October 16, 2021
A A LOOK AT his website belies the historical importance of Huisgenoot, the highest-circulation magazine in South Africa. 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 relate to the “shocking moment when the groom’s back breaks during the wedding reception” and the sticky situation in which “A woman’s eye is accidentally taped shut with superglue”. “.
It’s a far cry from the beginning of the magazine. After the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902) there was what Herman Giliomee, a historian, calls “building an ethnic consciousness among Africans” among the unequal group of South Africans of predominantly Dutch ancestry. Huisgenoot (Heimatbegleiter), which was launched in 1916, was important for these efforts. It presented the Afrikaans story as a heroic epic, extolled Afrikaans literature, and helped standardize Afrikaans as its articles were used in school comprehension tests.
By the 1970s, African nationalism had long since metastasized into apartheid, and the circulation of the dry cultural newspaper declined. Apartheid South Africa was not only racist, but also stuffy, pious and isolated. Television, which one politician called the “devil’s can”, was only introduced nationwide in 1976, thus fulfilling a pent-up demand for escape from the world and glamor. A redesigned Huisgenoot picked up on that desire and introduced celebrity features, puzzles, recipes and so on while glossing over apartheid. It was like people, but for white people.
“It is painful to see how we reported on politics back then,” says Yvonne Beyers, today’s editor. But Huisgenoot, in its own way, reflects how “we are South Africans first and then Africans” today. White celebrities are prominent, but reporters use shoe leather journalism to get gripping first-person reports on South Africans from all walks of life. Recently, the gay wedding of two “colored” (mixed) characters was featured in a soap opera. “If we had published that 20 years ago, there would have been an outcry,” says Ms. Beyers. Today the magazine reflects “how diverse Afrikaans speakers are,” she adds. About 44% of readers are colored (most of whom speak Afrikaans), a slightly higher proportion than 42% of whites.
Editors remain the custodians of Afrikaans. You keep an eye on English neologisms or translations of English idioms. (In Afrikaans one speaks of the “ears of the hippopotamus” rather than the “tip of the iceberg”.) But in contrast to a hundred years ago, Huisgenoot takes up the diversity of the language, for example by quoting colored South Africans in their colloquial language. “We want to show a living language,” says Ms. Beyers. “This is not the Afrikaans of 1916.”
This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the heading “Yes to change”