The Afrikaners: Twenty traumatic years

Hermann Giliomee on the loss of power and the recovery of the community

There are times when a country finds itself in swirling waters and only two options seem possible. The vessel can shatter itself against the sharp rocks or at the last moment it can make its turn and dart artfully through a narrow gap. For a moment, it seems to passengers as if everything is lost; the next moment as if tremendous opportunities are there for the taking. It is the equivalent to the best and the worst of times, to paraphrase Dickens.

South Africa was at this point in 1922-24, 1931-33, 1960-61 and 1986-90. Once again we are at this point, but instead of being shattered against the rocks, the boat threatens to run aground into a sand bank. I could sense the growing sense of crisis when I started working on a second, extended edition of my book The Afrikaners: Biography of a People, whose first edition appeared in 2003. In the updated edition, which has just appeared, two chapters explore the the profound change in the relationship between the Afrikaners and the ANC between 1987 and 2009.

A book is written in the shadows of the present. After I had completed the first edition in 2001, it was still not possible then to think that our government would go so far as to look on with bland approval as Robert Mugabe's gangs plundered white farms. Corruption amongst state officials was not yet completely out of hand. And people had not expected that problems of crime, delivery, unemployment and xenophobia would take on even more serious dimensions. No one would believe that the number of people receiving welfare allowances from the state would rise from three to 15 million and that the tax burden would become heavier.

The three most important developments of the past five years were the re-emergence of the ANC-Alliance's policy of the "National Democratic Revolution" (NDR), the declining trust among minorities in the constitution's ability to protect their rights, and Afrikaners' repositioning of themselves.

In the first edition of The Afrikaners, the term NDR does not appear in the register; in the second edition if occupies a prominent position. Suddenly, symbolic issues such as nationalization of the mines and the Reserve Bank are back on the agenda.

The NDR has a long history, but actually it was invigorated in the South African Communist Party policy document of 1962, "The Road to Africa Freedom." According to this document, the "white oppressor class" siphoned off for itself all the riches the oppressed black nation had produced. The ANC-alliance, through the NDR, should acquire "popular control" (communist control, actually) over the government and the economy. On the civilian level, African hegemony had to be established in every possible symbolic manner, including through name changes.

In the 1990s both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki publicly paid no more than lip service to the NDR. The most verligte liberals and verligte thinkers accorded the NDR a low rating or laughed it off as a smear tactic in the Botha regime's total onslaught propaganda. As recently as five years ago, it was still possible for Van Zyl Slabbert and Jannie Gagiano to mock it in an article in Business Day. However, the Polokwane election of 2007 changed everything. Cadres in the SACP and Cosatu immediately pushed the NDR back to the top of the ANC agenda.

As president, Jacob Zuma identified the NDR as the ANC's direction-pointing philosophy. Although I doubt whether it is in fact Zuma's priority, his camp always ensures that he balances the NDR with other policy priorities and ideologies. This has led to the ideological shambles which increasingly characterizes the Zuma-ANC. Without the ANC, Julius Malema's present role would not have been possible.

Second, the settlement of 1990-96 lost status. It is becoming clear now that the NP regime and the ANC attached conflicting meanings to the constitutional negotiations. To the NP, the agreed constitution was a binding contract concluded in good faith. To the ANC, the negotiated settlement was purely a bridge from which the revolutionary process could be advanced.

The same is true of the so-called watchdog structures - such as the Public Protector and the Human Rights Commission - in which the NP placed so much hope in the negotiations. The minorities truly expected that they would keep the governing party on their toes; the ANC used the institutions to draw attention away from the government and its transgressions.

Third, the Afrikaners as a group splintered; and yet in new ways they regrouped. In my introduction to the second edition I had to pose the question whether it was still possible to regard the Afrikaners as a group or a community. Many people in the higher income groups increasingly want to identify themselves with the individualistic and cosmopolitan style of white English-speakers, while most Afrikaners at the lower power levels fight only for survival.

For most Afrikaners, the past 20 years of politics have been traumatic.  They have lost four institutions in which they had vested their hopes of retaining some control of their future: the state, the Government of National Unity, and the National Party, while trust in the constitution has faded.

Formerly powerful Afrikaner organizations have also withered. By 2009 the Afrikanerbond retained only one-tenth of its 1994 membership (and a quarter of its 2001 membership). The gatvol (fed-up) factor among northern Afrikaners became so great than in a recent Beeld poll more than half indicated that they would prefer to live in a volkstaat.  The late Chris Louw grasped the feeling of alienation when he wrote in his Beeld column that Afrikaners political influence has been reduced to their demographic proportion - a mere six percent.

Ironically, 82% of Afrikaners voted for the Democratic Alliance in the 2009 election. This is the same proportion that endorsed the National Party under Hendrik Verwoerd in his final year in office. But while Helen Zille remains personally popular, the party lacks Afrikaners in senior positions, and it does not show enough enthusiasm to tackle issues like language rights in schools and universities and to insist on equal treatment for ex-policemen and ANC cadres who have been sentenced for human right contraventions.

Until recently Afrikaners did not know how to mobilize opposition to an attack on their rights from a minority position, and how to mobilize for their language and culture. This is changing rapidly. In 2008 an alliance with AgriSA, Solidarity and the FW De Klerk foundation at the head mobilized very effectively against the dangerous Expropriation Bill and forced the government to withdraw it. 

Similar actions can be expected in the future against "representvity" in the work place and against universities, like Stellenbosch, which try to get away with dual medium instruction - an offer of a half portion of Afrikaans in a single class. If the US continues like this it will be a death blow for Afrikaans as a public language.

With the escape valve of emigration mostly closed for the moment, and with an inefficient and vacillating president in the power seat, South Africa could become a very interesting place in the next five years. Minorities, including Afrikaners, could well be in a position to assert themselves again. The Afrikaners' last chapter is a long way from being written.

This is an adapted version of an article that first appeared in Beeld newspaper. The second, revised edition of Herman Giliomee's The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Tafelberg) can be purchased at (see here).

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