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Free to write, free to be

I had a farm in Africa. Or rather, my mother’s family, the Bothas, had it from the 1940s until the 1990s, and it was the wrong type of farm: not Blixen’s bucolic liberal ideal, but an unprofitable, insular dustpan in the Afrikaner heartland of South Africa’s old Transvaal, near Rysmierbult (Termite Hill). If the adjacent districts of Krugersdorp and Roodepoort were the Afrikaner Bible Belt, then Rysmierbult could be called the buckle – the men on the farm were always loosening theirs to piss outside. This was Boer territory, where the men were manne and the women were supposed to produce children for the manne, and koeksusters for the church bazaar. In fact, though, my grandfather, Oupa Frikkie Botha, was not really a farmer at all, but a schoolteacher of Latin and maths with a dangerous fondness for Virgil. Hence the farm. And, as it turned out, he couldn’t do the maths. In spite of generous government subsidies, the mielies didn’t multiply. The sheep didn’t fatten. The peaches rotted. The dream of rural self-sufficiency failed.

The farm, impecunious and touchingly ridiculous, has long since been sold; but before it went it became, for me, the embodiment of a way of life, a phase in the development of Afrikanerdom, that has also passed. A phase, necessarily, in my own development, because I started life as an Afrikaner, and as an Afrikaans speaker. My father was a career diplomat whose stint in the foreign service began in Pretoria in the Verwoerd years. It would take us back there in the 1980s, just as apartheid was entering its last and most violent phase, via the USA (where I was born in 1969), Israel, Germany and England. During this period my uncle – Oupa Frikkie’s third son, Pik – was the South African foreign minister. In the 1940s my father’s father, a van Niekerk, had been the National Party’s first MP for what was then South West Africa (now Namibia). And my father himself ended his career as Deputy Director General of Foreign Affairs under de Klerk. We were, by any definition, part of the Afrikaner establishment – what the writers Hans Strydom and Ivor Wilkins have dubbed the ‘Super Afrikaners’.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s we would visit the Botha farm every year from whichever country we were in at the time. It seemed a place apart from the world, sealed in a golden noonday doze among the mielie fields and the peach orchards. While my grandfather failed at farming my grandmother presided over the farmhouse, a cool honeycomb of stone and corrugated iron kept going by smiling servants who lived in a separate compound of mud huts. My uncles and teenage cousins would arrive in bakkies and clouds of yellow dust and would spend the days drinking, hunting and arguing about politics. They all seemed unfeasibly tall and had bass voices and bare feet. There was a round dam, covered in weeds and pooling slime, where we swam. We ate copiously: the kitchen was lined with vast blue enamel bins of sugar, salt, flour, rice and oats; the fridge was full of bacon, lamb and wors; joints of drying kudu meat dangled from the rafters of the pantry. We trod the traporrel (an organ) in the dining room and sang folk songs: ‘My Hartbeeshuis’, ‘Vat Jou Goed en Trek’, ‘Daar Kom Tant Alie’. At night we slept behind a grilled iron door. Around us the country was going up in flames (literally: in 1980 the Sasol oil refinery was blown up by Umkhonto we Sizwe not many miles away). And everyone spoke Afrikaans.

Afrikaans, with its gravelled Gs, trilling Rs and explosive plosives, was the first indigenous language in South Africa to evolve from a purely spoken to a published and literary language. Having developed from the seventeenth-century Dutch imported by the earliest white settlers, with an infusion of Portuguese, French, Malay and African languages such as Xhosa and Zulu, it is still the first language of about three million whites and perhaps a further two million coloured and black South Africans. For decades it was intimately bound up with the legalized racial discrimination of apartheid. Founded on the Calvinism of a pastoral people, with a hell of a sociological kick provided by the idea of predestination, apartheid was as dependent for its codes on Afrikaans as it was on the Afrikaners themselves. Attack Afrikaans and you automatically attack the Afrikaner – the schoolchildren rioting in Soweto in 1976, in protest at the government’s decision to impose Afrikaans as the language of instruction for half the subjects taught in non-white schools, grasped that instinctively. Reverence for the language was also an unspoken rule both on the farm and in our house. Being Afrikaans speakers was what we, as Afrikaners, were.

My paternal grandfather and my uncle (Oom) Pik belonged to that immense clandestine Freemasons’ network, the Afrikaner Broederbond; my formidable aunt (Tannie) Elize was a scholar in Afrikaans literature and linguistics, president of several Afrikaans language foundations, Chancellor of the Afrikaans-medium Stellenbosch University and a director of the Nasionale Pers (National Press). None of us seriously questioned the ideals of apartheid or its fantasy of absolute racial and linguistic self- determination. Afrikaans played a key role in this fantasy: it was the vehicle for the formulation of a Christian national civil religion and an equally pernicious and limited segregated educational system.

When the time came for me to begin my formal education, however, we were living in Tel Aviv in Israel. The only viable school for miles around was the American School. With amazing fortitude, my parents bit the bullet and taught me a form of Afrikaans-inflected pidgin English in three weeks flat. I have spent the last thirty-odd years trying to learn English. I had some initial help from the British Embassy School in Bonn, where we went next, which sanded down my Americanisms, and later from St Paul’s Girls’ School in London, which buffed up what was left. I was an English speaker when, at the age of thirteen, I returned to Pretoria’s airless, jacaranda-lined suburbs. My cousins called me a rooinek (redneck). In return I refused to speak Afrikaans. I went straight into the Pretoria High School for Girls, a grand neoclassical dungeon established by Lord Milner in 1902 to anglicize the Afrikaner. In my case he could have spared himself the trouble: I was already anglicized. And yet, whatever I was, I wasn’t English. Though English-speaking South Africans invariably took me for what they reverently called a ‘real Brit’, the English in England weren’t fooled for an instant. Those flat vowels, the suspicious ability to pronounce vulgar gutturals – no, it just wouldn’t wash.

But back in South Africa I no longer belonged to the Afrikaner clan, the tribe, and what set me apart, far more so than my foreign childhood or any acquired differences in ideology, was the simple fact that I now spoke English as my mother tongue. It is impossible to adopt an entirely new language as a child without also becoming a new person. There is a sense in which the language we speak, with its compacted accommodations with history, its nuances of meaning and underlying cultural assumptions, speaks us. English – and not the attenuated, semantically impoverished form of English, stuffed with malapropisms and misuses, preferred by English ‘Sarf Effrikkens’, but the English of the metropolis – offered me a chance to be a radically different self.

Unlike many other South Africans, I didn’t leave apartheid South Africa for political reasons or similarly noble reasons of conscience. I returned to England in 1992 because I missed it, simply, and because I belonged here. England was the home of English, and since English had become my language, for better or worse, it was my home also. I knew, too, that I was going to write and that I couldn’t do this in South Africa. There’s a sense in which writing is simply scar tissue, the attempt to create a meaningful self out of a compromised one, and in my case this damage was caused by the constant move from country to country, which made for radical instability. J.M. Coetzee once characterized South African literature in the era of apartheid as ‘a less than fully human literature, unnaturally preoccupied with power and the torsions of power’. This was not the sort of book I wanted to write. It’s perhaps no coincidence that, once in England, I ended up working for the Oxford English Dictionary, and that the idea for my first novel came to me while I was filing word slips in the quotations room – in the maw of the English language, I liked to think. Repositioning myself as an English speaker in England had set me free: free to write, free to be.

Afrikaans shucked off its immediate pariah status with the advent of full democracy in South Africa in 1994, but it retains its ambiguous political and social status as a conservative, mostly white language. There are signs that it is gradually expanding to embrace what would once, in the apartheid era, have been considered ‘impure’ locutions, including foreign and English loanwords. What on earth will the result be? Engfrikaans?

The members of my family have reached their own various forms of accommodation with the new South Africa. It fell to my father to organize Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. In footage of the event he’s the serious, greying man greeting Hillary Clinton et al. as they arrive at the Union Buildings. He retained the links he made during his years in government and is now a strategic management consultant who still writes indignant letters to, for instance, Audi, when they send him advertising in English only instead of in both English and Afrikaans. Oom Pik was Minister for Mineral and Energy Affairs under Mandela until 1996, when he retired. He joined the ANC in 2000 and spends most of his time on his farm writing poetry. Tannie Elize became chairman of the commission responsible for designing the New South African flag (those ‘ethnic Y-fronts’), and continued to advise the Mandela and Mbeki governments on cultural affairs. She died last November after serving as Chancellor of Stellenbosch University for nine years.

My cousins, too, have moved on: Oom Pik’s son Piet Botha is better known in South Africa as the bilingual rock singer Jack Hammer, while Pik’s daughter Lien is an artist producing sensitive visual interrogations of what it means to be an Afrikaner and an African – the intersection, you could say, between a private and a national history – which have won her considerable critical respect in the country. Another cousin was blown up in 1983 during the Angolan Civil War. A fourth flies planes for the South African Defence Force. A fifth is a gay florist. Another is a forensic pathologist; another, a fellow of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. And so on. They are all committed to South Africa. For me, though, it is too late. England and the English language have claimed me, lock, stock and barrel. Like many other children of apartheid, I have come to accept that, just as it is possible to speak Afrikaans and yet not be an Afrikaner, it is also entirely possible to be an Afrikaner and not speak, or write in, Afrikaans.