I saw a sign along the Cape-Namibia highway that said: “No hooting! Ostriches being laid.” Of course my bent brain thought the words hooter and laid and it took another 10k before I understood what the sign meant.
I got on a plane and flew 90 minutes north to Bloemfontein, Free State, central South Africa. Came here for 10 days to listen to students and faculty at UFS, University of the Free State. It’s Afrikanerville here, Boer base. I speak Dutch and they tell me I’m talking funny. Baie dankie (thanks a lot). I feel like I’m walking around in a Dutch movie from the sixties. Men wear very short shorts. The shopping mall has two Christian bookstores, an embroidery shop and a fabric store.
UFS has done something unusual; they’ve created a space to wrestle with the messy issues of race and reconciliation. Incidents have happened, racial incidents, and the Vice-Chancellor and Rector, Jonathan Jansen, grabbed the opportunity and flipped it on its back to transform the university community into one that dares to ask the hard questions. Hostels (dormitories) are integrated and there’s an International Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation, and Social Justice. That’s why I’m here. And to listen.
What else do you want to know about Bloem? It’s hot—5 degrees hotter than Cape Town, which means 37 degrees. This is the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien and they’ve redone his home to look like the “Lord of the Rings” (sort of).
Ah yes, and the world’s first concentration camp originates here. My Intro to IR students know this one; it was on their final. During the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), the English could not defeat the Boers (farmers from Dutch ancestry), so introduced the “Scorched Earth” policy. They burned the homesteads and captured the farmers’ wives and children under 15 (boys aged 13 and 14 fought alongside their fathers and grandfathers=white African child soldiers—a new-old category) and put them into 39 concentration camps, where 29,000 women and children died. In addition, they put the black servants and farm workers into 65 concentration camps, where 24,000 people died.
“The English didn’t know how to battle the guerrilla warfare the Boers fought. The last time the English fought that kind of war was in Scotland.” Now I’m thinking “Braveheart,” and the old-new Scottish referendum for independence.
In the museum, my mind spinning, I asked out loud, “So, during the Boer war men shared the same race and religion as the women and children they incarcerated and starved and fed tins of food with chips of glass inside? But then this war was about. . . .” And the guide and I said the word at the same time: “Gold.”
In history we see it often; a society that is victimized, when it comes to power, then victimizes in turn. My class came up with the following examples: Israel, Liberia, America, South Africa. But we were thinking ANC. Now I wonder about the effect of losing all in a bitter, dirty war, then a generation later, coming into power. Were the seeds of apartheid sown by nations’ lust for gold and empire at any cost? Extrapolate that. Nations on this continent have learned that when oil or diamonds or gold are discovered, it almost certainly means war and famine.
Ignoring the Bosnian war has unleashed the Serb mafia (with many steps in between). Congo enjoys the involvement of seven nations in our generation’s own world war. Maybe there no longer is a “them” and “us.” We ignore others’ suffering at our own peril. We perpetrate human rights violations upon ourselves.
My new American friend shared a quote by Voltaire: “Because I am human, nothing human escapes me.” Maybe all the children really are our children.