JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — If you don't know Afrikaans, then the hit song "De la Rey" is just another stadium-rock anthem on the South African airwaves.
But if you do know Afrikaans, it can be an historical song about a heroic Afrikaner general; a longing for cultural pride, public respect, and leadership; or even a political call for action.
In any case, "De la Rey" is controversial, and it has rapidly become an expression of the Afrikaner people's feeling of alienation from the new black-dominated South Africa, a country they claim to have built, but where they no longer feel at home.
"This song is huge," says Tobi Jooste, a popular Afrikaner singer on the folk music circuit. "Twelve years after apartheid, everyone is looking for their roots. They feel they don't belong, like they're getting chased from their homeland, so they are really interested in history at the moment. They're looking for someone who can lead them, whom they can look up to."
That Afrikaners – the Dutch colonial descendants who viewed themselves as God's chosen people in a savage land – would have trouble fitting into a new black-led South Africa should not come as any surprise. After all, it was Afrikaners who constructed the apartheid system of racial segregation in 1948 that gave white people in general, and Afrikaans speakers in particular, total political and economic power over the black majority.
But 12 years after Nelson Mandela became the country's first black president and encouraged reconciliation, South Africa's 2.5 million Afrikaners are looking inward for strength, rather than outward for a scapegoat. That, at least, is what many young Afrikaners – many who have no memories of the apartheid government set up by their forefathers – say is the real message of the De la Rey phenomenon. Unlike violent Afrikaner militants, such as the recently imprisoned Boeremag gang, today's younger Afrikaners reject the racist sins of their ancestors, but say that there still needs to be a place for them in the new South Africa.
"This is a classic power-loss syndrome," says Theo Venter, a political scientist and special advisor to the vice chancellor at the Afrikaans- language Northwest University in Potchefstroom. "When you come to South Africa, and you start reading the Afrikaans language newspapers, like Beeld, you see the whole issue of crime, the issue of land reform, the issue of the ANC's [ruling African National Congress party's] ability to rule effectively, it's all written in a very critical way."
"People say they are 'gatvol,' which means 'fed up.' On the surface, the song 'De la Rey' is about the English during the Boer War," he says, referring to the 1899-1902 war in which General Koos De la Rey reluctantly led an insurgency against a more organized and much larger British Army. But really, the subtext of this song is about white 'fed-up-ness' with black decisions and rule. They're in control, and we're not."
Some academics like Mr. Venter – himself an Afrikaner – say that life has actually never been better for Afrikaners. Foreign investment has poured into the country since the end of apartheid. Black rule has allowed white-owned companies to largely continue business as usual; 80 percent of the trades on the Johannesburg stock exchange are done by whites, and 90 percent of the companies are still white-owned.
While Afrikaans has lost its top spot as the language of government and public education, the Afrikaans art scene has exploded. Afrikaans books and music are more prolific than at any other time in the nation's history, and at South African music shops, music in Afrikaans is the best-selling among other languages.
"Afrikaans music in general is doing very well, but 'De la Rey' in particular is off the charts," says Devin, a young clerk at a popular music shop in an Afrikaans part of Johannesburg called Randburg. To date, "De la Rey" has sold more than 114,000 CDs; a normal gold record here sells 20,000 units.
Co-written by a young 20-something singer who calls himself Bok van Blerk (alias Louis Pepler), "De la Rey" praises the leadership of General De la Rey, and implies that similar leadership is needed for today's Afrikaners.
At sports pubs, bars, and rugby stadiums, fans – many of them wearing T-shirts declaring "Ek is n Boer – en trots," or "I am a Boer, and proud" – regularly stand to sing the song as if it is the national anthem.
Mr. Pepler told the Mail & Guardian news-weekly that he simply wanted to "do something for the language and culture of the Afrikaans people." But he added that "young Afrikaners are tired of having the apartheid guilt-trip shoved down their throats." (The Monitor twice scheduled phone interviews with Pepler but at the time his phone was shut off.)
Hannes Roos, a young Afrikaner in Pretoria, says he and his friends have spent their entire adult lives under black rule, "and we are still paying for our ancestors' racist policies." But he says that Afrikaners are turning to Afrikaans music, and to historic characters like De la Rey, as a way to restore pride in themselves and their place in South African society.
Dylan Ellis, a musician in two separate rock bands, one Afrikaans, one English, says that young Afrikaners have mostly decided to "get into the swing of things" in the new South Africa, whose government's policies give preference to blacks in business and in job creation. But it's not easy. "I personally feel that South Africa is on an up, but as a 21-year-old, when you're looking for a job, it's very hard for a white South African these days."
Some observers worry that Afrikaner alienation – symbolized in songs like "De la Rey" – could be hijacked by white South Africans with a more extremist agenda.
"We were really lucky to have extremely capable leaders on both sides during the transition after apartheid," says Tim Cohen, an editor at the Business Day newspaper in Johannesburg. But now, he says, white South Africans have "checked out of the political debate. In the long term, it's dangerous."
By 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
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 that laugh,
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 discover
At a gallop he comes, the Lion of
The West Transvaal
Because my wife and my child
Are perishing in a concentration camp,
And the Khakis' reprisal is poured
Over a nation that will rise up again
General De la Rey
De la Rey, De la Rey
Will you come for the Boers?
We are ready
(Translation from Afrikaans by Mail & Guardian newspaper)