Western civilisation and Afrikaners: A shared struggle with foundation myth crises

A foundation or origin myth develops over time to serve as the foundation of a culture, people, city or civilisation. Such myths are typically presented as a grand narrative and function to justify and explain the current state of affairs, with the events, entities and forces described therein often being considered sacred. The reference here to the concept of a myth does not imply that the story is necessarily fictional, however; rather that the generational legend has taken on a mythical nature, while it often entails certain supernatural, eternal or archetypical elements. The Romans had the origin myth of Romulus and Remus. The Americans have the 1776 Declaration of Independence, their founding fathers, and the U.S. Constitution (as sacred document). The English have among others the Battle of Hastings (1066) and the Magna Carta (1215). For the Afrikaners of Southern Africa, the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in the Cape of Good Hope (1652), the Great Trek (1835–1854), the Battle of Blood River (1838) and the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) have all come to serve the purpose of cultural foundation myths.

A foundation myth broadly functions to orient a people or civilisation in the world because it provides a grand narrative and archetypes that help them to make sense of reality by locating them in history and the world. Furthermore, it provides a guiding distinction between ultimate good and ultimate evil, and determines what is considered sacred.

Harry Fosdick argued that “[m]an’s life is like a tree. Branches demand roots; every increase in the superstructure, giving purchase for the wind to get hold upon, requires a new grip on the steadfast earth” and that “increased extension calls for increased stability.” This increased cultural stability is provided by consolidating the foundation myth(s) that holds things together. The Bible reminds us of the importance of building your house on a solid foundation. A house that is built on a foundation of rock can withstand heavy rain, winds and floods, while a house that is built on sand suffers a different fate: “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” – Matthew 7:25. The nature, quality and vigour of a culture’s foundation myth(s) play significant roles in determining its destiny.

A foundation myth is not set in stone. In the Western world we have observed how the old foundation myths have been altered or even replaced by the two world wars and colonialism. In South Africa, apartheid has become the foundation myth of the New South Africa. Quentin Ferreira refers to this new South African origin myth as the “eternal apartheid”. In the Western world you live in the post-World I and II era, and in South Africa you live in the post-1994 or post-apartheid era. Everything from the zeitgeist, rhetoric, architecture, culture, art, politics, prevailing stereotypes, education and more in the West as in South Africa, operate within, are interpreted according to and are influenced by these foundation myths’ frameworks and paradigms.

In the Western world you live in the post-World I and II era, and in South Africa you live in the post-1994 or post-apartheid era.

To demonstrate this point, consider the key aspect of a foundation myth as the provider of a conception of what constitutes ultimate good and ultimate evil. In the apartheid as foundational myth framework, the National Party (NP) and the system of apartheid are designated as the ultimate evils. This explains why politicians, journalists, academics and even lay people in post-apartheid South Africa frantically scramble to liken their opponents (or those with whom they ideologically disagree) as supporters of apartheid or sharing the ideas of NP leaders of the past. You see this in the sentiments, nurtured by African National Congress (ANC) rhetoric, expressed towards opposition parties such as the Democratic Alliance (DA), as well as in the DA’s own rhetoric towards the ANC. On the other side of the moral spectrum of the New South Africa’s foundation myth there is a constant virtue-signalling tug of war to claim the moral high ground of best representing the incarnation of ultimate good, as personified by Nelson Mandela, between opposition parties and the ruling ANC.

Quentin Ferreira highlights another integral aspect of the post-apartheid foundation myth when he argues that “[a]t its core, The Eternal Apartheid describes the societal forces which arose from the clash between Western modernity and African culture, and can be best understood as the post-Apartheid frame through which our society is interpreted.” The post-apartheid foundation myth’s framing of reality and the state of affairs rest on the archetypal interplay between what Ferreira calls the unrepentant white and the perpetually-victimised African. Every societal interaction, conflict or issue is interpreted through this lens. Therefore, in the post-apartheid paradigm, institutions, symbols and cultural practices that are rooted in Western civilisation are framed as tyrannical, alien order – and any attempt to preserve these or acknowledging their value is met with deep suspicion and antagonism.

In the Western world one sees the post-World War I and II foundation myth play out in a cliché so widely and frequently observed that it is popularly ridiculed. Hence the coining of Godwin’s law, which states that the longer an internet argument goes on, the higher the probability becomes that something or someone will be compared to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis. This was particularly apparent during Donald Trump’s presidency, where Hitler comparisons were a dime a dozen and the label “fascist” experienced a new revival. If you dare to disagree with, question or criticise the ideals, figures or values that are held sacred by the post-World War I and II foundation myth, you are accused of being a sympathiser or representative of the evils and vices of the other side of this rigid moral dichotomy. In the South African context, any criticism of or alternative proposed to the values or ideals of the post-Apartheid Rainbow Nation South Africa, gets you labelled as an Apartheid sympathiser or a racist longing to return to a segregated past.

The post-World War I and II, and post-apartheid eras – both constructed on violent and traumatic foundation myths – are consequently gripped in the claws of a disruptive and divisive paranoia. There is a Nazi in every patriotic neighbour and an apartheid apologist in every proud Afrikaner. This paranoia leads to the purging of any statue, monument, street name, ideal or cultural symbol that might reference or remotely connect to the ultimate evil that is identified in the new reigning foundation myth. Every statue that was built before the “new” era; every symbol that is incompatible with the new origin myth’s pantheon; every value or tradition that does not strictly adhere to the new myth’s ideals – are all seen as potential seeds of returning to the deplorable past and resurrecting an old evil. Therefore, they are all mercilessly attacked and cleansed from public view in a ritualistic, exorcistic fashion to rid society of any evil spirits that might possess unsuspecting citizens and to nail shut demonic doorways that might lead back to a bygone era. In South Africa the constant assaults on Afrikaans (which the eternal apartheid myth designates as the “oppressive” language of the previous regime), the renaming of Church Street in Pretoria and the banning of the old South African flag (even in the privacy of one’s own home) serve as examples of such cleansing rituals.  

In the West and in South Africa, the origin myths of old that were characterised by themes of birth, growth, building, courage, beauty and aspirations have been replaced by new myths that are characterised by death, suffering, oppression, destruction, injustice and guilt. Rather than being rooted in the good, these new myths are nailed on every wall in town on public display for all to see – not as a triumphant victory song, but as a dark, foreboding warning. Our foundational myths are no longer centred around what we seek to build or preserve, but rather on what we must topple, stamp out, deface and destroy. Their tool is no longer the plough, but rather the axe.

Our foundational myths are no longer centred around what we seek to build or preserve, but rather on what we must topple, stamp out, deface and destroy.

In the West, any reverence of the age-old values and traditions of your ancestors or the appreciation of your heritage and history is viewed through the lens of the new foundation myth as a desperate longing for a past that is filled with injustice, cruelty and oppression. In South Africa, any Afrikaner organisation or person who does not perpetually signal their inherited guilt or confess to their collective complicity in the original sin of apartheid, or who does not publicly voice ethno-masochistic sentiments is attacked and called a racist who is unrepentant for their sins. When I recently penned criticism of some of the destructive practical consequences of sacred liberal post-apartheid values, I was accused of probably having a poster of Eugene Terre’Blanche on my wall. This may sound absurd, but it makes perfect sense within the eternal apartheid myth’s scriptures – of course witches float.

Every archetype has both a light and a shadow side, and both must be acknowledged, confronted and explored. The wise king, who archetypally represents a source of knowledge, wisdom and tradition that brings order and prosperity to society, has as its shadow the tyrant king, who reminds us that excessive order will serve to stultify and suffocate growth. The problem is, however, that the post-World War I and II and post-apartheid foundation myths are one sided in that they are completely engulfed in shadow and a fearful obsession with the dark. In their new foundation myths, the Western and Afrikaner culture’s virtues are superficially framed as universal, while their vices are assuredly declared unique.

A healthy foundation myth affirms that the world is better off and richer with the existence of your culture or civilisation, while a toxic foundation myth asserts the opposite and implies that you have a moral duty to remove yourself from it. As Arnold Toynbee said: “Great civilizations are not murdered. They commit suicide.” At the core of the new Western foundation myth, you find the spotlight on two devastating and traumatising world wars, the development and dropping of the atomic bomb, the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and colonialism. These are held up as the characteristic bitter fruit of the West’s Faustian striving and the fated result of its values. If these are maliciously reflected as the only bricks of your foundation, it is only natural that the walls of your home will be graffitied, often by your own hand, with the phrase: “The world would have been better off without you!”

When your civilisation or culture is confronted with the realities of a toxic foundation myth that has taken root, the best solution is to create new myths, erect new statues or monuments, and to rediscover and rejuvenate the cultural treasures from your past to serve as corner stones of that which you are dreaming of. Do as Paul Kruger said: “Take from the past all that is beautiful, and build the future with it.” We should not be naïve or blindly romantic about the past – returning to it is impossible or even undesirable. Søren Kierkegaard was right when he observed that “[l]ife can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

In the West’s idealistic strive to save the world by Westernising it, it has neglected the maintenance of its own house. Similarly, Afrikaners were so absorbed in pure self-preservation, that we lost sight of what needed preservation. Mark 8:36: warns us: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Unfortunately, while we were distracted and through neglect the cultural gardens of both the West and the Afrikaners’ souls have been overrun by weeds that are chocking the delicate, rare and sacred flowers that were so revered and ritualistically and carefully tended to by our ancestors. Our culture is our precious life blood, which was not created by us, but for us. We are only temporary custodians of it until we too must pass it on. It has always been and will always be much easier to squander an inheritance than to create one.

ERNST VAN ZYL

Ernst van Zyl is a Campaign Officer at AfriForum for strategy and content. He co-presents the Podlitiek podcast, hosts the Afrikaans “In alle Ernst” podcast, and hosts a political commentary and interview Channel on YouTube. Ernst usually posts on Twitter and YouTube under his pseudonym Conscious Caracal (follow him at @ConCaracal).

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you Ernst for this exellent contribution to serve as stark reminder that we have a moral duty to preserve and to pass on what is beautiful and valuable in our heritage as a fortunate legacy to those who come after us.

  2. Only recently I had very similar thoughts: the problem with post-apartheid South Africa is that we have no shared national mythology, that all citizens can subscribe to. And when you don’t have that, you don’t really have a nation. We saw this vividly illustrated recently with the whole brouhaha over kneeling by our national cricket team: some did, some did it with fist in the air, some refused… the team was in fact a very representative microcosm of the country as a whole.

    We are similar to the U.S. in that we have many cultures in one country. The U.S. solved the problems inherent in this by federalism, and a national myth that all can believe in (they are playing with fire by their current eroding of their national myth, if you ask me). In the U.S., you are American first, but you are most welcome to also be Irish-American, or Italian-American, or Native American, or Amish, or… Whatever your individual culture, you can openly and shamelessly be it, while at the same time being folded into the broader American nationhood.

    It does not seem to me that South Africa is anywhere close to that. Thus far, attempts at nation building have mostly been a government project, and their idea of a national myth is “whatever the ANC stands for.” It will inevitably exclude millions of people, of all races.

    Result: a country slowly coming apart at the seams – which might not necessarily be a bad thing, traumatic as it will be in the short term.

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