Afrikaner grapples with loss of culture, white privilege

After apartheid: A South African sees his world turned upside down and the color of his skin, once an asset, transformed into disadvantage.

January 19, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RHINERSPRUIT, South Africa -- Hendrik Robbertze's Afrikaner people once ruled this country as the last entrenched white supremacists on the continent. Now he sometimes feels like an outsider in his own land.

From the rolling acres that his wife's family has farmed for generations, he has watched in dismay as South Africa has been transformed from more than three centuries of white domination to black majority rule. A prominent Afrikaner -- a South African of European origin -- he is now part of a white minority that he sees as beleaguered, consigned to the margins of national life under a government determined to make this a truly African state.

In the past six years, Robbertze, 55, says he's seen the quality of his comfortable, middle-class life steadily erode. "It is not so easy to carry on as you carried on in the past," he says.

He has to pay black workers more now, so it is harder to make ends meet on the farm in North Western Province.

Not all is changed. There is an easy rapport between Robbertze and his staff. Manzime Sebopelo is the third generation of his family to work at the farm. His father, Daniel, 70, now retired, sits in the sun chatting to laborers from a neighboring farm. For 37 years he worked for Robbertze's in-laws, now buried on the property.

"My heart tells me I want to stay here, with these people," he says.

Robbertze, a minister of the Afrikaans Protestant Church, already had outside employment, teaching at a theological college in Pretoria, the country's political capital. Now, Dirkie, his wife of 27 years, has also had to seek other work.

To earn more, they have renovated their three-bedroom farmhouse and adjacent two-bedroom cottage as a guesthouse with a focus on Afrikaner culture and history.

Robbertze is turning the farm into a game reserve -- already antelope graze on his property -- and he is seeking investors to buy more land and help him cash in on the eco-tourism boom.

Where we had guaranteed jobs under apartheid, he says, "we now must be entrepreneurs. You must start something to survive."

Finances apart, the Robbertzes worry about their 16-year-old daughter's education. Class sizes have doubled since her school was integrated. The country's education minister, Kader Asmal, has acknowledged "a crisis at each level of the system."

His older children have not been able get college financial aid because black students are favored, complains Robbertze, and they have had trouble finding jobs in a climate of aggressive affirmative action.

The tide of crime that has swept the nation has reached even to the family farm. So much of Robbertze's livestock was stolen or killed in the past few years that he sold the rest of his cattle and sheep. Alarmed by two local murders and a wave of rural violence that saw 578 South African farms attacked, and 109 farmers, family members and workers killed in 1998, Robbertze and his neighbors ride regular night patrols.

And because he is often away during the week teaching in Pretoria, 100 miles to the north, he bought his wife a revolver for protection. She carries it, wrapped in a yellow duster, in her purse.

"If somebody came in here and started to rape me, I just want to have a chance," says Dirkie, 49.

The tables turned

For almost half a century, Robbertze and the nation's 3.2 million Afrikaners -- about half the whites, but only 8 percent of South Africa's total population of 40 million -- prospered under the apartheid system they imposed in 1948. With their privileges and prosperity threatened or lost, Robbertze fears for the survival of the Afrikaners' culture, language, faith and identity.

"The Afrikaner has nothing," he says with anguish. "We lost power. We are in a position of utter weakness. We are now a small minority with nothing at all."

Robbertze favors a radical solution: a separate "volkstaat," or "homeland," where the Afrikaners could have cultural self-determination within South Africa. He would prefer independence, but accepts that sovereignty is not an option.

So, aside from having the tables turned on them, there is another irony here: Some of the very people who once consigned blacks to segregated homelands now embrace the idea in reverse as their own best hope of survival.

"I accept that we are all the same," says Robbertze, "and that they [blacks] have voting rights. But what I resent at the moment is that in the process, the Afrikaner lost his ability to plan his own destiny."

Deep roots

It is a destiny based on a long history.

Outside the front door of Robbertze's farmhouse, black marble headstones jut from the red African earth in the shade of a blue gum tree, reminders of the family's deep roots in this land. In this quiet place, Robbertze plans to be buried someday, alongside his wife, her parents and grandparents.

The first Afrikaners arrived on this continent three centuries ago, when the Dutch East India Company sent agents to establish a water stop on the Cape of Good Hope for its cargo ships bound for the Orient.

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