Boer, boor, bore
cape town society
Saturday 13 September 1997
Growing up in the Sixties in South Africa, the divide was between Afrikaans and English. My parents, mindful of our rulers, sent me to a farm to learn Afrikaans. As a young English girl, I watched Afrikaner boys, barefoot swinging on the farm gates, tufty blond hair like chewed corn cobs. At mealtimes, bare feet slid under the table and covered mine. A lot happened under that big, dark table. On Sundays, the dominee's hand swept my thighs. On a good day, I might be covered in Afrikaner flesh from the waist down.
Calvinism, a much underrated ideology, gave to Afrikaners a delicious sense of sin, a tingle of guilt that was a potent ju-ju. A sparky young American journalist here, sleeping with a Karoo farmer, was astonished (and deeply turned on) when he knelt beside the bed and said his prayers.
The word "Afrikaner" rolls around a bit. Although it would be as risky as pronouncing on the British psyche from the nation's reactions to Diana's death, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave clues to the Afrikaner soul. In the way that the Princess of Wales's death seemed to demonstrate a national inability to show emotion that finally burst forth in exotic, candlelit catharsis, perfumed by the hothouse smell of rotting flowers - more South American than English - so the antics of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission filled with horrible confessions became a forum not for explanation but for confusion. I have in front of me a picture of amnesty-applicant and self-confessed torturer Jeff Benzien. He is wearing a ginger toupee and sitting astride a body with a sack over its head, demonstrating his particular method of torture. There is something almost prayerful about the pose, but the real woof is the brute physicality of the act.
In the end, many Afrikaner males dwelt in a place so beyond explanation that it was easier to see them as entirely physical beings, children of landscape, pullers of the plough. For many of us women, they represented the forbidden fruit of the gamekeeper - or, more appropriately, the game ranger - a view endorsed by those sophisticated women who travel the world with a libido and an ice-crusher, cognoscenti who had long recognised the male Afrikaan's sexual potential.
For people outside South Africa, the Afrikaner male is an ambiguous figure. Readers of the Independent will recognise dedicated Afrikaner and brilliant writer Rian Malan, grubby but with excellent cheekbones. There's Chris Barnard, who performed the world's first heart transplant and who, at 74, rejoices in younger women, and there's Breyten Breytenbach, writer and romantic. It is not an oddly assorted group of role models.
Roger Ballen's recent book, Platteland, shows Afrikaners as cretins with queer heads - Diane Arbus revisited. When I said to an editor that I would like to write about the sexiness of Afrikaner men, he laughed. In the public imagination, Afrikaner men seem stereotyped forever as the policeman, farmer and rugby player. And they have always made good dentists.
Many of us who liked Afrikaner men saw it as an illicit taste, frequently with disobliging aesthetics. Baroness Gallia Behr, an exuberant girl who lives in the beauty of Plettenberg Bay, says, "I am always falling in love with Afrikaans farmers, tanned and strong and dressed in khaki, but when they turn up to take you out, they look like bits of crystallised fruit in shiny suits. Afrikaners must be kept in the bush." I once took a farm boy to my school dance. With the help of our local dressmaker and a picture from Vogue that would have given Balenciaga pause, I looked like a covered wagon. How perfect it would have been had he rocked up in full khaki fig, looking like someone who should drive a wagon. Instead, a victim, like me, of toil and trouble, he arrived in a wash 'n' wear check suit as chewy as Naugahyde.
If over the years, Afrikaners became cartoon figures to the rest of the world, in the New South Africa, where one might have expected them to be humbled, they have acquired sophistication. Rian Malan says, "do not underestimate the Afrikaner's spirit of survival. One day, they will be the heroes of Africa, running hospitals, mending power lines."
It seems that, isolated from the outside world, the Afrikaner male has been hanging about the boland (countryside) sharpening his jaw line, tuning deltoids, tightening sphincter muscles.Overnight, he has become digitally remastered, slipping across continents,sauntering in Armani Emporia, feasting with beauty. He reads the fashion pages on men's magazines. He has discovered Timberland and Democracy. He is unsleeping, fleet and primed. When last in England a few months ago, I went to a grand ball where a man stood on a table and shouted proudly, "I am a Boer." Perhaps he said, "I am a bore"
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