Apartheid is the sole issue ever discussed in this country with regard to South Africa. Readers and viewers must occasionally ask themselves whether that huge and varied country, with almost four times the area of France, presents really nothing but a two-dimensional picture, without any depth, any culture, any search for identity in a truly plural situation.

Yet there are many other realities down there to focus on, chief among them the Afrikaaners’ tormented cultural consciousness—and consequent tragic failure to lift the weight of their loneliness. The burden of the tragic situation is borne entirely by the Afrikaaners, who cannot hide it behind the opulent banks and corporations of Johannesburg, the luxury hotels of Durban’s Indian oceanfront, or the elegant residences of the Cape peninsula.

Try to imagine in American terms what happened to the Boers in the last century and a half. Suppose that around 1840 the British had reoccupied this country, settling on the east and west coasts with cultural and commercial interests tying them to Great Britain. Imagine further that Americans, still a rather small “tribe,” had withdrawn to the Midwest (Ohio, Illinois, Iowa) to form another republic and to develop their own strong identity, hostile to the two coasts. Now this identity would have two flaws—but at this point let us abandon the American simile and return to South Africa: one flaw resulted from the Great Trek of 1838 to the interior which isolated the Boers from the outside world, leaving them in the position of a “white tribe,” with their Bible as a cultural and political reference, and the laager mentality as their general strategy. A century later, when South Africa, now under Afrikaaner leadership, seceded from the British crown and Gommonwealth, this mentality had become South Africa contra mundum. From the 1950’s to the 1990’s, that is between the British quasi-colonization and a rapid Americanization, the increasingly dominant Afrikaaners had neither the time nor the intention to adapt their sturdy native consciousness to the rules of the modern game. They never elaborated a common language with the Anglophones, from which a genuine white culture could have arisen. The English had their mother-country and the entire English-speaking world as their cultural home; the Afrikaaners, on the other hand, felt compelled to remain focused on the Calvinistic, Puritanical, Netherlandish church, which became a kind of protective tribal cult, and never permitted the relaxation so important for the soul and its sensibilities to create a cultural milieu.

The second flaw in the Afrikaaner identity, otherwise so boisterously asserted, is nostalgia for black culture with its more relaxed, less inhibited sense of identity. I go as far as to say that while English-speaking South Africans remained aloof to, or merely intrigued by, black culture—architecture, music, dance, painting, communal rites—Afrikaaners have seen in it something more genuine and earthy-spiritual than their own cold approach to the “nocturnal” side of existence. While teaching at various times in South Africa, I used to have long conversations with Afrikaaner colleagues—among them the Reverend Willem de Klerk, the president’s older brother—who could not hide a yearning for some kind of fusion with the blacks. A cultural fusion, of course, but these men were at the same time aware that a political mixing would then be inevitable—and they acquiesced in it. Letters kept reaching me long afterwards, into the 1980’s, trying to convince me—or rather, to convince themselves—that a cultural fusing of the two “tribes” (white and black) would not have to bring with it a unitary political system. I disagreed.

I believe that among other things what is happening in South Africa now is an expression of the policy of cultural nostalgia manifested by the Afrikaaners. Because of outside sanctions they feel more isolated than they did in the time of the undiluted laager. The English-speaking world, the U.S. now included, has proved more alien than ever—indeed an enemy. The opening can only be effected in the direction of the blacks. President de Klerk’s policy—behind which I detect his verligte (“enlightened,” liberal) brother’s hand, the great influence on the president since their father, the tough Boer senator, died—does not aim at multiracialism, a completely destructive solution in South Africa; it is a policy based on the Afrikaaner intellectuals’ feeling of cultural incompleteness and hope against hope that they and the blacks can build a valid, genuinely neo-African civilization and culture. Through peace with the blacks they hope to find an access to the spirit of the land that they have only shared physically with them. It should be added that this yearning is not shared by the bulk of the Afrikaaners who are still rooted in farms and small towns. They are, and probably will remain, in the laager; the intellectuals are of course urban products, and their number has increased considerably in the last two decades. Willem de Klerk is in a way their mouthpiece; Frederick de Klerk is their—somewhat reluctant—partner.

I knew very well one of these typically divided souls. The novelist (strictly in English) Stuart Cloete, a man from an old Afrikaaner family, a cavalry officer in 1914 in the British army, English to the core yet a bitter Boer who saw his people fight the uphill battle of nation-building, and run to the ground by Anglo-American liberalism. There have been many people like Cloete among the Afrikaaners. At an unbridgeable distance both from the British and from the blacks, they have proved too few to shoulder the burden of their perhaps imperial vocation, the holding together of a multitude of races. The Anglophones certainly did not help; but the main cause of this failure was the Afrikaaners’ inability to create a genuine local culture beyond the lovely Boer building style, the folk music and dance, the imitation-American universities.

It may be impossible for American intellectuals to understand this failure. They were never isolated from Europe, the East Coast being a bridge over the ocean; their ancestors all but exterminated the autochthonous population (which the Boers never did) and its culture; and their background is purely urban. But even so it may be more interesting for them to reflect upon the South African cultural failure and the resulting tragedy, than to be exclusively preoccupied by the single issue of apartheid.