Who or what is an Afrikaner?


The Afrikaners are a South African ethnic group who are descended from 17th century mostly Dutch, German, and French settlers ,but consists of many other European groups, that settled in South Africa. The Afrikaners slowly developed their own unique language and culture when they came into contact with Africans and Asians. The word “Afrikaners” means “Africans” in Dutch. About three million people out of South Africa’s total population of 51 million identify themselves as Afrikaners. The Afrikaners have impacted South African history tremendously, and their culture has spread across the world.

Settling in South Africa

In 1652, Dutch emigrants first settled in South Africa near the Cape of Good Hope in order to establish a station where ships traveling to the Dutch East Indies (currently Indonesia) could rest and resupply. French Protestants, German mercenaries, and other Europeans joined the Dutch in South Africa. The Afrikaners are also known as the “Boers,” the Dutch word for “farmers.” To aid them in agriculture, the Europeans imported slaves from places like Malaysia and Madagascar, and enslaved some local tribes, such as the Khoikhoi and San.

afr5The Great Trek

For 150 years, the Dutch were the predominant foreign influence in South Africa. However, in 1795, Britain gained control of South Africa. Many British government officials and citizens settled in South Africa. The British angered the Afrikaners by freeing their slaves. Due to the end of slavery, border wars with natives, and the need for more fertile farmland, in the 1820s, many Afrikaner “Voortrekkers” began to migrate northward and eastward into the interior of South Africa. This journey became known as the “Great Trek.” The Afrikaners founded the independent republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. However, many indigenous groups resented the intrusion of the Afrikaners upon their land. After several wars, the Afrikaners conquered some of the land and farmed peacefully until gold was discovered in their republics in the late 19th century.

SOUTH AFRICA is a country!

SOUTH AFRICA is a country!

Conflict with the British

The British quickly learned about the rich natural resources in the Afrikaner republics. Afrikaner and British tensions over the ownership of the land quickly escalated into the two Boer Wars. The First Boer War was fought between 1880 and 1881. The Afrikaners won the First Boer War, but the British still coveted the rich African resources. The Second Boer War was fought from 1899 to 1902. Tens of thousands of Afrikaners died due to combat, hunger, and disease. The victorious British annexed the Afrikaner republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State.




The Boer Diaspora

After the Boer Wars, many poor, homeless Afrikaners moved into other countries in Southern Africa like Namibia and Zimbabwe. Some Afrikaners returned to the Netherlands and some even moved to distant places like South America, Australia, and the southwestern United States. Due to racial violence and in search of better educational and employment opportunities, many Afrikaners have left South Africa since the end of apartheid. About 100,000 Afrikaners now reside in the United Kingdom.

afr2Current Afrikaner Culture

Afrikaners around the world have a very interesting culture. They deeply respect their history and traditions. Sports such as rugby, cricket, and golf are very popular. Traditional clothing, music, and dance are celebrated at parties. Barbequed meats and vegetables, as well as porridges influenced by indigenous African tribes, are popular dishes.

Current Afrikaans Language

The Dutch language spoken at the Cape Colony in the 17th century slowly transformed into a separate language, with differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Today, Afrikaans, the Afrikaner language, is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa. It is spoken across the country and by people from many different races. Worldwide, between 15 and 23 million people speak Afrikaans as a first or second language. Most Afrikaans words are of Dutchorigin, but the languages of the Asian and African slaves, as well as European languages like English, French, and

Portuguese, greatly influenced the language. Many English words, such as “aardvark,” “meerkat,” “Commando”, Laarger”, “Velt” and “trek,” derive from Afrikaans. To reflect local languages, many South African cities with names of Afrikaner origin are now being changed. Pretoria, is the heartland of the Afrikaner. The current regime is discriminating against minorities in the job market, schools, and even by changing names of towns founded by Afrikaners.

The Future of the Afrikaners

The Afrikaners, descended from hard-working, resourceful pioneers, have developed a rich culture and language over the past four centuries. Although the Afrikaners have been associated with the oppression of apartheid, Afrikaners today are happy to live in a multi-ethnic society where all races can participate in government and benefit economically from South Africa’s abundant resources. The Afrikaner culture will undoubtedly endure in Africa and around the world though under extreme pressure as a minority on a unforgiving continent.


South Africa”s population dynamics have given that country a complex and fascinating history. While a number of studies have examined its African majority, fewer have investigated its Coloured, Asian, English, or Afrikaner peoples. Hermann Giliomee, a long-time observer of South African affairs, a historian at the University of Stellenbosch, and an Afrikaner, himself, has written this text to shed light on his people. He hopes to tell their story “with empathy but without partisanship” (p. xiii). Critics might dispute that contention, especially after reading the portions of the book dealing with apartheid and its aftermath. Yet even those critics would have to agree that this is an important text, because it provides an informed and insightful insight into a group that is central to South Africas contentious history.

           The first recorded use of the term (“Afrikaander”) to describe a European occurred in March 1707, but a self-conscious Afrikaner nation is a relatively recent phenomenon. “Afrikaner” was still being used in multiple ways into the early 1900s, e.g., to describe all who had been born in the country, to refer to a South African patriot, or to refer to Dutch-speaking South Africans. Only in the first third of the twentieth century did it begin to be used in an exclusivist sense to describe a people of a certain race and culture. Readers familiar with the countrys history will recognize this as the time following the Boer War, when there was lingering bitterness about the policies of the British. While some Afrikaners, e.g., Jan Smuts, urged cooperation between the two white groups, others emphasized the need to promote Afrikaans culture through the creation of separate social institutions. Accordingly, the first half of the twentieth century saw efforts to promote Afrikaans as a written language (it only became one of the countrys official languages in 1924, along with Dutch and English), its use in schools, and the development of an Afrikaans press. Numerous Afrikaner self-help organizations, e.g., banks and insurance companies, were also developed as was a political party, the National Party.

          This text is useful because it provides a different perspective on much of the conventional wisdom about Afrikaners. For instance, Giliomee presents a very different view of Afrikaner politics through the 1980s than was commonly assumed in the West. One element of the Western view was that a threatened Afrikaner population would retreat into a figurative ethnic laager (a term derived from the Great Trek of the nineteenth century and referring to a unified, defensive formation) if the West imposed sanctions or otherwise tried to pressure it. Yet as The Afrikanersmakes clear, the Afrikaners have long been a fractious people. Giliomee devotes an early chapter to the “fractious frontiersmen” of the late eighteenth century. In the twentieth century, the National Party suffered one split in 1932, when some members defected to form the Purified National Party, and a second in 1982, when conservative members broke with the NP to form the Conservative Party. Nor were Afrikaner intellectuals a monolithic force; they differed about the meaning and implementation of apartheid at its outset and later, about its morality and retention. Similarly, the Western belief about the power of the Broederbond, i.e., as a secretive organization pulling the strings of Afrikaner society behind the scenes, is overstated. That organization had little influence on the development of the apartheid ideology, although it did become somewhat more powerful in the 1960s as Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd used it to advance his policies. However, the Bonds influence was declining again by the late 1970s.

          Giliomee also presents novel interpretations of both the onset of apartheid and of the governments decision to abandon it. The sources of apartheid were multiple and complex. The idea had developed in the Dutch Reformed Church in the 1920s. Debating its missionary efforts toward the countrys African and Coloured communities, the Church concluded that these were separate communities in need of separate churches. This concept was soon extended to education, as the churches were largely responsible for the education of Africans, and Afrikaner intellectuals pressed to have the idea extended to secular domains. From this perspective apartheid did not derive primarily from racist motives: while not ignoring these, Giliomee argues that it sought not so much racial superiority over Africans as racial survival against Africans: “Afrikaner nationalists argued that their survival as a volk was inseparable from maintaining racial exclusivity, and that apartheid was the only policy that systematically pursued that end. But apartheid with its racist outcomes was not a goal in itself; political survival was” (p. 470). Apartheid also contained an element of trusteeship for Africans. Discussing the idea in Parliament, future Prime Minister Daniel Malan argued, “I do not use the term segregation, because it has been interpreted as a fencing off, but rather apartheid, which will give the various races the opportunity of uplifting themselves on the basis of what is their own” (quoted at p. 475).

          These ideas were not that unusual in the 1940s: apartheid was based on “mainstream Western racism, ranging from a superficial color preference to a pathological abhorrence of race mixing, which was still widespread in both Europe and the USA” (p. 495). To justify its 1949 law banning marriage between whites and non-whites, for example, the South African government pointed to the fact that thirty American states had similar laws. It was only in the 1950s and 1960s, a result of decolonization and the American civil rights movement, that Western attitudes began to change. In South Africa, however, these attitudes, or at least defense of apartheid, persisted for decades. As late as 1984, close to 80% of Afrikaners continued to support the key elements of apartheid: homelands for blacks; segregated residential areas, schools, and public facilities; a ban on sex between whites and blacks; and separate voter roles for the countrys Asian and Coloured communities.

          The desire for survival also explains why apartheid ended when it did. For President F.W. de Klerk, “Pragmatic survival instincts preceded morality in [the] decision to abandon apartheid” (p. 637). Only in 1997, after he had left the presidency, did de Klerk apologize “in a spirit of true repentance,” telling the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that “Apartheid was wrong” (quoted at p. 651). Giliomee describes South Africas transition process as a “Surrender Without Defeat.” Yet in another challenge to conventional wisdom, he criticizes de Klerk for not having managed the “surrender” better: that “he and his negotiators would manage to retain so little despite a position of relative strength places a serious question mark over his leadership abilities” (p. 638). The reasons for de Klerks failure are many. He needed to act before the end of the 1994 parliamentary session, because he had promised that the 1989 whites-only election would be the last to exclude blacks. The process was slowed by extensive violence and further complicated by the widespread conviction, later essentially discounted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that a “third force” of government security forces and certain black leaders was fomenting violence between blacks. This allegation linked de Klerk with both the violence and a discredited military, but he could not abandon the military as he needed its support to realize his negotiating goals. Another factor was the defection of traditionally pro-government forces, e.g., the business community and white civil servants, after the ANC renounced nationalization and promised to pay the pensions of those civil servants who were retrenched in the new South Africa.

          Giliomee is no apologist for apartheid, arguing that “[n]othing could ever compensate for the psychological damage it caused.” Still, “in terms of impersonal developmental data the performance of the NP government that ruled between 1948 and 1994 was comparatively impressive” (p. 666). The economy had grown by an annual average of 4.5% between 1948-81 and, while whites had done better than the other population groups, those, too, saw their economic situation improve. Black disposable personal income increased 84.2% between 1960 – 80 (although from an admittedly low base), while white disposable income increased by only 47.6%. By 1980 black income was 10.6% of whites; it had been only 8.5% in 1960. Interestingly, the groups which did best in economic terms during the apartheid era were the countrys Asian and Coloured populations: disposable income among Asians increased 160% between 1960 – 1980 and nearly 97% for Coloureds in the same period. Reflecting the trusteeship element of apartheid, the number of African children in schools increased 250% in the 25 years following the initiation of apartheid. Finally, contrary to the notion that South Africa was a police state, it actually had fewer police per thousand in the population (1.4) in the early 1980s than the U.K. (2.4), Northern Ireland (5.7), or the Soviet Union (16.0). Similarly, the countrys military spending, at 13% of the national budget in the 1980s, was not as high as that of countries such as Zimbabwe (17%) or Israel (25%).

          While Giliomees depiction of the status of blacks was not as dreadful as commonly portrayed, the situation for many people in the new South Africa is not as good as commonly assumed. Many South Africans are experiencing tough times as a result of increased crime, growing income differentials, higher unemployment, and an AIDS epidemic. There are also particular problems impacting the Afrikaner community. As one Afrikaner business leader remarked in 2002, “It is not to spread panic when one says the Afrikaner people are in a crisis with red lights flashing along their survival path” (Ton Vosloo quoted at p. 658). Some of the problems are the inevitable consequence of a broadening of political and economic power. Thus, the number of Afrikaners in the civil service had declined from 44% to 18% between 1994 – 99. Affirmative action programs were making it difficult for Afrikaners to find or maintain jobs. There was a decline in the use and teaching of Afrikaans, as more and more schools emphasized English-medium instruction. The National Party, long dedicated to promoting the communitys interest, had left the Government of National Unity in 1996 and was crushed in the 1999 elections, winning only 20% of the Afrikaner vote. Even the Broederbond had been transformed, changing its name to Afrikanerbond and accepting members who were neither while not male. As a result of changes such as these, Giliomee concludes that by 2000, “it appeared as if Afrikaners had become a minority linguistic group rather than an organized ethnic group with myths of origin and kinship, capable of mobilization as a potent force” (p. 665).

          Afrikaners have responded to these new realities in different ways. Some have chosen to leave the country: as many Afrikaans-speakers as English-speakers emigrated in 2001, the first time that had ever happened. Others appear to have a longing for the past. About 65% Afrikaners (as opposed to 36% of white English-speakers, 25% of Zulu speakers and 18% of Xhosa speakers) agreed with the statement “There were certainly some abuses under the old apartheid system, but the ideas behind apartheid were basically good” in 2000 (p. 655). Despite their current travails, however, Giliomee believes his people can have a role in their country”s future. If they are able to “come to terms with history, to nourish and replenish [their] love for language and land and to accept the responsibility to hand over their cultural heritage to the next generation,” then “they would become a part of a new, democratic South Africa in their own special way” (p. 666).

 Giliomee, Hermann. The Afrikaners: Biography of a People. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2003. 560 pp. $39.50 (paper).