De la Rey: Hoo-hah about an Afrikaans song

All the publicity surrounding Jacob Zuma’s trademark song, “Awuleth’ Umshini Wami” (Zulu for “Bring me my machine gun”) reminded me of the hoo-hah about an Afrikaans language song that hit the airwaves around October 2006.

Titled “De la Rey” and performed by the South African musician Bok van Blerk, it caused quite a controversy in South Africa.

It is a tribute to Koos de la Rey, who was a highly respected Boer general during the Second Boer War in South Africa. Although he was opposed to the war because he felt that the Boers could not beat the British, once he committed himself to fighting, he was a highly skilled guerilla leader who was known for his chivalrous behaviour towards his enemies in battle. The song is set during the Second Boer War when Lord Kitchener was implementing his scorched earth policy and burning many Boers’ farms to the ground, placing wives and children in concentration camps. A Boer soldier, surrounded by a handful of comrades and facing certain death, calls out to General De La Rey to lead the Afrikaner Volk (people) to victory.

The South African Department for Arts and Culture issued a statement on 06 February 2007, responding to the fact that the song has become extremely popular with right-wing Afrikaners; at some of Bok van Blerk’s concerts, audience members have flown the old South African flag as well as the old Transvaal Vierkleur. (Incidentally, the flag depicted in the De la Rey video is the Orange Free State Vierkleur.) However, Bok has said that he does not encourage their behaviour or share their points of view. The Department said in its statement:

“Sadly, the popular song is in danger of being hijacked by a minority of right-wingers who not only regard De la Rey as a war hero but want to mislead sections of Afrikaans-speaking society to think that this is a “struggle song” that sends out a “call to arms.”

Interestingly, although the Department expressed the fear that the song would be ‘hijacked’ by right-wingers, they also wished the singer good luck!

“As the Ministry of Arts & Culture, we wish the singer, Van Blerk good luck with his song, and who knows, if it’s really good, it might even become an international hit, like Solomon Linda’s “Mbube”.”

With a surprisingly soft-handed approach, Minister Pallo Jordan said that he doesn’t have a problem with opposition parties protesting or mobilising, as long as they keep within the parameters of the law:

“Whatever the intentions of the composer, be they to mobilize White Afrikaans-speakers, or “the Boers” as the singer calls them, to oppose the democratic government, provided that opposition is within the terms of our Constitution, we as the Ministry see no problem.”

The following article from Money Web of that same day summarised the Department’s statement and included the comments of Johann Rossouw, a spokesman for the FAK (Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge = Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Organisations), who said that the song:

“has proved to be very popular amongst a huge cross-section of Afrikaners and it’s mass popularity is clearly at odds with any supposed ‘hi-jacking’ by ‘right-wingers’. In fact, the scarecrow of ‘Afrikaner right-wingers’ seems to come in all too-handy here.”

“Despite appealing to the normal constitutional mechanisms available to Afrikaners as for any other grouping in the country, the Ministry is surely aware of the sensitivity around, for example, the heavy-handed changing of place names in a number of instances, despite pleas for a solution based on mutual recognition, i.e. restoring forgotten or repressed African place names without dropping the Afrikaans place names”, he said.

“Refering to the Boeremag splinter group – fugitive members of whom were recently recaptured in part with the apparent help of Afrikaner members of the public – in this context, perhaps tells more of the Ministry’s temptation to think of Afrikaners in stereotypical terms than of the actual reality amongst the majority of peace-loving and law-abiding Afrikaners.”

The song’s popularity seems to tap into “deep-seated feeling among many whites that they do not belong in South Africa any more”, as Afrikaans writer Rian Malan suggests here. Antjie Krog, famous South African writer, also reacted to the controversy in this Mail and Guardian article by trying to analyse the psychology behind the song’s popularity:

“The song’s popularity says to me that, in general, Afrikaners want to become part of building a free country, but feel sidelined because of their past. They are trying to build a meaningful relationship with the rest of the country, but battle to deal with unexpressed guilt.

This is compunded by many white people who would like the Afrikaner to stay the “guilty” party.

To “obtain liberation” from a past, children often try to develop the identity they long for by relying on surrogate mothers and fathers. As mediator, De la Rey brings a third option about. He becomes the surrogate father, not to lead to uprising, but to assist children to deal with their guilt in such a way that they can successfully integrate their past into a new society.”

But I think by far the best analysis of the popularity of the song in its historical context appeared in the Financial Times of 21 July.

Well, have a look at the video on YouTube (this version has English subtitles), read the Afrikaans lyrics below, followed by the English translation (both from here), and make up your own mind.

De La Rey

– Bok van Blerk

Op ‘n berg in die nag
lê ons in die donker en wag
in die modder en bloed lê ek koud,
streepsak en reën kleef teen my

en my huis en my plaas tot kole verbrand sodat hulle ons kan vang,
maar daai vlamme en vuur brand nou diep, diep binne my.

De La Rey, De La Rey sal jy die Boere kom lei?
De La Rey, De La Rey
Generaal, generaal soos een man, sal ons om jou val.
Generaal De La Rey.

Oor die Kakies wat lag,
‘n handjie van ons teen ‘n hele groot mag
en die kranse lê hier teen ons rug,
hulle dink dis verby.

Maar die hart van ‘n Boer lê dieper en wyer, hulle gaan dit nog sien.
Op ‘n perd kom hy aan, die Leeu van die Wes Transvaal.

De La Rey, De La Rey sal jy die Boere kom lei?
De La Rey, De La Rey
Generaal, generaal soos een man, sal ons om jou val.
Generaal De La Rey.

Want my vrou en my kind lê in ‘n kamp en vergaan,
en die Kakies se murg loop oor ‘n nasie wat weer op sal staan.

De La Rey, De La Rey sal jy die Boere kom lei?
De La Rey, De La Rey
Generaal, generaal soos een man, sal ons om jou val.
Generaal De La Rey.

 Lyrics in English from the same site:

De la Rey

– Bok van Blerk

On a mountain in the night
we lie in the darkness and wait
In the mud and blood
I lie cold,
grain bag and rain cling to me.
And my house and my farm,
burned to ashes
so that they could catch us
But those flames and that fire
burn now deep, deep within me.

Chorus:

De la Rey, De la Rey,
will you come to lead the Boers?
De la Rey, De la Rey
General, General, as one man
we’ll fall in around you
General De la Rey

And the Khakis [Brits] that laugh
— [just] a handful of us
against their whole great might —
With the cliffs to our backs,
they think it’s all over
But the heart of the Boer lies deeper and wider,
that they’ll still find [out]

At a gallop he comes,
the Lion of the West Transvaal

Chorus

Because my wife and my child,
lie in a Hell-camp and perish
And the Khakis’ vengeance
is poured over
a nation that will rise up again

Chorus

De la Rey, De la Rey,
will you come for the Boers? 

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