The Afrikaners: Biography of a people - Hermann Giliomee

Published May 16, 2003


The Afrikaners: Biography of a people

Hermann Giliomee


Review: Gerald Shaw

Hermann Giliomee has sought to tell the Afrikaners' story with empathy but without partisanship. By and large he has succeeded, although some of his political judgments will be challenged. This is the first major survey of South African history written from a post-1994 perspective.

It brings home the drama, heroism and magnanimity in Afrikaner history as well as the oppression, greed and dehumanisation of others, which Giliomee has no hesitation in recording.

If there is a theme running through this book it is the suggestion that the Afrikaners' urge to survive, rooted in their history and particularly in their humiliation and defeat at the hands of the British Empire, was the mainspring of apartheid, rather than simply an obsession with racial purity.

Giliomee agrees with the insights of scholars such as Robert Shell who see the introduction of slavery at the Cape right at the start as fundamental in establishing the racial order. Whiteness and high social status were equated and white supremacy became the norm.

The story tends to bog down here and there in a mass of detail as the 19th century unfolds and Giliomee tells of the long struggle over land between the expanding white settlement and the Xhosa on the Eastern Cape frontier.

The British occupation of the Cape, leading to the abolition of slavery and the introduction of new judicial structures, undermined the established social and economic pattern and compounded the emerging Afrikaners' sense of insecurity on an inhospitable frontier.

The rest of the story covers the Great Trek, the Anglo-Boer War, World War I and the Rebellion of 1915, the rise of the Nationalists as a social and political force, the Rand revolt of 1922, the Depression, the Poor White crisis of the 1930s, World War 2, the Afrikaner economic advance, the NP victory of 1948 and, ultimately, apartheid, Verwoerd, Vorster, PW Botha and FW de Klerk .

Several subthemes emerge, notably an insightful account of English-Afrikaner relations.

A remark by Sir Carruthers Beattie, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, as reported by Giliomee, explains much about Afrikaner resentment of English-speaking airs of superiority.

At a public meeting on the poor white issue, Beattie said that Afrikaners were "intellectually backward".

He also said that there was something "inherent" in them that accounted for the poor white phenomenon.

This seems to have been a widespread assumption among the English at the Cape at the time.

It is also true that racial prejudice was just as prevalent in the English-speaking community as among Afrikaners, and that Afrikaners resented the pervasive English hypocrisy in matters of race.

Giliomee sees the apartheid ideology as an attempt to reconcile the conflicting demands of white survival and justice.

He cites Van Wyk Louw's dictum that it would be better for the Afrikaner to go down than to survive in injustice. He also records the views of some of the finest minds among the Afrikaner spiritual and intellectual leadership, such as BB Keet and Ben Marais, who from the outset questioned whether Afrikaners and whites generally were prepared to pay the price of a radical policy of economic and territorial segregation.

Keet's analysis was particularly perceptive. It was the whites who desired apartheid, he said, but it was the blacks who would suffer and would have to make sacrifices.

By basing the policy on migrant labour and influx control, whites were breaking up black families and depriving blacks of the indispensable condition for a sound community.

Apartheid as a solution was a century too late. Professor Keet's views were brushed aside.

As the policy unfolded in practice, the truth of his analysis became increasingly evident.

Whites were not prepared to do without black labour or make the economic sacrifices that this would entail.

Between 1951 and 1960 the urban black population grew by 45%. Influx control regulations were applied with increasing severity until summary arrests and prosecutions under the pass laws reached 500 000 a year.

It was to no avail.

Soon there were many millions more blacks than whites in the "white" urban and rural areas. The bantustans sank into corrupt, over-crowded destitution, unable to support even their own population increase.

But apartheid was giving the Nationalist rank and file what they wanted: white supremacy, segregated residential areas, train coaches, public toilets, post office counters, and beaches. And so it went on until the whole rotten edifice collapsed.

Giliomee acknowledges the devastating effects of apartheid legislation - the pass laws, race classification, group areas etc - on the lives of Africans, Indians and coloured people.

Yet he does not explain how a kindly, civilised, church-going community such as the Afrikaners could contemplate with equanimity the appalling human suffering inflicted by these policies .

In the Western Cape, for example, black families were ruthlessly broken up and the men were required to move into "bachelor" quarters while their wives and children were removed to the Transkei or Ciskei.

And then there were the widely publicised effects of race classification and the Immorality Act, which left a trail of suicides.

Afrikaner public opinion, as a whole, remained unmoved, their response one of callous indifference. Of course the same can be said of much of the English-speaking section who voted happily for the Nationalists at successive elections.

The Afrikaners were forced in time to reconsider many of their cherished assumptions but most, Giliomee believes,

still found it difficult to agree that apartheid was wrong in principle.

Giliomee's assertion that the outcome of the Botha government's futile and costly war in Angola was an "unheralded victory" is questionable.

At the end of it all, with many lives lost on both sides and many left maimed, Swapo became the government of an independent Namibia anyway. Any balance sheet of the Botha era must also concede that a precious 10 years were wasted on military adventurism and violent domestic repression.

A promising peace initiative by the Eminent Persons Group of the Commonwealth was deliberately sabotaged in the mid-1980s by the Botha militarists. And the bloody civil war in Natal, planned, directed and funded by the security establishment, and aimed at dividing and ruling the Zulus, claimed up to 20 000 lives in the same tragic decade.

In a gripping account, Giliomee also deals comprehensively with FW de Klerk , the negotiations and Afrikanerdom's dignified relinquishment of political power.

There are aspects of Giliomee's handling of this final phase which will be challenged, notably the vexed and complex question of the responsibility of PW Botha, De Klerk and their cabinet colleagues for the campaign of murderous "third force" violence throughout this period.

The debate will continue. But this book is a valuable ground-clearing exercise. It is crammed with insights and its wide scope can hardly be adequately conveyed in a newspaper review. It is the fruit of rigorous interviews with some of the key players and much reflection and study on the part of a loyal and patriotic Afrikaner.

Although its huge bulk of 700 pages will deter a mass readership, it will be a useful aid to Afrikaners and other whites in coming to terms with the past - and in moving forward into the future.

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