A letter from South Africa’s Stellenbosch — university town, wine paradise and the birthplace of apartheid

June 17 marks 32 years since the abolition of apartheid. How does the Afrikaner stronghold of Stellenbosch reconcile with its haunting past?

June 01, 2023 05:27 pm | Updated 05:59 pm IST

A worker picks grapes on a wine estate in Stellenbosch.

A worker picks grapes on a wine estate in Stellenbosch. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

How is it that the part of the world which created one of the most haunting ideologies to divide humanity is also one of its most beautiful?

About 50 miles east of Cape Town on the Atlantic coast of South Africa lie the wealthy vineyards of Stellenbosch, a stronghold of Afrikaners, the white descendants of the Dutch settlers nativised in South Africa for the last 500 years. This is the place considered as the birthplace of apartheid, one of the most blatant and traumatising systems of racial segregation in the modern world. Who were the dark visionaries behind this structure of exclusion?

Afrikaner leader and former South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd is commonly regarded as the architect of apartheid.

Afrikaner leader and former South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd is commonly regarded as the architect of apartheid. | Photo Credit: Bettmann Archive/ Getty Images

Sitting here in Stellenbosch, I re-read Zoë Wicomb’s short story, ‘A Clearing in the Bush’, where a “coloured” cook, Tamieta, is puzzled by the absence of people at the memorial service for the recently assassinated prime minister of the country, Hendrik Verwoerd. No one had bothered to tell her that black and coloured students had boycotted the memorial of the Afrikaner leader who was one of the founding members of the apartheid system and the chief architect of the Bantu Education Act, which exiled black Africans to a menial schooling, limiting proper education to whites.

“Although the African was to get an education,” wrote Njabulo Ndebele, “it was only so that he could be a better servant who could understand simple instruction and read simple messages.”

“I don’t agree with what that improvement means,” says a character from a short story by Sindiwe Magona, who worked as a female domestic worker. “Thank you very much, but I don’t want to learn to iron starched shirts better. I don’t want to learn the ways of laying the most attractive table.”

Stellenbosch mafia

Verwoerd, along with every single prime minister between 1919 and 1978, and the majority of the members of the Cabinet and the white Parliament, including Jan Smuts, J.B.M. Herzog, D.F. Malan, J.G. Strijdom, and B.J. Vorster, had attended Stellenbosch University. The university itself evolved in 1859 from the theological seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church, which provided many of the moral and religious foundations of racial segregation.

Particular forms of Calvinistic prudery, wrote the novelist and essayist Nadine Gordimer, enabled the Church to twist “religion to the service of racism and identified the church with the security of the state, including its sexual morality based on the supposed “purity” of one race.” The results, she can’t stop thinking for a moment, have been a violation of humanity rarely seen before or since.

An anti-apartheid demonstration in Soweto, South Africa, in 1989.

An anti-apartheid demonstration in Soweto, South Africa, in 1989. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

What does the birthplace of apartheid look like in the rainbow nation today? Some of the richest Afrikaners still live in Stellenbosch — labelled the “Stellenbosch mafia” by the controversial black politician Julius Malema — a powerful example of white monopoly capitalism. But the university town, now fast on its way to becoming an IT hub, also draws major philanthropy from Europe, which enables writers, artists, scientists and academics to come and spend time in the mountain-nestled wine paradise and work on their projects.

This is where Nobel awardee Abdulrazak Gurnah began working on the project ‘Fugitive Whispers’, which eventually became his 2021 novel, Afterlives. It is where Wicomb wrote her novel Still Life (2020), on the life of the Scottish abolitionist Thomas Pringle, considered by many as the “father” of South African poetry.

This is also where Tsitsi Dangarembga started to write her yet-unnamed trilogy of young adult dystopian fiction about three Shona-speaking high school girls from Zimbabwe. This is what keeps me in Stellenbosch the first six months this year, from where, even in 2023, as I try to think and write, I get the strangest glimpse of great beauty and shocking racism at the same time.

Stellenbosch and the nearby town of Franschhoek, with their full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinotages, make up the wine capital of South Africa, recreating southern Europe and northern California with their Mediterranean weather and charming Cape Dutch architecture.

Stellenbosch (above) and the nearby town of Franschhoek make up the wine capital of South Africa.

Stellenbosch (above) and the nearby town of Franschhoek make up the wine capital of South Africa. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

But along the highway to Cape Town, you see the mass of townships, jagged iron and brick, crime and violence decimating their poor black dwellers, including the wave of immigrants from neighbouring Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, and Namibia. I walk past the derelict and psychedelically-lit Stellenbosch station, looking at the shuttle minibus drivers loitering there, young black men playing loud music, making convivial rowdiness which drives fear into the heart of the city’s white residents.

Ruled by the white-led Democratic Alliance, the main Opposition to the black-majority African National Congress (ANC), the Western Cape, where Stellenbosch is situated, is still the best-governed province in South Africa. Black friends also tell me that the Democratic Alliance is efficient with wealthy white suburban towns but does not know how to deal with urban townships with black, poor, and immigrant populations. But everybody moans the staggering corruption in the ANC, its Mandela days long gone. These accusations stir a strange guilt in my postcolonial conscience, with its uncanny resonance with the Congress Party that won us freedom but was destined to go awry.

The nasty business of segregation

I hear white voices around me that sound uneasily close to longing for the apartheid regime but the liberal guilt makes them stop short. Still, everything seemed to have worked better then — schools, trains, roads, personal safety and security. Just that there was that nasty business of segregation, and that was a shame.

A black journalist tells me there are powerful Afrikaner media agencies that carry a strategic and relentless attack on the government, which she admits is deeply corrupt, and yet there is something in their attack that makes her uncomfortable.

I go hiking across the Stellenbosch and Jonkershoek mountain trails with a group of energetic Afrikaner women in their 70s, lagging behind them in pace and determination. They are fierce patriots agonised by the state of the country, torn by violence and corruption. They speak with anger and distaste about Jacob Zuma, the ousted Prime Minister whose 2009-2018 regime remains the darkest in the post-apartheid nation; about the many wives of the Zulu leader whose lives of luxury were supported by state coffers. Deluded by stories, I’m left haunted by the figure of Emmanuel Egudu, the fictional writer and speaker whose aggressive performance of a sharply sexualised black masculinity is etched by J.M. Coetzee as a deeply suspicious and dishonest representation of Africa.

The writer’s novels include ‘The Firebird’, ‘The Scent of God’, and ‘The Middle Finger’.

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