‘Deeply sobering’ – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Into the Laager: Afrikaners Living on the Edge by Kajsa Norman
First published in The Witness
Picking up this book, I couldn’t prevent a visceral doubt about the value of an outsider’s view – Kasja Norman is a Swedish journalist. It’s a knee-jerk response: we live here, we know our country best. Any visitor, however much they think they have explored the situation, remains an outsider, unable to get under the skin of their subject. However, the outsider’s view is often the most compelling. It is salutary, as Robert Burns reminded us, to see ourselves as others see us.
In her author’s note, Norman makes a statement that is worth quoting: “I believe that all people are more or less blind to their own culture. Certainly, it has taken a decade away from my native Sweden for me to slowly begin to notice the peculiarities of my own culture.”
And so she begins her exploration of white Afrikaner society and its attitudes, ranging from the battle of Blood River in 1838 to life in the town of Orania with its attempt to create an Afrikaner island, surrounded by a sea of contemporary South Africa. The chapters alternate between historical events that shaped the Afrikaner mindset, and Norman’s interactions with Afrikaners in Orania and elsewhere over the past few years.
Those outside its bubble are inclined to see Orania as a kind of dreary joke, head deep in the sand. Somehow Norman manages to get herself accepted, particularly among the misfits who have washed up there. Some are damaged, sad people who have found a level of protection and acceptance, and whose stories are unexpectedly moving. It is more often in communities outside Orania where Norman uncovers really horrific attitudes.
You think: but I don’t know anyone like that. And then you are pulled up short by the recent news story of the two men who forced a farm worker into a coffin and threatened to set him alight. When Norman’s book ends with the expensively built Reconciliation Bridge at Blood River, ostensibly linking the two sides who fought the ancient battle, but which is still locked and barred because the representatives of the Ncome and Blood River heritage sites cannot agree on how it should be managed, you realise that mutual accommodation and tolerance are a very long way away – and receding. This is a deeply sobering book.