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1— The Beginnings of Afrikaner Ethnic Consciousness, 1850–1915
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Ambiguous Identities Before 1850

The group that ultimately became known as the 'Afrikaners' was drawn from disparate elements, particularly people from Dutch, German and French background in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Genealogists also calculate a six to seven per cent contribution from 'non-Europeans'. By 1870 it was possible to identify a distinct group of people all of whom spoke Dutch, or a variant of it, had a common religion and maintained a fair degree of racial endogamy. Yet the development of a distinct Afrikaner ethnic consciousness which could be mobilized readily for political purposes was slow. In fact, the gradual and often tentative growth of Afrikaner cultural and political ethnic awareness was rooted firmly in historical changes that occurred after 1870. To understand the absence of an ethnic consciousness before 1870, one must explore the nature of the economy, the form of politics, and the kind of class and political cleavages in society.

Before 1850 membership in an Afrikaner ethnic community was seldom invoked as a political claim. In their dispute with the company government, the supporters of the Patriot Movement of the Western Cape, which arose between 1778 and 1784, made their claims in terms of their role as indispensable producers of trade goods and of their privileges as burghers. In their rebellion of 1795–96, the Graaff-Reinet burghers on the frontier depicted themselves as burghers and producers legally occupying loan farms and entitled to protection by the Company. The Voortrekkers did not see the Great Trek of 1835–38 as a positive expression of an Afrikaner political ethnicity but rather conceived of themselves as 'emigrants' and 'expatriates'.[7] Furthermore, there are no convincing historical grounds for the later, widely-held belief that they tended to consider themselves as a uniquely Chosen People who had a Covenant with God.[8]

Among the Dutch-Afrikaner[9] colonists who did not trek we also find little evidence of an ethnic consciousness being articulated or of ethnic strategies being pursued. During the 1830s a small group of Cape Town professionals tried to stimulate a sense of cultural identity based upon recognition of a shared language and history. They supported a periodical, Het Nederduitsch-Zuid-Afrikaansch Tijdschrift, a college for advanced education, the Zuid-Afrikaansche Athenaeum, and a society for the extension of arts and letters. These efforts did not succeed. The periodical folded in 1843, the society soon ceased to function, and the college became anglicized. The group of professionals was too small and the neighbouring farming population too apathetic to secure success.[10]

Even the name of the group remained highly ambiguous until the twentieth century. The term 'Afrikaner' was employed in different ways by various groups. In the early eighteenth century it was used for slaves or ex-slaves of African descent. From the late eighteenth century onwards the literature also records whites using the term. But this usage had a colonial (or regional) rather than an ethnic connotation. The Zuid-Afrikaan, the most widely read Dutch publication in 1830, defined Afrikaners as those 'whether English or Dutch who inhabited the land and were bound by duty and interest to further the well-being of their country'.[11] In subsequent decades the Zuid-Afrikaan proposed this identity as one which encompassed both Dutch and English-speakers and which would in the course of time replace the discrete Dutch and English identities of the settlers. This term and definition was found acceptable by non-jingoist English-speakers


who propagandized for the amalgamation of all groups of colonists in order to press colonial political and economic claims upon Britain. Depending on the political strategy, politicians used it in both an exclusive and inclusive sense. Some British imperialists appropriated it, but others spurned it because, in the words of the Cape Times, 'The name was originally applied to the half-bred offspring of slaves, and even in a word the mark of slavery is detestable.'[12] Indeed an official list of Cape Town prostitutes, taken in 1868, was headed by 'Africanders', meaning people of mixed descent.[13]

Apart from the ambiguous term 'Afrikaner' or 'Afrikander', there also existed the notion of a 'Boer' people. Dutch-Afrikaners generally acknowledged that they were of Boer descent, but it was usually the pastoral farmers in the interior who applied the term to themselves. Finally, there was the term 'Cape Dutch', but this was an English description rather than a self-concept. English-speakers tended to distinguish between the better educated and more 'civilized' Cape Dutch of the Western Cape or interior towns and the Boer people whom they considered ignorant, illiterate and almost beyond the pale.[14]

Although the Dutch-Afrikaners did possess by 1850 certain common cultural traits in the form of generally endogamous marriage patterns, membership of the Dutch Reformed or Lutheran churches, and a common language (or variants of it), it was difficult to find any self-conscious sense of ethnic unity among them. Indeed, from the 1850s the already existing cleavages within the group began to intensify which would make the putting together of an ethnic coalition for political purposes an extremely difficult task.

During the second half of the nineteenth century two interlinked forces impeded the development of such ethnic consciousness. First, there was the accelerated integration of the entire South African region into Western, and particularly British, capitalism. Second, the informal empire operated by Britain in the region constrained development of Afrikaner ethnic consciousness.[15] In South Africa, unlike Australia or Canada, Britain could not count on the weight of racial kinship to keep the colonists closely tied to the metropole. When the Cape Colony received Representative Government in 1853 fewer than a quarter of the white inhabitants were British. In the Transvaal and Orange Free State, which became independent republics in 1852 and 1854 respectively, there was only a small scattering of British merchants, professionals and prospectors. Consequently Britain used the stratagems of informal empire and economic control to prevent these states from moving out of the imperial orbit. From the Voortrekkers a promise was exacted to support free trade and accept British control over the coastal ports upon which they depended for essential supplies. Britain could thus relax formal political control over the two Voortrekker states secure in the anticipation that their economic dependence would achieve the same purpose.

British merchant capitalism soon assumed a dominant position in all the South African states. From the merchant houses based in the Cape Colony and, to a lesser extent, Natal, there poured forth a constant supply of indispensable articles such as wagons, firearms, gunpowder and lead. The latter were necessary for defence and also for hunting, an important activity in the frontier economy. The low population densities there, with only 15,000 to 20,000 whites in each republic, lack of capital, and weak transportation links ensured that hardly any industries developed before 1875, while the transition from subsistence to commercial farming was occurring at an extremely slow pace. The Free State was therefore soon hopelessly in debt to foreign creditors.

The British cultural imperialism that went hand in hand with informal empire


further hampered development of an explicit ethnic consciousness. The towns of the Free State and the Transvaal, where one would expect ethnic movements to start, were dominated by English or Jewish merchants who were hostile or indifferent to local nationalisms and who promoted English culture. In the Transvaal they established private schools which drew as many pupils as the state schools. Eager to master the language of commerce, the Dutch-Afrikaner children also preferred to attend the English section of the parallel-medium schools which the state established. Because of the greater availability of English-speaking teachers, four of the eight state-supported schools in the Transvaal used only English by 1876.[16] In the Free State the realities of merchant capitalism and cultural imperialism together similarly frustrated the development of an autonomous Dutch-Afrikaner cultural and political life. While English was accepted as the language of commerce and intellectual discourse in the town, it also penetrated the rural areas. The wealthiest farmers usually founded rural schools, and more often than not they chose English as the medium of instruction. Finally, virtually all the teachers and civil servants came from either the Netherlands or the Cape Colony. 'We are dependent on foreigners and are still ruled by foreigners', a member of the Volksraad remarked in 1873.[17]

Other stumbling blocks to a developed ethnic consciousness were internal class conflict in Dutch-Afrikaner society, decentralized power structures, and regional rivalries. Power in both the Free State and the Transvaal was effectively in the hands of the large landholders, sometimes called patriarchs, who established patron-client relationships with both their family dependants and bywoners, or landless Afrikaners. The Boer-bywoner relationship, and the spirit of paternalism which infused it, were full of contradictory tendencies. In a wider sense the poorest white could participate in the political process and claim equality with the rich, but on the farms the bywoners soon became subservient to the patriarchs. Moreover, the local field-cornets, who allocated land to newcomers, distributed African labour among the individual farmers and settled labour disputes, while they were chosen by all the burghers in a particular division, were invariably drawn from the ranks of, and beholden to, the larger landowners. Although there were exceptions, field-cornets generally favoured the larger farmers in performing their duties and this worked against a feeling of ethnic solidarity.[18]

Furthermore, there is evidence that commando service, which every burgher was expected to perform in the Transvaal and the Free State, tended to come down unevenly on the poor. This was because of the practice which permitted a man who had been called up for service to send someone in his place. Many rich farmers abstained from the commandos, sending bywoners or other poor whites as their substitutes. A reader's letter in a Free State paper distinguished between the meer gegoede ('well-off') and the minder gegoede ('less well-off') in the commandos, and this reader was backed up by another who stated flatly that the war against the Sotho between 1866 and 1868 was fought mainly by the poor burghers and their children.[19] In the Transvaal the situation was much the same. By the late nineteenth century, this division gave rise to serious class conflict. Of the roughly 5000 'Joiners'—men who supported the British in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902—the vast majority were bywoners, some of whom were bitterly discontented because in the 1880s and 1890s they had to go on commando without pay to defend the property of landholders at a time when their own families were destitute. They clearly hoped that the British would offer them a better deal as a reward for their collaboration.[20]

Instead of the growth of a unifying ethnic consciousness, extreme individualism, self-aggrandizement, and even anarchy prevailed in the early years


of the Transvaal and Free State. The field-cornets often displayed great contempt for Pretoria and its representative in the district, the landdrost (magistrate). Landdrost A.F. du Toit once remarked that the field-cornets acted as if they were 'Emperors of the state'.[21] They identified primarily with their division, then with their region, and only in a nominal sense with the state or the ethnic group. Regionalism was a powerful force in the years 1850–1880.[22] During the late 1850s and early 1860s three regional factions—based on Lydenburg, Zoutpansberg and Potchefstroom—tried to establish their own separate sovereignties and on occasion clashed in military skirmishes.

By the end of the 1860s regional strife had subsided, but the state remained weak and religious schisms compounded the political divisions.[23] The Dutch Reformed (Hervormde ) Church (NHK), established in 1853, was the state church with a privileged position. Disputes over the singing of hymns led to the establishment in 1859 of the fundamentalist Reformed (Gereformeerde ) Church (colloquially known as the Dopper Church). By the 1870s the Doppers, among them Paul Kruger, had become known as a group imbued with an acute ethnic consciousness, strongly anti-British, and keen to develop a distinct political, economic and social life along their own lines.[24] Third, there was the Dutch Reformed (Nederduits Gereformeerde ) Church (DRC) which was initially small but had grown to ten congregations by 1870. It was doctrinally more orthodox in its doctrine than the Hervormdes, but it was politically in favour of close ties with the Cape Colony and some of its ministers promoted English cultural influence by establishing English-language seminaries.[25] The armed civil strife of the late 1850s and early 1860s had a definite religious dimension in that the feuding factions were largely divided along religious lines and exploited religious differences for political gain.[26]

In the Orange Free State the prospects for state building and fostering a community consciousness were not appreciably better than in the Transvaal. The state was even more dependent on British merchant capital. The Free State's leaders in its first decades often despaired of saving the state and its people. In 1858, for example, President Boshof said that it was doubtful that it could sustain itself because 'patriotic feelings' were still not general or strong enough, and he was instructed by the Volksraad to negotiate with the Cape Colony to form a federation.[27] Militarily weak, it faced a formidable enemy on its eastern flank, where the Sotho resisted white expansion. The Free State's war against Moshoeshoe plunged it still deeper into crisis, and its very survival was thrown into doubt.

Ultimately, however, this war was crucial in forging a stronger sense of national identity. War, as Anthony Smith remarks, stimulates a sense of community and territory and also helps to concentrate the facilities of physical coercion at the centre by undermining the status and power of regional leaders.[28] Moreover, war propaganda strengthens a sense of national identity. Yet as the Free State did not have an intellectual elite of its own, foreigners acted as the articulators of nationalist feelings.[29] As editor of one of the first journals, De Tijd, a Dutch immigrant, H.A.L. Hamelberg, set himself the task of 'cultivating a true citizenship atmosphere' by composing a folk song which soon became the republic's national anthem, sung by the burghers on commando. After the war the Volksraad thanked him for his efforts 'to cultivate a spirit of nationalism in our midst'.[30]

Although British rule in the Cape Colony had eliminated earlier frontier anarchy, the patriarchs in general and the field-cornets specifically still wielded considerable local power in large parts of the Colony as well as in the republics.


The introduction in 1853 of Representative Government in the Cape saw the replacement of the old ruling coalition which was comprised of top officials, a few large estate owners, and the great merchants. In its place came a commercial middle class—the progressive sheep and cattle ranchers, the village storekeepers and artisans, the accountants, attorneys, newspaper editors and professional men who ministered to local business.[31] Indeed, English-speakers almost completely dominated the world of commerce. The commercial life of South Africa rested on a structure of mercantile credit extending from London to its remote rural towns. Closely associated with partners and correspondents in Great Britain and Europe, the merchant houses of the Cape extended credit on a large scale to wool producers who were their customers in the Eastern Cape, the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Based on this wool trade, Port Elizabeth, with some 30 merchant houses, was the centre of South Africa's commercial world, having exports worth twice as much as those of Cape Town in 1870.

Yet, apart from some localized tensions between British and Dutch-Afrikaners centring on Grahamstown and Graaff-Reinet, there was little ethnic rivalry in the Cape Colony. The Dutch-Afrikaners did not covet the British commercial predominance while the English-speakers, except in the Eastern Cape, left farming to the Dutch-Afrikaners. The so-called Boers on their isolated farms impassively resented British rule and cultural imperialism, but the Cape Dutch in the interior's towns, acting as political and economic brokers, performed an important cushioning function. Neither the Boers nor the Cape Dutch resisted the dominant English role in politics. Although Dutch-Afrikaners accounted for roughly 70 per cent of the Cape's white population, the proportion of Dutch-Afrikaner representatives in parliament ranged from only 32 to 36 per cent between 1850 and 1870. On the constituency level great apathy reigned. In 1869 a canvasser found that nine-tenths of the young farmers under the age of 26 in his area had not troubled to register as voters. Jan Hofmeyr, who founded the first political interest group, remarked about this period that 'the Dutch were very apathetic as to their political privileges. Even if they registered and voted, they simply did so for their English shopkeeper or agent, or for someone recommended by them.'[32]

Parliamentary politics was largely played out within patron-client relationships manipulated by the merchants, the large landholders, and the influential Cape Dutch. They faced little opposition. Many of the constituencies were not even contested, with nearly half going unopposed, for example, in the 1869 election. Where there was a real contest, it was usually a small number of men with their family connections, colleagues and friends who mobilized a majority. There was no secret ballot and men of influence expected their tenants, clients, debtors, and other dependants to vote for them and had means for ensuring that they did so. With their prominent position as financial middlemen in the towns, the Cape Dutch were strategically placed to control the vote of the wealthy Boers in rural constituencies and deliver seats to merchants who were, as a group, over-represented in Parliament. The same patron-client relationship operated with respect to careers in the civil service, entry to which was regulated in most cases by the exertions of parents or patrons rather than by any system of merit and qualifications.[33]

The reason for this lack of political interest of the Dutch-Afrikaner farmers is simple: the colony's parliament hardly touched their daily lives. It had a limited ability to tax, and its greatest topic of discussion was the budget deficit and the need for retrenchment. There was indeed little room for ethnic politics in the colonial state during the 1850s, 1860s and early 1870s. The wealthier class of


Dutch-Afrikaner farmers in the Western Cape had no serious quarrel with the British connection or with the English-speaking political domination of the Cape. They unquestioningly accepted the need for British military protection of the colony. They hoped against hope that Britain would again grant preferential tariffs on Cape exports, eagerly enlisting English allies in their campaign for protective tariffs against imported wine and other products. Their chief mouthpiece, the Zuid-Afrikaan, wrote in 1857 that the colony was witnessing 'the gradual amalgamation of the Dutch and the English nationality which will, however, take many years'. In the meantime the colonists should promote the many interests they had in common, and 'the less we speak of nationality the better'.[34]

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1— The Beginnings of Afrikaner Ethnic Consciousness, 1850–1915
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