The meaning of South Africa’s most popular magazine

A AT A GLANCE its website denies the historical importance of Huisgenoot, the most widely distributed magazine in South Africa. Among the most read stories in early October were “Skokoomblik toe bruidegom se rug tydens onthaal breek ” and “Vrou se oog per ongeluk met supergom toegeplak ”. For those unfamiliar with Afrikaans, the language spoken at home by 12% of South Africans, these stories concern the “shocking moment the groom’s back breaks during the wedding reception” and the predicament in which “A woman’s eye is accidentally reattached with super glue”.

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We are far from the beginnings of the magazine. After the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), there was what Herman Giliomee, a historian, called “the building of an Afrikaner ethnic consciousness” among the disparate group of South Africans of mainly Dutch descent. The important thing for this effort was Huisgenoot (Domestic Companion), launched in 1916. It presented Afrikaner history as a heroic epic, praised Afrikaner literature, and helped standardize Afrikaans as its articles were used in school comprehension tests.

By the 1970s Afrikaner nationalism had long since metastasized into apartheid, and the circulation of the dry, cultural weekly was declining. Apart from being racist, apartheid South Africa was stifling, pious and insular. Television, which one politician called the “devil’s box,” was not introduced nationwide until 1976, responding to a pent-up demand for escape and pomp. A makeover Huisgenoot tapped into that desire, introducing celebrity features, puzzles, recipes, etc., while glossing over apartheid. It was like People, but for whites.

“It’s painful how we cover politics at this time,” says Yvonne Beyers, the current editor. But in its own way Huisgenoot reflects how nowadays, “We are first South Africans and then Afrikaners”. White celebrities matter, but journalists use leather shoe journalism to elicit compelling first-person testimonials from South Africans of all walks of life. He recently featured the gay marriage of two “colored” characters (mixes) in a soap opera. “If we had published this 20 years ago, there would have been an outcry,” says Beyers. Today, the magazine reflects “the diversity of Afrikaans speakers,” she adds. Some 44% of its readers are of color (most of whom speak Afrikaans), slightly more than the 42% white.

Publishers remain the guardians of Afrikaans. They watch over English neologisms or translations of English idioms. (In Afrikaans we say “hippo’s ears” rather than “the tip of the iceberg.”) But, unlike a century ago, Huisgenoot embraces the diversity of language by citing, for example, South Africans of color in their vernacular. “We want to show a language that is still alive,” says Beyers. “This is not the Afrikaans of 1916.”

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the title “Ja to change”

About Mitchel McMillan

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