Apartheid: Britain’s bastard child by Hélène Opperman Lewis: book review

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Apartheid: Britain's bastard child
Hélène Opperman Lewis
Publisher: Reach
ISBN: 9780620702232

In the title of the book, apartheid is described as “Britain’s bastard child”. A “bastard child” is one born out of wedlock – an “illegitimate” child – and in some traditions has the further connotation of paternity not being acknowledged by the father, thus has no rights of inheritance, no claim to use the family surname and no claim of kin to the “legitimate” family. It is presumably the aspect of acknowledgement that the author is seeking to denote – that Britain spawned this offspring during its wild sowing of its seed, and chose not to acknowledge the paternity because of the reputational damage it might sustain.

The “wedlock” reference can, further, lend itself to a useful analogy:

We’re in a fictional marriage counsellor’s office. A couple, Mr and Ms Jacobs, have arrived for their appointment, precipitated by Mr Jacobs’s extra-marital affair.

MC: So, Mr Jacobs, I believe you have been having an affair?

MrJ: Yes, but it wasn’t really my fault.

MC: Oh?

MrJ: You see, things were pretty stressful at home, with the new baby and all …

MC: Of course. Ms Jacobs, did you find the home environment stressful, too?

MsJ: Yes. A new baby is a big adjustment.

MC: Did you also have an affair?

MsJ: No, of course not! I had a baby to look after!

MC: See, Mr Jacobs, your wife also found the environment stressful, but she didn’t respond to it in the same way you did. Why did you choose to have an affair?

MrJ: Well, I didn’t really choose it. See, my ex-wife – we were high school sweethearts, together since we were kids. She cheated on me right through the relationship, made me feel bad about myself … I needed to feel good about myself again.

MC: By making Ms Jacobs feel bad about herself, in turn?

MrJ: It wasn’t about her; it was about … what I needed. I mean, I’m sorry she got hurt, I didn’t mean to hurt her, but I was so stressed and I needed to feel good about myself again.

MC: So you chose to have an affair. You didn’t stop to think about the impact on Ms Jacobs, or your kids …

MrJ: I know it was wrong, okay, but it wasn’t like a choice I made. I didn’t choose to hurt them. I just … I had a bad childhood. Loads of abuse. I didn’t develop good coping strategies as a kid. I didn’t know how to deal with the stress, and so I responded in a silly way, because I didn’t know better. I just needed to feel better about myself.

MC: You’re saying someone else is to blame for your affair? Someone held a gun to your head and made you cheat?

MrJ: No, no one “made me”. But it wasn’t … I was unhappy. I didn’t know what to do.

MC: You were unhappy. Did you speak to your wife? Did you tell her you were unhappy?

MrJ: She told me to deal with it, that we had a baby now and I had to grow up and be a father.

MC: Did you tell her you were so unhappy you were thinking of having an affair? Did you discuss alternatives?

MrJ: No, of course not. I didn’t see any alternatives. If I left, people would think I was a really bad person, abandoning my wife with a newborn. It wasn’t like making a rational choice. I was hurt. I needed to do something to feel better about myself …

In the pop psychology world, the deflection of accountability for one's choices is referred to as blameshifting. The “blameshifter” understands his argument as explanation; others may see it as rationalisation, or excuse, or justification. In a situation like the marriage counselling scenario depicted above, the counsellor aims to expose the inconsistencies, internal contradictions and cognitive dissonance in the “blameshifter’s” account, forcing him to confront his deflection and take accountability for his choices. Once he “owns” his choices and can see the pattern of behaviour that led him to make those choices, the rationale suggests that he will be more conscious of his agency in making a choice the next time he is faced with a similar dynamic. But proponents of this view claim that until the person “owns” his choice and accepts his culpability without seeking to minimise, deflect or deny accountability, he is at risk of repeating the flawed behaviour pattern. Watch enough daytime TV, or spend enough time in online relationship fora, or read enough airport books, and the message is clear: only by accepting responsibility and accountability for our choices, both good and bad, can we live fulfilled, fully actualised lives.

Which brings us to Apartheid: Britain’s bastard child (Hélène Opperman Lewis). The easiest way to sum up this book is via the aphorism “hurt people hurt people”. Of course, not all people who have been abused go on to abuse others; nor do all abusers have a history of having themselves been abused. The author states up front (p 15) that the aim is to explain, rather than justify, the Afrikaner’s “creati[on of] apartheid” (13), which she is at pains to denounce as a “vile institution” (15). Yet, while she initially describes this “creation” as a “choice” (13), she later (434) reprises her aim as

… not … to find justification for apartheid, but to shed light on the historical events and psychological factors that made it inevitable.

This tension between “choice” and “inevitability” manifests throughout this text in the choice of language. Outrages perpetrated by Britain are recounted with emotive language and/or active verbs (examples include p 81’s description of “British predation” and p 58’s depiction of British colonists attempting or intending “to extinguish the indigenous population”), while equivalent misdeeds committed by the Boers are described in the passive voice (rendering the perpetrator invisible), such as (90) “often … the incomprehensible was done”, when describing the Boers’ enslavement of black children and young black wives after battle – which she further rationalises by the “common practice” argument. If the Boers were merely doing what everyone else was, and the actions were carried out by unidentified actors, then how can they be to blame – especially if their actions were the direct, inevitable consequence of what was visited on them? While the book makes plain its purpose to “explain” rather than justify, it is hard to imagine how these parts of the text would have differed if the latter had been stated as the explicit aim.

This book positions itself as a “psychohistory”, which is variously defined within the opening pages as a “psychological approach in [sic] a nation’s history” (13), a “case study steeped in history” (15) and an attempt “to explain the ‘psychological why’ of history” (17). As noted in the Author’s Note (7), psychohistory differs from conventional history in its open embrace of subjectivity:

Psychohistorians have traditionally been much more open to acknowledging the author’s connections and involvement with the subject and reject the pseudo-objectivity of mainstream historians.

Indeed, the author states her interests up front as an Afrikaner – the phrase “my people” is peppered liberally throughout the text – but, unlike other social scientific methodologies which eschew the tyranny of positivism, there is no setting out of what might constitute attributes akin to “validity”, “generalisability” or “reliability”. The reflexivity found in, for example, confessional ethnography is absent here – we are presented with the account and asked to accept it on its own merits, without being given the tools to weigh it in its own metrics. We are told that the text was “peer reviewed”, though what that means is unclear: are these “peers” who reviewed the text other psychohistorians, commenting on the methods and standards of the field? Other Afrikaners, commenting on authenticity of narrative? Other psychologists, commenting on rigour of the analysis?

It is at the level of analysis that I found the text problematic: the “so what?” aspect that flows from what might otherwise pass as anecdote in an account. Working in qualitative enquiry, I have found Maxwell’s constructs of validity useful. He distinguishes (2012:133-48) between three levels of validity, which have bearing on this text:

Descriptive validity concerns itself with the factual accuracy of the account. In this text, there are two main types of account: historical accounts, via secondary sources, and the author’s account of her own responses, inserted into the text at a couple of points. The text is well referenced, leaving the reader free to check the accuracy of the account provided against the original documentary sources. Sources range from more rigorous academic texts to literature, blog and anecdote, all presented equally and none framed as being of greater reliability than others. What appears to matter to the author is not the rigour of the source, but the content – voices that agree or add texture to the point being made are included, and others ignored. This can, of course, lead to accusations of confirmation bias, and questions about the silences and absences in the text arise. However, it is not at this level that my main concerns with the book arose. The account gelled broadly with the CNE version of history I was taught at school, with few departures (I don’t recall being told about rape and sexual assault in the concentration camps, unsurprisingly). While I believe the account is partial – in both senses – my sense is that this was intentional on the author’s part, because of wanting to construct an “owned” history. Which leads to the next level.

Interpretive validity concerns itself with the meaning of the account to the participants – akin to what ethnographers term an “emic” view. This, I believe, is the strength of this book. If someone wanted to know how an Afrikaner (of a certain type) felt about his history, this book provides a good insight from which to begin. The author’s situation of herself and her responses into the text amplify this, and the frequent use of emotive descriptors in retelling of historical accounts helps to shape this understanding. However, where I feel the book falls short is in its innocence of intersectionality. Afrikaners are presented as a monolithic entity – with the implication that all Afrikaners would necessarily respond to their history in a similar way. The author’s comment about “examin[ing] the impact of this painful history on [herself] and look[ing] at the ways in which it still resonates in the psyche of [her] people” is not borne out subsequently in the text – rather than exploring how multiple Afrikaner subjectivities receive and perceive the “inter/transgenerational trauma” and how this resonates in their psyches, the author’s particular reception and perceptions become generalised and are projected onto all Afrikaners. Individual psychotherapy clients’ stories are recruited to this end, too – where they support the narrative. Again, the silences and absences are telling.

Theoretical validity concerns the external sense-making of the account: what ethnographers might term an “etic” view. Beyond describing what happened, and how those within that worldview construct meaning of it, analysis at this level draws out concepts and categories from the prior two levels, seeking to explain relationships between these and to explain how the constructs fit together through generating or invoking theory. This is missing in this account, despite the calls to psychohistorical gurus. The book itself never rises beyond the assumption from which it began – that humiliated people go on to humiliate other people – and the author herself appears unable or unwilling to step into the theoretical validity space. By way of contrast, authors such as Schultz (2000) and Van Maanen (1988, 2010) write convincingly about the reflexivity and reflectivity involved in research where one is both the subject of the research and the research instrument. That awareness and rigour appears absent in this book. I would have expected to see far greater self-awareness in the book – not just comments on her emotional responses to reading her source material – but real engagement with the cognitive dissonance, the internal contradictions, the silences and absences within the text.

For example, in several places she rails against “the arrogant English” for their prejudice against Afrikaners. In one such account (p18), she recalls:

I’ve often heard comments like: “You know how Afrikaners are?” or “He’s a typical Afrikaner.” … “But I am one,” I sometimes say, to which the speaker responds, “No, not like you.” Considering themselves fair-minded, non-judgmental and liberal, these people operate in complacent unawareness of their stereotyping.

Perhaps the ambiguity in the phrasing of “their stereotyping” is deliberate – the author may have intended it to refer to the stereotyping by “the arrogant English”, and yet, without being conscious of the irony, the author herself devotes considerable energy to the stereotyping of “the English”. Aside from this, it is unclear who exactly the “English” are. The author appears to use the term interchangeably for white English-speaking South Africans, irrespective of their ancestry, South Africans of English (in the UK sense) descent, and British people. These disparate groups are all painted with the same brush, and opposed to the monolithic construct of “the Afrikaner”. Interestingly, in a discussion on affirmative action (314), “English and Jewish businesses” are mentioned as if they are separate entities, ie “the English” is considered a separate category to “Jews”. English-speaking South Africans of non-British ancestry other than Jews perhaps have not registered on the author’s radar.

When recounting the injustice visited upon the Boers who were drafted into the army as “British citizens” (70), the author tells us that “unlike others, they were not paid” – though we read on the next line that neither were British settlers, completely undercutting the argument of the Boers having been singled out for poor treatment.

Compare also the horror with which the author discusses the rape of the Boer women during the Anglo-Boer War (219-30), with the casual dismissal of the rape by Dutch settler men of indigenous and slave women as “close friendships” (24). Likewise is the insistence that it was only with the British that “disdain for what they considered the "lesser races" arrived (24), despite the author uncritically reporting the presence of slaves and admitting that some Boers “acted scandalously” (393) in their treatment of indigenous people.

The psychological impetus to consider trauma visited on one’s own people to far outweigh that visited on others – especially by one’s own people – would have made for interesting reflection in the text, yet this is absent. Everything done to the Afrikaner is amplified by emotive retelling, while that done by the Afrikaner (or the Boer, or the Burghers) is minimised, blamed on the British or ascribed to a few rotten apples without reflective comment. There are addenda discussing [white] racism and prejudice, written in a detached, more academic style, but the author-centred “my people”-identified perspective is absent from these.

Britain’s culpability for great wrongs is beyond question – and only the most hardened colonialist would seek to defend Britain’s actions in Africa (southern or elsewhere). Yet, the premise of the book (“I only did it because he did it first”), while purporting to explain, does begin to read as apologising after several hundred pages. Yes, the British did terrible things. Yes, some of these were done to Boers. Afrikaners went on to do terrible things, too – but the Boers had done terrible things before the Brits arrived, which can’t be blamed on the Brits (beyond “everyone was doing it”), and blaming the Brits doesn’t absolve the Boers/Afrikaners, just as blaming the Afrikaners for apartheid doesn’t absolve white people collectively for supporting, sustaining and benefiting from the system, even if they personally did not vote for the National Party. (The old definition of a liberal comes to mind: one who votes for the PFP – as it was then; now the DA – but thinks, “Thank God for the Nats.”) We are all culpable, but perhaps not in the way the author seeks to spread blame. Perhaps there are some direct descendants of British colonisers who may be appalled and shocked into sense by reading of the horrors committed by their forebears, but I suspect that – if those people read the book – they would be rather few. Far more numerous are the millions of white beneficiaries of apartheid who benefited through no direct action of their own, and who (and whose children) continue to benefit, who deny responsibility because they (or their ancestors) did not have a direct hand in creating apartheid. Beating them over the head with a heavy tome (which could use some editing for length, to remove repetition and to ensure that lengthy pieces contextualising characters and events are included with our first introduction to those characters and events, and not subsequently) is unlikely to proselytise, and more likely to alienate. Perhaps it would be more useful translated into Afrikaans, for newer generations of Afrikaners seeking to understand a “volkseie” perspective on their history.

I came to this book interested in inter-/transgenerational trauma, as a South African, and read it as a case study of the Afrikaner as a particular case of such trauma. I left unconvinced, which is a pity. I think the study of inter-/transgenerational trauma has much to offer, particularly to the generations recovering from the brutalities of apartheid and being expected to “get over it” a mere couple of decades after its formal dismantling.


Maxwell, JA. (2012). A realist approach to qualitative research. Los Angeles: Sage.

Schultz, U. (2000). “A confessional account of an ethnography about knowledge work”. MIS Quarterly 24(1) 3-41.

Van Maanen, J. (1988). Tales of the field: on writing ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Van Maanen, J. (2010). “You gotta have a grievance: locating heartbreak in ethnography”. Journal of Management Inquiry 19(4) 338-41.

Also read:

Apartheid: Britain’s bastard child, an interview with Hélène Opperman Lewis

Herman Lategan, Hélène Opperman Lewis
Books and writers

"Before answering, let’s clarify the thorny issue of racism first. And let’s be clear – white racism arrived with the arrival of all Europeans in southern Africa. It’s not something that suddenly surfaced in 1948! And it certainly is not something peculiar to southern Africa only!"

Apartheid: Britain's bastard child deur Hélène Opperman Lewis: ’n resensie deur Martie Meiring

Martie Retief-Meiring

"Hierdie omvattende, dikwels frustrerende manuskrip kan egter nie summier afgewys word nie. Opperman Lewis vee wyd oor die geskiedenis met baie interessante verwysings, aanhalings, en weliswaar gevolgtrekkings waaroor die leser soms self goed sal wil nadink."

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  • Piet Badenhorst

    The total irrelevant example of a husband blaming his infidelity on his child, illustrates either total misunderstanding or an attempt to belittle a serious argument. Does Trowler really see a similarity between two equal adults (in a consensual relationship, playing a blaming game) and that of a colonial power that abuses its power? Why not rather use the example of an abused girl and the abuser in a counselor's rooms or, for that matter, in the police station? I guess because it will expose the fault-line in the reviewer's argument.
    Trowler was clearly irritated, if not angry, when she misrepresented Opperman saying that Opperman casually dismisses "the rape by Dutch settler men of indigenous and slave women as ‘close friendships’ (24).” This is disingenuous, the Cape (as was the case in Batavia) relationships between Dutch and indigenous races were common and Opperman on page 24 of her book clearly refers to consensual relationships and not to rape.
    She also projects her misunderstanding onto Opperman when she writes, “when recounting the injustice visited upon the Boers who were drafted into the army as “British citizens” (70), the author tells us that 'unlike others, they were not paid' – though we read on the next line that neither were British settlers, completely undercutting the argument of the Boers having been singled out for poor treatment.” Again, a misreading (on purpose?) of the text. Opperman is clear that the Colonial Office had little time for permanent settlers in South Africa (people of European decent that saw South Africa as home) and to the Colonial Office a British Settler and a Boer was of the same cloth. Trowler tells us that she was looking to learn something about transgenerational trauma (of which the Afrikaner history is an excellent case study), but she found the book wanting. Was it because of her anger or because of a misreading of the text?
    This review did not do justice to an excellent book about a serious and complex subject.

    • Alice Hendriks-Boshoff

      Thank you for letting the fog lift, Piet Badenhorst. I immediately thought, this book I should read. Next thing, it was discussed in a very negative tone. Then came the voice of reason. I'll read it ASAP.

      • Suenel Bruwer-Holloway

        Exactly! The juvenile illustration and insulting reference to pop-psychology, followed by pseudo-intellectualising made me cringe for the re-viewer. The courage of the author and integrity of the text is beyond contestation. Obviously the content makes some people uncomfortable so they cast about and come up the silly notion that she should have written the book about something else.

    • francois verster

      Piet, ek was een van die eerste mense wat die boek (direk van die skrywer) gekry het om te lees, sodat ek dit kon bespreek in 'n rubriek, en ek het dit aanvanklik ook plek-plek moeilik gevind om te verteer, en my eie gevoelens jeens Britse meerderwaardigheid (en blaamverplasing) te onderdruk, maar uiteindelik is dit 'n nuttige boek met 'n spesifieke perpektief wat bydra tot 'n baie groter - en sover nog baie dungerekte - diskussie, en is dus tog baie nuttig. Trowler beweer die skrywer is subjektief, maar sy is by implikasie ook. Daarom is historici opgelei om so objektief as menslik moontlik te wees en bied hulle bronneverwysings aan om hul stellings te staaf, maar dit is so dat objektiwiteit steeds 'n doel is om na te mik en nooit 100% bereik word nie. Beide die boek en die resensie word daardeur uitgedaag, maar albei is nuttig om te lees.

      • Vicki Trowler

        Ek wil ook reageer op Francois Verster se stelling dat "objektiwiteit steeds 'n doel is om na te mik en nooit 100% bereik word nie". Alhoewel dit inderdaad so in die Positivisme is, mik die meerderheid geesteswetenskappe nie na so 'n ideaal nie en omhels die werklikheid van inter/subjektiwiteit. Om te keer dat alles nie net in uiterste relatiwiteit ontaard nie word daar van geesteswetenskaplikes verwag dat hulle hulle aan strenge gedragsmaatreëls onderwerp: hoe hulle hul navorsing uitvoer, hulle data analiseer en hulle bevindings kommunikeer moet aan sekere standaarde voldoen, en hulle moet dus genoeg besonderhede in hul tekste blootlê dat ander geesteswetenskaplikes tot oordeel kan kom oor die geldigheid van hulle metodes, bevindings en afleidings.
        Opperman Lewis laat weet dat sy nie na objektiwiteit mik nie; inteendeel, sy impliseer haarself direk in haar ondersoek-onderwerp. Hiermee is daar geen probleem nie - in die afgelope dekades is daar egter heelwat aandag hierop gevestig in metodologieë soos oa feminisme, postmodernisme, auto-etnografie en belydenis-etnografie. Lg se praktyke vind ek van direkte toepassing op Opperman Lewis se teks - as die navorser hulle in hul teks plaas, hoe gaan hulle te werk om te sorg dat hul teks nog aan standaarde van wetenskaplikheid voldoen? Hoe bewaar hulle die stiptheid - en dus die geldigheid - en voorkom dat hulle werk nie net in staaltjies ontaard nie?
        Hier is analise belangrik. As die navorser deelnemer sowel as werktuig is, moet hulle hulself as data ook kan beskou, en refleksiwiteit kan uitvoer. Opperman Lewis begin met die taak as sy haar reaksies tot haar bevindings beskryf - haar woede, ens - maar sy bring dit nie tot 'n eindpunt nie. Dit bly maar net beskrywing. Daar kort 'n analitiese dimensie - en dis hier waar my teleurstelling met die boek berus.

    • Vicki Trowler

      I was struck by the irony in Piet Badenhorst's comments: First berating the review for the "irrelevant" analogy (featuring a consensual relationship between adults, rather than one featuring abuse of power), then going on to take issue with relationships between settlers slaves or indigenous women being cast as rape rather than consensual.
      Setting aside the "relevance" of the infidelity analogy - chosen as a convenient rather than completely transferrable vehicle to illustrate the phenomenon of "blame shifting” - I was struck by how the concern for the absence of overt power disparities in the analogy was not carried through to consideration for just how consensual relationships between slave or indigenous women and colonising settler men cold possibly be. While they may not (all) have taken the form of violent subjugation and forced penetration, they certainly occurred in a context of a vast disparity of power, where full informed consent would have been impossible. Submission is not the same as consent, as any sexual harassment panel will attest.
      On the matter of the Colonial Office regarding a British Settler and a Boer as being "of the same cloth", this was precisely my point. The author (Opperman Lewis) rests her thesis on the argument that The British (never quite defined; I'm assuming that in this instance she was meaning "The British" to be exemplified by the Colonial Office) regarded Afrikaners /Boers as inferior to The British, whom they regarded as "Ubermenschen" (in Opperman Lewis's term). Yet this instance illustrates that this wasn't the case - British settlers and Afrikaners /Boers were treated equally (if unfairly compared to other - unnamed - groups). If it were as simple as Opperman Lewis was proposing, British settlers would have been paid, and only Afrikaners /Boers not. This was simply one example of inconsistency and internal contradictions within the text - I can provide many others.
      I agree with the comment about it being a "serious and complex subject", and what Badenhorst reads as "anger" is in fact disappointment and frustration. I was disappointed that the book did not live up to its promise; frustrated at what appeared as an inability or unwillingness to take the text that one step further into analysis.

  • Suenel Bruwer-Holloway

    Lees gerus: https://www.litnet.co.za/apartheid-britains-bastard-child-deur-helene-opperman-lewis-n-resensie-deur-martie-meiring/ Mense beleef dinge subjektief, die 'wat' sowel as die 'hoe', en daarom word deesdae meer geloofwaardigheid gegee aan ondersoeke wat 'n etnografiese uitgangspunt het. Ek haal aan uit The Book Of Life: We don't need our information stripped of bias, we need to evolve our way, through a clash of ideologies, towards the best kind of bias."

  • Hélène Lewis

    Hysterics aside. For those interested in verification (regarding humiliation and trauma of the Afrikaner) of what I wrote in Apartheid - Britain's Bastard Child, please get yourself a copy of the highly acclaimed 70 page Annale 2002/1 compiled by Emeritus professor JL Sadie, from the Department of Economics, US. Assisted by Prof JH Giliomee (Editor), Prof FA Ponelis, Prof AJ Reinecke, Prof AA van Niekerk and Prof JH Viljoen. Titled: The Fall and Rise of the Afrikaner in the South African Economy. ISBN 0 7972 0938 7. It covers the whole period 1652 - 1994. I was given a copy by someone who had read my book, and was amazed how in 70 pages I found full validation for my thesis of Afrikaner humiliation etc and the huge impact it had on the Afrikaner psyche, and how Apartheid found it's roots in the fertile soil of Afrikaner trauma. In the revised edition of my book I will certainly borrow some of the facts given in the Annale as further support for my thesis.
    The problem is to get hold of it, even though it states for copies one can contact the Marketing and Communication Section of the Stellenbosch University. No luck. I paid a visit, I phoned ... no one can assist you. It's an incredible important piece of work - but no one can tell you really where or how to get hold of it. Please contact me if you get stuck too. hlobook@gmail.com It should by everyone being interested in this topic. In fact it should be published and available in the open market. Waarom dit nie gedoen word nie, slaan my dronk.

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