On Heritage Day, September 24, the FW de Klerk Foundation issued a thought-provoking statement questioning whose heritage was being celebrated. Citing the dissenting judgement of justices Cameron and Froneman in the case of City of Tshwane vs Afriforum (2016), the Foundation suggested that the majority judgement “appeared to question the right of white South Africans to culture”.
The dissenting judges had pointed out that “the implication that may be drawn (from the majority judgement of the Constitutional Court) that any reliance by white South Africans, particularly white Afrikaner people, on a cultural; tradition founded in history, finds no recognition in the Constitution because that history is inevitably rooted in oppression”.
The Foundation asked whether the judgement meant that “the history of white South Africans was nothing but a one-dimensional history of oppression”. How could that be, it asked? After all, the Second Anglo-Boer War had been the greatest war of liberation in the whole history of Africa. In fact, of course, we are all familiar with this view.
For in effect the Constitutional Court majority was, hardly accidentally, echoing the ANC view. In the ANC’s eyes, everything that occurred between 1652 and 1994 is all just “oppression” – a ludicrous compression of a rich and complex history of which, one realises, ANC leaders are almost wholly ignorant.
The Foundation might usefully have gone a lot further and, preferably, a statement should have been made by F.W. de Klerk himself as the last major Afrikaner leader. Of course, English-speaking South Africans would have their own list of historical and cultural phenomena of which they feel proud – two Nobel prizes for Literature, for example, or South Africa’s sacrifices in the First World War or, later, its vital contribution to the defeat of the Axis powers. But since Afrikaners have been the ANC’s particular target in this struggle over heritage, let us ask what was the heritage of Afrikaners in the 20th century.
It should be admitted immediately that there was much in that heritage of which Afrikaners should feel ashamed. Indeed, Afrikaner leaders have repeatedly and publicly apologised for apartheid and more generally for their oppressive role. But equally, there is a great deal of which they can feel proud, not least the way in which Afrikaners who had been utterly smashed by defeat in the Anglo-Boer War, rapidly picked themselves up and pulled together as a community.
Part of this was the extraordinary effort to build and strengthen the Afrikaans language. Despite headlong globalization, the triumph of English and the elimination of scores of minority languages, in the whole world just two minority languages successfully swam against the current, Hebrew and Afrikaans.
Enormous numbers of books were translated into Afrikaans and many more were written in Afrikaans, producing a vast literature. Today more books are published in Afrikaans each year in South Africa than are in English. No other African language has achieved this.
For the whole period between Union and 1994 South Africa was led by Afrikaners. That period saw the enormous economic growth of South Africa, the industrialisation and urbanisation of the country, and the building of a hugely impressive infrastructure without parallel in Africa – not just roads and bridges and dams, but ports, airports and a sophisticated system of water articulation and distribution.
In addition, thousands of schools, hospitals and clinics were built and staffed, as were more than a dozen universities. By far the largest and best integrated railway system in Africa was built and maintained, as was Africa’s leading airline.
The country’s housing stock was immensely expanded – including the building of a number of African townships with buildings to a much higher standard than occurred in the RDP period. The highest rates of economic growth ever seen in South Africa occurred in the 1950s and 1960s.
That period also saw the most rapid expansion of African education that the country has seen. True, this was to deliver (an inferior) Bantu Education but not a few black intellectuals have declared that Bantu Education was actually superior to most township and informal settlement education today.
Alongside the country’s headlong industrialisation there was also an enormous expansion of agricultural production with the development of the most sophisticated farms and irrigation systems anywhere in Africa, with the possible exception of Zimbabwe. Powering these huge developments was the deeply impressive Eskom, producing a large surplus of electricity at the cheapest prices in the world. This was largely an Afrikaner achievement, led by the remarkable Hendrik van der Bijl.
African nationalists have often pooh-poohed these achievements, pointing out that most of these developments were the fruit of African labour. That is true but it largely misses the point. There was, after all, no shortage of African labour in all the other countries of Africa but nowhere did that produce the same results as in South Africa. For such developments depend on meticulous planning, vision, investment, management and a driving determination to carry them through: those, rather than the existence of a plentiful labour force, provide the decisive factors.
Ironically, the National Party spread the idea that the Afrikaner heritage was mainly about volkspiele, boeremusiek and the Great Trek but the fact is that the twentieth century heritage was far more impressive: it built a strong, new modern country.
Celebrating this modern Afrikaner heritage faces the same problem as Argentina. Buenos Aires is justly renowned for its remarkable architecture and is known as “the Paris of Latin America”. The trouble is that this was a 19th century achievement. In 1900 Argentina was one of the world’s top ten economies – but today it ranks only no.21 and when it comes to quality of life Buenos Aires comes in in 91st place. The glory was yesterday.
South Africa’s descent has been even more rapid. It had the world’s 18th largest GDP in 1974 but had fallen to 38th place by 2019. Moreover, whereas over the whole period 1911-1961 real per capita income had risen by 1.8% a year, it has been falling steadily since 2015 – seven consecutive years. No end to that process is in sight. Whereas the Afrikaners built the country up, the ANC has been building it down.
What has the ANC built since 1994? A lot of RDP houses, some white elephant football stadiums, the Gautrain and modernised airports. This is, however, outbalanced by the tremendous infrastructural decay which has occurred – the decline of the water and electrical distribution systems, the failure to maintain roads and bridges, the collapse of SAA, the near-collapse of the railways and the dilapidated state of many towns and cities.
Why the contrast? Simply put, where its predecessors privileged investment, the ANC has favoured consumption. Huge sums are now given away in welfare payments, the proportion of the national budget eaten up by the public service has soared, in every town and city mayors, councillors and municipal managers now draw vastly higher salaries and allowances than they used to and trade unions quite normally insist on inflation-plus settlements even when the economy is shrinking. And, of course, huge sums are stolen. Currently the demand is for yet more consumption financed through a Basic Income Grant.
What does all this money buy? Fancy cars, clothes and houses, expensive weddings, parties and foreign travel and huge amounts of alcohol and fast food – plus a lot of humbler goods bought by the poor. Very little with any lasting value. The most impressive buildings, the World Cup stadiums, are seldom used.
The Afrikaner heritage is like that of the great architect, Christopher Wren whose memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral reads simply “Look around you”. But if the ANC government ended tomorrow it’s not clear what would be said in Heritage Day speeches other than “The party may be over but it was fun while it lasted”.
This article first appeared in Afrikaans in Rapport newspaper.