Oct 25, 2010


Karen Kaye has an excellent post on going to a white school: 
I was biased against Afrikaners on coming to South Africa. In my mind, they were some of the worst “oppressors” in South African history, it was at their hands that black South Africans suffered the most. When we were in our initial training with Peace Corps, we were taught greetings in Setswana (the language of the black people I would be living with) and we were also taught greetings in Afrikaans (the language of the white people I would not be living with, but the language that all of the black people that I would be living with would assume that I would be speaking.)

I bristled at the thought of learning Afrikaans. I DID NOT WANT TO LEARN OR SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE OPPRESSOR.

Mercifully, I was brought me to my senses rather quickly when I realized, “Wait. I SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE OPPRESSOR.” (Having realized, of course, that the native language of the Americas is not English, and that my country was indeed, colonized by ‘an oppressor,’ and I spoke that very same language of that oppressor!) [...]

A few months back a fellow PCV invited me and others to tour a school with a 100% pass rate. Since we all work in black schools and the pass rates average 50% or lower, I was greatly interested in seeing a school with a 100% pass rate and jumped at the chance to go: How were they managing such an impressive pass rate? What kinds of resources did the school have? Was there some kind of outside funding? [...]

A white school? Well, of course they had a 100% pass rate! Everyone knows that the whites here (much as in the States) have all of the privileges, all of the resources, and all of the benefits. Why waste my time seeing a white school? I thought of cancelling on my host and returning to my site—and in a huff at that!

Ah, racism you ask? Racism of another color—or lack of color? Of course!

But I went. I went to the white, Afrikaner school and I saw a wonderful school full of wonderful people doing wonderful things. The Afrikaner kids and teachers were thrilled to be meeting Americans, and we, as Americans, were treated to learning about another people of South Africa.

My hardened heart melted when a young, Afrikaner girl, bristling with excitement, approached me and gave me the warmest and excited hug I’d gotten in South Africa. She was so excited to be seeing an American and so excited that an American would take the time to come visit her school. She could barely contain herself. In her happiness, a tiny bit of my racist heart melted, just a bit.
By far the worst racism I've ever seen in my life has been watching some drunken Afrikaners in Kimberley and Kuruman shouting about the "fucking kaffirs." But it's worth remembering:
Before I came here I had a vague impression of [the Afrikaners] as horrible racists who were forced by the rest of the world out of their apartheid system kicking and screaming. There’s some truth to that, but personally every Afrikaner I’ve met here has been kind, courteous and generous. The apartheid system is surely one of the worst injustices in the modern era, but I knew almost nothing of the Anglo-Boer war, and the radicalizing effects of the British savagery (the usual concentration camps, salting land, poisoning wells, etc.). In the end, one must also remember that the whites gave up their power, grudgingly or not, in what is arguably the greatest diplomatic victory in postwar history. They also didn’t flee their country like Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe—whose white population halved overnight).

I’m not trying to romanticize the Afrikaners—I’ve met some real racists—but I don’t want to demonize them either. Situations like this are always messy and complicated, and it seems like there are more victims than genuine evil.
We Americans, as Karen says, are the living embodiment of 500 bloody years of war and slavery and genocide and imperialism.  We'd do well to find a little sympathy even for the Afrikaners in our hearts.

PS:  One of my pet peeves is people mispelling "Afrikaner."  The language is "Afrikaans," while the people are "Afrikaners," or just straight "Afrikaans people."  I normally go easy on spelling, but given that Afrikaans is one of those crazy languages that has phonetic pronunciation, it makes a noticeable difference.


  1. Yes, I too came to South Africa with a load of bias, self righteousness, and a genuine non-christian attitude towards Afrikaners. But it's amazing how hard it is to hold on to that ugliness when you meet flat out good individuals who go out of their way to help you and be nice to you. Even so, I'd say it took me the better part of my first year in service before I lost the angry disdain I held for all Afrikaners. I am not proud of that. Now, I give each white South African the same benefit of the doubt that I give black South Africans. It works so much better. We are all in need of improvement, no matter who we are. Now, when I remember Lydia standing before us in training and introducing herself as "...and I am a South African" , I feel totally more accepting than I did at the time. B

  2. Yeah, I remember that too, or I thought she said, "I'm a African," and then Victor said she was being controversial, and she replied, "It's a controversial country."

    True enough.

  3. Hey Ryan, I love your blog. It's my favorite on-line read. I'm in Vburg now, indulging in a guilty-pleasure of internet cafe (wow, FB and blogs are much more entertaining with pictures!!)

    Imagine my surprise, and delight, to visit your blog and find, well, find ME there. I feel honored that a blogger of your caliber would feel compelled to quote me.

    And I was sweating more than a bit to quickly check my spelling of Afrikaner (the people) and Afrikaans (the language).

    Keep on, keepin on, and I'll surely keep tabs on you, along the blog highway! karen kaye

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  5. Yeah, the beauty of blogging is the conversations that can happen :) I've quoted you lots of times, actually! Feel free to return the favor if anything I write strikes your fancy or makes you think of something. *wink*

  6. I have lived in a black village for over 1 year now, and only ONE person has invited me to their home, for a meal or tea or just to visit. I was in kuruman less than a month when an Afrikaner, whom i had never met, invited me and justin for a brandy, whilh turned into meeting his entire family, having braai, going to visit his grandmother, free sleepover, swim, and ride back to my village the next day. They wouldn't even dream of taking money for petrol. It's not a question of have versus have not, but of hospitality. I like karen's point that many of us come from a heritage of oppressors, and we can't help it any more than anyone else. We are responsible for our behavior, right now, how we treat each other and ourselves. Daily we can choose to be the oppressor, oppressed, or neither. Today, we can also choose to be free. That is my favorite choice.

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