In 1987, after a group of Afrikaner leaders and academics broke rank and went to meet the African National Congress (ANC) in Dakar, Senegal, for talks about how to bring democracy and peace in a country that was teetering at the brink of abyss, a new term emerged to define those Afrikaners: the New Voortrekker. In fact, the first New Voortrekker in the eyes of the ANC had been Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert, who the year before had decided to resign as the Member of the Progressive Federalist Party (now Democratic Alliance) as well as a member of the Tricameral Parliament, saying that to continue participating in that Parliament would serve to legitimise an illegitimate government. And so it was that Slabbert and other influential Afrikaners who went to Senegal the following year to engage with the ANC in what would monumentally be one of the first catalysts toward a new dispensation in South Africa.
The Dakar meeting was meant to get all parties involved to discuss and commit to what each group could do to build a new nation – a nation diverse but united in its vision and aspiration. What would it take from all the people of South Africa to build a new country that served all its people as one, equally, with innate human and constitutional rights?
Sadly, the programme of building a new South Africa has been so tough that memories of an imagined united South Africa with shared interests and common destiny have proven too heavy a burden that retreating to our respective corners has proven comforting and reassuring.
Today, the old Voortrekker has stormed the houses of justice, ready to confront and test the might of the State, all to demand to be treated differently, better, with greater privilege and special resources than the rest of the country. Because unlike the rest of the country, which is also facing high rates of crime, the old Voortrekker’s security must be guaranteed as they are, of course, providing us with the most important resource – food. Most importantly, they are Afrikaners – citizens with a higher premium that the rest of us.
This has been the case since 1994. Despite the leap forward by the New Voortrekker in reaching out to the other side and attempting to build a bridge, largely academics and intellectuals, the 1994 election results were troubling. Almost all white South Africans voted for the National Party, and this was seen as the fear of the minority for the black majority rule. It was also seen as an attempt to preserve past privileges by giving the apartheid party political muscle. The New Voortrekker was lonely and without support, while the country was entering the new South Africa along colour lines. Were White South Africans ready to sacrifice for the new South Africa that was emerging, or they were hoping to legitimise their slice of South Africa as a minority of a special type using the majority vote?
The result of this unyielding past, which sits heavy on the black majority, whose justice remains pitifully incomplete, is that the old voortrekker, who has never wanted to carry any burden for the new South Africa, only that it must guarantee his privilege and security, has retreated into his solitude, to once more become a minority of a special type and not South Africans who are not excused from problems that affect other South Africans.
Crime affects all South Africans, black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural. This problem requires common effort, and not fissures wherein each group feels their premium of citizenry is higher than others and are therefore entitled to a special arrangement for their safety. This brings up old questions about whether a united country of the reborn was always wishful thinking of the New Voortrekkers and black people which was never shared by the majority of white South Africa, as their 1994 vote clearly showed.
Despite the 1994 results, there was always hope that over time, the 400 years of racial brutality upon which South Africa was built, as well as the injustice and inequality based on color and race, would in the end be a thing of the past, and give birth to the desire for a united, shared and equal country growing more intense and destroying the old attitudes like fire.
The bold steps taken since that Dakar meeting and over the last 30 years did have a sprinkle of hope about what is possible. But it has been clear that most white South Africans still hold the foolish and long abandoned view of race superiority wherein their race deserves a bigger slice of the country’s resources and attention. These are clearly the people who reluctantly joined the new dispensation, to see if it will continue to give them apartheid benefits, this time using the approval of the people.
As the Dakar team learnt upon their return to the apartheid country, hostility would be an everyday struggle between them and those who knew that a united, equal country would threaten their privileges given to them by an illegitimate government and its institutions, which existed to serve only them and at their behest.
The New Voortrekker knew that their Dakar act was but the beginning of a long and difficult road but it had to be done. But they must have underestimated the kind of efforts it would take to ensure that between many South Africans and their differing interests, one nation could emerge. What was clear to both the ANC and the New Voortrekker was that, for a new country to be born, the old one needed to die. No perpetuation of the previous nation could be a foundation upon which the new is built. Senekal farmers are proving that the past has not really passed.
The question today arises, and has been coming up every year beyond Dakar: what is the contribution of Afrikaners to fundamental social transformation, as envisaged in the commitments of our constitution? Some farmers, the Freedom Front Plus (founded by an Afrikaner general who refused to be part of the 1994 transition until the last moment), and AfriForum are all hell-bent to ensure the past and its Afrikaner privileges are maintained and entrenched by the state where possible.
This new, bright and strong country was not going to build itself. It would take deliberate, sustained and sacrificial efforts by all of us – together – both to understand the damage that has been caused and how each of us can contribute to fixing and it and building anew. Unfortunately, the contribution of each and every South African, of all races and creed, of what we all can do to build this new South Africa has been replaced by self-serving, racial groupings’ question of what South Africa can do to serve their interests and those like them.
It may well be that the New Voortrekker was a movement of a few people. Others were silenced by the success of the new dispensation and were biding their time so that any emergence of a sense of failure would give them the right signal to finally voice what had been aching them for years – that they never wanted the new South Africa to be born for it was always a threat to their exclusive state-sponsored privileges.
The country will not go back to the past, where some citizens are more privileged than others. It will never happen. If that must be enforced through the might of the law, so shall it be.
The country, however, remains hopeful that out of the many different parts of the nation, one land and its people, united in their diversity, emerges.
Yonela Diko is spokesperson for the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. He writes in his personal capacity.