Christi van der Westhuizen, Zimitri Erasmus, and a riveted audience. ©Johan Eybers
“Gaan dit goed met jou?”
“Ja, baie goed.”
“Dis [x,y,z], hulle is lieflike mense.”
Ironically enough, this conversation was taking place in the courtyard of everyone’s favourite indie bookshop in Joburg, Love Books (and not a kerkbasaar), during the recent launch of academic Christi van der Westhuizen’s Sitting Pretty: White Afrikaans Women in Postapartheid South Africa, a book which explores the identity of white Afrikaans women through the concepts of ordentlikheid and the volksmoeder.
Love Books played host to Van der Westhuizen, her respondent Zimitri Erasmus – the perennially smiling sociology professor and author of the seminal volume Coloured by History, Shaped by Place – and a noteworthy turnout of bibliophiles.
As Sitting Pretty was published ten years after Van der Westhuizen’s first book, White Power & The Rise and Fall of the National Party, Erasmus was curious to know how her thought process had changed since.
“So much happens in South Africa it’s difficult to recall what happened two months ago,” Van der Westhuizen responded (much to the audience’s delight.) She continued by saying that the National Party collapsed in the mid-2000s – “not with a bang, but with a whimper” – into the African National Congress.
“If you thought of the National Party at the height of its powers in the 1980s, of course it was under pressure, but it was really building its militaristic powers. If somebody had said to you at that stage that it was going to collapse into the ANC, you’d be completely off your head. I mean, you must have been smoking something potent! [Cue appreciative laughter]
Zimitri Erasmus, Kate Rogan, The Audience. ©Christi van der Westhuizen
“What was obscure for me, was that particularly Afrikaners were not dealing with the collapse of the party and this party. And, if you think about it, the NP was pivot in Afrikaner identity for so many decades.
“Of course when people are so absolutely dedicated to looking away from something then I’m always drawn to try and figure out ‘why’? I felt like I still couldn’t get my head around why Afrikaners particularly are so fixated on such a particularly pernicious and offensive set of hierarchies and exclusions, in terms of forming identity.
“If you look at Afrikaner identity it’s really forged out of the kinds of exclusions that split families.”
Van der Westhuizen furthered this statement by adding that identities are always formed through exclusions: “I was interested in why did this one take these kind of forms as opposed to others. As part of that quest I started to change my analysis, into one of post-structuralist discourse analysis. To try and make sense of meaning formations at the subjective level, which basically means looking at discourses, looking at language and trying to make sense of the world around us; how we construct ourselves and our identities through language and the world around us.”
Construction of the self and creating hierarchies (unfortunately) exist in a symbiotic relationship.
“Human beings are very fixated on difference. We use difference to make meaning and frequently to create hierarchies and inequalities. Sitting Pretty sprang from that.
“My particular interest has been in power and how we, as human beings, make power for us and how power can work against us. In social sciences, we tend to focus on the margins … There’s an over-abundance of work on poor, black people – and I’m not saying that we should not try and understand poverty and the intersection with blackness – of course you must – but at the same time these kind of convictions are being constructed from somewhere, you know. That’s why it’s important for me that we look at the centers of power. That’s why I’m interested in where whiteness comes from, intersectionality and middle-classness and I decided to mix it up a little bit and throw women in.” (This last comment was met with appreciate laughter from the crowd…)
“I’m a woman” [ another round of 'haha's!'] “so I thought – just in terms of my own position – it’s also a question to understand the legacy of where I come from; my own sense of a deep familiarity with Afrikaner identity and on the other hand a profound alienation with Afrikaner identity – particularly around its sexual and gender constructions. I’ve never wanted to live up to its prescriptions in those regards.”
Van der Westhuizen’s familiarity and alienation with Afrikaner identity is personified by her grandmother, she disclosed.
Described by Van der Westhuizen as a loving, warm, embracing, affirming figure, her grandmother also believed in the inferiority of black people on the basis of race, and was a field cornet in the proto-fascist Ossewa Brandwag.
“So how do I deal with this contradiction of this woman who I also loved so deeply and was such a wonderful person to me and at the same time – with politics – was absolutely so horrendous? She was, to a large extent, also a patriarchal woman. She was advancing patriarchy through many of her practices. So how to make sense of that, that was also important to me.
“So it wasn’t a question of pointing fingers, I mean I discovered a few things about myself in the writing process…”
Christi in conversation. ©Mila de Villiers
“It is very interesting and powerful to realise the books that really hold your attention, that really hold your heart, are born of something personal-political that the author is wanting to make sense of, and that’s really what I felt reading Sitting Pretty,” Erasmus responded before touching on the next subject – Van der Westhuizen’s decision to open the book with Mandela’s reference to Ingrid Jonker’s poem, ‘The Child Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers at Nyanga’.
“What are your thoughts of the effects of this particular opening, at this moment when Mandela’s politics are being challenged quite severely in particular circles – especially ones you and I circulate in at universities?”
“It’s particularly noticeable in the university context, so I wondered to what extent people have picked up on this; that there’s a kind of anti-Mandela discourse that has started to circulate,” Van der Westhuizen replied. Judging by her “I see quite a few nodding heads”-remark, it’s clear that audience members are also aware of, and possibly agree with, the anti-Mandela manifestation.
She questioned whether she should intro with Mandela, “given that there’s been a political shift around his significance and his politics. The issues are real – his politics are being questioned; his politics weren’t really transformative. In fact, transformation as a concept is being rejected by this particular position and the position has now been adopted as one of so-called ‘decolonisation’. Mandela’s politics was, in a sense, sell-out politics and Mandela wasn’t in any way a radical – just a really large band-aid to make socioeconomic inequality and injustice continue from the apartheid era to post-apartheid era and, in fact, we’re not in the post-apartheid era, we’re actually still living in apartheid, we’re just calling it something else,” she asserted.
Van der Westhuizen criticised decolonisation for diverting away from Mandela’s original politics which “produced a very strong vision of an alternative South Africa that’s borne on justice and equality.” She also spoke out against the lack of alternative political visions. “What I have seen is essentialisation of race, a lot of homogenisation of blackness and whiteness.”
After a healthy bout of inner turmoil, she decided to stick with Mandela.
“At the end of the day, yes, he was an African nationalist and I abhor nationalism of any kind, particularly because of my close encounter with other forms of nationalism. At the same time he gave us a very powerful vision; a radical vision, a vision of inclusion. A vision to try and see if we can actually dare to try and establish justice in our country on every level.”
Casual product placement… ©Mila de Villiers
Given the preconceived notion that Afrikaner women should subscribe to a certain ethic of respectability (“ordentlikheid”), Erasmus mentioned how ordentlikheid is one of the threads that runs through Sitting Pretty.
“Talk to us more about this specific relationship between ordentlikheid, white English speaking South Africaness and blackness.”
“I was trying to get some kind of configuration that could capture the identity that I’m talking about,” Van der Westhuizen responded, “and interestingly a lot of Afrikaners are not identifying as ‘Afrikaners’ anymore.”
According to Van der Westhuizen “Identifying as an Afrikaner does not indicate whether someone is reactionary or radical. People who don’t identify as Afrikaners can either have radical or reactionary politics in terms of race, gender and sexuality. Paradoxically the same is true for those who identify as Afrikaners.
“It’s a mixed bag. ‘Afrikaner’ becomes almost useless in trying to capture the identity we’re talking about.
“Ordentlikheid is the word that finally came up for me; it’s an intersection where a particular ethnic idea of sexuality, gender, class and race takes shape.”
Ordentlikheid manifests via particular ideas about politeness, decency and respectability, Van der Westhuizen continued.
“It’s achieved through adopting very particular gender or race or class or sexual positions. Identity is always approached; we feel like we have very stable identities, but actually we’re constructing our identities all the time. We’re making it up as we go along and we’re using these categories of difference to do that.
“Ordentlikheid, in a sense, is the permeation this particular identity takes.”
Afrikaner identity tries to set itself apart from other identities, as shaped by the frontier – the cause of our colonial apartheid history.
“The primary frontier in terms of the relationship with other identities is still race. Afrikaners – or white, Afrikaans people – want to set themselves apart from black people. People are still racialised as ‘black’, which is erroneous because we know it’s all social constructions. They also want to set themselves apart from white, English-speaking South Africans.”
Van der Westhuizen commented on the political project in the early 20th century, stating that “it was all about sharing the spoils of whiteness. A very overbearing identity came with British imperialism.” Anglo-Whiteness was entrenching itself in South Africa, painting the Dutch/Boer settlers in unflattering lights, she explained. ‘Whiteness’, as constructed by the British, was adopted as the standard against which civilisation was measured.
The Boers, as a people, were dehumanised, described by Kitchener as ‘savages with a thin, white veneer’.
“So you have the Afrikaner identity constructed in opposition to this overbearing British whiteness that arrived,” Van der Westhuizen said, interrupting herself mid-sentence as she commented on an audience member’s physical response to her statement.
“I see Sheila is shaking her head vigorously.”
“Nodding!” The one and only Sheila protested, which caused to crowd to crack up, made all the funnier when Van der Westhuizen enquired whether she was nodding in an affirmative kind of way and replying ‘Viva’ to Sheila’s ‘Yes’.
Alle grappies op ‘n stokkie.
“We’re being positioned in a very particular way in relation to Anglo Whiteness and this emerging group wanting to share in almost all its whiteness. You want to differentiate yourself from Englishness, particular ethic permutations and ultimately sexuality and gender then become quite important. Sexual/gender relations are used to create this form of ethnic whiteness. In terms of black people, I found a series of discourses that sort of divide black people into categories.
“Dichotomies are created. Basically, good black people are black people that exonerate white people of all the injustices of the past.”
“Ja, that’s part of the book that’s really gripping,” Erasmus responded. “So you need to get there!” she urged the audience.
“Just a sort question,” Erasmus serenely went on, “the term ‘Afrikaner’ – I don’t know where I get this from, but I understood that from about the mid-90s there was a shift to something called ‘Afrikaanse’. “I’m not an Afrikaner, but I’m Afrikaans-speaking person”. Is that distinction still there?”
“That speaks to the stigma that’s attached to Afrikaner identity,” Van der Westhuizen said.
“The reason why so many people don’t want to claim Afrikaner identity anymore is because of the stigma of apartheid, so apartheid has spoiled the identity; it speaks to question of ordentlikheid. The work that’s being done after apartheid is to try and establish the ordentlikheid of the identity, because apartheid is like a massive stain that you just can’t scrub out; the identity is trying to get rid of it. The Afrikaanse – I’m very careful about that because I do feel that that seems to be like a political project that tries to expand the ranks of the people who used to be called Afrikaners, to buttress them and plump up their numbers; and at the same time to make them politically more viable a force.
“There are certain racialisations that are still in operation … I feel that Afrikaners need to do a lot more work in terms of racial identities over the 20th century. We haven’t done that work sufficiently in any way whatsoever,” Van der Westhuizen emphatically asserted.
Van der Westhuizen and author William Mervin Gumede. ©Johan Eybers
Erasmus’s next query targeted a persistently problematic phenomenon – that of the women’s magazine. Sarie, to be precise. (Which Erasmus assured the audience she DOESN’T read – “Just admit it, you’re a closet Sarie reader!” Van der Westhuizen retorted.)
“I found it really interesting to learn that the majority of the columnists for Sarie are men,” Erasmus said, to the amusement of the audience. “I thought ‘what?!’ So, is it unusual?”
“Well, I didn’t do a comparative analysis with other women’s magazines,” Van der Westhuizen diplomatically replied, “but it did strike me that the majority of columnists were men. Even the last column of the magazine, called ‘Laaste Sê’, and that was written by a dominee,” [cue raucous laughter] “with the name of Izak de Villiers, who in his day used to be the editor of the magazine.
“In a sense it really symbolised how the femininity that Sarie constructs is basically surveilled and regulated by this patriarchal overseer. I was compelled to write a chapter just drawing on what my respondents were saying about men and Afrikaner masculinity. You have the volksmoeder who calls certain shots and then you have a patriarchal overseer. Some of the magazine illustrates it really well. You do have the male figure in women’s magazines but usually much more hidden; in Sarie magazine it’s this pan-optical male but he’s not invisiblised, he’s actually very visible. You could see him on their pages and he’s restricting discourse and he’s allowing you to only go *this* far because we want you to live up to white western hetero-femininity and to actualise white western hetero-femininity and at the same time you’re still our women and you need to know your place.” (This was followed by murmurs of agreement from the audience…)
“That I find really fascinating; it makes me want to buy women’s magazines. Because I see all the men here! What are they doing?” Erasmus laughed.
Van der Westhuizen demonstrated the pan-optical patriarchy present in Sarie via the performer and public figure, Nataniël, who is closely associated with Sarie the brand, and, inherently, as a brand himself.
“What’s interesting with the role that Nataniël plays in the magazine, is that he’s a gay male but he’s not identified as such in the discourse – he has to sanitise his sexuality; he’s there to advise on decor and food … he’s your best little friend on who’s shoulder you can cry. He’s a desexualised figure. He actually brought out a notebook with an inscription from him – allegedly, because Sarie makes up this stuff – “you can’t make yourself feel better if you don’t make other people feel better”. And that’s the femininity – it can only actualise itself in so far as it can service to the others around it and those others must be white.”
Speaking of whiteness…
“You write about aspirational disposition among middle-class Afrikaners toward what you call a ‘global Anglo whiteness’,” Erasmus said. “Does the Netherlands any time, or today, have a place at all in these aspirations to what you also write about as a kind of western universalism? Does the Netherlands have any place there? I’m interested in that question, partly because of my own connection to Holland [Erasmus completed her PhD at the University of Nijmegen] and partly because of my experience of what is called the Afrikaner aristocracy in the western cape.”
“I think there was a strong connection to the Netherlands up until a certain point in the 20th century, because it’s the so-called stamland, the primary country from which settlers arrived. I think the break came with the anti-apartheid movement when there was a strong sense of a humiliation by European whiteness and I think global whiteness in general. Afrikaner whiteness was suddenly not acceptable anymore.
“Our racial practices here – which carried a certain kind of support from the west – started to crumble and Afrikaners are confronted with their racial project being morally and ethically unsustainable and despicable. The Netherlands had a very strong anti-apartheid movement, so that caused quite a break with the Afrikaner nationalist class. At the same time, the white English-speaking South Africans here (or WESAS) like to operate.” The laughter elicited by Van der Westhuizen’s proclamation of ‘WESAS’ – pronounced weh-zas – was a clear indicator of the audience’s familiarity with this, um, particular kind of South African…
The (seated) author signing copies of Sitting Pretty. ©Johan Eybers
As a Joburg summer thunderstorm raged outside, the audience posed their Q’s and Van der Westhuizen provided them with A’s, before the crowd started to disperse – either to have their books signed, or to capitalise on one of the (many) highlights of a book launch – good ol’ mahala vino.