Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “Woozers”

Growing up in Durban

I’ve just finished reading Barbara Trapido’s Frankie and Stankie — a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in Durban. A few days ago I wrote about it in Notes from underground: Evocation of a Durban childhood. That was after I’d just read the first few chapters.

I found it quite fascinating, and it made me put my project of reading Ulysses on hold, because it gripped me so much. There was so much that I could identify with, especially my own childhood up to the age of seven, and then the university parts in the early 1960s, because though I wasn’t on the Durban campus, but in Pietermaritzburg, it was the same university, and I knew some people from there.

Plus, as Trapido would say, some of the people were real people with real names, like Ken and Jean Hill, whom I did not know well, but I had met them a few times. And Francis Cull, whom she referred to as a 35-year-old Anglican priest, and who in my time, three years later, was doing English Honours in Pietermaritzburg, and seemed nearer to 70 than 60, as old as I am now, perhaps, except that I don’t feel as old as he seemed to me then.

There were some anachronisms, or at least so they seemed to me — she referred to the university as “uni”, an Australianism that came in long after the time. Perhaps people speak of it as the “uni” today, but in my — our– time it was always “varsity”. Another term I don’t remember using at that period is “airhead”, though the description is accurate enough. John Vorster did not become Minister of Justice until 1961, though the book suggests that he held that position in 1960, at the time of the Sharpeville massacre.

Her description of the freshers reception committee also rang true, though since I was somewhat older by the time I got to the University of Natal, I was in a position not to take it very seriously, unlike the 17-year-olds straight out of school. But I think she had them well sussed out, and the thing about freshers having to wear hair ribbons and bow ties was spot on, though in my day they were yellow and purple, which for various reasons entirely unrelated to fresher integration, I happened to like. On the Durban campus the Philistines were the engineers, while in Pietermaritzburg they were the agrics. I remember an agric friend once railing against “liberals” and how he hated them, and when I asked him why he replied, “Because they’re against integration”. It was just the opposite of the usual complaint — that liberals were against segregation — so I was quite gobsmacked (yes, that’s an anachronism too), but it turned out that he was talking about fresher integration, not racial integration.

I couldn’t identify quite so much with the high-school period of the late 1950s, perhaps because by then my family had moved to the Witwatersrand and we lived on a smallholding in Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg, whose expansion into the surrounding countryside I viewed as an assault on my freedom. Plus (is that term catching or what?) I was at a boys’ boarding school, so fashion in clothing played a much smaller role in my life as a teenager than it did at a Durban girls’ day school. Nevertheless, there were enough parallels to make it interesting.

I suppose the book is what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, a novel about growing up, or a “coming of age” novel. And in that it succeeds. It may be fiction (or at least semi-fiction), but it is also a piece of social history, a memoir. Such was the segregated nature of South African society in those days that it is the memoir only of a Woozer [1] upbringing in the post-war era, the period 1945-1965. Trapido (whose husband was the well-known South African historian Stan Trapido) sets her story of growing up against a background of real historical events. She tells it as it really was; much of it is just as I remember it.

In my earlier post I noted that I had met Babara Trapido, and now I’m rather puzzled, having come to the end of the book, since that was nine years after she had left South Africa for good. So now I wonder just who it was that I met.


[1] Woozer – a White Urban English-speaking South African (WUESA). The experience of other South African cultural groups might be quite different. For White Rural English-speaking South Africans of roughly that period, for example, the classic Bildungsroman is The power of one by Bruce Courtenay.

Beyond the Boerewors Curtain: Identity and white English South Africans

In his blog Beyond the Boerewors Curtain Roger Saner asks an interesting question about Identity and white English South Africans

What also interests me about Apartheid is the white English role. Most English people in SA seem unaware that the British concentration camps were responsible for the deaths of 26,000 Afrikaner women and children. This is not a legacy to be lightly skipped over, and one that ties directly into one of the most thorny issues for English South Africans: identity. Who are we? We’re not British, although many of us hold British passports (or can get ancestral visas, or flee to the UK when we get the chance). We’re not Afrikaans, so therefore we’re not responsible for Apartheid (so I’ve heard from many English people). ‘Apartheid was something which the Afrikaners were responsible for, not us. We had no say. In all levels of government the only people who were employed were Afrikaans.’ So we withdrew from the public sphere and happily existed in the neutral space between oppression and oppressed, mirroring the behaviour of everyone else.

The last sentence rather begs the question. What do you mean “we”, white man? Just who is “everyone”?

In his book Ah big yaws? Rawbone Malong described the language, pronunciation and usage of White Urban English-speaking South Africans, WUESAs, or Woozers for short.

In a post on my other blog I queried the usage and assumptions of a certain school of church historians who have written about “the English-speaking churches” in South Africa. Is there such a thing as a Woozer identity?

I suppose that in a sense I’m a Woozer. I’m white, speak English as my first language, was born in South Africa and have lived in cities most of my life. But does that define my identity? In the year I was born a man called G.H. Calpin published a book called There are no South Africans. He was a nasty right-wing racist (I was later called upon to review one of this other books, which made that very clear).

I’ve been faced with the question at several significant moments of my life. I’ll describe some of them, going backwards in time

One was 25 years ago, during the referendum of the tri-cameral parliament, in 1983. I was visited by a National Party canvasser, who tried to convince me that the proposed tri-cameral parliament was a good thing. He stayed most of the afternoon. My objections were different from most of those he encountered, and it took most of the afternoon for him to grasp what I was getting at. Most objections he encountered were from people who did not like the idea of having Coloureds and Asians in parliament, even in separate houses. What he found difficult to grasp was that I rejected two principles that he regarded as so axiomatic that he could not conceive of the possibility of anyone questioning them: group rights and “own affairs”. And that related to one of the fundamental contradictions of apartheid.

Afrikaner nationalists liked to point out that nationalism was a good thing, and that it simply meant “love of one’s own” — and that is where “own affairs” came in. The problem for me was, what was my “own”? The “white group”? But what was it? One should have “own affairs” which meant one’s own schools, language, religion, culture and so on. But Nat policy was to have separate English and Afrikaans schools. If the theory of apartheid were to be consistent, then there should have been an “English” homeland, which ran its own affairs. But there wasn’t, of course. If there were, then the “white” group would be split, and could not outnumber the Coloureds and Indians, and the tri-cameral parliament would no longer serve its purpose of maintaining white Afrikaner Nationalist hegemony. For the same reason there could not be a “black” house fo parliament, because that would outnumber the whites, so the blacks had to be divided into Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana etc homelands. It was the old policy of divide and rule. As long as Afrikaner nationalists outnumbered all other whites (English, Portuguese, Greek etc), they could be coopted to boost the numbers of the white parliament, which Afrikaner nationalists would control. The moment one of the black groups outnumbered the white conglomerate, the racial arithmetic no longer worked. Chris Heunis resigned as Minister of Constitutional Affairs, and apartheid’s days were numbered.

But to the Nat canvasser it was inconceivable that I should not see my identity as primarily white. I didn’t want a tri-cameral parliament, I wanted one parliament, with one man, one vote. He said “But that has never worked anywhere.” I said “Look west”. That required more explanations. On our western border was Botswana, which in 1983 was the most democratic country in Africa. Admittedly it was a much more homogeneous population than South Africa. But I didn’t see why it shouldn’t work in a multicultural country like South Africa, and thought it was a lot better than having people of one culture telling all the others what groups they belonged to and what their culture ought to be. “Own affairs” was a farce, because the attitude of the Nat government was that “you will look after your own affairs, and we will tell you what your own affairs are”.

An earlier defining moment was the publication of A message to the people of South Africa by the South African Council of Churches, in 1968.

In the past various Christian groups had criticised apartheid on the ground of its unjust implementation. The Message, however, attacked not merely the implementation and practice of apartheid, but its theory and ideology. It said that apartheid was far worse than a heresy, it was a pseudogospel.

Apartheid was a false gospel because it encouraged people to find their security in racial identity instead of in Christ, and it was therefore, from a Christian point of view, a form of idolatry. It set up racial identity as an idol. Christians therefore opposed apartheid not merely because it was bad in practice, it was bad in principle. It was based on principles and assumptions that could never be acceptable from a Christian point of view.

For me personally, that was not something new. The Message to the people of South Africa simply articulated something I already knew. It helped to clarify and reinforce things by finding terminology to describe them. Many people had believed that apartheid was a heresy. The Message went further, and said it was a pseudogospel, and explained why. It was a moment like the one when Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal. It challenged South Africa: if Christ is God, serve him; but don’t pretend to serve him when your real god is the idol of racial identity.

For me personally the defining moment came in 1960/61, when there was another referendum, on whether South Africa should become a “republic”, and did become a republic outside the Commonwealth.

It made me think about what it meant to be a citizen of the Republic of South Africa. The propaganda of the Republicans was that it would “unite South Africa”. They said that the Afrikaners put South Africa first, while the “English” had divided loyalties, with one foot in Britain, which many Woozers still spoke of as “home”, even if their ancestors had lived in Slouth Africa for generations. The Afrikaans word for Woozers was “souties”, derived from “soutpiel” — if one had one foot in South Africa and one in Britain, then another part of the body (in the case of males) must be dangling in the salty waters of the ocean in between.

But all this talk of “uniting” South Africa was going on simultaneously with talk of dividing it up into “homelands”. And what was a homeland? A putative place of origin that black people (but not whites) were told they belonged to, and could be sent “back” to. So what did it mean to be a citizen of the Republic of South Africa? That you should have no other homeland (if you were white), but that you must have another homeland, if you were black. Clearly, the Republic of South Africa was going to be a Mickey Mouse country, with an elastic definition of citizenship that could mean anything but actually meant nothing.

And at the same time I read the New Testament, where St Paul said “our citizenship, our homeland, is in heaven” (Philippians 3:30). So it appeared to me that it was a toss-up between citizenship of the Kingdom of Heaven and citizenship of the Republic of South Africa, and I opted for the former. Baptism, it appeared to me, was a naturalisation ceremony for entering the Kingdom of Heaven.

So what the National Party was urging me to do was (in the words of Leon Bloy) the renunciation of my heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world.

Because I was baptised, I had more in common with a baptised black person than with an unbaptised white one. The National Party tried to deny the truth of that, and to say that skin colour was more important than what God had done in baptism, that Babel could not be overruled by Pentecost.

And for the same reason, I couldn’t get particularly particularly excited about being a Woozer, or see that as the core of my identity.

For a while I lived in Namibia, when apartheid was at its height, and many cities in Namibia had black “locations”. In terms of the apartheid ideology blacks had no permanent homes in the cities, and were forced to go and live outside the city, beyond the town limits. Many did not want to move, and in Windhoek the Hereros were told that they could even give the new location a name, if only they could go and live there, and so they called it “Katutura” which means “We don’t live here”. And every new location outside every Namibian town was called Katutura, even if the government called it something else.

In Herero, “tura” means to live in a place as a homeland, to have a home in a place. Yet this was a metaphor for the Christian life. Hebrews 13:12-14 shows that Jesus was in Katutura, not Windhoek, because it was to precisely such a place that the world pushed him, and as his followers, that is where we are. We are pariki, the Greek word from which the English word “parishioners” is derived, we live beside the house, not in it. In Afrikaans, we are bywoners, squatters, sojourners. This is not our homeland: katutura, we don’t live here.

Apartheid may be dead in South Africa, but the struggle against the pseudogospel still continues. I joined the Orthodox Church, and in South Africa, as an English-speaking Orthodox Christian, I’m in the minority. Greek-speakers, or people of Greek heritage, are in the majority, and from some of them one sometimes hears the same racist sentiments that we heard so often in the apartheid years. One woman once said, “The Orthodox Church is not missionary because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture.” Non-Greeks are xeni. Hey, ho, I was born in South Africa, but I get called a xenos by a Greek immigrant. That puts me in my place. But actually it causes me to reflect that for both of us we are where we are in the church not because of birth or parentage, language or culture, not because of where we were born, or to whom we were born, but by a second birth of water and the spirit that makes us citizens of the heavenly kingdom.

Yes, racism is alive and well in the Orthodox Church. In 1985, when the first English-speaking priest was ordained in an Orthodox Church in Johannesburg, people came from other parishes, from far and wide, to shout “anaxios” (unworthy) because the Archbishop had dared to ordain a non-Greek, a xenos. Xenophobia rules, but it’s not OK.

Some mouth the racist slogan “Hellenism is Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy is Hellenism”, which is not merely a heresy, but apostasy. The Orthodox Church pronounced apartheid, or racism, to he a heresy back in 1872 (under the Greek name phyletism), but it still persists. Hellenism was anathema to Orthodox Christians from the time of the early church fathers. Hellenism today is the product of the secular nationalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, and is also a term for a neopagan religion. It has never been identified with Orthodoxy.

As an English-speaking Orthodox Christian, I like to worship in English, but I don’t want to see an “English” Orthodox Church, in the sense that there are Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. I want to see a South African Orthodox Church. I do sometimes get a bit annoyed when Greek-speaking clergy insist that I must use bad English translations of liturgical texts, because, being Greek, they know what is good for the English. But I’ve known that sort of thing all my life, when Afrikaner nationalists told me what was my “own” and insisted on giving me an “own affair”. Most Sundays I worship with congregations that speak North Sotho (which seems to be one of the most difficult languages to learn: you can get courses in Greek, Russian, Zulu and Xhosa in bookshops, but not North Sotho). I enjoy the Liturgy in Afrikaans, often even more than in English, because there are not 25 different translations floating about, as there are with English.

But is there an “English-speaking” South African culture, a Woozer culture?

Not really. Not enough to form the basis of a distinct ethnic identity. Language and culture are linked, but English is a multicultural language. It is shared by many cultures throughout the world, and not only in South Africa. There was never enough of a cohesive Woozer culture in South Africa to demand a homeland. There was never enough of a group identity to which “group rights” could be applied. Rather, English-speaking South Africans belong to a whole range of overlapping cultural groups and circles, based on church, school, family, interest. Woozers who live next door to each other can find that they have nothing in common but language and geographical proximity. They have different friends, different interests, and might never meet and greet each other except casually and in passing. Woozers have never been a “volk”.

While some were chauvinist (my Cornish great grandmother insisted on calling her Afrikaans son-in-law Botes “Boats”), and despised Afrikaners and kept aloof from “natives” others were more laid-back about such things and even made up satirical songs about them:

When I’m walking down the street I must be careful not to greet
people of a different pigmentation
Lest the government suspect or the Special Branch detect
a dark affiliation
to a communist organisation.
(sung to the tune of The wayward wind)

Perhaps this Woozer rootlessness made it easier for me to let worldly allegiances sit lightly, as I’ve described above. It may have made it easier for some others, I don’t know. Since I was in my late teens I was aware of being a pilgrim, a stranger, a sojourner in the world, and am still reminded of it every time someone refers to me as a xenos.

And there is still the heresy, the pseudogospel, the apostasy of apartheid, racism, phyletism. A luta continua. Die stryd duur voort. The struggle continues.

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