“De la Rey”: a distracting side show …

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It took me quiet a while to take the upheaval around the "De la Rey, De la Rey" song in the Afrikaner community, and eventually in broader South African society, seriously. In fact, long after many of my Afrikaner contemporaries were already hotly debating the merits and demerits of the song, and why it became such a mobilising force in certain Afrikaner circles, I hadn’t listened to it and I had no idea what the lyrics even hinted at.

Then I had an interview with Sunday Times journalist Charles Molele about a different matter, and he started questioning me about the song. He clearly had a keen interest to try and understand why the song seems to express a fairly generally felt sense of alienation and discomfort among a generation of young Afrikaners who have grown up since our first democratic elections on 27th April, 1994.

We spoke primarily about the issue of role models and what leadership entails. Not really having paid much attention to the words of the song I was happier to concentrate on these matters. My take was that since an early age I have considered leadership to be a matter of a combination of values and courage, which has nothing to do with whatever ethnic group (and I include in that the whole rainbow spectrum in our society) one comes from. Among the list of role models and leaders that I mentioned that had influenced my life were Nelson Mandela, Helen Joseph, Beyers Naudé, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a young man, Vincent Tshabala, who died in a hail of apartheid police bullets on the front stoep of his mother’s Alexandra home. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been touched and led by this wonderful group of South Africans (with the exception of Bonhoeffer, who was a German, and was executed by Hitler long before I was born, but whose writings I came to know through Helen Joseph).

When Charles left I started wondering why the "De la Rey, De la Rey" song had not attracted my attention, and why, even when it became prominent in the media, I did not feel the need to get engaged in the increasingly noisy debate. It was only then that I got hold of the song and listened to it.

I must admit that I could get neither my head nor my heart (emotions) around it – it left me rather cold and the strongest emotion was a low-level sense of irritation that this should be what occupies the minds of so many of my fellow South Africans. I could not agree more with the sentiments of Pallo Jordan, who said, with a barely repressed yawn, that in a free democracy people can listen to whatever they want to as long as they do not infringe on the constitutional rights of their fellow South Africans. (By the way, Jordan was also entirely correct in asserting the right of the South African government to change place and street names. It is the same misplaced retro-sentiments of the "De la Rey, De la Rey" “worshippers” that accompany the puffed-up outrage about the slow and carefully executed process of name changes. I am certainly far happier with driving down Beyers Naudé Drive than DF Malan Drive, and good grief, who but the totally misguided still wants to live in any place or street named after Verwoerd or any of his cronies!)

I am from Afrikaner stock, and I love the Afrikaans language, which is still the first language that I dream and think in … why, then, can I not get excited about "De la Rey, De la Rey"? Listening for a second time (and also most definitely the last) to the darn song in my car as I was entering Tshwane with both the (old) Voortrekker Monument and (new) Freedom Park in my sights I came to the conclusion that the angle that I had taken with Charles Molele had been correct. I find this palaver about De la Rey passé precisely because of the people who have been and who are my role models and leaders. I am feeling irritation because some of my fellow South Africans are allowing themselves to be distracted my misplaced and jumbled Afrikaner nationalistic feelings rather than concerning themselves with the truly critical issues.

At roughly the same time that there was a silly unproductive debate about playing "De la Rey, De la Rey" over the public sound system at Loftus Versfeld our minister of minance, Trevor Manuel, delivered one of the most important national budget speeches ever to be delivered in the history of South Africa. He announced the first firm steps to place a social welfare system in place for all South Africans. During the same period the Department of Trade and Industry gazetted the adjusted Broad Based Codes of Good Practice (CoGP) proposing innovative approaches to break out of a too narrow Black Economic Empowerment model in order to ensure that BBBEE becomes truly broader based. These two important local events played themselves out on an unstable socio-economic world canvas unconcertingly described by the findings of a Global Study from the World Institute for Development Economics and Research of the United Nations, which confirmed (again!) that the richest ten percent account for 85 percent of the world total of global resources and that half the world’s population owns barely one percent of global wealth.

These are the issues that will determine the future of us all, not songs about the imagined and romanticised virtues of a bygone Boer general. I am not saying that General De la Rey was a man without virtue – in his time and with the challenges that he faced, he clearly was. But that time is over, and there is no virtue in hankering back to it. The whites of Zimbabwe who continued to hanker back to the days of Ian Smith and UDI defined themselves out of the Zimbabwean nation and eventually the whole equation. This happened at their own peril, but also to the peril of Zimbabwe at large. I do not want anyone in South Africa to do that to themselves and to this nation of ours, which is so hard and courageously trying to take the correct decisions in the face of huge international obstacles.

The issues and sentiments that "De la Rey, De la Rey" hankers back to will not determine the future and place of Afrikaners in the South Africa of today. In the not too distant future it will pale in the face of the real issues and challenges that our country faces and which collectively determine the future of all of us - including the Afrikaner and Afrikaans-speaking members of our nation. I have no doubt that quite soon the pages and pages that are now being written about "De la Rey, De la Rey" will seem as antiquated, dated and sad as the yellow pages of the Vaderland and Transvaler, with their apartheid and Afrikaner-nationalistic debates, now seem in our historical archives.

I am not sorry that I had not taken note earlier of the De la Rey debacle. The only reason I'm even bothering to write about it now is to encourage all of us to concentrate on the real issues of sensible economic justice and human dignity for all that will truly determine the future of every South African. Those are ultimately the issues that the leaders that I identify with concerned themselves about, and are the issues that I want the current and future leaders and presidents of South Africa (also after President Mbeki) to concern themselves about.

Oh yes, and in case anyone is still wondering, I am not writing as an “Afrikaner thinker”. I'm writing simply as a South African who wants my nation to succeed!

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