Book review: Bridge Over Blood River: The rise and fall of the Afrikaners

Thick-skinned and fearless, Kajsa Norman goes behind the lines in Afrikanerdom, where she finds a racist, cultish and tribal people but, as Josephine Fenton discovers, she also finds some hope for a dying race

Kajsa Norman

C Hurst and Co,

€25.19 (HB); ebook, €18.75

KAJSA NORMAN, camping out in 2011, near Blood River in Kwa-Zulu-Natal, is unprepared for a fierce storm. Approached by a group of macho-looking Afrikaans-speaking men her English is ignored until she explains that she is Swedish. 

As a Scandinavian she proves close enough to their ancestral country of Holland to merit some friendly help. They beef up her tent and welcome her to the celebrations of 16th December. It’s the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River 1838.

More than 170 years previously, on the same site, a group of almost 500 Voortrekkers faced a more intense peril. They awoke to find their laagered waggons surrounded by thousands of Zulu warriors. 

Soon after dawn, with the aid of buckshot-filled muskets and cannon, about 3,000 spear-carrying Zulus lay dead, leaving three Afrikaners wounded, but all their victors alive. And thus the ‘Battle’ of Blood River and December 16 entered the cultural lexicon of the Afrikaners.

Norman’s main interest, as a journalist, is conflict zones. Whilst South Africa is not exactly a theatre of war, the country is regarded as very dangerous. 

In the cities the black and white middle classes live in guarded compounds and carry weapons in their expensive cars. They do not drive at night and do not stop at traffic lights. There is little confidence in the police.

Norman attempts to embed herself in the segregated world of the Afrikaner: a world that has remained steadfastly closed to uitlanders since 1838. 

Reluctantly some accept her visits, although she frequently comes across hardliners who will greet her in English once and then become silent waiting for her to speak Afrikaans.

She learns that one response to the current situation seems to emulate their forebears’ triumph at Blood River where, forming their crescent of wagons into a ‘shield wall’, they protected themselves from the enemy. 

Such a phenomenon is the republic of Orania. Miles away from anywhere, amid arid lands, pioneers have built a ‘European’ outpost.

One of their leaders states: ‘after World War Two, Algeria had three million white French. They are all gone. The Belgians who used to live in the Congo are all gone. The Portuguese are gone. The English are gone. The Afrikaners are the last European people remaining in Africa’.

The town council is aiming for a population of 20,000 in the next 20 years but recognises that 300,000 to 500,000 would be needed for a viable state.

Daily life in Orania is god-fearing and austere. Everyone is expected to work hard physically and the concept of Kafferwerk (having someone else do your work) is despised. 

At the petrol station white attendants fill the tanks of passing vehicles, be the passengers white or black. But there can be no black or coloured residents.

Watching families at leisure, Norman finds them ‘almost nauseatingly happy’. She likens their milieu to Stepford, from Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives.

What is attractive about Orania is its wholesomeness, its rejection of greed and acceptance of sufficiency. What is less desirable is its eschewal of everything that is not Afrikanerdom.

Elsewhere Norman finds other enclaves. There are still many Afrikaners working farms with the ‘help’ of black workers. 

According to the farmers, these farmhands are unreliable and often fail to turn up to look after the stock. And, on the isolated properties, vicious farm attacks are frequent. Every farmer fears for his life and those of his family.

‘I don’t feel safe staying here anymore. It makes me uncomfortable’ says one farmer’s daughter. This woman’s life has been quite different from the accepted norm for Afrikaner women, and would, by most of her peers, be seen as shameful. 

Having spent many years on cruise ships she returns home to her father, pregnant and rejected by the captain. Her father, taking her back into

his home, thanks God for the fact that the child turns out to be ‘a blond and blue-eyed little rugby player who helps his grandpa care for the animals on the farm’.

Some Afrikaner farmers have left their home country to seek their fortunes in the Congo. On arrival these skilled farmers receive land and tax exemptions. Their new land is much more fertile than that in South Africa, making farming more productive. 

Other African countries attracting these commercial farmers are Zambia, Ghana, Somalia, Namibia, Botswana, Angola and Mozambique. There is a new form of Trekboer.

There seems to be a tension in Afrikaner culture. They respect the trekking instinct. Treks traditionally took place to find and establish ethnically homogenous free states. But as each settlement broke down or was destroyed there was a need to trek again. There is the need for movement and the opposing need for stasis.

Challenges to the Afrikaner race have come from commercial and political sources. If diamonds or gold were found on their land the Afrikaners would find their freedoms curtailed — mainly by English mining companies, supported by British government policies. 

Antipathy towards the English was rife, particularly as it was thought that the English could just go back home if things got difficult.

There was, however, for the Afrikaner, only one homeland. The ‘Afrikaner language, history, traditions, calling and culture had all originated in South Africa and there was a strong sense of belonging attached to the soil’.

This feeling came to a head in 1939 when many Afrikaners sided with Germany in the hope that, after the Second World War, it would help them establish a viable republic. 

They founded the Ossewabrandwag, a pro-Nazi para-military organisation which had an elite wing called the Stormjaers. 

The centenary of the Battle of Blood River made pride in the Voortrekker particularly acute. Afrikaners had redoubled their belief in ‘self-reliance and a willingness to fight for survival’.

Given their historical relationship with the English it is unsurprising that Afrikaners opposed the Allies. Back in 1880 on their iconic date of December 16, the Afrikaners had declared the Transvaal independent. 

Because of their annexing, for mineral rites, all the Boer republics except the Orange Free State, the English now were challenged to fight the first Anglo-Boer War, culminating in victory for the Afrikaners.

Their leader, Paul Kruger, ‘compared Afrikaners to the Israelites of the Old Testament — a people of God, fighting both black and white enemies to achieve their Promised Land’.

But soon gold was discovered near Johannesburg and in 1899 the Second Anglo-Boer War began. This time, through the deployment of a scorched earth policy, as well as the use of concentration camps (in which 26,000 died), the British won.

Norman’s book shows Afrikaners to be a racist, cultish, tribal people, but in this fascinating tapestry, wefted by history and warped by anecdote, she also finds compassion for their plight.

In the epilogue she writes movingly of the unfinished structure in Blood River, a bridge designed to connect Afrikaner and Zulu heritage sites to make one united cosmopolis. 

Bridge building equals assimilation and assimilation is anathema to Afrikaners.


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