Saturday, March 03, 2007

In which the New York Times features

De La Rey made it onto the front page of the New York Times on Tuesday. I have been having a really hard time writing about it (partly because blogger refused to post and then lost the first draft I put together, though I think that that one didn't make it online is probably a good thing). I find it so hard to strike a balance between self-righteousness and utter naïveté on this issue. My advisor really knows what she is talking about when she says I need to read to develop the vocabulary I need to write. But quite honestly, why is it so difficult to write about Afrikaans culture? While I wouldn't put the song up there among my favourites, I quite like it. As enough people have said before, it is a catchy tune. And I do like the strategy of reclaiming a pre-apartheid history for Afrikaans. I do not align myself with a right-wing perspective, though, and recognize the capacity within this piece of music for alignment with causes I think are fundamentally flawed. But how to find the middle-ground....

It seems to me the pivot point is somewhere around the issue of the old South African flag, and most specifically the colour orange. When the new South African flag was chosen, it was stated specifically that the colours had no specific symbolism, aside from their use in some of the many previous flags that had been associated with South Africa. In general, the red, white and blue reference the Union Jack and the old SA flag, while green black and yellow recall various struggle organizations flags, including that of the ANC. The one colour that was excluded was the orange that had formed the lower bar on the old flag. The word "Orange" was also left off the new name for the province formerly known as the "Orange Free State". It was, however, adopted by the residents of Orania, a Northern Cape Afrikaner town with aspirations of independence. And I have vague (and I suspect unconfirmable) memories of orange being associated with a "no" vote during the 1992 referendum that led to the end of Apartheid. Is that too much symbolic weight to put on a single colour? I also have a remembered association between a horrendously violent act filmed and broadcast by the South African media in the 1980s, and the green, yellow and black flags that hid the faces of the perpetrators. What types of violence get demonized or justified by the state, and under what circumstances? The way that colours and flags get handled here, in the US, is very different from the way they are considered in SA, but in experiencing the American consideration of their flag, I think I am beginning to understand not why, but at least how, a flag can become such a contentious issue.

To return to the music, though, I must point out that none of the reports I have linked to yet note that the original statement by the Department of Arts and Culture, which seemed to ignite the already smoldering controversy, was not in fact a spontaneous effusion, but was issued at the request of the Afrikaans magazine Huisgenoot. The issue was then picked up by the FAK (which is where I first encountered it), and then by the national press, including the newspapers I have already linked to. The Blue Bulls Company then allegedly censored the song during rugby matches at Loftus Versveld, and then revoked that decision in the face of public outrage, though the company deny that any official decision along those lines was ever made, and claim that the song was played at last weekend’s match at Loftus.
Now is it just me, or does it begin to look like the controversy is really being fomented among white (I might even go as far as to suggest primarily Afrikaans) commentators? The DAC statement is pretty nonchalant in comparison to the FAK reaction, while the report in the Afrikaans newspaper Beeld, that I translated previously is significantly more agitated and even potentially inflammatory than that issued by the Citizen, or any of the other newspapers I have linked to. The New York Times buys into the ominous pessimism of the Beeld article somewhat more than the equivalent English South African press, but the assumptions made by that article about connections between Afrikaans culture and apartheid (no, they are not the same thing), and the direct connection, almost equation, drawn between De La Rey and Hendrik Verwoerd (most notably by the fronting of the article with a photograph of the diminutive statue of Verwoerd that overlooks Orania) which indicates the lack of subtlety concerning Afrikaans history that is precisely what this song and its popularity seem to be responding to, somewhat undermines the credibility of that report. I would suggest, though, that the noisy enthusiasm with which the Afrikaans community has opened this debate, indicates a strong desire to be heard. Michael Wines, the New York Times journalist, did make at least one strong point when he suggested that Afrikaners are afraid of their culture being “tossed into history's dustbin” (pg. 2) (this may have been an idea culled from the Sunday Independent, but as their articles are only available for perusal by subscribers, I am unable to confirm this). Certainly Afrikaans culture is rarely promoted along with post-apartheid South African culture in a broader sense: it is not exotic enough for either the world music or the international cultural tourism markets and too strongly negatively inflected by international opinion to fit into either pan-African or revisionist, Rainbow Nation rhetoric. And yet, the Afrikaans music industry, in particular, is big in South Africa. However it may look from the outside, contemporary Afrikaans musical culture did not spring spontaneously to life around this song alone. While I can't find stats for Afrikaans music sales right at present (I'm sure they must be out there), I can assure you that the Afrikaans music industry has a significant market, not least because the generational gap that is so evident among many audiences, is negligible among audiences for Afrikaans music. Musicians like Bok, Dozi, Karen Zoid, Chris Chamelion, Steve Hofmeyr, and the list goes no, play to audiences that span age-groups, while Afrikaans music crosses market-defined genre lines like classical, folk, pop, rock, and to a lesser degree, hip hop and jazz. There is no correspondingly strong white English South African industry, not because the music is not out there, but because, I would argue, assimilationist politics, coupled with post-apartheid white guilt and/or exodus created a self-conscious rupture in English South African music, as composers and performers attempted to navigate the opposing boulders of ‘paternalism’ and ‘eurocentrism’ that litter the rivers of postcolonial creativity. Afrikaans culture, from the Voëlvry movement, and beyond, has taken up the challenge, and is encountering the accusations and pitfalls that have kept me fearfully mute.
But New York heard this one. Free speech is a treacherous and ethereal idea, in situations like these.

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