Blood River – A memory at the heart of the Afrikaners’ battle to surivive
Bridge Over Blood River: The Afrikaners’ Fight for Survival by Kajsa Norman (Hurst & Company, London 2016)
TREVOR GRUNDY reviews Kajsa Norman’s book Bridge Over Blood River
MODERN HISTORIANS and a lot of journalists lost in academic fog have been far from kind to the Afrikaners – the white tribe of Africa.
It’s as if they’d gathered-up, without thought or balance, every racial sin committed by every country and people in the world and piled them onto the back of a scape-goat called white South Africa.
Biblical Jews knew that ridding themselves of collective sin was no easy thing to do.
For the Hebrews, the release of scape-goat into the wilderness was an annual event.
How right they were.
Bad things, bad people and bad memories aren’t finger-kissed away on a once only basis. They don’t melt like dew on leaves when the sun shines.
So welcome Kajsa Norman, author of this new and well–written account of aspects of recent South African history and how it impacts on the much -maligned white tribe now.
Whoever said the past is another country should be shot.
The past is a living, breathing partner of the present.
Although fewer in number, diminished in power, easy victims of media mockery, Afrikaners do have a future in South Africa whether leatherheads like Julius Malema and supporters like it or not.
In his foreword to this London-based Swedish author’s book, the late/great Swedish novelist (creator of Wallander), Henning Mankell, writes: “Thick- skinned and fearless, she (Norman) has embarked on a daring journey through South Africa, deep into the landscapes of the tensions that still prevail there. It’s soon clear to me that she represents a new generation. Her eye isn’t mine, even though we both see what we see: injustice, oppression of women and the living, breathing racism that is not just a lingering ghost. . . Here are her conservations from journeys in the country that not long ago kicked out the hateful system of apartheid and left it to die on the garbage pile of history.”
The book is divided into twenty-nine easy-to-read sections, each of them based on events that follow December 16 when in 1838 the Battle of Blood River took place – an event that was the platform upon which the Afrikaner people stood and with exceptions, stand today.
Most of the book is set in Orania, that racially exclusive settlement in the de-populated fringes of the Karoo desert, set up in the 1990s by Afrikaners who wanted no part of the new South Africa, the much lauded Rainbow Nation.
In that strange little republic, the truly remarkable thing is there are no black servants. Whites have to do every ordinary task from cleaning the street(s) to mowing the lawns, doing the dishes, turning out the garbage.
As Mankell states, here is a writer with great courage.
She gets her hands dirty. She meets real people. The mobile phone has no role, thank God. She listens and records. She pitches her tent by the site of the Battle of Blood River and watches without admiration or condemnation how the descendants from the days of the Great Trek and of British-designed concentration camps that cost around 26,000 lives during the Anglo-Boer Wars behave.
She hears their life stories, notes their idiosyncrasies, writes about their fears and hopes and paints in a remarkably moving way their greatest fear of all – assimilation leading to extinction.
Living at the edge of a fast changing world, some of the residents of the breakaway settlement are experiencing what Oswald Spengler called “second religiousness” – you do something not because you believe in it any longer but because it gives you a warm feeling inside, remembering the past.
Okay no-one accepts your currency or your flag but it’s YOUR unwanted currency and YOUR un-noticed flag.
Just how far are young Afrikaners prepared to go to preserve their culture, their way of life – themselves?
The question is loud, the answer only just audible in this book, anyhow. Can you just shut the door and answer No to the world outside? But why and try to participate in a society that makes it abundantly clear you neither wanted nor needed any longer?
Are these remote men, women and children in Orania all that different from the much more politically correct whites who so identified with the ANC in the 1990s but who now live in gated communities in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria?
Like Henning Mankell, Norman visited Mozambique where she interviewed a young South African (white) journalist who wanted to get to grips with the “real” Africa. In Maputo she find the Third World Groupies involved with various NGOs and humanitarian projects are almost as far away from the local people as Afrikaners were from blacks in the bad old days. But the rhetoric is different.
Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma visited Orania.
Frans de Klerk, CEO of the Orania Company and the town’s municipal manager, told the author that it was easier to get Zuma to understand the idea behind the Afrikaner initiative than it was Mandela.
In a telling statement, he said –“In 1995 it was still early days and Mandela was going to build a Rainbow Nation where there would be no need to escape to a separate community. Zuma, on the other hand, identifies very strongly with Zulu culture and seems to better understand the desire of people to remain a people and preserve their culture.
Towards the end Kajsa Norman has an interview with Hermann Giliomee the liberal Afrikaner historian.
She asks him how long will the Afrikaners survive? He asks her how long the Swedes will survive.
Low birth rates, ageing populations, increasing income gaps a multi-cultural world, . . . assimilation.
Ask Jews what they most fear. Some have the courage to say.
Here’s a book that deserves a place on the libraries shelves of schools, colleges and universities not only in South Africa but also in English speaking/reading Commonwealth countries where the study of Africa is taken seriously.
Full of humour, it ends on a truly sad note – the failure of the Afrikaners and black majority to open a bridge between Ncome and Blood River museums, places that tell different versions of the same story.
History is written by the winners, yes. But often it’s more interesting when told by the losers.
Two years ago today (December 16) the bridge was completed. So far, no-one has crossed it.
“And so there it lies, “writes Kajsa Norman, “Reconciliation Bridge – its gates closed and its locks secured, in one last effort to keep the armies of past and future crossing.”
On December 16, 2019 the President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa made an impassionated call for reconciliation in his country.
During a speech calling on all South Africans to work together as one, he referred to Blood River and said –
This day of the year was proclaimed as the Day of the Vow by our apartheid rulers to remember the fierce battle in 1838 at the Ncome River between the Voortrekkers and the Zulu people under His Majesty King Dingane.
In that historic battle, brave Zulu warriors with assegais succumbed in large numbers to the firepower of the Voortrekkers, and, it is said, the Ncome River ran red with the blood of these freedom fighters.
For they were freedom fighters, because they were fighting for the freedom of our land, and they sacrificed immensely, fighting against invaders.*
It is therefore significant that this day of the year also marks the day in 1961 on which Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, was formed to resist the savagery of apartheid dispossession and oppression.
When we attained our democracy in 1994 we took a conscious decision that the 16th of December would be a day we commemorate both historical events, and in doing so, reconcile our nation.
This day, that once symbolised the domination of one group over another, is now an occasion to celebrate the pact we made to start on a clean slate – to strive towards realising a society founded on reconciliation, non-racialism, non-sexism, equality, peace, justice and democracy.”