Jews and Boers: The Perils of Isolation
In 1995, Nelson Mandela, then recently instated as South Africa’s first Black President, visited a tiny enclave of White Afrikaner racists in the heart of the semi-desert Karoo region of the country, where they had chosen to lead their lives in accordance with the beliefs enshrined in the policy of apartheid.
At some risk to himself, the magnanimous and canny statesman was reaching out to this shrunken minority in a gesture of reconciliation after centuries of bitter conflict between Blacks and Whites. Astonishingly, he was well received by the diehards, including Mrs. Betsie Verwoerd, the 94 year old widow of one of the main architects of apartheid, who sat down to tea with him in a reputedly cordial atmosphere.
The separatist mentality of the inhabitants of Orania – their name for their beleaguered homeland – has apparently softened since the president’s visit. They allow people of all creeds and colors to visit the territory, but the right of residency is still strictly limited to Afrikaans speaking Whites of the Christian Protestant persuasion. However, they are no longer arguing for secession from the integrated Republic and they pride themselves on their self-sufficiency, somewhat in the spirit of the early kibbutzniks, who aspired to work the land and lead their lives without the help of Arab labor.
The origins of White Afrikaner isolationism can be traced back to the early years of the nineteenth century, when the Boers founds themselves at loggerheads with the British conquerors of South Africa. Among the measures designed to bring the Boers to heel was the introduction of anti-slavery legislation, which was deemed unacceptable to the Boers, who had come to depend on slave labour and who viewed Blacks as less than human and therefore undeserving of any human rights.
The Boers’ solution to the problems posed by co-existence was to ‘up sticks’ and trek into the interior of South Africa, out of reach of British interference, but they soon encountered a fresh threat in the Black tribes moving down from the north. Nor could the British be kept at bay. The discovery of gold and diamonds in the otherwise unpromising terrain of the interior proved a game changer. By the end of the nineteenth century, South Africa had become a magnet for immigrants – skilled workers and opportunists from abroad, whose arrival was looked on balefully by the Boers.
What has all this to do with the Jews? Until the arrival of Jewish immigrants, the Boers had had no experience of Jews. However, they were a deeply religious people, immersed in biblical lore, and they were convinced that, like the ancient Israelites, they were God’s chosen people, wandering among hostile tribes who needed to be subdued, enslaved and if need be, slaughtered. Among the ‘Uitlanders’ (foreigners) who poured into South Africa at this time were many Jewish refugees from persecution in Europe, seeking a new life in the Land of Opportunity.
This created a dissonance for the Boers between, on the one hand, their fantasy of a people who were a mirror image of themselves and on the other hand the reality of an enterprising people with an alien language and many alien customs, who threatened to usurp the Boers in the fields of commerce, industry and skilled labor. In addition, many Jews entertained liberal ideas in relation to the Black communities in their midst, much like the hated British.
The inhabitants of Orania hold on to beliefs once held by those Boers who saw the subjugation of one group by another as the only way of managing conflict between peoples from different cultural backgrounds, who are living cheek by jowl. Today, they exist in a ghetto of their own making, an ethnic curiosity in a much larger, integrated nation. Their fate could have been worse.
Some of my fellow Jews remind me of the residents of Orania, intolerant of those who do not mirror them in every respect. I hope that, wherever they are, they will be as graciously received by a future leader as the recalcitrant citizens of South Africa were received by Mr Mandela.