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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Decoding “the Boer” in the “Kill the Boer” song: a South African necessity

FM Lucky Mathebula - 2011-06-23

Untitled Document

The terminological, conceptual and political breadth associated with the term Boer, as well as its multiple applications to mean different things to different people and political constituencies, has evoked scorn and praise from a broad spectrum of South Africans. Whilst these interpretations are its strengths, in historical terms, it has also grown to become its prominent socio-political liabilities, particularly given the historical truths characterising a pre-Mandela South Africa. The growing unreflective use of the term the Boer as a context for restitution-driven political discourse in South Africa creates a vector of analysis that makes its varied meanings a victim of misinterpretation by protagonists of its context-laden meanings.

The liberal democratic tradition of insisting on labelling individuals and ascribing context to them with a chronic risk of dislodging concepts from their original meaning, is creating in South Africa a culture of “concept consumption” (a condition where society accepts labels without question) as opposed to “context analysis” (a condition where society foregrounds the context within which terms are used). The obsession with an anti-Malema and/or pro-Malema narrative by South Africa’s social commentating platforms has further alienated the public from the truths about the “Boer” from all sides of the contesting spectrum. The country has had to contend with a Malema-rant-inspired relationship with the “Boer” concept as opposed to its fundamental conceptual usage during the anti-apartheid struggle era.

The need, therefore, to decode the Boer in the “Kill the Boer” song as well as decoding the Boer as a historical term referring to a key component of being Afrikaner and “Suid-Afrikaner” is established.

The term Boer has literal or dictionary, ideological and philosophical dimensions, all of which create a kaleidoscope of interpretations that are fast becoming a liability to a post-Mandela South Africa. In simplistic literal sense the word boer means “farmer”. Its meaning has Dutch origins that include a peasant employed in a strictly class-defined agrarian economy. Strictly speaking the Dutch meaning reflects a group of people that did not have land-owning rights. In this context it positions anyone that is involved in the primary food production chain as a “boer”. This literal meaning designates a race-free class of farmers generally composed of agriculturalists collectively defined by the common allegiance to tilling the land in order to harvest.

In its philosophical sense the term boer defines a way of life that cannot be abrogated to any race group. It explains a class of people that are driven by a passion to contend with the risks of nature such as drought, flood rains, veld fires and the many “acts of God” associated with farming. The tenacity of this class to withstand protracted moments of solitude and self-propelled working culture separates this group of people from the rest of society. Their position in society is in many a country undermined because their produce is often experienced outside the prism of what it takes to get the raw produce for processing.

In the political context, especially in South Africa, it represents two strands of opinion, the individual celebration of which creates a firmament of “cold conflict” requiring statesmanship equivalent only to the Mandela type. On the one hand the term Boer represents a group of men and women of Afrikaner descent that waged one of Africa’s relentless and heroic anti-British colonial struggles that culminated in a formal war now called the South African War. While these “Boers” were defeated on the battlefield by the British, they continued to wage an ideological war propelled by a race-based nationalist agenda. The “Boer” became a representation of a “liberation movement” with an independent “Boer” Republic being the ultimate objective of its leadership and architects.

The 1961 Constitution that followed South Africa’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth, a club of former British colonies, provided a breakthrough for the “Boer” movement to re-establish a Republican government that was destroyed by the British at the aftermath of the South African War. In celebrating this victory an accelerated programme of developing the “Boer”, now redefined to include white South Africans in general and “the Afrikaners” in particular, was institutionalised as an ideological framework for governance. The centrality of Afrikaner nationalism in South African politics yielded a political economic system dedicated to a racial means of achieving material advantage and political leverage.

The material benefits that accrued to white South Africa, and Afrikaners in particular, created in the “Boer” a legitimate sense of victory over the then mighty British Empire that needed to be celebrated within an ideological construct of “Boer-ism” or “Afrikaner-ism”. As a consequence, “Boer-ness” developed from being an innocent Dutch word referring to an economical farmer to being associated with a system of white privilege and “institutionalised” Black dispossession and oppression. The truthful history of “Boer” concentration camps during the South African War became one of the most potent electioneering and “volksbou” tools that could survive only if a perpetual external threat was kept alive. “Swart Gevaar” was thus institutionalised as currency to sustain in-laager occupants. The “laager mentality”, symbolised by a semi-circle formation made up of Voortrekker wagons, was spun into an ideological firmament around which “non-Volk”-embracing South Africans would be “gevaarlik” to the continued survival of the Volk.

It is in the maintenance of this ideological firmament that the “Boer” began to symbolise a system that excluded Black people, and Africans in particular, from the totality of South Africa’s destiny; the “Boer” graduated into a system.

The second strand of opinion about the “Boer” is that which sees “the Boer” as a system that must be killed in its totality. The “Boer” in this context is not a person or a group of people, but a system that humanity has thus far agreed was a crime against itself. The unfortunate transfiguration of what should in reality have been a celebratable movement of Afrikaner men and women who repudiated British imperialism and created an anti-colonial context for South Africa has now become a socio-political liability for South Africa’s celebratable history. The De la Rey greatness associated with the anti-colonial feats by Afrikaners is yet to find free expression in South Africa’s history, depending on the emergence of honest custodians for its non-racial and anti-colonial meaning to all.

The “Boer” in the “Kill the Boer” song is the one that incarcerated Nelson Mandela for 27 years and later realised how great this leader would be to “the Boer” who agreed with the world when it declared what “the Boer in the Song” institutionalised as a crime against humanity.

The unreflective and narrow discussion and defence of the “Boer in the Song” (or what remains of such a “Boer”) can only confirm that some among the “real and innocent Boers outside the song” are desirous of what the “Boer in the Song” wanted of South Africa. Unless otherwise advised, what Malema refers to as the “Boer” in the song is what the bulk of legislative mechanisms enacted since 1994 are busy eliminating and/or “killing”. This can, in simplistic terms, make Malema legally compliant.

Notwithstanding, the acceptance by former President FW de Klerk, as a then mandate-holder of the majority of white South Africans, that South Africa belongs to all who live in it and that no government can claim any legitimacy unless it is based on the will of the people, created a new firmament of interracial relations that procured for sensitivity to both perpetrators and victims of apartheid to be sensitive to one another’s fears and aspirations. The “Boer” in the song is in the process of being completely eradicated, which means his killing is still legitimate by all accounts. On the other hand, the “Boer” that repudiated colonialism has a yearning to be celebrated as a critical contributor to the general anti-colonial struggles of Africa. Harold Macmillan’s “winds of change” includes the 1961 Afrikaner nationalist “breakthrough” in as much as it included the 1960 political breakthrough of Nkrumah’s Ghana, save its racial overtones. Only history will explain why the 50th anniversary of South Africa’s becoming a Republic, in pure anti-colonial terms, came and went on 31 May 2011 with absolutely no commemoration from government.

Whilst the “Boer in the Song” is still an enemy to humanity and the “Boer” who began the end of colonialism in South Africa yearns for celebratory recognition in post-1994 South Africa, the historically innocent “Boer of literal Dutch original meaning” is threatened by calls for the “Boer” to be killed. The murkiness of this circumstance imbues into the core of ANC-ness to seriously consider the use of the song as a political mobilisation artefact. The realities around the centrality of the ANC in crafting a new identity for the “Boer” will provide a structural and subjective condition for the emerging power relations among South Africans to be focused on building a country that belongs to all who live in it.

The inward “trekker” movement by the “Boer” who must be part of “farming” a new South Africa, as manifest in the dangerously concretising identity voting patterns that characterised the 2011 municipal elections must be thwarted. The moral high ground with which the ANC has conducted its struggle for the emancipation of South Africans positions it as the only social force that can manage a proper comprehension of post-apartheid “Boer” identity. The state as a pivot around which a “Boer” identity, rightly or wrongly, was crafted remains the only institution with which a redefinition can be managed. There is equally a need for the “new Boer” to pragmatically rise to the challenge and publicly reject the identity of the “Boer in the Song” instead of continually leaving an impression that he/she is the “Boer that must be killed”.

The “Boer” in all her definitions was a creature of statehood. She can, therefore, not be expected to craft her identity outside the levers of state influence. Her promotion as a potent force and a global player in the field of science and commerce is attributable to her then access to state resources and support. Albeit unannounced then, the Afrikaner “regstellende aksie” of the 1950s through to the late 1970s has monuments that attest to the a claim that it was one of the best affirmative action programmes ever to be embarked on by a government. The “regstellende aksie” was so good that it produced a heart transplant, fossils-to-fuel technology, world-class universities, world-class parastatals, and many other developments that made South Africa a global player of note. Stripped of the “Boer in the Song” the remaining “Boers” have a significant contribution to make in a maturing South African democracy.

The gladiatorial “nationhood” that is often displayed at rugby matches is an asset that requires some serious thinking on how to convert it to loyalty to the new “South African nationhood”. Cosmetic campaigns such as Lead South Africa with their “endangered civilisation” sub-tones can only alienate critical constituencies to the nationhood assignment. A combination of ANC’s nationalist orientation and the “Boer-ism” that repudiated colonialism both in cultural and social orientation as well as economic independence is what South Africa is yearning for. This combination will make Robert Sobukwe’s declaration, “When I say ‘Africa for Africans’ I have always made clear that by African I mean those, of any colour, who accept Africa as their home. Colour does not mean anything to me”, real.

The new Boer must be loved and embraced; the “Boer” who decolonised South Africa must get celebratory recognition; and the “Boer who oppressed other South Africans on the basis of colour” must be completely eradicated both in our hearts and in our minds; he/she must be killed first by the other “Boers”. Only then can we proudly say “Kiss the Boer.”