White Afrikaans women face a unique challenge
Both oppressor and oppressed, the potential for participation is strong
Sitting Pretty: White Afrikaans Women in Postapartheid South Africa – the title is enough to stop you in your tracks.
When I heard author, social and political commentator and associate professor in sociology at the University of Pretoria Christi van der Westhuizen chat to Radio 702 host Eusebius McKaiser about this, her latest book, I was intrigued.
How could I not be, as one of that species she describes as both oppressor (white) yet also oppressed (woman)? Chatting to her in Pretoria about this academic treatise, she explains that the book’s introduction was the toughest of the lot because she wanted to get all the theoretical stuff out of the way at the start.
Indeed, if you read it slowly — even if like me you are not au fait with academic speak — you will get there.
Van der Westhuizen has a mind that grapples with life, and she had enough material given to her in her own life to ensure it would be worth grappling with.
She grew up in a female-headed household in 1980s Boksburg when the city council was taken over by the Verwoerdian Conservative Party and the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging was on the rise.
"My experience of alienation as a young woman and a lesbian within a patriarchal and racist context made me ask hard questions. People should know," she says, "that I’m investigating my own life when writing on these kinds of subjects."
She took her premise from Nelson Mandela who, in his inaugural state of the nation address, extended an invitation to South Africans who identify as "Afrikaner women". She starts with that invitation as Mandela re-remembers Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker "and poignantly proffered the poet’s "glorious vision" of possibilities of identification.
"She was both a poet and a South African," he said. "She was both an Afrikaner and an African. She was both artist and a human being. In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted by death, she asserted the beauty of life.… She instructs [us that] our endeavours must be about liberation of the woman, the emancipation of the man and the liberty of the child." He then quoted Jonker’s best-known poem, The Child Who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers in Nyanga.
Van der Westhuizen argues rigorously that Mandela’s invitation to Afrikaner women was "an invocation of the democratic potentialities … amid the ruins of apartheid". That’s what she wants the reader to think about, she says: whether Jonker’s counterparts today — at least in terms of the structural classifications of gender, sexuality, class and race — are taking the opportunity to step into the positions that democratic discourses have prepared for them?
We all know how big a task the country was given and, up to now, how dismally we have failed. But Van der Westhuizen believes the global context hasn’t helped. Because of the neoliberal kind of capitalism that exists today, with its high level of destabilisation and inequality, people feel under attack, which has prompted them to flee into enclaves of recognisable identity. It’s a complex situation.
"Because of all these forces at play, people tend to organise their lives to re-entrench hierarchies and keep oppressive power relations intact." Previously, she says, the state had enforced gender, sexism and racism for us. "Now people are doing it for themselves."
She is happy, though, that greater diversity exists among white Afrikaans women in the democratic era. For some it is still true that if they don’t adhere to the strict rules laid down mainly by family structures headed by the husband or father, they will be ostracised and banned. But there are those who are battling the forces lined up against them.
Van der Westhuizen points to identity as the main culprit in those instances where old habits recur, the way the instability and precariousness associated with the current phase of capitalism makes people feel threatened and turn inward rather than embracing the diversity that is out there. There’s no arguing that. Sadly, though, for those white Afrikaans women given an invitation at the beginning of our democracy to forge different lives, the pressures are many and great— from family, church, school and society at large — if you don’t conform. However, such pressures might also plant the seeds of resistance.
The book also deals with the fact that this country is unusual as it has two distinct settler groups. "That doesn’t often happen and has its own set of problems as both groups vie for the spoils of whiteness, with a particular model of heterofemininity attached," she argues.
It’s all fascinating stuff, and in a complicated country such as ours, with its past and its diverse cultural groups trying to work together even though all the odds seem stacked against us, it is important to achieve as much understanding as possible about the issues that confront us.
Van der Westhuizen makes it clear that her study is a qualitative one that shows what the dominant discourses are through which white Afrikaans women are formed. "If you throw these women together in focus groups, what comes through? It’s about throwing light on what is the mainstream," she says. "The study also uses dissident voices to do that."
This was a relief to know, because it was one of my issues when reading this gripping dissertation. I know all over the world conservatism seems to be a dominant force and while locally it is true that among both Afrikaans and English speakers racism seems to be everywhere, it is not all-pervasive.
But is it white Afrikaans women on whom we should be casting the light? Yes, Van der Westhuizen answers, and I have to agree, because they are among the least studied groups in the country.
"That isn’t the case for the earlier part of the last century when the Nasionale Manne Party and the Nasionale Vroue Party [men and women’s parties] folded into one another to form the National Party in the 1930s. But after that, Afrikaner women seem to disappear from public view and into the home, where they were expected to be wives and mothers.
"But they were homemakers with an edge, as most instilled apartheid’s racism, sexism and homophobia in their children through socialisation in the family," she concludes.
In a world where the "other" is perceived as all-invasive, and many negative "isms" are being deployed to subvert challenges from groups with less power, an investigation of a previously dominant group that still holds significant relative power, and the contestations within this group, is fascinating. With its academic slant, it is a tough read, yet a compelling one.