understanding these matters. But please, never again speak that crude patois in this house.”
The other occurred during a conversation in which Afrikaners were generally being sneered at. One of those present was sitting silently. During a lull in the conversation, he said, “I think I should tell you that I am an Afrikaner.” At once, one of the others turned to him and said, “Yes. But you’re not a typical Afrikaner.” (The first “A” pronounced as in “apple” and bearing the accent.)
Again, these are not speculation, but straightforward accounts of real-life situations. And now, I am going to ask you to read one of my other blog entries on this site, An SADF ou man looks at conscription in the ‘70s – Part 1. I have taken a few excerpts from it so that you can get the main gist of what it has to say on the English-Afrikaans thing. The background is that I was a G5 who asked to stay on, and managed to persuade the Medics to reclassify me as G1K1. This first excerpt takes up the ensuing story (the full account is in the blog):
I am taken back to bungalow C3…(the) Corporal looks at the relevant page (in my groenboekie), whistles and shakes his head. But he’s decent enough to say,
“Mooi so, troep! Welkom terug! Gaan neem weer jou ou plek in!” The others are amazed to see me.
“What’re you doing back here? We thought you were going home!”
“I was; but they changed their minds.”
“They made you G4K3?”
“You mean you changed their minds and got yourself made G1K1, you stupid fucking arsehole,” says Ritchie-Robinson, a G2K2 from Durban who clearly doesn’t want to be here. “What are you, some kind of kop-toe hairyback?”
“Boet.” A very tall, soft-spoken Afrikaner in the corner... “Kom sit by ons. Ék’s bly jy’s terug. Ek dink jy’s baie dapper.” So simply but kindly put. He stands up, walks across and shakes my hand. I barely reach his chest. He must be at least 1,9m tall.
“Ek’s Jaarsie. Jaarsie van Jaarsveld.”
“Ek’s Phillip Vietri,” I say in my heavily acented Afrikaans. “Julle ouens sal moet my hulp Afrikaans leer om te goed kan praat.” Or some such monstrosity of grammar.
“Toe maar, boet, hier sal jy baie gou leer. Dis mos die army, dié.” The other Afrikaans guys laugh.
Not much need for comment here. The next is taken from the account of my first 05:00 PT session. I was a 56 Kg weakling at the time:
I hold out for 35 (of the 45) minutes. Then I fall out, hurk, bowed over, lungs burning, desperately gasping for breath. The PTI brings the squad to a halt.
“En jy, jou miserabele, klein fokken bliksem?” he asks. “Staan op, troep! Staan op, sê ek!” He walks up to me, places his (foot) in my lower back and shoves. I go sprawling. In a flash, Jaarsie is out of the squad, standing to attention in front of the PTI.
“Korporaal, gee hierdie man asseblief ’n blaaskans. Hy was gister nog G5.”
“Troep, dis hy wat gevra het om G1 te word. Nou moet hy homself soos een gedra. Gaan terug en staan op jou fokken plek…Jy,” the PTI continues, addressing me, “Gaan sit ’n rukkie langs die veld. Sodra ek met hierdie ander klaar is, gaan ek vir jou ’n opfok gee.” … Ten minutes later, the others have finished. They are told to sit in their squads at the side of the field.
“Troep, kom hier!” he calls to me. I stand up, jog miserably towards him. I’m never going to survive this (opfok), I know it … Suddenly I become aware that there’s not just one of me standing in front of the PTI, but eight. My buddies are right behind me.
“Korporaal,” says one of them, I can’t remember who it was. “As u hierdie man nou ’n opfok gee, wil ons dit saam met hom doen. Hy’s ons maat, en ons wil hom ondersteun.”… (The PTI) pauses for a moment.
”Ok. As julle regtig so fokken mal is. Val in.” It’s only our first day of Basics, so the opfok isn’t more than about 30 minutes. How I get through it I don’t know to this day, except that there are seven other guys doing it with me, encouraging and supporting, keeping me going. We run back, looppas, singing “We ain’t gonna run no more”. Fat chance! My arms are looped around the shoulders of two of the guys who have done the opfok with me. God, the bungalow is a welcome sight! The shower water is hot today. And I have survived my first opfok!
The third short extract shows how my Afrikaans buddies regarded me, and was one of the most heartening moments in what was for me, wuss as I was then, a crucifying six weeks:
Friday (afternoon) of the first week was a bad session for me. As we tree uit back up at the bungalow following the PT session, myself as usual strung about two of my mates, one of the English-speaking ouens shouts, “Why do you guys even bother with him? He’s such a weakling,” indicating me with a jerk of his head.
“Sure he’s a weakling,” replies one of the ouens helping me – it is Jaarsie. “But he’s a tough little guy – he never whines, and he never gives up.”
These are three truncated excerpts from a much longer narrative, but they get the point across. The Anti-Afrikaans prejudice continued as before, But here, under the intensity of SADF Basic training, the Afrikaans guys were not merely like other ouens. They actually showed a self-sacrificing comradeship towards me – even to doing an opfok they didn’t earn, just to show support.
There was absolutely no reason for them to help me like this. I was everything they were not: a weakling, English-speaking, a Catholic. But they did. They were kindness itself, and never anything else. Why? I suppose it was in their nature to be so. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that, by my staying on and voluntarily becoming G1K1, they recognised some vasbyt in me, as well as a love of country that I shared with them.
I was not a National Party supporter, but I cared deeply about South Africa, and really did see National Service as a way of serving my country. And certainly, because of the values I had learned from my father, who by then had been dead for two years, I approached them with no bias as to their language or culture. Those seven boertjies were the greatest, and we spent twelve of the best (if agonizing) weeks of my life together.
Now I want to go back to the main issue. There were many Afrikaans-speaking instructors who gave us hell during our army days, not the least those monstrous individuals known as PTIs. They would use anything at their disposal to break you down, and for your later survival it was vital that they did. So their rondfok was part of the process. At the times, rondfok could be painful and even humiliating; but if you had the guts to go through with it, it worked. “Vetseun Engelsman” “Rooinek”, “Soutie/Soutpiel or “Engelse hondekak” was no worse than some of the epithets “my” PTI used on me: “G5G1, jy gaan bloed pis!”; “Fokken Italiaanse hondekak”; “Mammie se klein G-eentjie”; “Onnosele klein fokkertjie”. And these were amongst the milder ones. With my glasses, my weakness and my voluntary change from G5 to G1K1, I came in for more than my fair share of rondfok.
Some of the English-speaking guys liked to think they were being tough by resisting the “Dutchmen” who were training them. They weren’t. In fact, they were working against their own best interests. Co-operating with the guy who is breaking you down in order to rebuild you as a soldier is damned hard work, and you need to be mentally strong to accept the training and to go through with it. If you did, you’d certainly be extremely fit and tough at the end. The instructors had to do it, and chances were you had a bigger chance of cracking if you resisted. Not because they made it worse for you; it was because they were doing the toughening up, and you lost it by resisting. In any case, most of the guys who “resisted” knew there were limits beyond which not even the PTIs would go. It wasn’t nearly as brave or as dangerous as it can be made to look.
SADF Basics certainly toughened me up; permanently. “My” PTI was a consummate bastard who hammered me unrelentingly for the first six weeks. Few people can have been as victimised as I was by him. And yet, at the end of it, I ran the 8 Km with three minutes to spare, and as I staggered in, totally buggered (sorry, it’s the only word to describe how I felt), he gave me the thumbs-up! His monstrous harshness had actually made me tough enough to survive that run. I quote again briefly from An SADF ou man looks at conscription in the ’70s – Part 1:
The SADF had only three months in which to achieve this transformation. This time constraint to a large degree determined the process – and the intensity – by which which we were broken down and rebuilt...Some critics have a lot to say about the injustices and brutality of SADF training. They are talking kak. Apart from the odd sadist, which one finds in any army, it was not unjust or brutal at all. It was hard, but it was necessary and for the most part, fair...
Never once did I feel I was being singled out for being an Engelsman (linguistically) or even an Italianer (ethnically); it was army business, mostly about toughening up this soft little WOP into becoming a strong, fit SADF soldier. I will not deny that there were sadists, fellows who messed one around because they could, rather than because they needed to. But these were sadists, not necessarily Afrikaners. In fact, the biggest sadist in Charlie Coy was a Lieuty called Hitchings. Now there was a swine! But he was a swine because he was a sadist, not because he was an Engelsman. So the necessary hardness of our instructors and their regime was not the issue.
What is the answer?
What can account for the very different way in which I have experienced Afrikaners throughout my life, then? Why should I, who for my first eighteen years grew up in the same way as my then fellow English-speakers, have had such a colossally different experience of Afrikaners? Because my experience is real. I have not in any way speculated on motivations. I have confined myself to facts. It is almost as though we were speaking abut two totally different peoples.
I can only really speak with any knowledge for Durbanites. I have gone back and back to this issue for years, without finding any satisfactory answers by way of explanation fof the phenomenon.
I have often asked of Durban English-speakers why they do not learn to speak Afrikaans properly. The most common answer is that Afrikaans is not an “international language” like English. But it was then an official language, and even today it is one of the biggest of the 11 official languages. Italians, Hungarians, Finns and Romanians do not refuse to speak their language simply because it is not “international”. What does English being an “international” language have to do with it one way or another?
Another is that it is more useful to learn an “African language.” How many people I heard say, back then, that they would rather learn Zulu than Afrikaans. Today, when Zulu is an available option in KZN schools, they are giving preference to Afrikaans, though they still don’t really bother to learn it. Natal English-speakers appear to be as unilingual as ever. For the record, I, the friend of “Dutchman” and “hairybacks”, speak English, Afrikaans and Zulu, as do many Natal Afrikaners, Some Natal English-speakers know Zulu, though not many. But the real oddity is that Afrikaans is as much an African language as Zulu, Xhosa or Sotho. It was spoken by Malay slaves in the Cape for at least a century before it was adopted by the white Afrikaner. In fact, the white Afrikaner may very well be the only white nation in history who has adopted a black language as his own.
Which leads to another “reason” for not speaking Afrikaans: it is claimed to be the “oppressor’s language”. For 45 years, while the National Party ruled South Africa, there might be a something of a case for this view. But this must be seen against the background of English as a mandatory imperial language for 300 years, the language of a nation that, amongst other events, is guilty of brutal oppression against the Native American, the Indian, the Australian Aborigine, the Maori and the Kikuyu, not even to mention the Boer republics. If ever there were a case for an oppressor’s language between English and Afrikaans, English wins hands down every time.
But this is not an argument that achieves anything – most languages have been an oppressor’s language at one time in or another their history, including many African languages. It is dangerous to single out any one particular language for this exclusive role. Was Afrikaans an oppressor’s language, for example, when the only people in South Africa who spoke it were Malay slaves? Or the “coloured” population during the apartheid era? This is a type of argument far better left sleeping.
Another reason I have heard expressed with a certain frequency is that Afrikaans is a “dying language” not worth bothering about. This is without doubt wishful thinking, based on the predicate that the “oppressor’s language” would be rejected holus-bolus in a new and democratic South Africa, with the resultant conclusive triumph of English. But has this been the case? With the de-politicisation of Afrikaans since 1994, it has flourished as a language. When I moved to Oudtshoorn in 1992, the Cape Timeswas the newspaper of choice amongst bruin Afrikaners. When I left in 2002, it stood in stacks in the tea rooms. The newspaper of preference had become universally Die Burger: Landelik.
All the great Afrikaans cultural festivals are post-apartheid phenomena. Afrikaans literature is written by a diversity of people, including black ANC member Matthews Phosa, former Mpumalanga Premier, who has read his poetry at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees. Afrikaans has broken out of its ideological straitjacket and become the language of a universal South African culture; white, black, coloured, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist (Breyten Breytenbach) – the variety is wide. In the film Tsotsi, the characters speak in flaaitaal, the characteristic Soweto dialect of Afrikaans. In authors such as Deon Meyer, Afrikaans has recently become the language of excellent detective thrillers, again set very much in the new South Africa. Dying language? If anything, it is Afrikaans that is enjoying an unparalleled “African Renaissance.”
So in the end, what is one to say about the old English-Afrikaans thing? I am no wiser as to its origins or meaning now than when I first encountered it. As I read SADF accounts of the ’70s and ’80s, I see a few Afrikaners who were surprised by the hostility towards them. I see many English-speakers who reckoned that Afrikaners were hostile towards them. And I see a few fellows who reckon that the SADF training threw them all together until the differences became meaningless. I seem to be quite a rarity, in that I experienced intense prejudice from the English-speaking side of the divide and nothing but kindness and openness from Afrikaners. But what I experienced is fact, and it has shaped and affected my life ever since. I can only attribute it to the good work of my Italian late father; bilingualism and broad patriotism. I think it shaped my attitudes, and that shaping might very well have made the difference in my experience and my life.
Today, the anti-Afrikaans prejudice still exists in pockets. But today, fortunately, it is an isolated and marginal phenomenon. Most of us have grown up and moved on. Or emigrated. END.
Just for the record, here I am on Durban beach as a very little guy with my older cousin. Can you see why my racial origins were considered suspect? Being a "darkie" but classified as white was not ok in the Durban of those days. See the blog entry above.