Review: Archie Henderson
The Rise & Demise of the Afrikaners, by Hermann Giliomee (Tafelberg)
Not so long ago Afrikaners – and Afrikaans – were baas. Their culture and language were forced down everyone’s throats. It was done in desperation because Afrikaner nationalists were not confident when they came to power, especially the Hard Nats of 1948. It was understandable but was to backfire badly: their language was forever linked to the party’s racism, making redemption difficult. It was a great opportunity missed for a rich and beautiful taal.
It all began with the fear of assimilation by the English, their conquerors in the Anglo-Boer war at the turn of the previous century. The fear was genuine: in 1915, just 13 years after the war had ended, only 15% of Afrikaans children progressed further than standard 5 (grade 7) and only 4% were fluent in English. Afrikaners were worried their children would not be able to compete in an emerging modern economy, or would be overwhelmed by Milner’s policy of Anglicisation.
An antagonism between what were then described as the two white races was also strong. Afrikaners were bitter over the defeat in a war that marginalised many of them, and the English held prejudices typical of British colonial superiority. This was all against the background of the indigenous black people who were denied a political role after the war, but whose growing presence cast great fears among both white groups.
Hermann Giliomee’s latest book on his people is not exactly new. It is a collection of his writings on the Afrikaners that remind us of a history that is not as straightforward as some demagogues, especially those in the ANC and EFF, like to portray as brutal oppression. The oppression has always been there, even before Van Riebeeck. The new oppression was just white, as it was across the world when European colonists arrived in new and even old worlds (like Ireland).
The oppression by Afrikaners, and by the rest of white South Africa, was delivered in spite of a Christian conscience and to assuage that unpleasant but not unnatural emotion, fear. Today white people’s fears are not so much about being overwhelmed by their black compatriots (to some extent that has already happened and the sky has not fallen in) but by the possibly prophetic words of Rev Theophilus Msimangu in Cry, The Beloved Country: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.” Each day that the ANC tries to hang on to power, stoking racial fears and having fears of its own about the EFF, the good reverend’s wordsring more true.
And amid the government’s crisis of confidence, especially in the Covid pandemic, the good elements of Afrikaners and Afrikaans are further diminished and dismissed. Well-meaning and altruistic offerings by a host of individual Afrikaners and their organisations are treated with disdain.
Not that Afrikaners don’t deserve some opprobrium for past iniquities, but, come on. The Germans are no longer considered Nazis, the Japanese are not the horrid Japs of a world war; their cruelties and mass murders have long been forgiven if not forgotten. Will it take another 50 years for white South Africans to be similarly treated, or is it their lot for life, and the lives of their children?
Giliomee writes with the dispassion of a historian, but one can often detect a love for his people and a hurt, anger and disgust towards hensoppers like Wim de Villiers, who is blamed for giving up on Afrikaans at one of the great Afrikaner institutions, Stellenbosch University. By doing so, establishments like Stellenbosch alienated thousands of coloured people whose home language is Afrikaans.
Many white English South Africans and black South Africans have, especially recently, shown little sympathy for Afikaners and Afrikaans. It would do them good to read Giliomee’s book and understand that their often loathed compatriots did not only bring apartheid to this country, but also a rich literature, culture and, yes, patriotism to our benighted land. And that’s even before we get to how good they have made our rugby teams.