English. But not from England.

“So you’re raising your children English?”
“Yes, my husband is English.”

I overheard above conversation some time ago while I was waiting, along with other mothers, for our children to perform in a public speaking contest Dainfern College was participating in.

My ears perked up. I was always interested in the stories of other expats, how they ended up in South Africa, and what they thought of life there. I counted a few English expats among my friends.

Except, it turned out, there was no expat involved in this instance.

Both husband and wife were 100% South African (yes, I do tend to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations). But in a twist of racial identity one can only encounter in South Africa, the wife, who was Afrikaans-speaking, considered her husband “English.” And perhaps he considered himself English, I don’t know. Never mind that he was a born and bred South African. That his family had probably lived in South Africa for generations. That maybe he had never even set foot on English soil.

I’ve mentioned South Africa’s racial diversity before, the many different tribes like the Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Sotho, Venda, Ndebele, Tsonga, Swazi – I probably didn’t even name them all – and their contributions to culture and language (there are eleven official languages in South Africa). But it is South Africa’s two white tribes that perhaps have the longest or at least most intense history of tension with one another. To this day, even the most superficial visitor of South Africa will immediately sense the rift between the Afrikaans-speaking part of the population and the English-speaking part. Of course all native Afrikaans-speakers speak English (though with a distinct accent), and many (though certainly not all) native English-speakers have at least rudimentary knowledge of Afrikaans (it’s not a difficult language to learn), but the two cultures are historically vastly different.

How else could you explain that a South African is called “English” by a fellow South African?

Yet that is precisely what lies at the heart of the cultural chasm. I know I’ll probably step on some toes here, but I’ll try to explain it anyway (one of my readers did a great job of pointing out some things I’d missed or misstated in an earlier attempt of mine to broach this subject, you can read it in this post on the Voortrekkers by scrolling to the comments at the bottom ).

The best way to get a comprehensive understanding of South African history from a Dutch vs English perspective is by reading Michener’s Covenant, but considering that it’ll probably take you five months if you read at my speed, I better try my own abbreviated explanation (you can find my summary of The Covenant here).

The Dutch arrived in South Africa as the first of the white settlers. It is this Dutch blood that a true Afrikaner takes the most pride in, even if realistically it has been diluted with a heavy dose of Huguenot, German, African, and perhaps some Malay influence. The English arrived later, and, as the English have been wont to do throughout history, claimed the Cape Colony for themselves, driving many freedom-minded Dutch settlers into the interior on their great Boer treks. This contributed to a divide of sorts (I realize that nowadays this is very generalized but I think it serves my point): On the one hand the Boer farmers with a strong Calvinist-inspired faith in God and country, often illiterate, and strongly tied to the soil they worked, and on the other the more educated urban dwellers in the Cape and later in Natal, who never quite severed their ties to England and continued to send their children there to be educated. Throughout South Africa’s history these two white factions have antagonized each other, culminating in two bloody wars and continuing throughout the era of apartheid when the Afrikaner minority finally held power after centuries of oppression (the irony that they then became the oppressors to another faction seeking freedom was lost on them for many years, of course, but you can find that everywhere in the world, and, of course, in modern-day South Africa itself).

Images from the Boer War 1899-1902. Picture source: A History of South Africa

Today, these lines are naturally blurred, and you will find many Afrikaans-English marriages, exemplified by the one above. But just a generation ago, bringing an English boyfriend into an Afrikaner family would not have gone over well, just like my Protestant grandfather in Germany was almost disowned by his father for marrying a Catholic. Some of the animosity is based on the horrible fate of disease and starvation suffered by Boer women and children during the Anglo-Boer war, when they were herded into what were the world’s first concentration camps instituted by the English. Although it must be said that the war was prolonged by quasi suicidal Boer commandos employing guerrilla tactics to fight the English. But some of it goes back much farther. The English used to accuse the Boers of being stubborn and hypocritical, and the Boers would accuse the English of being wimps who’d flee to England at the first sign of trouble. I think there is a little bit of truth in both.

The latter might explain how it is possible for there to be English husbands who are not from England.

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