There’s “too much Africa in South Africa”

That what a Dutch writer Adriaan Van Dis told an Italian newspaper when asked about what South Africa is like now.

The writer Adriaan Van Dis in 1986. Image: Wiki Commons.

Oscar Pistorius being charged with the alleged murder of his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day has given the Dutch writer Adriaan Van Dis the chance to play “South African expert” in a long interview in Tuesday’s issue of the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Van Dis’s latest book, Tikkop (translated in Italian as “Tradimento”, or “Betrayal” in English), was the official reason why he’s being interviewed. La Stampa titled the article: “South Africa, The rainbow country where apartheid is replaced with fear.” According to the book’s Italian publisher Iperborea it is “a story about a trip in South Africa, the memory about apartheid, the failure of a dream of freedom, friendship, and love for a language and a land.”

“There’s a reason why we have asked Van Dis about the current situation in South Africa,” explains the journalist Alessandra Iadicicco in her introduction: “It is because he comes from the postcolonial world, and was born to an Dutch East Indian father and an Indonesian mother; he also studied Afrikaans literature in South Africa in the 1970s. He visited the country again in 1994 to document the progress made there after Mandela’s victory, writing a reportage-novel titled The Promised Land. Now, in Tikkop, he exposes his post-colonialist disillusions.”

Inevitably, Van Dis is questioned about the Pistorius case. Van Dis, echoing the rhetoric of Pistorius’ apologists (and the basis of Pistorius defense), responds that: “the background of the murder is clear: The country is dominated by fear, people–black and white–live in terror.”

La Stampa’s journalist wonders if the losses to which Van Dis refers in his novel, and the present day atmosphere of fear that he speaks about are consequences of Apartheid. “Without a doubt,” Van Dis asserts. “The dismantling of the system of segregation has created a new privileged class of wealthy black people, as scared as white people are of the diffused criminality among the poorest of the country.” And: “Conquering freedom didn’t improve the life standard for everybody.”

It’s clear that Van Dis’s assessment of South Africa will inevitably scare readers and discourage anyone outside the country from ever contemplating a visit to South Africa. But there are even more ways in which he expresses his disappointment: “The country which, in the 1990s, represented hope for justice and redemption for the oppressed of the world has “Africanized” itself more and more in the last 20 years [si è sempre più africanizzato negli ultimi vent’anni], and it wasn’t able to implement European civilization values.”

And that’s the real betrayal for Van Dis: the lost of a European legacy supposedly associated with the country’s whites. But who is going to tell Van Dis that even Apartheid is part of this same legacy?

The best comment comes from a friend of mine on Facebook, who used a rhyme I have never heard to explain the link between the new Europeans, with all their pretty liberal views, and their forebearers:

“Gratta gratta l’europeista che vien fuori il colonialista” (Scratch, scratch the Europeanist, and you’ll find the colonialist)

No need to scratch too much to get at what Van Dis is all about.


Further Reading

Mobilizing in disorder

Post the looting and failed insurrection, what would it mean for the South African left to undertake a populist political strategy? And should it look to South America for inspiration? A long read.