The streets of Stavropol, a regional capital in southern Russia, were graced with an unusual sight on July 4th.
Two bearded men in cowboy hats and farming attire, followed by a delegation of government officials, met with locals.
Their names are Jann, Addie, and Theresa Schlebusch and they are a family of South African Boers who are looking to Russia as a potential new homeland for their people, a place of refuge, from the ever-increasing tensions in their country.
I met up with them and the Russian official helping them on their mission, to find out why a family from the southern tip of Africa wants to move to the southernmost tip of Russia.
Who are the Boers?
The Boer people, also known as Afrikaners are the descendants of Dutch and other Protestant settlers who arrived in what is now South Africa during the 18th century.
Known for their frontier spirit and farming expertise, the Boers remained a cohesive identity group despite tribal raids, British incursion (including the two Boer wars), and the diplomatic isolation imposed on South Africa after its independence and the creation of a horrific apartheid system.
In 1991, when apartheid was abolished, South Africans hoped for a prosperous future of cooperation and tolerance. Unfortunately, a dark cloud looms over the horizon.
After the fall of apartheid, the dream of having a “rainbow nation” didn’t quite come true for South Africa. When asked by Russian reporters about their motivations, Jann made reference to the discrimination Afrikaners face daily in modern day South Africa, such as “a ban on whites advancing up any career ladder….and affirmative action in the private sector” which in his words creates an “unqualified” workforce and leaves many Boers unemployed who “are able to work and do many tasks, but cannot be legally hired.”
According to him “the number of whites employed by a business cannot be more than their population, which is 8%, but there are companies where 95% of the workers are non-white but these companies are not forced to hire more whites in order to reflect the country’s demographics.”
Even more shockingly, Jann states that “many politicians are openly calling for the killing of the white population without any punishment or even investigation”, claiming that members of the last cabinet often sang “Kill the Farmer, Kill the Boer”, an Apartheid-era anti-occupation song. After he cites the loss of language rights, Theresa adds that this atmosphere makes the general population feel as though they “can do anything”, so they start to “attack the whites, on the farms, in the cities”.
When pressed on if there have been cases of physical violence against Boers Theresa exclaims “yes, every day!” with Addie adding that “according to the news, from the 21st to the 22nd of June, three farmers have been killed in South Africa”.
To add to this, the South African government passed a law in February allowing for farmland to redistributed without compensation. The Schlebusch family and many other Boers are very concerned about this provision.
The Russian Dream
The Soviet Union openly supported African nationalism, providing aid to Marxist groups in Rhodesia and South Africa that fought against European imperialism in Africa. Still, the Schlebushes seel salvation in contemporary Russia.
After the museum, the family headed to a press conference downtown, a short drive away in the medium-sized Stavropol. Before entering the building, the family stopped at a small stand, I first met with the family as they were visiting a brand-new museum complex in Stavropol called “Russia – My History”.
Accompanied by an interpreter, a tour guide and Mr. Poluboyarenko, the local official helping them with their trip, they spent an hour learning about the history of 20th century Russia.
We then arrived in the conference room, which had a sizable presence of local and federal media waiting for the delegation. The family took the seats of honour in the centre of the room, unfurling a flag of the Orange Free State which was promptly hung from the edge of their table. A few smaller regional flags are displayed, the state flag of South Africa being noticeably absent.
Soon after, the conference began with each family member reading part of a statement thanking the Russian people for a warm welcome and the Russian government (including Putin) for a restoration of the “national identity of the Russian people, and Christianity.”
From this moment onward, religion becomes a common reference for the family, who often refer to it as a means to explain their circumstances and the direction of things. It quickly became clear that the religious identity of Russia played a large part in the country’s potential for being a new home. Speaking on Western Europe, Addie says, “[the West] forgot certain truths about the importance of spirituality and (natural) order” which in his opinion leads to many of its problems, including those of an economic nature.
As an example, he cites “demographic loss” as an economic threat, alongside growing national debt, something that Russia manages to keep low.
When challenged by a Russian opposition reporter, he acknowledges that Russia’s economy certainly has problems, but when looking at the big picture “Russia is developing in a good direction. We believe that government debt is an important indicator…Russia hardly has any’’.
He is optimistic about the future: “liberalist (sic) forces will try to stop Russia’s growth, but the main thing is the government’s dependence on God, not simply on its own power”.
The Russian Reaction
Mr. Poluboyarenko is an advisor to the Stravropol Krai Human Rights Commissioner, and a regionally known lawyer, who has helped others in similar circumstances.
Now he is helping the Schlebusch family, and his influence has so far won them national media attention, as well as the attention of the government and the Russian Orthodox Church. The general attitude is supportive, “Considering our demographic crisis, we want people with religion and good values” says Mr. Poluboyarenko when I ask him about his support, he also adds that “Boers do not need government support…they will bring up to $500, 000 (USD) with them per family”.
I wondered if the Boers are an exception, or if this will apply to other minorities in danger as well. After reminding me of federal migration law, he stresses that while Russia is “open to all entering with good intentions” it “will not repeat the sad experience of Germany, accepting young men without families”.
As for regular Russians, their reaction extends from one that is positive to indifference. After the press conference, the family met with representatives of different minorities that live in the Stavropol region.
A representative of the Slavic Union added: “73 years ago [Russia] beat fascism, your mention of a genocide sounds like fascism too, and we will be happy to help you beat it”.
On the street, I talk to a few locals about their feelings regarding the Boers.
Tamara, a middle-aged Kvas vendor says that she “doesn’t mind” their move. Dmitri, a young taxi driver says he “doesn’t care” but then adds that he is “happy that people want to come to Russia”. Aiza, a young woman in her early 20s who was taking photos at the conference believes that Russia’s “internal problems need to be solved, but they can join us in this too”.
Overall it seems that these Boers are ready to become a part of Russia, and Russians are ready for them in turn. Will this migration happen, and will it be successful? Only time can truly tell.
Jann expresses hope that maybe things will get better in South Africa, in which case cooperation would be limited to dialogue and investment, instead of migration.
But if the South African Republic continues down the path of turmoil, Russia might just have to add the nationality: Afrikaner” to its census forms.