Buks van Rensburg
In the popular mind decadence is the state into which the once omnipotent Roman Empire fell after centuries of dominating the Ancient World. The Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC, it flourished for centuries, dominating the Mediterranean, reached the status of Empire in 27 BC after conquest of other lands, and split into the Western and Byzantine Roman Empires in the Fourth century. The Western Empire finally became decadent and went into decline in the sixth century. The Byzantine Empire survived its Western counterpart by almost a thousand years, falling only to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
The Roman Empire had dramatic effects on subsequent human history. Christianity became a dominant religion after the Emperor Theodosius I suppressed paganism and established the Creed of the Council of Nicaea in 325 as the norm for Christians. Roman Law, Christianity, and the methods of Roman civil engineering are still with us. Roman military precision became the standard for historical European and American armies marching in neat lines on parade, and this has now spread to armies all over the earth. Perhaps even the notions of military ranks and hierarchy can be traced back to the Romans, or has been passed to us from the Greeks by means of the Roman Empire.
Given all this, it must have been a surprising idea, at the time, that an Empire as almighty as the Roman Empire, and which lasted as long, could go into fatal decline and eventually disappear. “The decline and fall of the Roman Empire” is a much researched topic, and Gibbon wrote a six-volume work by that name. It is generally acknowledged that the fall of the Western Roman Empire, after the invasions of Barbarians from northern Europe, had dramatic consequences for Western Europe – the period of artistic, economic, civil and engineering decline resulted in the Dark Ages or Medieval Times, and this period would take hold of Western Europe for a millennium. In this time Europeans suffered from a lack of resources, superstition, short life spans, disease and poverty. It was only the advent of the Renaissance that finally brought relief to Western Europe, and the subsequent history showed that Western Europe climbed out of the Medieval period to become a potent part of the world and the world economy, dominating other areas, and forming Empires which would last for 200 years or more.
In the popular mind the decadence of the Roman Empire conjures up images of a high society that fell into dysfunction. Paintings and other depictions of decadence invariably focus on scenes of gluttony and depraved sexual behaviour, orgies and alcohol abuse. For example, the painting Romans of the Decadence by Thomas Couture portrays an orgy in full swing while shocked philosophers are witnessing scenes of gluttony and bare breasts.
There is a recent sense that the modern West has become decadent in the same manner as Rome, and charges of decadence may appear in the Western press. On the cover of a recent issue of the British magazine The Spectator a headline states that “[Muslims] are right about us”, and the magazine expands on this in an article reporting that some British members of parliament agree with the apparent charge by Muslims that British society, and by extension the West, is decadent (and in this sense, sexually and morally so). In these interpretations of decadence it is meant that individuals are decadent or that individuals exhibit decadence in their ethical or moral behaviour and choices. Thus, decadence is imagined to be a state of individuals, rather than a state of a society at large.
This view is mostly wrong. The sexual depravity and gluttony we take for decadence are in fact not what decadence is. Rather, decadence is the state of a society in decline. Its citizens’ behaviour is a symptom of decadence rather than decadence itself. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines decadence to be “a period of decline” of a society, and it cross-references decadence to “decay”, “decline” or “corruption”, and suggests “deterioration” as a possible synonym. In the Bosman, Van der Merwe, and Hiemstra Tweetalige woordeboek, decadence is translated into Afrikaans as “onder andere as verval, agteruitgang [van ‘n samelewing]”.
The Encyclopedia Britannica states that decadence “is a period of decline or deterioration of art or literature that follows an era of great achievement”. This requires first that a society becomes “great” before it can be decadent. In his book Decadent Societies (North Point Press, San Francisco, 1983), Robert M. Adams examines as examples of decadent societies: the Eastern and Western Roman empires, the ancien regime of 18th century France, the Romanovs of pre-Communist Russia, and the British Empire. He further examines the current American Empire for decadence, and also comments on the role of weak leadership in societies at risk of decadence.
Sober thought would suggest that decadence is the failure of a ruling class that would not, or cannot, identify the risks and dangers facing their society. It is a shortcoming in the intellectual classes in a society, and not of its ordinary citizens. Decadence could come about when intellectual or ruling classes fall out of love and turn their backs on the citizens of the society which produced them. Such an intellectual or ruling class will fail to provide their citizens with a common purpose or a national myth. The result is a loss of faith and confidence of the citizens in their rulers and myths, and they escape in the pursuit of nihilistic pleasure, or they may dissociate from their community to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The symptoms of decadence, including corrupt behaviour, disreputable attitudes, and the destruction of a common purpose that binds a society together, flows from the decadence of the intellectual classes, and not from the citizens themselves. Ordinary members of a decadent society instinctively understand that they have been forsaken by their elite, and this challenges their loyalty and undermines their ethics and morality.
It is with all this in mind that one should approach contemporary Afrikaner society. This topic is far too large for an essay such as this one, and I will necessarily restrict my comments to a few observations. There is a sense in some circles that Afrikaners have lost their way. At least one Afrikaner author, Dan Roodt, has lamented the decadence of Afrikaners in several of his essays. For example, as long ago as 14 December 2003, he commented in his essay Ons Waardekrisis that “koerante vol skandale [is] oor die gedrag van Afrikaners”, that “Afrikaners vandag nie meer weet wat die verskil tussen reg en verkeerd is nie”, en that Afrikaners “is besig om af te sak na die laagste gemene deler toe, en [maak] die gebruike van die bloedige en amorele Suid-Afrika ons eie …”. He pleads for new [Afrikaner] leaderskip to stem this decadence and to catalize an Afrikaner renewal. For his efforts he was eventually fired as a columnist at Rapport, a main-stream Afrikaner Sunday paper. Talk of an Afrikaner renewal, or of an Afrikaner ethnic cohesiveness, or of the dangers of the ANC’s agenda, proved too strong for the editors of Rapport. Afrikaner intellectuals, in the form of opinion makers at a newspaper, apparently quell such talk, as it might upset the ANC driven contemporary South African ethos. Let us therefore rather have peace than having ethnic Afrikaners.
It is without question the case that Afrikaners face severe challenges in the ANC’s South Africa. Individually they are under assault by ANC policies such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and Affirmative Action (AA). These policies are not mildly applied as in other Western countries, but are draconian in their scope, and are based on the idea of a wealth transfer from white to black, rather than the generation of new wealth to empower black South Africans which were sidelined by apartheid. Afrikaners further face the complete undermining of their institutions, from primary and secondary schools, universities and businesses (such as the defunct Volkskas, a bank built from the pennies of savings that small and impoveriched Afrikaner kids brought to school in the 1920’s and 30’s). Afrikaner farmers face land reform and invasion, sometimes apparently driven by the agendas of foreign NGO’s or by ANC warlords, and also suffer discriminatory practices at the Land Bank and other government-related institutions which normally have a mandate for assisting farmers.
These issues would not have been so serious were it not for the fact that some of the Afrikaner elite either defend the application of these policies, or may even be actively involved in their application. Prominent Afrikaner businessman are known to implement BEE and AA with gusto, doing great harm to the economic and social well-being of Afrikaners in mid- and lower-level positions, and stories of Afrikaners being forced to train their own replacements before they are retrenched can easily be found. Young Afrikaners may find themselves stranded with no access to scholarships or entry-level positions. BEE transactions have created a new superclass of rich blacks, at the cost of thousands of Afrikaners who have invested their savings in the stock market, only to see it squandered on such transactions, apparently driven simply by a desire to please the ANC, and with at best a questionable return in the long run. University presidents of previously Afrikaans-medium universities have apparently either not opposed the introduction of English instruction, or have actively colluded with the ANC government to undermine the Afrikaans character of their institutions. In other words, the Afrikaner elite has apparently decided against Afrikaners, or they are unable to decide what is in fact in the best long-term interest of Afrikaners.
There was at some point in the past a well-defined Afrikaner community, with an ethos and culture curiously its own. This community existed well before the Anglo-Boer War, and it was defined by its common ethnicity and by a common purpose. Its leadership did make serious errors, but it was neither decadent nor corrupt, and Afrikaners survived many crises, including war and subsequent poverty, and fought tenaciously for existence against their historical enemies, the English and the Zulu. In 1910 this community was made part of South Africa, and while it would apparently grew in influence and size for another 50 years, it would eventually be undermined by demographics, weak leadership, and now apparently finally by creolization, emigration, and a new decadent ruling class in the post-apartheid years.
Decadence, as I argued above, is a failure of the intellectual class; an inability or a refusal to recognize the evident challenges and truths facing an ethnic group. Afrikaner artists and intellectuals may begin to escape their decadence by acknowledging same basic facts. Perhaps the most important is the fact that the ANC is intensely anti-Afrikaans. Accepting this will not achieve much, but it would at least be intellectually honest, and as such will set a better foundation for a response. By “anti-Afrikaans” I do not mean to anthropomorphize the ANC. The ANC is a collection of individuals, and I mean that in their collective decision-making they act in a manner which is detrimental to Afrikaners – a large fraction of the ANC leadership and policy makers have a knee-jerk anti-Afrikaner response on almost all issues.
Examples of the confusion of Afrikaner intellectuals are easily found. A simple survey of recent publications provides the following examples: In a 17 August 2005 editorial Die Burger states that it is “die ANC vandeesweek ‘n spesiale verklaring uitgereik het waarin Afrikaans gelukgewens word met sy 130 jaar van bestaan …”. That the ANC is using statements such as these in a cynical attempt to pacify Afrikaners on the language issue has apparently not quite registered with the editors of Die Burger. Nelson Mandela is almost universally revered by Afrikaner commentators. It is indeed true that his personal intervention and charisma avoided a civil war in South Africa, but it is also a fact that the ANC, under his leadership, negotiated a new South African constitution which apparently implies the extinction of Afrikaners and the formation of a “New South African”. An honest and frank evaluation would indicate that at best, Nelson Mandela should be regarded with mixed feelings by Afrikaners. Lastly, leaders of the Afrikaner community realize that many skilled Afrikaners are locked out by BEE and AA from the economy, and they have now offered to compile a register of such people. This is a very lame reaction. In a normal situation, the leaders of an ethnic group would have expressed outrage at the discrimination, but then, these are decadent and not normal times.
The prize-winning journalist Max Du Preez has spent a lifetime documenting and recording the experiences of victims of apartheid laws. He has founded an anti-apartheid newspaper, was a researcher and writer for the Apartheid Museum, was an anchor at the new ANC-controlled SABC, and he has risked his life not once as a journalist reporting on police death squads, on riots in Soweto, and on the general decadence of the apartheid regime’s senior ministers. As an Afrikaner, one would have expected Du Preez to file reports on the ANC’s instinctive and deep-seated anti-Afrikaner streak. But it is difficult to find such sentiments in his contributions. In his writings there are but scant mentioning of the plague of murders on Afrikaner farmers since 1994, apparently nothing on the new emergent underclass of poor Afrikaners, and he evidently sees little or no problem with the destruction of Afrikaner institutions by the ANC ruling class.
Du Preez is not alone in this; his choice of issues and attitudes are universally common in Afrikaner opinion makers all over South Africa, including newspaper editors and even political figures. It appears that the story of Afrikaners in post-1994 South Africa is not a story worth filing, and that even Afrikaner opinion makers cannot look with compassion on the sufferance and failings of their own ethnic group. The post-1994 Afrikaner experience is a rich source of captivating stories. Stories of crime and discrimination abound. One captivating story involves a young farmer who survived an attack at the hands of two black assailants by playing dead after being shot three times. A fluent speaker of Sotho, he addressed his assailants in Sotho while they were beating him. They responded by ordering him to speak Afrikaans during his beating. This, unfortunately, is also the Afrikaner experience since 1994, unrecorded and ignored by the Afrikaner elite. There is also a tendency in the mainstream Afrikaans press to condemn Afrikaners who dare speak out against crime or discrimination against Afrikaners. The destruction of Afrikaner institutions and the subsequent confidence crisis among Afrikaners is a potent political story that should be recorded and told.
Average Afrikaners are not blind to all of this. They understand instinctively that elite Afrikaners such as Du Preez have an apparent aversion to them, and that they cannot expect anyone to act in their interest in response to pressures from the ANC. When Du Preez laments in a recent column the large-scale emigration of tens of thousands of Afrikaners from South Africa in the last couple of years, he argues that this and other factors may imply the eventual extinction of Afrikaners. Crime and affirmative action are given as reasons for emigration.
Du Preez and many other prominent Afrikaner commentators ostensibly fail to understand the underlying motive for emigration. Emigration is in particular due to the failure of Afrikaner intellectuals to provide Afrikaners with a vision for the future. That is, a failure to provide a set of arguments, myths and institutions that constitute a model for the continued existence of Afrikaners in South Africa. Afrikaners are acutely aware that the new order in South Africa may phase out Afrikaner culture and the Afrikaans language from both the private and public sectors through transformation and integration. Afrikaners have no province or haven like Québec for Francophone Canadians. The common man is no fool, and he knows that in other societies organized as in post-1994 South Africa minority cultures and languages have failed to thrive, and have ultimately become extinct. Afrikaans will not escape this fate; as it is forced out of South African institutions, so it will disappear from the kitchens of that country as well.
This leaves Afrikaners with an impossible choice: stay in South Africa and anglicize, or emigrate to Australia, and anglicize. In neither country is there an Afrikaner future. This is not even a fair choice. In Australia there is little crime and no affirmative action imposed on Afrikaners. Afrikaners emigrated in the 1830’s from the Cape Colony during the Great Trek to escape British domination. Perhaps the current large-scale migration is the Last Trek which will close the book on centuries of Afrikaners, and in a thousand years all of Afrikaner experience will have been reduced to a footnote.
While Du Preez does lament in his recent essay Changing Ideas of Afrikaner/White Identity (published on the LitNet website) the fact that Afrikaners are not accepted as African by the new Black elite, he appears generally to be incapable of opposing the ANC rulers’ agenda. A self-styled radical who fought against apartheid, Du Preez still appears to be psychologically incapable of understanding that his old comrades are now his enemies, bent on destroying the institutions and cohesion of his ethnic group (or perhaps he does not believe that Afrikaners should exhibit ethnic cohesion, unlike Jews or Scots, for example). As a self-styled radical, he apparently cannot stand radicalism when he encounters it in someone like Dan Roodt. Instead, his behaviour towards Roodt is reminiscent of the behaviour of apartheid ministers to Du Preez, calling him names and attempting to push him to the fringes of mainstream thought by means of boycotts and explicit name-calling on main-stream websites.
The obsession of Max du Preez, Koos Kombuis, and other Afrikaner opinion-makers with Dan Roodt is fascinating. Roodt seems to be driving the debate, since they are constantly reacting to his ideas and statements. Whatever opinion one has about Roodt, it is obvious that he has at the very least provided an intellectual and radical alternative to the lame sentiments coming out of Afrikaans newspapers and from Afrikaner intellectuals since 1994. In this respect he has done Afrikaners a tremendous favour.
The longer-term future of South Africa remains unsure. It may be the case that we are witnessing the birth of a New South African, an Anglophone creature who will be a dominant regional and global force. On the other hand, South Africa may fail in the same way that Zimbabwe has failed. In the first instance Afrikaners will be assimilated and will disappear, and in the second case Afrikaners will go under with South Africa. In both cases they will be on the losing side of history. But this story must still be written.