The stone, the tree and the birds


This is the third article in a series of four in which Carel Boshoff shares thoughts about the future of Afrikaners, wherever they find themselves.

The opportunity to speak from Orania in front of a Namibian audience in Windhoek about Afrikaners’ future independence recently presented me with a particular challenge.

Would it make sense to offer Orania as a future home for people who, even more than Afrikaners in South Africa, prefer to work out their salvation in a dispensation which they cannot or do not want to leave, but which they also have no desire or prospect to exercise control? Or should one accept that you actually have nothing to say to fellow Africans who do not see Orania beckoning them from the future?

With the newly acquired sense of twoness, which gives space to something we have known all along that both exist and one cannot be subjugated to the other, it was significantly easier for me to face the visit.

The one thing that stuck in my mind was the thought that our shared national identity is not just a flight of imagination or a brainstorm in the desert, or a social construct that can be destroyed through intellectual deconstruction. There is something undeniably fixed, but within certain limits also changeable, about people’s social identity and wanting to let it flow formlessly is just as unpromising as wanting to petrify it.

Of the people I would meet in Windhoek, some were recent friends, others were fellow students and one was even a family member, but most were unknown. But more than that, their living space was unknown to me: another country and landscape, another government and challenges, other prospects, joys and risks.

In short, I didn’t know what to expect. Partly because I didn’t want to “fall out of the sky” there, but braved the one and a half thousand kilometers between Orania and Windhoek along the way with the motorcycle. So I had enough time to think. And what I thought of was, among other things, the poem “To klip om te boom” by DJ Opperman:

Stone can only stone,

its breeding is subdivided

to dumb pebbles

dune round flour.

Boom can only boom,

getting taller and also pregnant

to singing trees

bird om the singer.

But truly:

before tree can tree

must stone first stone

and stone breeds heavily

– believe millions of years.

Mindful of the poem, which began with the stone as an image of permanence, appropriate to our social identity, and which in turn actually started with a love song of a dubious nature, in which the hero would simply wait like a stone for his beloved , and it shouts out in the idiom specific to its genre, namely Hard Rock – which in a completely different sense of the word must be rock hard to be valued – mindful of that (because the motorcycle offers a kind of meditative space) I realized that little more needs to be said than to explain the poem’s three themes, namely the stone, the tree and the birds.

Thought in one sense, with the proviso that imagery, especially poetic imagery, must be understood for what it says, and not for what it does not say.

One characteristic of a stone is applicable to one characteristic of national identity, namely its enduring nature. This does not mean that every property of a stone is applicable to every property of national identity, for example that it is immutable, or that it sinks in water, or that it can be used to grind grain or sharpen a blade (depending on what kind stone) not!

Opperman certainly did not, of all things, think of national identity when he wrote the poem, and the “thundering round flour” of the mute, subdivided little pebbles is already far beyond the tangent I wanted to elucidate – except in so far as the “millions year” confirms it again. The point is that one always skates on thin ice with poetic language and must try to defend oneself against the radiating potential of possible misunderstanding.

Even if the stony nature of social identity can therefore be exaggerated – for the English we have always been Rockspiders – it is still a way to counter the lie of its fluidity or volatility. Such images of fluidity and transience appeal greatly to those interested in eliminating such local and time-bound obstacles in the way of their global and universal aspirations. From our point of view, however, aspects of social identity are the anchors that keep us from being swept away by currents and storms, the home from which we depart and to which we return as we explore the world.

Liquidity and volatility nullify it and we cannot accept it complacently. We must resist it, even though “liquid modernity” (according to the sociologist Zygmund Bauman’s description) is the order of the day around us.

And the tree? With roots and trunk and branches? This actually goes without saying and can be largely left to the imagination, but as an image of a social organism the thought of growth, shelter and nurturing can still be emphasized. Opperman’s poem appears on together with Conrad Theys’s painting “Rand of the Kokerboom Forest” and dramatically depicts the trees in a rocky desert-like landscape, with hills and blue, cloudy skies.

“There is life here!” it exclaims, “not only cosmically speaking in the relationship between the earth and the sky, but on the ground, between the stones – here grow succulent trees like you have never seen before!”

For the sake of my talk, this is where I brought in the sense of multifacetedness, made possible by the notion of duality between those at home and those working abroad. One tree, many branches – that’s what makes a tree so wonderful. You actually spoil it if you try to say more.

Finally the birds, really only added by way of association by Opperman. But like him, we also cannot think about a tree without thinking about birds. For him, it is the image of small trees forming around a big tree, like an informal choir around a lead singer. (For the psalmist, the branches of an olive tree that grow around the trunk are like the children around a happy father’s table.)

For us, the birds can be singing messengers, spreading and redirecting thoughts and preventing the multiplicity of the forest from falling apart. Multiplicity and unity are both undeniable realities, but they can pass together, or they can stare at each other in silence; they may lose the one thing they both need to thrive, namely cohesion.

I was a bird when I flew to Windhoek (!) and shared these thoughts on Twitter. I hope you like it, we sing as we are meant to. And there were more than enough crumbs for this little bird!

This article was published courtesy of the Freedom Foundation.