Chapter 17. Afrikaner Nationalism and the Workers

Few people, including most English-speaking South Africans, know anything at all about the Afrikaner people, their history and their national aspirations. Yet it is impossible to grasp South African events, political conflicts and problems without an understanding of Afrikaner Nationalism, which for over a century has played a major role in the life of the country. The Afrikaners have a remarkable history, rich in suffering and sorrow, courage and heroism, triumph and defeat, of which any nation might be justly proud. That the whole world now looks upon the Afrikaner people merely as pro-Nazi and champions of apartheid is largely the result of the infamous policy of the present leaders of the Nationalist Party.

For over a hundred years, the Afrikaner people have fought with great determination for their national independence. In the South African War of 1899 to 1902, the two Boer Republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, were crushed by British imperialism. This defeat brought untold misery to the Afrikaners, and for a time it seemed as if they would never recover. And yet, in less than half a century, they gained complete independence and developed into a nation, with a national culture and tradition. It is one of the tragic ironies of history that nations which have themselves suffered oppression and fought for independence, often become cruel oppressors in their turn when they have at last achieved their freedom.

The Afrikaner people have a truly noble heritage from which to draw inspiration. They are the descendants of the Dutch who, for eighty years, waged a war for freedom against their Spanish oppressors, and of the French Huguenots, who came to South Africa at the end of the 17th century to escape religious and political persecution. They fought for independence for over a century and, in the Boer war, their heroism gained them the admiration of the whole world. Resolved to survive as a nation, inspired by a deep love for freedom, they rebuilt their shattered lives and triumphed over the tragedies of the past. Here was an opportunity for national statesmen to lead South Africa along the road of progress, tolerance and freedom. But the Nationalist Party leaders spurn noble traditions. Corrupted by Nazi doctrines, they have rejected the idea of building a great South African nation, where all groups could enjoy security and freedom, and instead are determined to create a "volk", a master race in a slave state. Under the guise of saving "white civilisation", they have become the champions of intolerance and tyranny and are leading the country back towards the Dark Ages.

The late General Hertzog formed the Nationalist Party in 1912. Until the rise of Nazism in Europe, the party stood for "South Africa first", but was neither violently anti-British nor fascist. Its attitude to the trade union and labour movement was not hostile and, at certain periods, it was even friendly. In the general strike on the Rand in 1922, Nationalist Afrikaner workers and British workers fought side-by-side against Smuts and the Chamber of Mines and, of the hundreds of workers who were sent to gaol for treason and sedition and the eighteen who were sentenced to death, the majority were Afrikaners. In the general election of 1924, the Nationalist Party, under General Hertzog, and the Labour Party, under Colonel Creswell, formed a pact and the Smuts govern­ment was heavily defeated, Smuts himself losing his seat. The workers, British and Afrikaners, supported the pact, and even the group of young socialists to which I belonged enthusiastic­ally worked for its victory. In the new government, Colonel Creswell became Minister of Labour, and Sampson, another Labour M.P., Minister of Posts. There appeared to be an unwritten agree­ment between Hertzog and Creswell that the Nationalist Party would look after the rural areas and the Labour Party would look after the towns. At no time, during the five years of the Pact Government, did the Nationalist Party try to interfere with the trade unions. To the mass of Afrikaner people, who were still on the land, trade unions were strange, alien organisations, which did not concern them. An anecdote current during the general strike in 1922 illustrates this attitude. An Afrikaner farmer, speaking to another, says:

"Man, I have fought under General de Wet, I know General Botha and also General Smuts, but who is this General Strike? I have never heard of him".

Many of the earlier leaders of Afrikaner Nationalism are reputed to have had a leaning towards socialism in their younger days. This applies particularly to Dr. Malan. In 1920, General Hertzog praised Lenin's policy of national self-determination. In 1927, Mr. Oswald Pirow, a Nationalist Minister of Justice, visited the U.S.S.R. His only comment in a press interview on his return was that he had seen no prostitution in Russia.

With the rise of Hitler in Germany the character of the Nationalist Party changed. The man who was chiefly responsible was Oswald Pirow, a barrister of German descent, ambitious, vigorous, and a leading Nationalist. In 1930, when as Minister of Justice he introduced the Riotous Assemblies and Criminal Law Amendment Bill, his speeches in Parliament took the form of anti-communist diatribes following the accepted Nazi pattern. The Act itself is fascist in character. Pirow was almost alone in his Nazi crusade before 1933, when Hitler came to power. Thereafter, the " Auslands Abteilung" of the Nazi Party, recognising the fertile soil which a country, tormented by violent racial and national conflicts, presented for the spreading of the Herrenvolk philosophy, became active in South Africa. Various fascist organisations, such as the Grey Shirts, Black Shirts, Ossewa Brandwag and others, came into being, financed to a large extent by funds from Berlin, The Germans in South-West Africa openly formed Nazi organisations and German agents began to operate freely throughout the country.

The year 1933 was a milestone in South African history. A political " fusion" took place between the Nationalist Party, led by General Hertzog, and the South African Party, led by General Smuts. The result was the formation of the United South African Party (popularly referred to as the United Party), with Hertzog as Premier and Smuts as Minister of Justice. Almost immediately afterwards, however, the most extremist Nationalist group broke away under Dr. Malan to form the "purified" Nationalist Party. Bitterly anti-British and staunchly republican, Dr. Malan's Nationalists became the main opposition party.

The period during which this fusion took place (1933 to 1939) was one of prosperity and a lessening of tension between British and Afrikaners. At the same time there were definite signs of growing German influence, although they were not always recognised as such. Disclosures made public after the outbreak of war confirmed, what many, that the Nazi Foreign had long known and Propaganda Offices had operated on a large scale in this, as in other countries, trying to gain public sympathy for Nazi ideas and aspirations. Nazi literature in great quantities circulated freely; the German Consulates were centres of intense activity. The Zeesen Broadcasting Station directed a regular barrage of propaganda to South Africa, much of it in Afrikaans, calculated to inflame Afrikaner Nationalism and to excite racial antipathies. The Jews, in particular, were constantly under attack. South African professors and students were encouraged to visit Germany and were made very welcome there. German South-West Africa, which was administered by the Union Government under a mandate of the League of Nations, became a hotbed of Nazi intrigue. This was established in 1936 in an official report by a Commission, consisting of two judges and a high civil servant which was appointed by the Union Government.

In 1937, the secretary of the Nationalist Party officially wrote to the leader of the Greyshirts:

"My party is glad to give expression to its sincere appre­ciation of the useful work done by the Greyshirts in one respect, namely, that they have very pertinently drawn the attention of the people to the Jewish problem, which has indeed assumed very threatening dimensions.. We consider that a service has here been done to the nation, which deserves recognition and perpetuation. On the other hand, we think that the identification of this service with a Nazi or Fascist movement, as is the case with your party, can only retard this service, and can only do harm to the objective in view."

On tactical grounds, therefore, the Nationalist Party rejected the hand of co-operation preferred by the Greyshirt movement. Never­theless, both held similar views and election pacts were concluded later in several constituencies.

The earlier Nationalism of the Afrikaners was in large measure replaced by a new and narrow Nationalism that has much in common with Nazi doctrines. Yet many of its supporters were probably unaware of the character and source of the changes which were brought about, for at heart the Afrikaners are individualists and dislike dictatorship and excessive discipline intensely.

The new "mystical" conception of Afrikaner Nationalism has been voiced by the "Broederbond" (League of Brothers), a secret super-organisation of Afrikanerdom, which dates back to 1918 and has achieved great power in recent years. The general secretary of the Bond wrote:

"The Afrikaner Broederbond is born from a deep convic­tion that the Afrikaner nation has been planted in this country by God's hand and is destined to remain as a nation with its own character and its own mission".

This sense of a divinely appointed mission, derived from the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, explains the fanatical sincerity of the movement and its guiding force, the Broederbond.

The "Herrenvolk" idea of Hitler had a tremendous appeal for the leaders of the Nationalists, who regard the "true Afrikaners" as people chosen by God to constitute a master race; Afrikaners who disagree with this doctrine are considered traitors.

Between 1925 and 1935, great numbers of poverty-stricken Afrikaners trekked from the rural areas into the towns and saw their comfort and affluence enjoyed by the "Uitlanders" (foreigners), while they themselves suffered extreme poverty. The "have-nots" everywhere, especially those who feel nationally oppressed, either become revolutionaries or fall an easy prey to fascist demagogy. The Nationalists showed these dispossessed, embittered people prospects of national independence and a society in which every white-skinned man would be master.

"The Communists want your sisters to marry kaffirs. Down with Communism! We must save White, Christian, Western Civilisation from the Communists, the kaffirs and the coolies", the Nationalists proclaimed. The newcomers wanted jobs, decent standards, and to escape from the squalor of the slums. The leaders of the Nationalist Party have always been unscrupulous politicians, not nation-builders. The suffering of the poor Afrikaners meant nothing to them. They never helped these landless, jobless and underpaid people to lift themselves out of the abyss of misery in which they lived. They only exploited the Afrikaners' national feelings and poverty for their own ends.

Our union was the first to experience the Nazi tactics of the Nationalist Party. In 1932, after the general strike in the clothing industry, Mr. Oswald Pirow, the Nationalist Minister of Justice, issued a banishment order against me under the pretext of my being a "dangerous communist". I had been expelled from the Communist Party of South Africa in September, 1931, for "right-wing deviation" and Mr. Pirow's action was purely a Fascist stunt. Just before the banishment order was issued, I came to a meeting of garment workers in Germiston. There were about 120 women in the hall when, suddenly, an unruly mob invaded the meeting. Half-drunk and brandishing empty sherry bottles, they shouted: "Ons is Nasionaliste. Waar is die Kommunis Sachs?" They were obviously a band of Nationalists Storm Troopers sent to break up the meeting. The women became indignant and threw them out of the hall.

In 1935, when our union organised protest meetings against Mr. Fourie, Minister of Labour, for refusing to make the recommendation of the Wage Board for the clothing industry a determination, Die Vaderland, an Afrikaans daily, published a scurrilous and defamatory article headed "Bolsheviks incite Afrikaner girls against the State". We had committed no act of treason. We had only protested against Mr. Fourie's high-handed action. Had Fourie made the recommendation law, the garment workers would have expressed gratitude to him. What made him change his mind and leave the girls in their misery? Fourie never explained why he had denied elementary justice to these exploited workers.

On the 16th July 1936, Die Vaderland published a leader headed "Foreign exploiters amongst South African workers". It vilified me for opposing the interference of the Afrikaans Cultural Societies in the trade unions. The article concluded:

"But people who cannot find a place among the agitators in the agitator regimes of Europe, like Mr. Sachs, can freely spread their poisonous teaching among our workers, destroy our spiritual values and uproot the South African worker from his association with relation and nation, to remain inarticulate and to live only for his stomach, like himself. It is quite immaterial to him among whom he spreads his poisonous communist teachings. Today it is a White South Africa, with its men and women workers, but for Mr. Sachs it will make no difference if tomorrow he does the same among natives or Chinese. The motive and the aim remain the same for him".

I was not a regular reader of Die Vaderland, but about nine years later, when I was involved in another action for defama­tion against a minister of the Dutch Reformed Churches, I came across this article and issued a summons against the paper. I was paid £100 and costs without the matter going to court.

Garment Workers in Action