From the book: Book 4: Industrialisation, Rural Change and Nationalism commissioned by The Department of Education

Asa cultural and political phenomenon, a specifically ethnic nationalism and narrowly defined Afrikaner nationalism undoubtedly left its mark on twentieth-century South African history. This is about the only non controversial statement that can be made in connection with Afrikaner nationalism. There are differing interpretations concerning the origins of Afrikaner nationalism, its nature and content, the way in which it has been manufactured, and the precise correlation between Afrikaner nationalism and socio-economic developments.

It is also important that we do not see Afrikaner nationalism in isolation. In the rest of Africa, particularly from the 1950s onwards, a wave of black nationalism swept over the continent and led to the independence of many countries. Although Afrikaner nationalism differed from black nationalism in many respects, it also displayed some similar characteristics. It shared, for example, the idea that foreign powers should not be allowed to dominate local populations.

Much of the historical writing in Afrikaans dealing with Afrikaner nationalism presents it as an unproblematic concept. Afrikaner nationalism is seen, in a mechanical fashion, as the automatic outcome of South African history. The weakness in this approach is that the thing that has to be studied is accepted uncritically as a natural given entity. The result is a tautological argument with very little explanatory value - “Afrikaners are nationalistic because they are Afrikaners.”

Liberal, mainly English-speaking, historians were more critical towards Afrikaner nationalism. Ironically though, their basic point of departure did not differ much from that of their Afrikaner counterparts. They shared an acceptance of the concept of volkas well as idealistic notions of the growth of nationalism. The only substantial difference is that whereas some English speaking historians denounced nationalism, often in value-laden terms, Afrikaner historians viewed it as a positive phenomenon.

More recent studies tend to pay greater attention to the material basis of Afrikaner nationalism. Such studies tend to see it as the cultural and political product of intense propaganda. While the precise mix of material, cultural and political factors is a matter of debate, there is nevertheless a degree of consensus that something like nationalism survives because it serves a useful purpose to the people or groups that believe in it.

How did Afrikaner nationalism manifest itself?

The Afrikaner Broederbond

Ethnic or clan affiliation does not survive because it is an innate characteristic of people and families or of their culture; it survives, or more accurately is recreated or reconstituted, because it is functional to the conditions of people’s present lives.

Source: Tim Keegan, Facing the Storm:Portraits of Black Lives in Rural South Africa.Cape Town, David Philip,1988, p.148.

In line with the approach outlined above, Afrikaner nationalism can be seen in general terms as a broad social and political response to the uneven development of capitalism in South Africa. This meant that certain groups, including a substantial number of Afrikaners, were left behind. Afrikaner nationalism gained ground within a context of increasing urbanisation and secondary industrialisation during the period between the two world wars, as well as the continuing British imperial influence in South Africa. Important ideological building blocks in this process included the promotion of a common language, the emphas is on what was perceived to be a common past and the unity of a common sense of religion.

Prominent in the construction and direction in which Afrikaner nationalism was pushed was the Afrikaner middle class. This class included, for example, ministers of religion, teachers, academics, journalists, farmers and certain elements in the civil service. Many leading middle-class Afrikaners in the1930s and 1940s belonged to a secret organisation called the Afrikaner Broederbond, which worked ceaselessly to promote the exclusive interests of “true” Afrikaners on behalf of the volk. To unite rural people and urban people, rich and poor, political idealists and pragmatists under the banner of Afrikaner nationalism called for long-term political promotion on several levels over a number of years.

ethnic nationalism- belief that a particular ethnic group is superior to or better than other groups
tautology - the unnecessary repetition within a statement of the same thing in different words
volk- a nation or people. In South Africa, it refers particularly to the Afrikaner people.

The cold statistics of poverty, however, did not reflect the profoundly human story of suffering and humiliation. A contemporary church commission described the situation of the new urban Afrikaner in the following empathic terms:

“He was looked down upon, he had to come with his hat in hand, he had to be satisfied with the crumbs which fell from the tables of the rich. To make any sort of progress, however little, he had to beg the English oppressor and had to obey his every command. Any job that was offered him, however humiliating, dangerous and lowly paid it might have been, he had to accept with gratitude. He and his family had to be satisfied with the worst living conditions in dirty ghettoes. The door to well-paid occupations was firmly closed. His erstwhile independence was reduced to humiliating servitude and bondage.”

Source: J.R. Albertyn (ed.), Kerk en stad. - Verslag van kommissie van ondersoek oor stadstoestande. Stellenbosch, Pro-Ecclesia Drukkery, 1940, pp.216-217.

Urbanisation and poor whites

The depression of the early 1930s forced a considerable number of Afrikaners off the land and into the cities. Many of them lacked the necessary skills to assert themselves in the new and competitive urban environment and were relegated to relatively low-paid positions. For example, almost 40% of urbanised male Afrikaners found themselves in the following
occupations in 1939 - manual labourer, mine worker, railway worker, bricklayer. According to the 1932 report of the Carnegie Commission of Enquiry into White Poverty, 200 000 to 300 000 could be classified as very poor.

Poverty was not restricted to the urban areas. It was also particularly acute in the northern Cape with its nomadic trekboers, in the Bushveld area of the Transvaal, in the Karoo and Little Karoo with its struggling peasant farmers and bywoners, and in the southern Cape where former independent woodcutters were fighting a losing battle against greedy wood merchants.

Impoverished Afrikaners had to be rescued for the volk. In the Broederbond as well as in other circles, a strategy combining ethnic mobilisation with the promotion of volkskapitalisme was seen as a possible solution to the problem. Through group identification and co-operation, it was hoped that the position of Afrikaans speakers could be improved.

trekboer - a nomadic Afrikaner farmer
bywoner- a tenant farmer who laboured for the land owner in return for the right to cultivate a piece of land
volkskapitalisme- capitalism in the interest of the volk

Afrikaner institutions

Identification with the group had to be complete and had to be carried out on all levels of society. A complex network of Afrikaner organisations was established during the 1930s and existing organisations were strengthened. Across the board, from financial institutions like Sanlam and Volkskas, through to youth movements like the Voortrekkers, organisations which bore an Afrikaner imprint came into existence. Important in this respect was an umbrella body, the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurverenigings(FAK), which saw to it that all Afrikaner cultural forms took a decidedly nationalistic turn. The material and cultural foundations of Afrikaner nationalism were being laid systematically.

The role of Afrikaner women

In a strongly patriarchal Afrikaner society it was often men who took the lead in nationalistic and cultural projects. The role of women, however, can be easily underestimated. The notion of the self-sacrificing volksmoeder was an integral element in the national ethos. It was the volksmoederwho had to transmit the appropriate aspirations and ideals to the young and who had to provide a home environment in which Afrikaner ideals could be cherished. Her influence was not to be restricted to the household, however. She was also expected to play an active supportive role in the promotion of wider nationalist politics.

Although not all Afrikaner women followed the script that had been written for them, the notion of a volksmoederwas nevertheless seen as a role model worthy for young Afrikaner girls to emulate. As a result, the continued incorporation of women into a male-dominated nationalism was assured. The volksmoederideal meant that women could gain social recognition only as participants in the lives of their husbands and children; plotting their own course outside the prescribed framework was distinctly frowned upon.

The powerful hold of the volksmoeder ideal is evident from the fact that it had resonance even among working-class women who had joined socialistically inclined trade unions under non-Afrikaner leadership, such as the Garment Workers’ Union under Solly Sachs. Working-class women adopted the symbols and rhetoric of the volksmoederand then proceeded to redefine it for themselves. It was only then, they felt, that they could claim to be full members of society.

Afrikaner trade unions

An important field for Afrikaner cultural entrepreneurs was that of trade unionism. Afrikaner workers had to be organised within a nationalist context and had to be weaned from the existing trade unions which were dominated by English speakers. Afrikaner Broederbond unions like the Spoorbond and the Afrikaner Bond van Mynwerkerswere established to look after the specific interests of Afrikaans speakers on the railways and in the gold mines. The Spoorbond was relatively successful, but the Afrikaner Bond van Mynwerkersmet with considerable opposition from the already established Mine Workers’ Union.

The Mine Workers’ Union had come to an agreement with the mine owners that the Afrikaner union would not be recognised and that only members of the predominantly English-speaking union would be employed. Thus Afrikaans speakers were compelled to work as “reformers” within the framework of the often-corrupt Mine Workers’ Union. This gave rise to considerable tension, to such an extent that the secretary of the Mine Workers’ Union, Charlie Harris, was shot by an outraged Afrikaner in 1939. To establish an organised Afrikaner influence on the mines was more difficult than had been anticipated.

The role of history

A marked feature of the way in which Afrikaner nationalism was constructed was the emphasis placed on history. The past was that of the Great Trek, the Day of the Covenant, the Anglo-Boer War, the concentration camps during that war, and other events of importance to the Africaners. These events were cast in near-religious terms, with Afrikaners as God’s chosen people, destined to bring civilisation and Christianity to the southern tip of Africa.

Of particular significance in moulding an Afrikaner identity during the 1930s were the centenary celebrations of the Great Trek in 1938. The Great Trek, which assumed pride of place in Afrikaner history, was commemorated by nine oxwagons slowly making their way from Cape Town to the north. It turned out to be unprecedented cultural and political theatre - feverish crowds dressed in period Voortrekker garb welcomed the procession as it approached towns and cities. Streets were renamed after Voortrekker heroes; men and women were moved to tears by the spectacle; young people were married alongside the vehicles; couples christened their babies in the shade of wagons (many infants were given names derived from the Great Trek, such as Eeufesia and Kakebeenwania). Although this “second Trek” had been carefully orchestrated, the organisers even were taken aback by the tumultuous response to the event.

This symbolic trek paralleled the economic trek of Afrikanerdom from a debilitating depression which had reduced large numbers to the ranks of poor whites. For many former platteland Afrikaners who now found themselves in an urban environment, the centenary Trek, symbolically rooted in an ideal and heroic rustic past, gave powerful expression to longings for a better, more prosperous future and to a nostalgia for a fast-eroding rural social order. At the heart of the 1938 celebrations lay the perception that Afrikaners were strangers in their own land, victims of British-rooted capitalism and an alien political culture, and that the solution lay in unified economic, political and cultural action. Indeed, as fractured as Afrikanerdom may have been in class terms, the 1938 celebrations served as a powerful binding agent. They represented a truly unique moment of cross-class ethnic mobilisation. In the celebrations and in the evocation of the heroic struggles of their forebears, Afrikaners saw themselves mirrored in history. They drew inspiration from it for survival and for the future.

In evaluating the place of the celebrations in the development of Afrikaner nationalism, it is perhaps best viewed as an important populist phase. It had all the rhetoric of populist movements - “struggle”, “survival” and“salvation”. It also displayed most of the features of populism (see box)

The degree of Afrikaner unity in evidence during the celebrations was, however, of short duration. It is probably true to say that in the long term the foundations for Afrikaner unity were laid during the centenary celebrations. However, in the general euphoria of 1938, it was insufficiently recognised that no unanimity and clarity existed as to the shape of the building that had to be erected on these foundations. Divisions among Afrikaners about the future direction of Afrikanerdom were to find expression in a number of organisations.

What were some organisational expressions of Afrikaner nationalism?

One organisation to emerge from the centenary celebrations was the Ossewabrandwag (Oxwagon Sentinel). It promoted itself as a cultural organisation, intent on keeping the “spirit of 38” alive, but it cannot be seen as purely cultural organisation.

It claimed to stand aloof from the sordid squabbles of party politics. Petty political differences could divide Afrikanerdom, and therefore it was felt that the organisation had to guard against such divisions generated by the dynamics of party politics.

platteland- remote country districts
populist- seeking to appeal to the interests of ordinary people

The movement, with its emphasis on a cultural heritage which all Afrikaners supposedly had incommon, grew quickly. Membership claims of between 300 000 and 400 000 in 1941 were probably only a slight exaggeration. The strength of its appeal lay in its ability to promote kultuurpolitiek(cultural politics) which allowed for full individual expression and participation (see box on this page).

At the same time, to off-set the popular appeal of the Ossewabrandwag, D.F. Malan of the National Party decided to reorganise the Party to make it more accessible to grassroot members. The size of the Party units was decreased, making it possible for even the smallest grouping of Afrikaners to form their own political cell. The aim was to educate the ordinary member in the political faith and to make them feel necessary to the decisions of their political superiors.

Given the sympathies of some Afrikaners for the Ossewabrandwagduring the war years, certain authors, critical of later Afrikaner race policies, were quick to equate the post-1948 apartheid state with the Nazi state of the 1930s and 1940s. Given the universal criticism heaped upon the Nazis and the general scorne voked by apartheid, the analogy was a tempting one,and one which could be readily understood and appreciated abroad. Such a one-to-one equation, however, obscures more than it reveals. Although some right-wing Afrikaners did identify with NaziGermany, in real terms Nazi influence in South Africa was rather limited.

The relationship between Afrikaner nationalism and German national socialism appeared to be mainly that of mutual ideological sympathy rather than deep seated structural similarities. Afrikaner nationalists differed from their German counterparts in terms of their belief in the doctrine of Christian nationalism as opposed to the crude pseudo scientific Social Darwinism of the Nazis. Afrikaners felt no need to exterminate what they considered the inferior races,and although Afrikaners respected strong leaders,there was no cult of the FÁ¼hrer. Afrikaner nationalism owed its characteristics and direction more to the development of specific indigenous historical ideas, related to nineteenth-century Boer republican impulses and local conditions as indicated, than to the adoption of a rigid ideology which originated outside the country.

The [ Ossewabrandwag] succeeded because it seemed to offer to every man - and at first also to every woman - the chance of an individual and ponderable contribution to the great task of unifying the Afrikaner nation. At braaivleis-aandeand jukskeimeetings, at the local kultuurverenigingand even on occasion at church, Afrikaners could meet in that Trekkerdress which was to be the uniform of the movement, and feel a sense of community of culture, of common heritage, of organised progress towards a great goal - a feeling which they did not always (or even, perhaps,often) experience within the framework of their political parties.

Source: Michael Roberts and A.E.G.Trollip, The South African Opposition.London, Longman, 1947, p.74.

How was Afrikaner nationalism reflected at the polls?

White political parties represented only a relatively small section of the total South African population in an all-white Parliament. Despite this, their rivalry and jockeying for position are of interest in as far as Parliament, at the time, was still the undisputed location of power. Challenges to the legitimacy of Parliament were only to come much later.

The 1943 election

In the early 1940s different political orientations left Afrikanerdom vulnerable. Some groups outside of Parliament looked back to the old Boer republics. Others favoured an ill-digested form of national socialism and the abolition of the parliamentary system. Still others supported the Smuts government. At the same time, the ultra-right Herstigte Nasionale Party (HNP) under D.F. Malan projected itself as the parliamentary home of all true Afrikaners. Although Malan was slowly starting to assert his dominance over rival factions, at the time of the 1943 general election he could not yet claim to have translated this into full electoral support.

All of this augured well for Prime Minister Jan Smuts. On the war front the tide had turned in favour of the Allied forces, and at home the Afrikaner opposition was fragmented. He could not have hoped for a better time for a general election. The United Party retained its dominant position and won the election comfortably, with 107 seats to 43 for the Afrikaner opposition.

The election was undoubtedly a major triumph for the United Party and the pro-war forces in the country. Smuts, despite the protests of the Malanites, still managed to attract approximately a third of the Afrikaans vote. The National Party realised, rather belatedly, that their strident anti-war propaganda alienated a considerable number of Afrikaans-speaking families who had relatives in the Union Defence Force. The war, and an overriding commitment to its successful conclusion, helped to cement Smuts’s support. The war was seen as a “higher cause”. To the greater part of the electorate it appeared unrealistic, if not downright irresponsible, to vote for a change of government while the war was still in progress. Smuts realised that the war was his strongest electoral ally and refused to be drawn into petty party-political bickering. Smuts’s strategy worked well in the 1943 election, but it also reflected his near disdain for the intrigues and scheming of party politics which ultimately no politician can afford to ignore.

Social Darwinismis a pseudoscientifictheory developed during the midnineteenth century by Western scholars to establish a hierarchy of humans. Africans were defined as racially inferior while Europeans were seen as superior, with a sophisticated or well-developed material culture.
pseudoscience- a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method
Christian nationalism- an ideology grounded in and promoting Afrikaner religion, culture and language
FÁ¼hrer- leader; the title assumed by Adolph Hitler when he became ruler of Germany
augur well - to be a sign that something good is about to happen

The 1943 election was the United Party’s finest hour. Its victory also conveniently concealed the cracks within the Party, and the degree to which the its appeal was dependent on Smuts’s status as an international statesman during wartime conditions. As a result of these special political circumstances, the outcome of the 1943 elections exaggerated the depth and level of attachment to the United Party. For example, soldiers were allowed to vote while away on active service; their vote made an important difference in several constituencies and helped to create a false impression of the Party’s actual level of support at home. Although the Party would have won the election comfortably enough without the soldiers’ vote, their vote contributed to the illusion of a seemingly all-conquering political party.

At the same time the election understated the degree of support for Afrikaner nationalist policies. Many newly urbanised Afrikaners in the cities had failed to register as voters. The fighting among the various Afrikaner factions also had a negative impact on polling day. Despite such adverse circumstances, the National Party nevertheless gained 36% of the total vote. It increased its representation in the House of Assembly by 16 seats - from 27 seats in 1938 to 43 in the 1943 election. It was also insufficiently recognised at the time that the election had consolidated Malan’s position as the dominant spokesman for Afrikanerdom.

Between elections

If the National Party was not happy with the election results, it was certainly not dispirited. With some speed, Malan and his supporters set about consolidating the gains the Party had made. They worked hard at improving party organisation and expanding the Strydfonds (Battle Fund) which had been started in 1942 with a view to appointing more full-time party
organisers. The position of the Party within wider Afrikanerdom also had to be maintained. The political energies of numerous cultural and other bodies had to be harnessed by the National Party and their views had to be expressed in favour of the Party at the ballot box.

At the same time, the Party dealt skilfully with other organisations and political movements within Afrikanerdom. It exploited the tensions and the need for an Afrikaner identity which these movements expressed. Yet by building upon its position achieved in the 1943 election, it did not hesitate to attack them if they endangered the Party’s strategy or tried to take its place as the parliamentary political expression of “the Afrikaner people”. Much of the activity of the Party after the 1943 election was geared towards extensive reorganisation and aimed at capturing all the key constituent organisations within the nationalist movement.

Despite the organisational overhaul of the Party and other factors which favoured the Nationalists, Malan did not believe that they could win the 1948 general election. They had their eyes set on the 1953 election as a more realistic target.

The 1948 election

The 1948 victory was a narrow one. The National Party had gained 70 seats and its election partner, the Afrikaner Party, nine seats; the United Party had 65 and the Labour Party held six seats. A coalition with the Afrikaner Party was necessary for the Nationalists to form a parliamentary majority for a new government.

Although the National Party had won a majority of seats, it failed to secure the majority of votes cast. It had almost 181 000 fewer votes than the opposition parties. The way in which the constituencies had been delimited, favouring the rural areas, had worked to the benefit of the Nationalists. Smuts was a bitterly disappointed man, though he tried to hide his feelings. To him the election results were a rejection of all his ideas and handiwork
during his long career.

Much has been written on the 1948 election - understandably so. Among other reasons, it was only the second time in parliamentary history that the electorate had voted out the government. Besides the headcountingand detailed statistical analysis of the outcome, the central focus has been on explaining why the Nationalists managed to win in 1948 after they had lost so badly in 1943. To approach the same issue from the opposite end, why did the United Party fare so poorly?

The National Party fought the election with a tried and trusted slogan of swart gevaar(black peril) and the swart oorstroming(black swamping) of urban areas. This, of course, was not a new tactic. It was the stock-in-trade of many a white South African politician. However, this time round the issue appeared to be especially crucial because there had been a large influx of black people to the cities during World War 2. In addition, there were some doubts in the popular mind as to whether the United Party would maintain a strictly segregationist policy, particularly so since it was believed that the more liberally inclined Jan Hofmeyr would to be Smuts’s successor. All of this gave swart gevaartactics an extra weight in 1948.

Although racial metaphors such as swart gevaarand swart oorstrominghave an appeal and force all of their own, they can at the same time disguise more basic material interests. On closer examination, these metaphors can also be seen as expressions of different class interests within Afrikanerdom. For the farmers, already affected by measures to control food prices,support for the Nationalist opposition to put an end to oorstroming meant that the damaging loss of black labour from the rural areas might be stemmed. For white workers in the cities, many of them Afrikaans-speaking, the Nationalists promised to protect their jobs in the face of black competition. Finally, Afrikaner commercial and financial interests also saw some gain for themselves in policies designed to support white agriculture since they relied on that sector of the market for part of their profits.

The mobilisation and harnessing of different classes should not be seen as a simplistic or an automatic process. Building such a class alliance requires a great deal of organisation and planning. The National Party victory of 1948, therefore, had much to do with the careful co-ordination of various interests and movements within Afrikanerdom. Tactically, the National Party also played down problematic aspects of the republican issue. It agreed to stay in the Commonwealth and adopt the principle of equal rights for all whites. This satisfied those Afrikaners who had no wish to continue with the “Boer-Brit” struggle and who otherwise might have voted for the United Party. It also opened the door for a favourable electoral alliance with former opponents who were now grouped together in the Afrikaner Party.

Rural vs. urban in the 1948 election

Most of the 70 seats won by the National Party during the 1948 election were in rural areas, while most of the 65 seats won by the United Party were in the urban areas.

According to the Constitution that South Africa had at the time, the constituencies in the rural areas were smaller than those in urban areas. This meant that there were more rural constituencies than urban ones. This was to the benefit of the National Party, since it tended to do well in rural areas in terms of votes.

It has been calculated that if rural and urban votes had been of equal value, Smuts would have won 80 seats, Malan 60, and other parties 10 seats. The United Party would have won the election

In contrast to the National Party, the United Party was not well prepared.The war issue which had held the United Party together in the early 1940s had fallen away. In the absence of a single and overriding commitment, Smuts’s hold over the Party had become somewhat weaker. Organisationally, the Party also lacked vigour. Warnings that its cumbersome structures, as opposed to the more streamlined and personalised approach of the Nationalists, failed to keep in touch with ordinary voters went unheeded. Whereas voters found the National Party organisation accessible and responsive, the same could not be said of the United Party.

While it can be argued that the United Party government did well to see the war out, it was less capable of dealing with peace-time conditions and dislocations. Certain weaknesses and lapses in the domestic administration of the Union in the post-1945 period gave the opposition sufficient issues to exploit for electoral gain. Much was made of the shortages of meat, the unavailability of white bread, the rate of inflation and the government's dismal housing record which left some white people living in garages. To make matters worse, it was said that the government's immigration programme had brought numerous British immigrants into the country and that they had taken homes and employment away from (white) South African citizens. Moreover, it was claimed that the intention was to swamp the Afrikaners, who had a higher birth rate than English South Africans, with British immigrants so that Afrikaners could be outnumbered at the polls in future elections. A variety of public grievances had presented themselves, and while the National Party exploited these to the hilt the United Party found it difficult to counter the accusations with an adequate political response.


The 1948 election has often been viewed as a watershed in South African history. It was certainly significant in as far as it brought about a change of government. Beyond that, its importance can easily be exaggerated. It has often been labelled as the apartheid election. Yet despite the National Party’s black peril tactics, it did not have a fully formulated blueprint apartheid policy ready to implement. Much of it was ad hoc and had to be negotiated in the face of competing Afrikaner and other interests. It also has to be seen in the light of what went before. Apartheid was not so much a change in policy as a change in emphasis.

Certainly, for the majority of the voteless South Africans at the time, the election was not seen as particularly crucial. Admittedly, some feared an intensification of discriminatory measures, but they also realised that the issue was more deep-seated and wide-ranging than any white election could reveal. Albert Luthuli, later to become president of the ANC,responded to the 1948 election as follows:

For most of us Africans, bandied about on the field while the game was in progress and then kicked to one side when the game was won, the election seemed largely irrelevant. We had endured Botha, Hertzog and Smuts. It did not seem of much importance whether the whites gave us more Smuts or switched to Malan. Our lot has grown steadily harder....4