Unmasking the Cape crusaders

The Afrikaners

January 30, 2004

This is the first major academic history of the Afrikaners to appear since South Africa's transition to democracy in 1994. Hermann Giliomee is ideally placed to write this book because he is both an Afrikaner and a staunch opponent of apartheid. He writes with the knowledge and understanding of a historian dealing with the history of his own people. The overall result is a work that, despite being a heavyweight production aimed primarily at a scholarly readership, can be appreciated by anyone interested in how and why South Africa became the place it did.

The first eight chapters give a comprehensive account of the period c. 1652 to 1900, showing how the foundations of 20th-century Afrikanerdom were laid. Giliomee's central thesis is that the Afrikaners have been both colonised and colonisers, oppressors and oppressed.

This argument is well supported by his narrative and analysis. Almost from the moment that the Dutch East India Company allowed some of its employees at the Cape to establish themselves as "free burghers", there was conflict between them (the ancestors of the Afrikaner) and the company's governing authorities. The situation was exacerbated when the Cape passed from Dutch to British hands, placing the burghers under the rule of alien authorities who often despised them.

Burgher concern for liberty prompted the Great Trek into the interior, away from British control. Despite being passionately obsessed with liberty, the burghers were also oppressors. Until the British abolition of slavery at the Cape in the 1830s, they were slaveholders. Furthermore, they claimed the right to compel the indigenous peoples they encountered to work for them. When they founded their republics, they forced the black population to labour on their farms and conducted a flourishing trade in kidnapped black children. These republics finally clashed with the British empire in the Anglo-Boer war, and the Afrikaner's devotion to liberty emerged again, as Boers - the bittereinders or "bitter-enders" - carried on fighting even though their farms had been destroyed and their wives and children herded into British concentration camps. Giliomee remains enough of a traditional Afrikaner to be censorious, even hostile, about the British in South Africa. It will, however, perhaps do no harm to remind British readers that Afrikaners have been victims as well as tyrants.

The story of the Afrikaans language, central to Afrikaner identity, clearly illustrates Giliomee's oppressed/oppressor view. Afrikaner intellectuals in the early 20th century fought hard for their language to be recognised, despised as it was by English speakers who regarded it as a degenerate Dutch patois. As part of the battle, they insisted it was a "white man's language", which it has never been, thus deliberately excluding from the definition "Afrikaner" all non-white speakers of the language.

In the second part of the book, describing the Afrikaners' rise to power in the 20th century, Giliomee points out that racial policy did not begin, as is often believed, with the electoral victory of the Afrikaner National Party in 1948. Neither did the NP win that election by promising to adopt an apartheid policy. Segregation was very much the norm before 1948. In particular, the attempt to make South Africa a "white man's country" by confining blacks to "reserves" - formalised during the apartheid years as the notorious Bantustan policy - had its beginnings in the 1870s, in the self-governing British Cape Colony. The main reason for the overwhelming Afrikaner support for the NP in the 1948 election was the fact that South Africa had been taken into the second world war as the result of a split vote in parliament, confirming "South Africa's continuing subordination to British interests".

Giliomee also shows that Afrikaner thinking on race had nothing to do with theories of the Nazi type. The Afrikaner perception of history was of a struggle for survival by a small people confronted with the overwhelming military, cultural and economic presence of Britain on one hand and a black population, which greatly outnumbered them, on the other. Survival was the chief preoccupation of successive Afrikaner leaders. It may even (Giliomee seems to suggest) explain why the Afrikaners, led by South Africa's last white president, F. W. de Klerk, ultimately chose a comparatively peaceful relinquishment of power instead of another "bitter-end" fight.

However, it could also be pointed out that all racist ideologies, Hitler's included, tend to emphasise survival, so the difference may not be as great as Giliomee believes. He also seems a little too dismissive of the importance of the Afrikaner Broederbond, the semi-secret "brotherhood" to which all important apartheid-era Afrikaners belonged. The full story of the Broederbond remains to be told, but Giliomee could perhaps have gone into more detail on the subject, so that his arguments about the comparative unimportance of this organisation (which many would dispute) could be better appreciated.

The future of Afrikaners in a world where they no longer hold power is uncertain. Giliomee believes they can "become part of a new democratic South Africa in their own special way", while also noting that a growing number are emigrating. Afrikaners may indeed have a role in South Africa's future, but whether it is as Afrikaners, rather than simply as South Africans, is another question.

Alexander du Toit holds a degree from the University of Cape Town and a PhD in imperial/colonial history from the University of London.

The Afrikaners: Biography of a People

Author - Hermann Giliomee
Publisher - Hurst
Pages - 698
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 1 85065 714 9

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