The story of Afrikaner economic empowerment
The widespread poverty and the poor state of South-Africa after a quarter of a century of ANC rule, raise questions about how Afrikaners, almost withing one generation, solved the poor white problem of the 1930s.
Many of these solutions may again be implemented to recover from the current economic crisis.
The Afrikaners’ starting point at that time are aptly described by British journalist, political scientist, and historian, Prof. David Welsh, in his book The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: “After 1902 the Afrikaners of the defeated republics displayed many of the symptoms of a conquered people: impoverished, defeated, despairing, low in morale, and with a powerfully internalised inferiority complex. They were facing the possible obliteration of their identity by the overwhelming power of their conqueror’s institutions and culture.”
The Marxist historian, Dan O’Meara, writes about the challenges that Afrikaners had to overcome in his book Volkskapitalisme: “The structure of South African capitalism offered few opportunities to those whose home language was Afrikaans. The economy was dominated by ‘imperialist’ interests. Its language was English, and Afrikaans-speakers were powerfully discriminated against. Appointment and advancement required both proficiency in a foreign language – that of a conqueror – and virtual total acceptance of the structure of values dominant in the economy.”
The rise of the Afrikaner from the British scorched earth policy after the Anglo Boer War from 1902 onward, may be described in the following 10 short lessons:
Lesson 1: Freedom and decolonisation
The driving force behind the economic empowerment of Afrikaners was their strive towards freedom after the humiliation, devastation, and impoverishment of the Anglo Boer War. Decolonisation was regarded as the political, economic, and cultural liberation from the British yoke and its concentration camps:
- The first objective was cultural freedom since a community cannot modernise in a second language. Afrikaans had to be modernised, after which a cultural infrastructure of schools and universities was built to further develop Afrikaners via their mother tongue. The slogan of the language pioneers was: “Let us make a language” (“Kom ons maak ’n taal”).
- The second objective was the economic liberation which would lift Afrikaners from poverty by building an Afrikaans economy. Capitalism was the ox that pulled the Afrikaner wagon from poverty. The slogan of the great economic national congress of 1939 was: “A nation saves itself” (“’n Volk red homself”).
The Afrikaners’ initial opposition to capitalism – associated with British Imperialism − was overcome with difficulty after proof that a market economy was the only way to triumph over poverty. Capitalism was seen as the servant, not the master. Capital was mobilised by crowd funding − “big money made with a lot of small amounts of money”. The savings of the poor masses were invested with good returns in productive businesses.
- The third objective was political freedom. South Africa at the time was a colonial creation with artificial boundaries imposed by the British. Afrikaners wanted to recover their Republic by decolonising the colonial Union of South Africa into free states. The British subjected the Afrikaner republics as well as the black kingdoms and forced a subcontinent into one country to simplify colonial administration.
Lesson 2: The private sector was the locomotive of the economy; the state the railway
Afrikaners saw the state as housekeeper rather than breadwinner. Government enterprises created the infrastructure for an industrial revolution with electricity, railways, and steel manufacturing. This infrastructure formed the base on which the economy was built by the private sector. The state created the environment in which Afrikaners could take care of themselves. States cannot create wealth but can destroy it when governments interfere in the economy or rule the country poorly.
Government’s main role was to provide a professional civil service, ensure safety and to uphold the rule of law. The private sector was the driving force behind the economy and the Afrikaners started businesses on a large scale to uplift the “volk” (Afrikaner nation). The road to the middle-class went through the economy, not politics.
Even after political power was won in 1948, Afrikaners realised that the only solution was to use their freedom to attain full liberation − politically, culturally, and economically. No state can provide economic prosperity to its people. Work rather than welfare was regarded as the solution.
Lesson 3: A group’s share in the economy is determined by its contribution
The Afrikaners’ share in the economy was much smaller than their numbers. This inequality of numbers as opposed to the English population created tension. Economic leaders like Dr. Anton Rupert convinced the Afrikaners that their share of the economy will be determined by their contribution.
This was the road to equality. Therefore, they built many companies from scratch to increase their contribution and thus their share in the economy. Examples of these efforts include Sanlam, Santam, Rembrandt, Volkskas, Naspers, AVBOB and Federale Mynbou. These companies provided essential products and services, as well as jobs and returns to shareholders, and it supplemented the state coffers with their taxes. The English were only asked for neutrality, not for help. Afrikaner empowerment was essentially self-empowerment.
Lesson 4: Power of the community
The Afrikaners realised that they will not succeed if everyone fend for themselves. The power of the community was mobilised on a large scale through self-help and mutual- assistance organisations in every field. The premise was that a community existed through its institutions. An entire cultural infrastructure of organisations was created − from economic organisations to educational institutions.
The motto was: “A Boer makes a plan” (“’n Boer maak ’n plan”). The most important institutions through which culture is passed on to the next generations are schools, colleges, universities, and cultural movements. Teachers were the flag bearers of the upliftment project. Healthy families were the foundation of society. Prosperity increased when the Afrikaner had only as many children as they could take care of themselves.
Lesson 5: Economic development is a process, not an event
Afrikaners placed emphasis on alleviating poverty by means of economic growth, not on combating inequality through state-driven redistribution. There were no shortcuts and instant recipes such as job quotas or government aid for the private sector. The Afrikaner generation after the Anglo-Boer War made great sacrifices to give the next generation a better chance, because development takes at least one generation.
Lesson 6: The focus was on the reasons for prosperity
Bitterness towards British Imperialism did not prevent Afrikaners from focusing on the reasons for prosperity instead of the reasons for their poverty. Rather than blaming the Britons, the Afrikaners took responsibility for their own upliftment. Their point of departure was ensuring healthy families, living and working according to Christian values, establishing good Afrikaans schools, and creating a growing economy with brave entrepreneurs in a vibrant private sector. The economic model was the European broad-based stakeholder capitalism, rather than the individualistic Anglo shareholder capitalism that only focused on profit.
Lesson 7: Competition rather than takeovers
After the Anglo-Boer War, the Afrikaners decided to win the peace. New businesses, universities, schools, and other institutions were established rather than taking over those of the English people by means of government power. The motto was “compete”, rather than “complain”. As a result, the economy grew rapidly as a network of Afrikaans businesses were established, and Afrikaners were not merely employed in English businesses. The condescending colonial racism encouraged Afrikaners to achieve success off their own bat.
Lesson 8: Look through the windscreen, not in the rear-view mirror
The fierce struggle between Afrikaner nationalism and British Imperialism raged under the banner “Forgiven, but not forgotten” until after South Africa became a republic in 1961. Although the Afrikaner looked in the “rear-view mirror” from time to time for inspiration, their main focus was to look ahead, through the “windscreen”. Their vision for the future was stronger than their memory of the past.
Lesson 9: Governance instead of government control
Great emphasis was placed on healthy governance, the development of infrastructure such as dams, railways, harbours, airports, schools, universities, hospitals, and upholding the rule of law. Corruption was rare, and culprits were brought to book.
By 1975, 27 years after the National Party came to power in 1948, most of these goals of the modernising project had been realised.
Lesson 10: Cities rather than farms
For centuries, most Afrikaners lived in poverty in rural areas. The realisation that cities created wealth and were the economic engines of a country led to large-scale prosperity.
In view of the ANC’s bad governance, the question remains what the economic future holds for Afrikaners.
It is necessary to realise that the future we want is the future that we must forge for ourselves. We must create the circumstances for Afrikaners to stay in South-Africa to make a sustainable contribution to the welfare of everyone in the country.
Afrikaners rose from poverty with little money, but with great idealism. The question is whether we will, with more money, still have enough idealism to build a future.
Flip Buys is Chair, Solidarity Movement.