Story of a South African Farm School
The Elsenburg Agricultural College lies 50 km east of Cape Town, tucked among the quiet valleys of the Cape Winelands. This is one of South Africa’s most fertile regions, and for the past three centuries its surface has been dominated by thousand-acre plantations, its wealth extracted in the form of olives, fruit, and wine. Originally a farm for the Dutch East India Company, the first group to colonize the Cape, Elsenburg was purchased by the Cape colonial government in 1898—by then, under British control—and set up as a school. For the next century, Elsenburg would groom young white men to enter South Africa’s agricultural industry, teaching them how to breed livestock, manage labor, and protect the vineyards and orchards they’d inherit from their fathers.
When Apartheid ended, Elsenburg opened its doors to black and coloured students, and a small contingent enrolled every year. Many of the black students had family in the Eastern Cape, whose rural regions are plagued by historical underdevelopment and dry soil. Most coloured students came to Elsenburg from farmworking communities nearby, zones governed by exploitation and poverty. Like their parents and grandparents, these students didn’t own land. But for many of them, Elsenburg held a kind of promise: an official license not only to produce food and make wine, but to begin cultivating a language of agriculture that could reunite the country’s new citizens with their native soil.
Elsenburg post-Apartheid, then, was a space of strange intimacies; where people from obverse faces of South Africa’s geography of dispossession were placed side-by-side in crop fields and wine cellars, to learn how to become farmers. For years, the cohabitation seemed a peaceful one, an island of placidity in a nation stirring with unrest. Disturbance didn’t arrive at Elsenburg until July 2015, when a group of students began to strike against the school’s language policy. Nobody paid much attention at the time, Elsenburg being too remote to capture the flickering attention span of the media or the revolutionary drive of student activists at nearby Stellenbosch University. But the events revealed in frightening lucidity the viciousness that undergirds South Africa’s agricultural industry, becoming an object lesson in how mastery over language upholds mastery over land.
Both the English and the Dutch settled South Africa, but it was the latter and their posterity who came to dominate the country’s agriculture. Throughout its history, Elsenburg used Afrikaans, the vernacular of those Dutch descendants who call themselves Afrikaners. In the early 2000s, the school officially adopted a 50/50 language policy, granting equal weight to Afrikaans and English. The latter represented a common compromise for the newly integrated student body. Though few claim it as a mother tongue, English is grasped by nearly all of South Africa’s high school graduates, regardless of race or geography.
This compromise, however, turned out to be merely symbolic. Only upon starting classes would new students learn that, although Elsenburg’s website and application forms contained both languages, most of lectures were still delivered in Afrikaans. This situation was amenable to coloured students, who also claimed Afrikaans as a first language, but it posed a serious handicap to new black students. Every year, a group of them would appeal to the Elsenburg administration to make English mandatory. The authorities always resisted. Afrikaans was the mother tongue of the school’s majority, they reasoned: in 2015, black students made up only one-tenth of the student body, while coloured and white students comprised, respectively, 10 and 80 percent. So black students were told that they could ask for translations in class.
Some would, but rarely for long. “It gets tedious when you have to keep raising your hand to say, remember me?” a student named Olwethu said. Olwethu grew up in the nearby wine-producing town of Paarl, where he, like hundreds of other children, spent school holidays working in the vineyards. Being taught in a foreign language, Olwethu explained, forced him to adopt a kind of mental myopia. When studying became a matter of rote memorization, it became impossible to absorb any conceptual knowledge—to command a deep or wide understanding of anything the lecturer said.
One young woman would sign the roll sheet, wait for lecture to end, then return to her room and memorize into the early morning. Others stopped attending class altogether. Every few years, a student would fail one too many modules and be forced to leave. In respect of this phenomenon, the institution maintained a sort of practiced obliviousness; according to one administrator, they didn’t keep racial breakdowns of student performance. And so Afrikaans remained in place—just another quiet, attritional mechanism through which black citizens were maneuvered out of the agricultural field.
To name something is an act of power. As European settlers expanded their geographical claims over South Africa, they also formed an official discourse of space, place, and territory. Indigenous understandings of land and nature were silenced, erased. Monopoly over space, then, was also a monopoly over language; and Afrikaans was instrumental in maintaining both. In 1875, a group of white Afrikaans speakers gathered in Paarl and founded the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners, or the Society of Real Afrikaners, “to stand for our Language, our Nation, and our Country.” Afrikaans was inaugurated as a “pure” tongue, exclusive to the people that God had destined to inherit South Africa. Afrikaans writers forged the tradition of the farm novel, or plaasroman, an entire literary genre that depicted the relationship between the white farmer and his property as natural and romantic. After their defeat in the Anglo-Boer War, Afrikaners dug in further. They claimed their culture was anti-imperial, Afrikaans a native tongue also victim to English’s growing hegemony.
In the identity of the white farmer, then, Afrikaans is the yoke between land ownership and racial purity. And like most nationalist tales, this one is based on a fallacy. Afrikaans originated as a creole, born out of the close proximity between slaves and Dutch settlers. Today, it’s the mother tongue of most coloured people (a significant number are descendants of slaves) in the Western Cape, who comprise the majority of the working class. But the Afrikaans that is taught in universities, developed for the arts, and preserved for heritage is not the Afrikaans of this majority, but, rather, standaard-Afrikaans. This is the dialect recognized as scientific, primary and precise: the Afrikaans spoken by the white farmer, not by his farmhands.
Last July, on the first day of a new semester, the black agricultural students at Elsenburg didn’t attend class. Instead, they marched from room to room, singing and chanting until lecturers had no choice but to dismiss the sessions early. They sang songs and carried signs alluding to their own mother tongues, to Xhosa and Zulu and Sotho, but they brought forward one demand: to be taught in English. English, the black students argued, would open access to the classroom and begin to level the spectacular inequalities that plague the field of agriculture. But the purpose of their demonstrations went beyond the pragmatics of learning. In challenging Afrikaans, the students dared to disturb the invisible order that governed both the school and the farmlands at large. Language, after all, shapes and mediates reality; and, the dominance of standaard Afrikaans was the very construct that tethered a powerful white minority to their property and their wealth, to all the fictions of belonging that justified their place in South Africa. And at Elsenburg, Afrikaans kept these fictions alive; it reinforced the position of those with farms to inherit, and rendered everyone else itinerants or intruders.
The first response was complete bewilderment. Days after the strike began, an official from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture (the province is governed by the Democratic Alliance) enacted a two-week trial of English-only instruction. The decision activated a panic button within the farming community: upon learning that Afrikaans was under threat, parents, alumni, and industry officials unleashed a torrent of objections on the school’s head office. Elsenburg’s governing board ruled that the decision for an English trial didn’t follow due process. By the end of the week, classes had returned to Afrikaans, so black students continued to strike.
What became evident, however, was that the agricultural establishment had nothing to fear. For it was the white students, many of them barely more than 20 years of age, who mobilized to protect the language they held sacred. When the administration first put the English-only trial in place, a group of white students boycotted class and marched, singing an outdated national anthem that pledged allegiance to “the fatherland.” Afrikaans, one woman claimed before her classmates, was their heritage. It was understood that such arguments didn’t include their coloured peers. While a few coloured students attended protests—a handful in solidarity with black students, others in support of white students—most stayed silent on the language conflict.
When the media eventually appeared—in September, a day after a fight erupted between the two factions of students—the headlines reduced the conflict to a racial row. Officials invited a mediator to campus to teach students how to reconcile. Classes for the remainder of the term were separated by language. By early October, order was restored at Elsenburg, but a strangeness had infected the student body. It was the clarity that only rupture could bring.
As the decolonization movement swept South Africa’s tertiary institutions last year, so did the land question. Here, for example, are the opening words from a recent column by novelist Panashe Chigumadzi: “We will only accept apologies in white generational wealth and land.” The “land” has become shorthand for the socioeconomic structures that remained in place after 1994, but the words also bear physical, concrete meaning: the territorial patterns and divisions that, to this day, control how relations between people are understood and imagined.
A week before the fight broke out at Elsenburg, members of the Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) party, a rising national movement formed by disgruntled ANC members, drove out to the Winelands to march with the black students. They brought a banner that said, “Return the stolen land!” It went missing later that afternoon. Aside from this incident, people didn’t explicitly bring up the question of land during the demonstrations at Elsenburg. It would’ve been redundant. Drive past the farms and vineyards of the Western Cape and you’ll see how old myths of belonging remain written onto the earth’s surface; how they continue to classify nature as either unruly wilderness or productive capital, and dictate whose bodies are allowed inside—and on what terms.
Whatever permanence this vista suggests is merely an illusion. Even before the agricultural students went on strike, the sedate fields and valleys had begun to simmer with the anger of workers no longer willing to suffocate in silence. This landscape grows more fragile with each passing day.