Thursday, August 19, 2010

No Boer, No Future/ No Farmer/ No Future/ what loss?

Ben Cousins and Eric Worby

As Ben Cousins laid out for us in his presentation, land reform is at the nexus of a number of important concerns: apartheid redress, redistribution of wealth, the question of bounded territory, the understanding of our relation to time, and the need to create sustainable modes of food provision. In addressing land reform, we are dealing, then, with the complexities of multiple understandings of property rights, and, indeed, of property, of community and of history and the future in relation to power and to what we might refer to as everyday experience. However, the complexity notwithstanding, he reminds us that there is the need for urgent action, and with this a realization that we are, as he puts it, “grappling with the difficult present, rather than a simple version of the past or the future”.

“Sometimes,” he says, “brutal simplification is the only feasible response”. My response is one that pushes on the notion of simplicity, and perhaps this is its failure. However, since my work deals with notions of temporality and a sense of being a group among white Afrikaners, rather than with land reform in particular, the issues I am best placed to speak to are exactly the dreamworlds that land evokes, rather than the precise mode of reparation. However, since reparation – what is at the heart of land reform – is in itself, as Cousins states, a kind of dreamworld, I present this as an addendum to his discussion, rather than as a challenge or a series of questions. Cousins acknowledges the importance of the symbolic value of land in land reform, but emphasizes the economic materiality of land in most of his discussion. I cannot speak to the valency of land for those who are seeking to acquire land through the land reform process, or even to the valency of land for those who sell it in support of the land reform process. I will speak to narratives of material and symbolic value of land, in the broadest terms, in how Afrikaner volk is being constituted post-apartheid. The material value of land is located in the sensory experience of working the land, and the symbolic in the historic resonance of being a farmer. In this narrative, economic value is occluded. I will suggest briefly at the end that we can think about this using Noam Yuran’s analytic of a constitutive relation between material and symbol in money.

About two years ago I visited the museum at the Heritage Center at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. The museum presents a history of Afrikaner presence in South Africa. In the museum visitor’s book one of the visitors had written: ‘It is places like these that stop me from leaving the country: No boer, no future’. This seems like such a simple statement: ‘No farmer, no future’. However, the word ‘boer’ can, of course, not be translated simply as ‘farmer’. It is a word that has come to be associated with rightwing racist politics – most notably in the way the repressive apartheid police were referred to as ‘boere’. So, read with this connotation, and in the context of the statement that it is places like the Heritage Museum that stop the writer ‘giving up’ on South Africa, ‘no boer, no future’ means that there is no future for the country without the boere? This sounds a bit threatening, but it is also more complicated. Specifically, we see here a particular set of temporalities invoked, in which the political significance shifts and in which the sacral is evoked.

Some short time after the Dutch East India Company set up a refueling station at the southern tip of the African continent in the 17th century some of the company employees formally left the employ of the company to farm and sell their produce to the Company: they were called vrijburgers or free citizens. Bibow, one of this group, we are told, is the first person to have coined the term ‘Afrikaner’, when he shouted ‘Ik bin ein Afrikander’ in rebellion against Company rule. What he shouts is, in one sense, ‘I am an Afrikaner’ – and this is how the story is usually told – but in another sense what he shouts is ‘I am an African’. Here we have the first complication in understanding how ‘no boer, no future’ makes sense: although its reference now is primarily to a rightwing politics of land as well as of race, it is a referent that resonates with a notion of being African. The resonance of particular concepts is important for my reasoning here because this is an important mode of meaning-making in Afrikaans volk history and in Afrikaans political positioning in the present. This sense of being a farmer, is opposed, then, to being a company employee and opposed to being a European, and contains a sense of being a stateless citizen. The next resonance is of ‘boer’ as citizen of the Boer republics.

In the mid-19th century, groups of Afrikaners and their slaves and servants travel North of what becomes the British Cape Colony, to establish what are referred to as the ‘Boer’ republics (the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and the Oranje Vrijstaat). This time when Boer means citizen is shortlived – the republics never quite function as states in the way we understand states to function now, were never entirely autonomous in the way we expect states to be now, and, further, faced constant challenge from citizens we might now describe as ‘libertarian’. The states were attacked by the British Empire at the turn of the 19th century, and the Boers or the Afrikaners came under British rule by 1905. Kitchener’s scorched earth strategy, in which farms and lands were burnt in order to flush out guerilla soldiers and leave them no support network, are remembered with as much horror as the concentration camps in which farm women and children and farm labourers were held under brutal conditions.

So, when we read ‘no boer’, it is a statement about a certain politics, the claim to a certain history, to a certain sense of persecution, and, of course, identity that is complicated to place politically, in the way we generally define politics now. This is especially true since the early Boer republics were motivated, as the story is told, in part by a sense of religious volk destiny – a point I will not go into here. So, we see ‘boer’ as resonating with this particular historical sense of oppositional identity-formation, shifting as it signifies a certain kind of belonging in Southern Africa that is similar but not quite a notion of citizenship. The word also resonates, historically, with seeking to occupy a particular economic place. But it is also about the experience of farming.

The museum I mentioned earlier features a display of a pair of ‘farmer’s’ hands filled with earth, with some lines of a poem superimposed on the hands. The hands are male and white, and while the skin has a rougher texture than perhaps we might expect of an intellectual, they still seem somewhat refined – nails neatly cut and no obvious callouses. Notwithstanding these signals of a kind of gentility, and the ability to employ labourers, the image emphasizes a certain embodied experience, that is hands-on, as it were, and which recalls the feeling of soil in the hands. It is an image that suggests sowing, and is not unlike images of Christ’s hands that are common in more old-fashioned Afrikaans homes: briefly, I would read the image as evoking fertility, the sacred nature of farming, presenting this a kind of depoliticized sensuality, in a nostalgic mode. It should be pointed out that farming is in the distant past for most Afrikaners, although most families know the name of what used to be their family farm and it is a site of nostalgic recollection that belies what they also know: that farming is arduous and difficult to make a financial success of. Knowing this, the claim laid on farming, and on being a boer, is a claim to a certain mythos of volk as well as, and sometimes instead of, a claim to actual land.

It is on these grounds, the grounds of experience, history and the sensual, that the political nature of being a landed farmer are evoked in popular narrations of these experiences. Speaking against a kind of commonsense notion of being ‘one’ with the land, and with identity being caught up in this sacral process, are accounts like Antjie Krog’s, in A Change of Tongue, and in Marlene Van Niekerk’s Agaat. These accounts depict farms and farming as fraught with sometimes quite brutal racial and gender politics. In this additional resonance, the nostalgic temporality of farming is one that is fraught with taints of brutality, recalled with difficulty in the public sphere but not absent. Indeed, if only in reference to a history of settler struggle, the possibility of violence is one that is an uneasy presence in the phrase ‘no boer, no future’. As Cousins points out, the specter of violent land reclamations in Zimbabwe haunt visions of the future of South African land reform: this is a future to be avoided.

It remains to discuss the significance of ‘no future’. As Ben Cousins pointed out, the stakes in land reform are exactly of different kinds of futures – he points out that this is what drives the process but that this is also what makes it problematic. Given the urgency of the need for reform, he says, we cannot pause too long to consider all the best possible futures, disregarding the need to take action, albeit imperfect.

The word ‘future’ in Afrikaans is ‘toekoms,’ which can be transliterated as ‘then-arrival’. It resonates with the words ‘herkoms’, which can be transliterated as ‘arriving-again’ and means origin, and ‘heenkoms,’ which can be transliterated as ‘where-arriving’ and also means origin. ‘Origin’, here, is both literal and metaphysical, and points us to the ways in which ‘future’, here, is both a literal and a metaphysical place, a metaphysical destination that connotes material space. The future is, then, in some senses a land, a landedness, a promised land. Indeed, this is how we often understand it. We should note though that this way of thinking suggests that there is a predetermined place to arrive at: this means that the loss of land creates a crisis of temporality, in the sense that there is no clear place to arrive at. For a volk whose mythos refers to a series of exoduses, this is not a new state of affairs, indeed, it engenders a sense of volk even as it seems to disallow it. However, in a mythos in which the future is a kind of predetermined place, the loss of that place also calls the past, and the nature of history itself, into question (drawing here on Rachel Fulton’s discussion of medieval apocalyptic thinking).

What I have sketched above is a problematic of materiality and symbolism that leaves out the economic. Representations of Afrikaner history, reiterated in service of a reformulation of nationhood, suggest that the material is at the service of the symbolic, even as the material is emphasized: so a narrative might go as follows ‘we are losing our land which is symbolic of our identity and our future, but the symbol we lose is also material in that we lose our literal connection with the land and physical spaces that are important to us as a family and as a people’. This is not an uncommon way for people to describe the process of losing land (and I draw here on the stories related in Cherryl Walker’s Landmarked), but the problem of how to account for the economic materiality of land remains. In the nostalgic regard for the past, and even in the regard for the sensual experience of farming, and in a vision of the future, we seem very far from the rands and cents that we know are part of the picture. We might ask, cynically, ‘yes, but what about the ways in which land is a commodity now? What about the financial gain that land might represent? Or the financial loss that land means?’ or, even more simply, ‘where is class in this?’ I see this problematic as emblematic of much local discussion about apartheid reparation: it is rare in public discourse to see a reconciliation of the spheres of affective, spiritual or historical loss and gain and the spheres of gain and loss in terms of hard cash, assets or investment futures and the shifts in class that such changes might represent. (So, for instance, Deborah Posel tries to make sense of Smuts Nkonyama’s statement ‘I did not fight in the struggle to be poor’ in terms of a racial economy that was always about consumption, rather than more ‘purely’ about ideals of metaphysical emancipation.)

In an effort to suggest some resolution to the problematic I have sketched out here, I will attempt a short-cut to a theoretical possibility, via Noam Yuran’s discussion of money as symbolic matter or material symbol: we could consider land as material symbol, in which, according to Noam’s analytic, land’s materiality is concealed in its symbolic value. In the politics of reconstituting Afrikaner volk, concealing land’s materiality in its symbolic value (or certain aspects of its materiality) obscures financial gain and loss in land reform in favor of regarding its symbolic value as part of a mythos of volk. However, this tendency can, again using Noam’s analytic, be considered as a definitive aspect of neoliberal economy, and not specific to a racist politics. Indeed, presenting land as primarily symbolic (even in its sensual aspect) lends itself equally well to a narrative in which selling land in support of land reform is a sacrificial act, beyond the mere rands and cents of the transaction. The occlusion, specifically, of monetary value in narratives of political persecution or redemption, I would venture, speaks to the separation of what we consider to be matters of finance from what we consider to be matters of politics: a dangerous occlusion if we consider the challenges that neoliberal economy poses to nation-state governance (exactly the kind of governance that makes land reform possible).

Kathleen McDougall