Afrikaner intellectuals and apartheid’s end

Hermann Giliomee’s autobiography “Hermann Giliomee: historian” (Tafelberg, 2016) follows on his nineteen previous books including his 2003 magnum opus “The Afrikaners; biography of a people”. The autobiography has enjoyed generally favourable reviews by seasoned observers such RW Johnson as well as earning re-publication in America by the University of Virginia Press.

Giliomee, undoubtedly, enjoys the reputation as a, if not the, pre-eminent contemporary Afrikaner chronicler of the broad terrain of South African history and politics; a record which at his 79 years of age shows no sign of abating.

His autobiography, itself near unique among South African historians, traverses: his family genealogy; his formative youth life; his studies in South Africa and overseas; his assessment of political leaders and his interaction with mainly Afrikaans academic colleagues (not all of them congenial in nature).

As a leading spokesperson on the subject of Afrikaners and Afrikaans he expresses his opposition to the downgrading of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at traditionally Afrikaans universities and his rejection of the historical tendency in English speaking ranks to attribute the historical foundations of apartheid solely to Afrikaners.

He also covers a wide array of other topics including the so-called Poor (Afrikaner) White Problem in the early part of the last century, history as a subject area and the road to the political accommodation with the African National Congress in 1994. It is here where he steps knee deep into controversy by taking issue with the unqualified majority rule which had been agreed in 1994 as opposed to a form of power sharing which he believes could have been negotiated with the support of influential foreign governments. This elicited a convincing response (to his credit included by Giliomee in his book) from Dave Steward, a senior government role player, to the effect that Giliomee’s misguided assessment would have led to the “collapse of the negotiations and a national and international crisis of catastrophic proportions”.

Giliomee, also problematically, ventures into the speculative sphere in arguing that by 1969 Verwoerd (had he then still been alive) would, in the face of the irreversible stream of black migration into the ‘white’ cities, have reconsidered his commitment to his black ‘homelands’ “blueprint” policy as providing the partial solution to black political expression.

In short order this earned Giliomee the knee jerk accusation of suffering from an apartheid-nostalgia and of having joined the ranks of Afrikaner reactionaries who opposed the new democracy. Giliomee’s ideas about a change of heart by Verwoerd however, fly in the face of his own assessment in an earlier book that in his last year as Prime Minister in 1966 Verwoerd demonstrated an “implacable” attitude and was, in fact, “increasingly” and “more vigorously than ever” opposed to any adaptation to apartheid policies. Any notion that only three years later he would have reversed his attitude is unconvincing.

However, the meat of this review of Giliomee’s book is basically twofold. It firstly involves his assessment on the subject of the degree or depth of especially elite Afrikaners’ support of apartheid policies and secondly his attribution of the positive role of various non-professional politician elite groupings in respect of the eventual demise of apartheid.

The first problem emerges in the foreword of his book where he refers to joining Stellenbosch University in 1956 at a time when he says apartheid “… still enjoyed a degree of respectability”. On the contrary, as I will argue below, apartheid in the nineteen fifties and, moreover, also during subsequent decades, enjoyed anything but just a degree of respectability among Stellenbosch students and academics as well as among Afrikaners generally.

Giliomee refers to 29 Afrikaans academics (mainly from the University of South Africa) who in 1973 released a public declaration in favour of full citizenship being accorded to ‘coloureds’ which was then supported by some 109 Afrikaners mainly from Stellenbosch university, but he neglects to mention that no less than 1500 Afrikaner academics responded by condemning the aforementioned academics in a public statement arguing inter alia that “separate development” was in accordance with “the principles of the will of God”; a statement which was formally handed over to the Prime Minister, John Vorster, by three Afrikaans university vice-chancellors.

As far as ‘the word of God’ is concerned it is worth noting that as late as 1986 the Dutch Reformed Church while rejecting the religious basis for apartheid refrained from rejecting the apartheid policies as such. One may in this connection also observe the following verbatim extracts from an Afrikaans university department’s class notes in the nineteen seventies: “The separation of people [volke] especially in the social and political sphere is not a new trend which originated in South Africa. The bible repeatedly refers to this matter [in stating that] no bastard may enter the meetings of the Lord”.

In 1974 a national poll reported that an overwhelming majority of Afrikaners supported the main principles of apartheid, a finding echoed in another national poll in 1987.

The second problematic issue in Giliomee’s book relates to his statement that it was actually “critical” Afrikaner intellectuals who paved the way “for the National Party to implement radical reforms which ultimately led to the constitutional settlement” in 1994. The following examples in addition to the aforementioned statement of 1500 Afrikaner academics give the lie to this conclusion.

While Giliomee, for example, correctly refers to the prominent Stellenbosch academic, Johan Degenaar’s, clarion call to morally critical Afrikaners to raise their voices against apartheid, he fails to mention Degenaar’s own conclusion that “Afrikaners who made progressive noises [continued to do so] within the framework of apartheid”.

Anton van Niekerk a contemporary colleague of Degenaar remarks that little came of Degenaar’s clarion call and that he remained “one of the handful of voices” who actually stood up against apartheid. Ian Liebenberg, in turn, refers to reformist ideas among Afrikaner academics however without their “deviating from the fundamental assumptions of separatism and white control of power”.

Beyers Naude, a leading Afrikaner theologian, refers to his having agreed in 1960 not to withdraw from the Dutch Reformed church subject to as few as ten of his colleagues agreeing to join him in openly giving voice to the need for reformist initiatives against apartheid; no such agreement materialized. Reference may further be made to the hundreds of articles and book reviews which were published between 1961 and 1980 in the ‘Tydskrif vir Geesteswetensklike Navorsing’ (Journal of Human Sciences Research) in which not a single one contained any critical reference to apartheid policies.

On the contrary, space was accorded to books such as ‘Die Bedreiging van die Liberalisme’ (The Threat of Liberalism) and ‘Die Abdikasie van die Witman’ (The Abdication of the White man) whose author expressed himself in support of the inherent intellectual inferiority of black people. The author of ‘White Man Think Again’ concluded that “whites must strive not merely for sheer survival or even spurious co-existence [with blacks] but for outright white world domination”.

In a book published in 1994 on the history of organized sociology in South Africa Albert Grundlingh refers to the “… historic relationship that had existed and continued to exist between the majority of Afrikaner academics and the nationalist movement” and of the resultant exclusion of blacks from membership of the largely Afrikaans ‘Suid-Afrikaanse Sosiologiese Vereniging’ (South African Sociological Association) a determination [which until 1977] “the majority of Afrikaner sociologists saw no reason to disturb”.

In his 2009 book ‘Die Afrikaner Broederbond’ the Afrikaner academic theologian, Nico Smith, mentions that only as late as in 1980 did he “with shock” realize that his participation in uncritical Broederbond debates in favour of apartheid had taken place against the background of “more than a thousand laws” which regulated the lives of black South Africans.

This statement evokes some degree of surprise that a senior university professor was oblivious of the reality of the racial oppression in his country and this despite the fact that a constant stream of English newspaper comment and international criticism against apartheid had been the stock-in-trade focus of factual comment on South Africa’s racial policies; facts which were a closed book (or which were perceived as lies) to Afrikaner intellectuals like Smith.

In like vein Sampie Terreblanche, the well-known Afrikaner academic economist informs us that it was only late in his life that he became aware of “the inhumanity of apartheid”. Giliomee himself, in typically honest fashion, mentions that it was only as a senior university professor that the “absurdity” of the denial of political voting rights to blacks came home to him after his interview in 1979 with a prominent black personage.

Louwrens Pretorius comments that the “Afrikaans professoriate … encouraged an astonishing lack of critical imagination and contributed to the easy submission of both lecturers and students to authority”. At best, Afrikaner intellectuals’ reformist attitudes in the nineteen eighties, such as they were, were limited to within Broederbond circles but outside the hearing of the broad Afrikaner public which left the Afrikaners bereft of an awareness regarding the urgency of the need for change.

Andre du Toit , Giliomee’s colleague at Stellenbosch University and later at the University of Cape Town comments as follows regarding the latter phenomenon which he describes as having been “morally bankrupt and vision free” and further that Afrikaner intellectuals: “ … of necessity have a stake in the cause of the Afrikaner but with the rise of modern Afrikaner nationalism , commitment to that cultural cause has come to be almost inextricably bound up with vested interests in the Afrikaner power structure … a tangled heritage of ethnic loyalties has thus tended to blur the perceptions and enervate the moral courage of Afrikaner intellectuals generally”.

Van Zyl Slabbert, another Stellenbosch academic, refers to his frustration with colleagues who in private conversation with him shared their misgivings about apartheid but refused to do so in public. There were, however, from the early nineteen sixties a limited number of Afrikaner academics, Giliomee included, who spoke up openly and who were accused by their pro-government critics of being “neo-Marxists” and as acting as spokespersons for the banned ANC.

Giliomee refers to the role of Afrikaner journalists as having been instrumental in the achievement of the political settlement in 1994 but again neglects to adduce persuasive evidence in support of this contention. In point of fact Piet Cillie and Schalk Pienaar, two of the most prominent Afrikaans newspaper editors refused to even support a move away from apartheid in the case of the minority ‘coloured’ population with Cillie arguing in ‘Die Burger’ in favour of the government’s policy of “parallel development” for them and remarking that a shared voting rights for whites and coloureds would result in “unprecedented political dislocation and racial struggle”.


As far as the black population was concerned Cillie in concert with other Afrikaans newspaper editors (but with the exception of the role of Max du Preez and his colleagues at the Vrye Weekblad whose circulation was however dwarfed by the other Afrikaans newspapers) subscribed to the view that their political future had already been successfully been accommodated in the form of “separate freedom in the Bantu states”, a point of view which was to eventually change in the wake of the national upheavals of black protest in 1976 and 1985.

As far as Afrikaans writers such as Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbach and others are concerned they may well have helped to influence second thoughts about apartheid among their readers. But whether Giliomee is correct in attributing to them an instrumental role in paving the way to the political settlement in 1994 is an open question which would require detailed empirical analysis. In the absence of such analysis Giliomee’s conclusions are unpersuasive.

Giliomee also argues that Afrikaans business leaders helped to promote change and singles out the role of Anton Rupert in this regard by referring to his criticism of apartheid in the form of a private letter he wrote to Prime Minister, PW Botha, in 1986 in which he described apartheid as “a crime against humanity”. However, we again here encounter the phenomenon of the suppression of an open expression of concern against apartheid well outside the hearing of and influence on the thinking of the Afrikaner public.

During the previous 40 years of his adult life which coincided with the high tide of apartheid and which included Rupert’s role as an active member of the Broederbond he (aside from questioning Verwoerd’s refusal to allow white investment in the homeland territories) maintained his silence on apartheid’s degradations until his seventieth year and then only in his confidential letter to PW Botha. It should, however, be noted that Rupert never himself (as many white South Africans, often unconvincingly, have tended to do) claimed to have been an active opponent of apartheid.

Open and explicit criticism against apartheid from within Afrikaner ranks did emerge from about the middle to late nineteen eighties but then mainly in respect of the position of the coloured and Indian people. But this only came into being in the wake of threatened national bankruptcy, bloody black uprisings, the fall of communism and the withdrawal of British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s, support all of which in combination placed the final stamp on the inevitability of apartheid’s demise.

Those were the events which were responsible for paving the way to the political settlement and extension of full political rights to all South Africans in 1994. Giliomee’s notion that Afrikaner intellectuals from the ranks of academia, journalists, theologians, business people and writers played a decisive role in the latter connection does not accord with the facts of the matter. Closer to the truth is an alternative view that specifically the first four of these five Afrikaner elite categories with their majority support of and/or silence in the face of apartheid ‘until late in the day’ actually played an opposite role.

Source: PoliticsWeb