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The Spread of Afrikaner Nationalism in South Africa

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The Spread of Afrikaner Nationalism in South Africa essay

Table of contents

  1. The Great Trek: A Battle for Survival
  2. The ‘Poor White Problem’
  3. Afrikaner Nationalism: From Class to Cultural Solidarity

The rise of Afrikaner nationalism was incumbent on Afrikaners’ attitudes towards, reactions to and engrained social identity of class. Class was significant to Afrikaner nationalism both internally, in reference to class structure within the Afrikaner culture, and externally, in relation to Afrikaners in the wider South African class structure. A mutual understanding of the importance of class structure was a foundational way that Afrikaners mobilised their separate factions, joining together to battle against British imperialism and the prospect of Black domination. Throughout this paper, I shall identify and explain the primary two turning points in South African history that forced unity amongst the Afrikaner people, through a common ideology towards, and experience of, class.

The first turning point was the Great Trek, undertaken from 1836-1854. Arguably the most significant period in its history, it saw Afrikaners migrating away from the British inhabited Cape to escape the jingoistic foreign policy plaguing their land. The second turning point was known as the poor White problem that beleaguered Afrikaners following the loss of the Anglo-Boer War. This period saw factions carefully orchestrating a planned economy that would go on to solidify their superiority over Black South Africans and fight to level their status with educated, English speaking White immigrants. The key question to note is just how vital was the recurrent rhetoric and practices of class structure necessary in the unification of the Afrikaner people? I shall now go on to analyse these turning points in Afrikaner history, with an intent focus on the role that class played in this story of perceived human supremacy, leading to their collective victory under the Nationalist Party in 1948.

The Great Trek: A Battle for Survival

Afrikaner discontent towards the British reign of the Cape colony peaked in 1936. Britain’s evangelical principles contradicted the engrained assumptions of race that the Afrikaners held (Thompson, 2000). Having suffered from continuous wars since 1815 (known as Mfecane), Afrikaners were suffering from an increased loss of habitable land, as well as their once held rights to the land their ancestors had claimed as home in the 18th century (Ibid). Gallant figures in the Afrikaner community lead the longing for a new life, true to the Afrikaner culture, and away from the reach of the British. The Great Trek refers to the consequent migration of some six thousand Afrikaner men, women and children by 1840. Their destination was East away from the Cape, towards fertile land found north of the Orange River and south of the Tugela River (Thompson, 2000). Thompson includes in African Wars and White Invaders: Southeast Africa, 1770-1870 a statement sent to the Grahamstown Journal by Piet Retief, a key Boer leader, which outlines the motivations behind the Afrikaner’s Great Trek:

“We are resolved, wherever we go, that we will uphold the just principles of liberty; but, whilst we will take care that no one shall be held in a state of slavery, it is our determination to maintain such regulations as may suppress crime, and preserve proper relations between master and servant.”

The motivation to preserve proper relations between master and servant is crucial in understanding the role of class in the rise of Afrikaner nationalism. Afrikaners held deeply rooted beliefs and assumptions about race and ethnicity that influenced their views of what a just class system, in the eyes of God, looks like. The Afrikaner people asserted that they were assigned to Southern Africa, by God, as the chosen people to fulfill God’s mission (Van Jaarsveld, 1964). Van Jaarsveld highlights a clear link between this assertion of manifest destiny, the growth of a historical legend and national ideology. This connection solidifies the importance of the Great Trek, due to Afrikaners’ interpretation that it was their God-given mission, in increasing Afrikaner nationalism through a sense of national identity. The embedded assumptions about race dictated Afrikaner attitudes towards class forevermore. These assumptions are highlighted in their view towards non-whites; Afrikaners “conceived themselves to be Lord’s chosen ones to whom the non-whites had been delivered as underlings and servants” (Ibid). This dictated an obvious mission to ensure the superiority of Afrikaners over Black South Africans, which were deemed inferior underlings sent to be controlled by the chosen Afrikaners. A clear ideological class system is defined here, with Afrikaners as the upper class with religious motivation, and non-whites below them, to be utilised the way God intended them to be. If economic class structure would have reflected the racial assumptions the Afrikaners had, the poor white problem of the post- Boer War era would have been avoided.

The Great Trek came with many obstacles for the Afrikaners, such as The Battle of Blood River on 16th December 1838. After being attacked by a ten thousand strong Zulu army, Afrikaner emigrants preceded to force the Zulu’s into retreat. Using guns and canons around three thousand Zulu’s were left dead near the laager (Thompson, 2000). Afrikaners took this victory as a sign that the Lord was watching out for their peoples. They were chosen to fulfill a mission- to create a free nation away detached from British authority and ‘safeguarded from the non-whites’ (Van Jaarsveld, 1964). This asymmetrical win proved, to them, their superiority over non-whites.

The Great Trek unified Afrikaners under their perceived entitlement. They were fighting to maintain their identity under increasing British colonisation, whilst also attempting to assert their role as educators of the heathen (Van Jaarsveld, 1964). They were in an anomalous predicament, taking stance as both the oppressors (of the non-whites), and the oppressed (by English speaking Whites). In the century following the Great Trek, Afrikaners knew that in order to fulfill their duty as a chosen people, they needed to unite and assert their dominance as a culture above non-whites. The poor white problem that proceeded the Boer War created a climate of desperation, where Afrikaners found themselves pegged in an internal class structure, whilst also yearning to create a wider systematic class structure affirming their domination.

The ‘Poor White Problem’

Stemming from the Anglo-Boer war, which Thompson argues the underlying purpose was “the retention of the fruits of the Great Trek and the sequel of that movement”, Afrikaners found themselves in a detrimental position. I disagree with Thompson insofar as the motivations behind the Anglo-Boer war. The Great Trek did go some way in unifying Afrikaners under a common struggle, however the motivation to fight the British for the retention of Afrikaner republics wasn’t, I argue, to further the fruits of the Great Trek, but a battle for a unified South Africa that intrinsically upheld the Calvinist heritage of white domination away from British reign. The Anglo-Boer war, through false promises made by the British to Black and Coloured South Africans alike, etched racial division even further (Giliomee, 2009). Afrikaners found themselves with little arable land, a lack of basic education amongst its population, a lack of qualifications to partake in skilled labor, as well as speaking Afrikaans in a society that was now priding English-speaking, white, skilled workers. Giliomee argues in chapter 8 that Black and Coloured people were on their own in their fight to prevent South Africa from becoming a ‘White mans land”. In chapter 10, John X. Merriman corroborates this: “The white population was a minority…and if their brethren were to sink in the slough, as they saw them doing, it would be impossible to maintain their dominance”. This point is extremely crucial in understanding how Afrikaners were able to benefit from the common white settler fight- to maintain the upper class of South African society, by race and level of civilisation alone. It became increasingly hard for Afrikaners to unite in the early 20th century, however, due to the poor white problem. In the face of increased immigration from Europe, Afrikaners were finding that “skilled and semi-skilled work, the professions and civil service positions were already filled by local or immigrant English-speakers” (Giliomee, 2009). There was a 47% increase in Afrikaners urbanising in 1936 than in 1890, as they searched for work in the industrialising cities. However, in order to maintain their status as superior to non-whites, the Afrikaners had to unite and battle to create a planned economy that would fulfill their needs as a people.

The biggest issue surrounding Afrikaner nationalism in the early 20th Century was through the inherent class structure within the Afrikaner population itself. Working class Afrikaners were pledging allegiance to the Labour Party, who vowed to stand with the working people of South Africa along class lines. On the other hand, the Afrikaans- speaking urban petty bourgeoisie followed the lead of the Nationalist party, and the Broederbond founded in 1918 held the support of other petty urban bourgeoisie, such as Afrikaner teachers and railway clerks. If Afrikaner nationalism was going to thrive and result in Afrikaner leadership of South Africa, all factions of the Afrikaans-speaking population needed to come together on ethnic and linguistic lines, as opposed to the economic class allegiance that was separating them as a people. Many actions were taken in an attempt to raise the standing of poor, uneducated Afrikaans-speaking Whites, in order to create a more unified Afrikaner people. The Broederbond helped create the first Afrikaner building society in 1934, bringing Afrikaner culture into the economic world for the first time (O’Meara, 2001). Afrikaner’s used the advantage of all white workers having the vote and utilised it to pressure the government to implement job reservations. An example of where this benefitted the stance of Afrikaners was the Apprenticeship Act of 1922, which catered for the regulation of job training by unions, excluding Africans for at least a half century from multiple trades. Afrikaners knew that in order to create a unified, educated and skilled peoples, they had to exploit racial tensions in South Africa and push Black, unskilled workers further into the margin in order to bolster themselves into the economy. The Broederbond went on to further Afrikaner nationalism by leading the push to place Afrikaner culture further into the public sphere. Before becoming a secret organisation, their aims were “the promotion of a healthy and progressive spirit of unity among all Afrikaners aimed at the welfare of the Afrikaner nation; the cultivation of a national self-consciousness in the Afrikaner and love for his language, religion, traditions, land and people, and the advancement of all the interests of the Afrikaner people” (Giliomee, 2009). Inevitably, this was what augmented the Afrikaner people and resulted in their success under the Reunited National Party in 1948. The Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurverenigning (FAK), I argue, played the biggest role in solidifying the status of the Afrikaners as the national voice of South Africa, by forcing the shift from focussing on Afrikaner class interests to ‘cultural self-sufficiency’. They released Afrikaner literature, music, spirit and national holidays in the name of Afrikaner nationalism (Giliomee, 2009). Simultaneously, whilst Afrikaner nationalism was peaking in South African society, the United Party paved the way for the policy of Apartheid through the Slums Act of 1934. This caused the re-housing of whites and the expropriation of Black areas. (Giliomee, 2009). In the lead up to the 1948 election, where an Afrikaner dominated National Party would rise to the top of governance, the poor white problem was solved (Ibid).

Afrikaner Nationalism: From Class to Cultural Solidarity

Throughout this paper, I identified the two major turning points in Afrikaner history, both of which were provocative of class experience and structures, and integral t the rise of Afrikaner nationalism. The Great Trek entrenched religious ideology in the actions of Afrikaners, significantly through their identity as a chosen people, put on earth in the eastern Cape to fulfil God’s mission. Their engrained beliefs around race relations informed their ideas of how a unified South African class system would best function. This, in turn, allowed this ideology to manifest through religious certainty and later materialise as the Apartheid regime of 1948. The poor white problem saw the Afrikaners face the predicament of being both the superior race (by proxy of God’s will), yet suffering at the hands of British imperialism and continued urbanisation. Their actions henceforth, through the use of a white-favouring planned economy and Union support, led to the Afrikaner culture penetrating the public sphere faster than would allow for failure. They battled both internal class struggle (the petty, urban bourgeoisie VS. the Labour supporting working classes), and united the Afrikaner people on ethnical and linguistic grounds. In turn, this paved the way for the most important reform on class structure thus far, solidifying the position of the cultured Afrikaners and negating the position of uncivilised Black and Coloured South African’s. Class was incumbent to the rise of Afrikaner nationalism- a gargantuan part of their enchanted history. It exploited the early 20th century position of South African governance on race, until the Afrikaners gained enough mobility under the National Party to win the 1948 Apartheid election. The history of the rise of Afrikaner nationalism is, without a doubt, a story of unparalleled unification and ethnical superiority.

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