An unavoidable part of being a student at Stellenbosch is exposure to Afrikaans. An unavoidable part of being Afrikaans is having to confront the place of Afrikaans in modern South Africa. I’ve been blessed with many friends who take great pains to ensure that they aren’t living an unexamined life and so I have been privy to a number of discussions around the topic of what it means to be Afrikaans. In response, I’ve begun to try and formulate what it means to be English and South African.
There are a lot of Posts that can be attached to the average English-South African: Post-Modern, Post-Colonial, Post-Imperial. To be English is to defined by things the things that no longer apply to you. To have more than a millennium of history behind you, but at the same time having that be totally irrelevant is quite an experience.
We are the vestiges of a failed empire, a people who spread their dominance across the globe and then withdrew to their island leaving us, the former colonials sitting around, twiddling our thumbs.
The now politically-correctly named South African War (that which was once the Boer War) should really have painted us as the vicious imperial oppressors that we in fact were, but one of the by-products of Apartheid was that it cast Afrikaners as the truly evil race, elevated Afrikaans to the language of the overlord and, as many ANC members fled into exile, allowed the English to be slightly more acceptable.
I was born in South Africa. I’ve never left Africa. England is something that happens to other people on TV. As I go about my daily life, I am witness to the pulse and rhythms of Africa. And yet. The echoes of the English still reach out across the vast distances, but the message it sends is strangely contradictory: a message of astonishing success and astounding failure. The English conquered the entire globe and brought about a near universal culture, but a universal empire eluded them. English has been accepted by the globe and as a result there is little to distinguish us from the world. The universal acceptability of the English language has only served to sunder us from our identity. When your language is merely a medium and no longer a descriptor more is needed to strengthen the bond of kinship. The colonials, far from the unifying problems and daily experiences of the British Nation, lost something of their Britishness and could replace it with nothing else.
As so it is that there is a universal feeling that the best of our days have past; a global ennui. Why pursue glory again when we know it to be folly? All the striving to propel ourselves forward on the global stage is futile. That knowledge, forever at the back of our minds means that nothing we attempt can be done in earnest.
South Africa. Despite my being born here this land did not give birth to me. The events that defined my culture happened an age ago in lands that I have never seen. The truth is that although I may care deeply for this land, it does not belong to me.
And yet it has accepted me. I feel as if this land, knowing that my people had no-where else to go, adopted us. I’m left with the feeling of a child who knows that he doesn’t really belong, to whom everything received is a gift. Who am I to complain? Who am I to day what is right and what is wrong when all that I experience has been freely given to me, undeserving. All I can do with earnestness is to love this country for the place it has provided for me.