Hermann Giliomee speaks about his latest book, Die Afrikaners

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On Thursday evening, 28 June 2018 at 6:30 pm, I gladly attended the talk by Hermann Giliomee on his latest book, Die Afrikaners. The setting was the Drostdy Theatre next to the Braak, a site that many English-speaking students know well. For, opposite the Drostdy is St Mary’s on the Braak, a church belonging to the Anglican Church of Southern Africa (ACSA). It was in the seventies that, as students, we frequented St Mary’s, some of us doing duties such as serving or reading the Scriptures from the lectern. Walking across to Giliomee’s talk brought back memories of that time and place.

St Mary’s on the Braak – this photograph was taken on the way to attend Giliomee’s book launch for his latest book, Die Afrikaners, an event sponsored by the local newspaper, Eikestadnuus (Thursday 28 June 2018).

When the Drostdy Theatre opened its doors in March 2015, it was written that its purpose was to “encourage entertainers to fully immerse themselves in the space”. This did not need to be limited to the performing arts. Historians on stage can be just as entertaining, as the audience that attended the book launch that night would soon see.

At 6:30 pm, Danie Keet, the editor of Eikestadnuus, who organised this as a “meet the author” event, launched the evening by introducing the two persons that would be speaking – the author of the book, Hermann Giliomee, and the person asking the questions, Albert Grundlingh of the history department at the university, himself a widely published author.

The audience was to have the benefit of listening to two internationally acclaimed South African historians.

The entrance to the Drostdy Theatre in Stellenbosch

Giliomee is possibly best known to the reading public for his magnum opus, Die Afrikaners: a biography of a people (2003), simultaneously published by Tafelberg in South Africa, the University Press of Virginia in the USA, and Christopher Hurst and Company in Britain. This publication (in English and Afrikaans) was followed by the Nuwe geskiedenis van Suid-Afrika / New history of South Africa, reviewed on LitNet on 12 December 2007 at https://www.litnet.co.za/paul-murray-takes-a-look-at-the-i-nuwe-geskiedenis-van-suid-afrika-i/.

While Giliomee has written a vast number of books on history, more recently his biography, Historikus / Historian, appeared, and now Die Afrikaners – an abridged version of the previous edition and supplemented with up-to-date information. The inspiration for the new book was to write for a TV series, which can be viewed on kykNET, with the author as principal narrator among other narrators. This has probably made this episode of South African history a lot more accessible. This week, I watched one of the episodes, and thought just how much easier this would make teaching that period of South African history. Today, the visual is so much more enjoyed by learners than the conceptual (although, as a history educator, I’m not altogether convinced of the ultimate benefit of this method for the fullest possible understanding of history, and try give showings minimum time, other than brief “clips”).

Albert Grundlingh has published many books on the subject of history, with his writing extending to the international field, appearing in leading journals. His areas of specialisation are in social and cultural history, and he is highly regarded, for example, for his different format of South African blacks’ participation in the First World War, and the effect of rugby on South African society. Other publications include the topic of treason in the South African War (1899–1902), as in Die “hendsoppers” en “joiners” (HAUM, 1979 and Protea Boekhuis, 1999), Fighting their own war: South African blacks and the First World War (Ravan Press, 1987) and Beyond the tryline: rugby and South African society (co-authored, Ravan Press, 1995).

Danie Keet introducing Giliomee and Grundlingh at the Drostdy Theatre on Thursday 28 June 2018

And, with this highly impressive biographical detail provided by Keet on Giliomee and Grundlingh, the evening’s proceedings commenced. It was a tough call beginning with a question of historical “distance” when writing a history on a “people” to whom you belong and one of whom you call yourself – Afrikaner, a concept in itself hard to define. The question of “community” was very different for the English-speaking South African. And, how exactly does one define “English-speaking South African”? Giliomee shared some of his thoughts on being Afrikaans-speaking and teaching at an English-speaking university (the University of Cape Town, where he was professor of political studies from 1983 to 2002). How did students from these English-speaking backgrounds view the accent of their Afrikaans professor, speaking in his second language to mother-tongue English speakers? This highlighted the difference between the two language groups, yet they were pursuing the same end – to educate / be educated. In addition to Afrikaners writing about Afrikaners, there was excellent scholarship of English-speaking South African writers writing about Afrikaners. A case in point was Dan O’Meara, whose earlier work had analysed ideology among Afrikaners.

Interesting issues and questions raised by Grundlingh were matched with detailed and analytical responses from Giliomee. How different was the new edition, Die Afrikaners, from his previous work? This came out when Giliomee explained the technical side of writing history for reading (an abstract process), as opposed to for viewing on TV. Grundlingh proceeded with further questions, one about contextualisation, when one tries to discuss the binary opposites of the historical field(s) one is writing about – as in one of his own topics of research, rugby and politics. How would Giliomee do this in the field of political history, closely bound to the position of economics in history?

Giliomee continued to share gems, for instance, his acquaintance with Doc Craven, Mr Rugby in South Africa. Craven’s political leaning was to the SAP (United Party). They would sometimes meet when Giliomee and his wife, Annette, went walking at Coetzenburg, then the home of South African rugby. Afrikaners could be so different in ideological outlook – the Nationalist-SAP divide.

Giliomee discussed the historian Toynbee and his views that might explain the change in the Afrikaner’s power game in South Africa; the position of the Afrikaner youth in South Africa; and the way the South African black youth of today view the struggle.

Studying history and writing requires the historian to restrategise his work to keep it relevant. Giliomee certainly makes his work relevant in the way he contextualises the Afrikaner, in the past and for now.

For instance, how would historians today explain specific responses when Afrikaans university students clashed with local coloured residents – referred to as the Battle of Andringa Street – in Stellenbosch history of the 1940s? The tragic event happened when coloureds were accused of jumping the queue to buy the newspaper, and some were assaulted by students, leading to the outbreak of violence in parts of the town. Perhaps he was saying that history can teach us that, while war is easy, making peace is more difficult, but reconciliation is the hardest of all.

In addition, Giliomee shared his recollection of the tragic circumstances in Stellenbosch in 1964, when, as a result of the proclamation of specific group areas in the town, 3 700 coloureds were dislodged from their homes in forced removals, with traumatic results for the victims.

How Biko viewed Afrikaans; Afrikaner individualism; ideas on Verwoerd; Solidariteit; the language question; De Klerk; the role of Pik Botha at the time of PW Botha’s stroke; the role of the CIA in South Africa; and the writing and co-authoring of A new history of South Africa were all very interesting features and topics that the audience were able to listen to, most of which they would not normally or easily have access to.

The audience of approximately 100 persons could surely have continued to listen to these two captivating history giants for much longer.

The evening ended with a few questions from the floor.

Giliomee answered why Smuts probably might not have been of much effect had he been re-elected in 1948. He was too old.

There was a hard-hitting question about the future of Afrikaans.

The future of a language is closely linked with the identity of a people, which is linked to the use of its language. Young Afrikaners would need to be less individualistic about the use of Afrikaans, and more cohesive, if the future of Afrikaans were to be guaranteed.

As one left the evening’s talk, going down the staircase made form Burmese teak, one had much to think about.

Giliomee autographing a copy of his latest publication, Die Afrikaners

The magnificent staircase leading up to the theatre

  • Photographs: Paul Murray

Also read

Video: Die Afrikaners word bekendgestel


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  • Johannes Comestor

    In die huidige taalstryd het die historikus Giliomee myns insiens meer ten bate van Afrikaans gedoen as enige Afrikaansdosent. Dit is te betreur as die toekoms van Afrikaans skaars 'n voetnoot by hierdie bespreking was. Afrikaners moet glo saamstaan oor Afrikaans. Maar watter soort Afrikaans? Sekerlik Afrikaans wat so vry moontlik van Engels is. As Afrikaans al hoe meer verengels, het dit geen toekoms as 'n taal uit eie reg nie.

  • Om die vraagstuk van die voortbestaan van Afrikaners beter te kan verstaan, sal die lees van Giliomee help.

  • Dit was as gevolg van 'n vraag van die vloer dat die kwessie van die voortbestaan van die taal spesifiek bespreek is, maar daar is ook gedurende die gesprek daarna verwys en hierdie punt kom ook in die boek voor; die tweede punt nl welke soort Afrikaans is 'n baie belangrike een en verg verdere bespreking.

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