The Afrikaanse Handelsinsituut (AHI – in English the Afrikaans Commercial Institute) was formed during WWII to create Afrikaner businesses and represent their interests in a period when Afrikaners were lagging behind English South Africans in economic power. The organisation thrived after the war, and grew exponentially, to become a dominant political and economic force in apartheid South Africa.
The AHI began as an alliance between small and large Afrikaner capitalists, but by the late 1960s the larger capitalists dominated the organisation. By the 1970s the majority of it members supported PW Botha’s Total Strategy, calling for modifications to apartheid that would make business more efficient and profitable. By the early 1980s most members were reform-minded, opposed to the emerging far-right that culminated in the Conservative Party and tendencies such as the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB). The AHI has survived into democratic South Africa to become a hugely powerful business chamber.
Origins of the AHI
The AHI was formed in a period when the Afrikaners felt they were alienated from the mainstream of the economy, and the Afrikaner Broederbond had decided that Afrikaners had to mobilise their economic potential. A beginning had already been made in 1918, when Afrikaners formed Santam and Sanlam, insurance companies that were steadily making progress and growing, but Afrikaner capital was nowhere near the economic level of English capitalist organisations such as the English Imperial Banks (Standard and Barclays) and the Anglo-American Corporation.
In 1939 an alliance between the Broederbond and Sanlam jointly organised an economic conference, called the Eerste Ekonomiese Volkskongres (The First Economic Congress of the People), where the alliance charted a way forward for the development of Afrikaner economic power. The congress planned to create three institutions to realise its goals: a finance house (Federale Volksbelegings), a chamber of commerce (the Afrikaner Handelsinstituut) and an organisation to help rescue economically deprived Afrikaners (the Reddingsdaadbond).
In 1941, according to historian Hermann Giliomee, the Broederbond issued a circular listing 10 ‘economic duties’ for all proper Afrikaners, one of which read: ‘Every Afrikaner must be a policyholder of an Afrikaans insurance company, and must save and invest his savings in an Afrikaans institution.’
The AHI was formed by the Broederbond in August 1942 after discussions between Sanlam’s MS Louw and JG van der Merwe in March 1941. Van der Merwe wrote to the Economic Institute proposing a commission of inquiry into Afrikaner economic cooperation, and the Broederbond appointed a six-man Reddingsdaad-bond (RDB, rescue mission) committee chaired by Van der Merwe to form the Handelsinsituut. Early in 1942 the Broederbond committee recommended that the RDB set up the Afrikaner business institute. Its constitution called for the 'closest possible cooperation with the Reddings-daadbond, which nominated four of the eleven executive members, according to Charles Bloomberg.
The inaugural congress of the AHI in August 1942 was attended by representatives from almost 60 Afrikaner businesses and members of interested parties such as the RDB.
While Sanlam would play a critical role in the AHI’s operations, the organisation was initially meant to be a resource for small businesses, which were operating in disastrous trading conditions brought on by WWII, and to ameliorate the effects of monopolies on Afrikaner small businesses.
The plan was to get Afrikaners of all classes to save and invest money in the new Afrikaans investment and insurance companies and other initiatives that emerged during the period. AHI was a significant factor in this mobilisation of capital, co-ordinating between various sectors of Afrikanerdom.
The AHI had inherited the journal Volkshandel, initially run by Nico Diederichs, when it was launched, and the magazine was used to inform Afrikaner businessmen of every aspect of running a business, such as keeping accounts, but also about the economy and business prospects, among other things.
The monthly journal became the AHI’s mouthpiece with JG van der Merwe as managing director and Piet Meyer as editorial secretary. An idea of the content can be gleaned from the following articles: 'Establishment of Industries on the Platteland'; 'Continuation of the Economic National Conference'; 'The Afrikaner Cause- First'; 'Co-operative Movement and the National Struggle'; 'Solution of the Poor White Question'; 'Afrikaner Business Progress at Bethel'; and 'Consumers' Division of the Reddingsdaadbond'.
According to Dan O’Meara, the magazine forged a class unity between the different groupings the AHI represented. Despite their differences, all the members were against monopolies, and the AHI took as its central task opposition to monopolies, especially English capital.
The AHI was particularly concerned with small traders, guiding and directing them and providing a platform for them. But it was Sanlam that made AHI’s growth possible. Although the AHI constitution precluded dominance by any large group, Sanlam assumed a leading role, with its extensive network of employees establishing business chambers and recruiting members throughout the country.
The AHI was also beset by a predominance of Cape figures, which proved to be a great source of tension – northerners hated the dominance of the rich Cape capitalists. Conflicts between agricultural and commercial interests were another source of conflict, and at the 1944 congress some commercial sectors were accused of making exorbitant profits at the expense of the farmers.
At the 1944 congress, JG van der Merwe said: ‘In the beginning the idea was to create an organisation which could act in the interests of small dealers, but, in the past year it has become increasingly apparent that the big undertakings, on their own initiative, have begun to take an interest in the activities and work of the AHI… We must be careful not to permit that certain groups gain control at the expense of others. It is through group control that international capitalism – which the Afrikaner dislikes – exists. The Institute chooses coordination above monopoly.’
The growth of the AHI
The AHI grew in strength despite the conflicts, and by 1945 it established a network of local business chambers. By 1948 national coordinating bodies were formed to oversee the various sectors – industrial, financial and commercial chambers were launched to oversee these respective sectors.
With small traders overlooked by larger wholesalers during war-time rationing, the AHI formed its own wholesale division in February 1943, called Voorrade Inkopers en Verspreidings Maatskappy (VVM). While assisting small traders in rural areas, the VVM had to be liquidated after the war as larger businesses moved into rural areas and set up rival outlets.
The AHI launched numerous attacks on English capital, ‘foreign capital and foreign monopolies’, agitated against Indian traders who it presented as ‘aliens’, and put pressure on successive governments to ensure a supply of cheap black labour for small businesses and farmers.
From 1942 to 1945 wage differences between white and black workers decreased due mainly to the militancy of black workers during war conditions. The AHI was alarmed by this development, and its Volkshandel journal repeatedly made calls for the lowering of African wages.
It rejoiced when striking African mine workers were violently beaten back to the shafts in 1946, and called for the continuation of the cheap labour policy, warning that post-war development would be jeopardised if oppressive measures against black workers were not maintained.
When the United Party government launched an Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) that also covered black workers, the AHI waged a protracted campaign against the coverage, arguing that UIF increased the wages of black workers, rewarded laziness and undermined the ‘disciplining effects’ of unemployment. By 1948 some business chambers refused to make statutory contributions to the UIF unless African coverage was halted.
The AHI and Apartheid
The AHI was one of the crucial influences on the ideology of apartheid, and when the National Party came to power in 1948, it recognised the AHI as the representative of Afrikaner business. This was more than symbolic, as many AHI members and officials were appointed to state economic and trade boards and other influential committees.
The institute was enthusiastic in its support for the Nationalist Party, which also gave significant support to large and small Afrikaner businesses. Just as important to Afrikaner business were state policies such as influx control, those regarding labour and pass laws, which all helped Afrikaner businesses to grow by keeping black labour cheap and docile.
The AHI also called on the state to enact tariffs and other protective measures for the benefit of white workers. But after the Sharpeville Massacre the AHI urged the government to ease the pass laws and other forms of influx control ‘to reduce friction between Africans and the police’, according to Giliomee. ‘It also asked that “unnecessary interference in Bantu family life” should stop. (Prime Minister Hendrik) Verwoerd rebuffed all such appeals and condemned as “traitors” those business leaders who thought more of profits than the white man’s survival.’
Tensions between big and small business
The growth and increasing independence of large Afrikaner capital led to tensions within Afrikanerdom, including within the AHI.
Big business, especially Sanlam and the Rembrandt group, struggled against smaller business representatives to control the AHI. At the body’s 1964 congress the Broederbond sided with small business against Sanlam and Rembrandt, trying to prevent representatives of the latter from holding official positions in the AHI.
The conflict revolved around big Afrikaner capital’s co-operative relations with English and other capitalists, these being seen as anti-Afrikaner collaborations. The struggle became so heated that the AHI was unable to convene a congress in 1965.
But by the end of the decade big capital dominated the body and took control of the AHI.
According to Christi van der Westhuizen: ‘(But) small business cooperatives accused the larger members of the AHI of pursuing profit alone rather than acting for the benefit of the volk, as had repeatedly been claimed in the economic journals Inspan and Volkshandel. This was confirmed by the allocation of only 10 percent of the Reddingsdaadfonds to address the poor-white problem. The bulk of the money went to Federale Volksbelegings to channel capital to Afrikaans enterprises. The injection of capital benefited Broederbond members who had become directors of new businesses.
Opposition to Vorster’s Labour Policies
After the assassination of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966, big capital began to call for reforms to apartheid labour policies. Finding apartheid restrictions a fetter to growth, they called for the easing of job reservation, the training of black workers and the easing of restrictions on their mobility. In reaction, the Broederbond accused big Afrikaner capital of abandoning the economic struggle of the Afrikaner.
By the early 1970s the capital-dominated AHI was calling for recognition of the fact that Black Africans were a permanent feature of ‘white’ cities and should be given more political and economic rights, going against the apartheid notion that they were ‘temporary sojourners’. This position was rejected by Prime Minister John Vorster, and from 1971 to 1973 relations between Vorster and Afrikaner capital were particularly strained.
The AHI also called for less state control over industry, decrying the NP’s ‘creeping socialism’.
In 1975 the dominant forces of AHI, together with other large employers, were calling for the recognition of black trade unions, reversing their earlier opposition to trade union rights. By 1976 the question took on a new urgency after the June 1976 Uprising. Now Capital began to be swayed by the argument that continuing to restrict black rights would result in a revolutionary situation in the country. It called for piecemeal reforms to avert revolution.
The Wiehahn Commission’s recommendations that black trade unions be recognised were welcomed by the AHI. But in the post-Wiehahn period, it opposed the recognition of unions that were not registered, and also opposed plant-level wage negotiations, preferring talks conducted within the Industrial Council system.
Studies conducted in the later 1980s found that AHI-linked businesses were more influential in government circles than hose linked to the Urban Foundation.
When the Nationalist Party began to fracture and the far-right split to form the Conservative Party, some Volkskas Bank officials were drawn to support the CP. AHI called on ‘Afrikaner businesses to shift their accounts from Volkskas to Sanlam's Trust Bank’, according to Craig Charney.
The AHI continued to grow its business operations as the end of apartheid approached and negotiations towards democracy began and were concluded.
Despite its history of supporting, actively defining and shaping apartheid, the AHI survived the transition to democracy in 1994, and continues to exist and thrive. It has to a certain extent deracialised its ranks, taking on personnel who are not white into leadership positions and cooperating with the new democratic government and the ANC on various issues and projects.
The institute also took part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. According to Nicola Nattrass: ‘The only business input which reflected critically on business support for the ideology of apartheid, was the frank submission from the Afrikaner Handelsinstituut (AHI) the main organization of Afrikaner business: Without in any way detracting from the AHI's willingness to accept responsibility . . . it must be noted that support for separate development was part and parcel of the majority of the white community's thinking at the time. The white Afrikaans churches, newspapers, cultural organizations and the wider community broadly subscribed to the notion that the separate development of South African population groups was seen as the best guarantee for overall justice and peace in the country. The AHI was part of that collective thinking. There were those who supported separate development because of the 'separateness', i.e. apartheid, in its crudest form. Others supported it for the promise of development, i.e. people could develop to their full potential but as different ethnic groups in their own areas. Hence, from the idealistic to the cynical, from the intellectual to the lay person, from the courageous to the threatened, from rich to poor, from agnostic to Christian, many found something in the collective thinking of separate development worthy of support. The AHI is making two points: that business attitudes cannot be separated from (equally suspect) social attitudes amongst white people at the time; and that there were more and less honourable reasons for supporting apartheid. Whilst accepting that intentions were important in some respects, the TRC's proposed blanket restitutive measures imply that the TRC concluded that the fact of operating within an apartheid environment was ultimately of more import. The issue of social attitudes amongst whites, and the way these affected decision-making within the community, was not explored by the TRC.’
In February 1997, concluding the debate after his state of the nation speech, then President Nelson Mandela mentioned the AHI, saying: ‘This morning I had the opportunity to exchange ideas for a couple of hours with the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut. And, more intensely than before, the message that we are getting is that the country is on the right track; there is cause to be optimistic about the future; there are a great many opportunities that beckon, opportunities that we need to seize firmly with both hands.’
Members of the ANC such as Mathews Phosa joined the AHI, and he later became a member of the AHI’s council.
In the 1990s, according to Giliomee, the AHI continued to act as the coordinating body of Afrikaner enterprises, but it pointed out that it was not in the business of promoting Afrikaans.
In 2002 it elected as president Franklin Sonn, a coloured buisnessman, who declared that the organisation was founded on ‘reactionary traditions’.
Sonn continued: ‘I am not an Afrikaner. I have never been one and neither would I like to become one. But I am an Afrikaans person… We [Afrikaans-speaking people] contribute most to the national product, we are most loyal to the payment of taxes.’
In April 2010, AHI held a bilateral meeting with the ANC at Luthuli House, as part of joint attempts with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs to solve problems of economic development in small towns with overburdened local authorities.
In 2014, AHI appointed another coloured man, Christo van der Rheede, to head the organisation.
On its website, the AHI describes itself as ‘a multi-sectoral business organisation and one of four major chamber organisations in South Africa, actively involved in all sectors of the economy, except primary agriculture’. It became a member of Business Unity South Africa (Busa) and the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) and ‘established strategic partnerships with other important business member organisations such as the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce (Nafcoc) and the Foundation for African Business and Consumer Services (Fabcos)’.