Review: the Afrikaners; Biography of a People by Hermann Gilliomee (2003 expanded 2010) Assessment 9 out of 10

An extended study in political and cultural history

Cycling across the harsh and beautiful wilderness which is Namibia and the northern Cape Province of South Africa, you occasionally come across a well-maintained dorp, or small town. The remaining Afrikaner population found there, while very much in the minority, are tough, humorous and welcoming. These people are the subject of Giliomee’s excellent study, which runs to 715 closely-printed pages plus an introduction, bibliography and index. The book is beautifully written, but never an easy read. Throughout, politicians and poets, clerics and generals are quoted. It starts with the epigraph, “To live without a past is worse than to live without a future” and ends, “People turn to history not to know how to behave or…succeed, but to know who they are.”

How the Afrikaners came into being as a people and how they ventured into the interior in the Great Trek is explained, the latter an experience which continues to resonate with how Afrikaners live now. Giliomee is right to identify their uniqueness as an African tribe of European descent, and how in the process of decolonisation, there was simply no European homeland for them to flee to. The Afrikaans language, or Taal, derived from Dutch, but simplified in grammar and different in pronunciation, was decisive in creating and maintaining their identity.

Defeated in the 2nd Anglo- Boer War, “the 20th century’s first anti-colonial war”, rural Afrikaners were impoverished. Their fortunes changed. Through the rise of the National Party (NP), and the introduction of apartheid as an intellectual concept, Afrikaners ruled South Africa unopposed from 1948 to the 1990s. The concept’s apparent salvation was however to become a curse, as international sanctions, internal violence and border wars took their toll. With the end of the Cold War, the white minority in South Africa was increasingly friendless, facing the demographic realities of a rapidly growing black population that could be resisted no longer. In negotiating with the ANC, the Afrikaners were able to secure”surrender without defeat” but, Giliomee argues, the real opportunity of creating a federal state protecting minority interests (of the Afrikaners themselves and others), was missed.

Economic success and improvement in education and social services (ironically, for all races) under a segregationist and pariah NP is contrasted with subsequent economic decay, sleaze and violence (with one of the worst murder rates in the world) under the ANC. This negative view of the ANC under Mbeki (and now Zuma) parallels RW Johnson’s “How Long Will South Africa Survive”. Johnson ascribes it both to the ANC following a state socialist model favouring its own cadres and ignoring minorities and economic reality; and a reversion to a form of African tribalism, where the ‘Big Man’ lives in his kraal, surrounded by his wives and sycophants.

For Afrikaners South Africa nonetheless remains the ‘Beloved Country’. Those who have emigrated since regime change have been largely successful economically and socially, but have mourned “for South Africa in the same way as one who had been parted from a beloved by death.” Giliomee’s work is an extended study in political and cultural history, with relevance beyond contemporary South Africa. I would urge you to read and re-read it.

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