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Boeke | Books > Resensies | Reviews > English

The Boers in Angola: There for even longer than you thought


Bill Nasson - 2011-12-14

The Boers in Angola 1928–1975
Nicol Stassen
Publisher: Protea Book House
ISBN: 9781869193959
Price: R335.95


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At 656 pages this is a very fat book behind which can be found not only an extraordinarily industrious and dedicated author, but a battalion of individuals, numbering around 500, who provided research assistance. If you are looking for an illustration of the observation about current history made some years ago by the eminent British historian David Cannadine you need look no further. In Cannadine’s view what was happening to history was that those who were crafting it were writing more and more about less and less. What he had in mind was a multivolume history of the Dutch margarine industry. This production is not quite on that scale, though. Nor is it boring.

Nicol Stassen has accumulated a wealth of material, perhaps enough to fill several books, on a small and quirky topic, the Boer diaspora in Southern Africa. As a subject The Boers in Angola, 1928-1975 is kind of time-warp or antiquarian, study of an isolated group of people, bringing to mind the North American Amish of Pennsylvania, the Japanese of Peru or the Welsh of Patagonia. With this book the thing is to stick with it. For, like the gruff, no-nonsense people within its pages, The Boers in Angola takes some getting to know and to appreciate – but largely rewards the effort. A diligent translation of the author’s 2009 Afrikaans edition, Afrikaners in Angola, which was in turn based on his doctoral dissertation, this book takes the elements of a modern Afrikaner trek melodrama but uses them in a precise, restrained and wholly plausible documentary way.

The Boers in Angola gets to the heart of the people whose lives it depicts in often striking detail, like Barend Ludeke, whose insatiable appetite for slaughtering wild animals in the 1950s would at times see him shooting up to 100 duiker in one night on hunts in a pick-up truck.

The author’s close interest in the lives of the Angolan Afrikaners has resulted in a detailed, scholarly and yet very readable history that recreates a tough and mostly messy rural world. Aside from telling a fascinating story, one of its strengths is its attention to visual material and other documentary records. In addition to full-colour maps and a sumptuous collection of close on one hundred photographs, almost a third of the text is devoted to notes, sources and appendices.

Both exhaustive and exhausting, Nicol Stassen’s research labour and its provision of a vast roll-call of everything you might possibly want to know about this small tribe of lost Afrikaners, and of quite a few things that you would perhaps never think of enquiring about, leaves the reader in awe. Therefore, turn to The Boers in Angola if you wish to know the names and the number of Afrikaner women who had cohabited there with Portuguese men by 1928 – all is revealed in Appendix 4 on p 395. When one encounters a book so packed with information, however learned and however entertaining, it is impossible not to be reminded of what Leo Tolstoy once said of scholarship on so Himalayan a scale. Historians, he remarked, end up even answering questions that no one has asked them.

While nominally the recounting of a narrative history of an awkward or wayward group of pioneering white settlers, Stassen’s book is rather more a sort of communal social biography. It is constructed by using a number of emblematic themes – such as hunting, religion, education and consumption – to chart the chronological and geographical fortunes of the Angolan community of Afrikaner colonists. The author’s concern is as much with understanding the nature of Angola as with exploring the African experience of the Afrikaners who landed up there, originally as a tributary of the wider 19th-century movement of Afrikaner communities into various territories, including East Africa. For these obscure, stubborn and dimly legendary “Thirstland Trekkers”, Portuguese Angola proved to be anything but a New Jerusalem. Relations with the local colonial administration were difficult; farming prospects remained desperately precarious; other economic opportunities, such as transport-riding, were marginal; educational resources were sparse; and isolation was extreme. Life for most was a degraded life of poor-whiteism, a constant battle against sliding through an already precarious floor.

In 1928, in an organised ethnic exodus, about 2 000 Angolan Afrikaners were repatriated to South-West Africa (Namibia) and resettled in farming. The 400 or so trekkers who stayed behind to stick it out were essentially ditched, left to live on in oblivion as a fossilised community, cut off almost completely from their host society. For several decades thereafter, some continued to stick to doing what they had always done, eking out a skinny existence through small mixed farming, hunting and transport-riding. As Stassen reveals, decades after these customary pursuits had become obsolete elsewhere, the Angolan immigrants kept them up. Well into the 1950s, for instance, when the rainy season made roads impassable for motor vehicles, Portuguese-owned cars were being loaded on to Afrikaner ox wagons to complete their journeys. The curtain came down finally on this cast of characters, a fair number of whom were fairly eccentric or a little weird, in 1975. With the outbreak of civil war in Angola the last self-consciously “Afrikaner Afrikaners” – as distinct from those who had willingly been swallowed by Portuguese society – fled the country. Thus, after the better part of a century, the strange bond between the Angolan Boers and their adopted colonial home came to an end. Fleeing refugees included not only Fouries and Oosthuizens, but also people with names such as Goncalves and Antunes. Shaped and informed by a kaleidoscopic range of topics, from slavery and racial attitudes to household diet and the linguistic blurring which confronted Afrikaans, the material from which this book is composed is like paint on a palette. Readers will encounter the creation of many vivid sketches, the best of these brief but conveying complex worlds shaped by both personal accident and political design. When it became time to run in the 1970s, Johannes Hans Piorek skipped South Africa to eventually become a cork farmer in Portugal. What took him there was not a preference for port from the Douro rather than from Calitzdorp. It was the nature of his family. His wife and the mother of his children was a black Angolan.