The Afrikaners: a concise history by Hermann Giliomee: a book review

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The Afrikaners: a concise history
Hermann Giliomee
Publisher: Tafelberg, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-624-08989-6 

Many readers will no doubt be acquainted with Hermann Giliomee’s earlier Afrikaans–Anglo magnum opus, The Afrikaners: biography of a people (2003); Die Afrikaners: ’n biografie (2004). At over 700 pages, that magisterial volume was a Groot Trek in ink, a reading marathon that set out to answer everything which its author considered readers might want to know about the historical story of Afrikaner people. It was – as Professor Giliomee wryly acknowledges – "a thick book". Now running to just over 200 pages, and wearing his immense learning much more lightly, the author’s new Concise history is more of a tapas-trek through the topic than his original pièce de résistance. It has all the classic virtues of narrative history: it is exceptionally well-informed and very well-written, it provides a human drama with a large and varied cast of characters, and it contains material of interest on virtually every page.

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Now running to just over 200 pages, and wearing his immense learning much more lightly, the author’s new Concise history is more of a tapas-trek through the topic than his original pièce de résistance. 

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Given Giliomee’s scholarly stature, it’s no great loss to the Concise menu that this easily digestible meal dispenses with the usual pile of footnotes and provides only a succinct selected bibliography. But it is a pity that space could not be found for what ought to be a non-fiction essential: an index. On the other hand, there is a richly entertaining illustrations section. These depict not only several of the usual suspects like Van Riebeeck, Smuts, Verwoerd and De Klerk. Among the less predictable images is a photograph of the author, looking appropriately studious and pensive at the Franschhoek Huguenot monument – the abiding emblem of the faux Frenchness of that Western Cape winelands dorpie. It is also a reminder – surely hardly needed – that A concise history emerges from the recent kykNET Afrikaans television documentary series which Hermann Giliomee himself presented. If you’ve enjoyed all eighteen episodes of that production, you can now savour the book. Or, if you missed watching the story on TV, you can still read the book.   

In some ways, A concise history has sufficient stories for a dozen longer volumes. Here, Giliomee does a first-rate job of boiling everything down to the basics, while still finding some space for minor surprises and fascinating observations across the centuries. For instance, in the view of a seventeenth-century French observer, due to the notable egalitarianism of Roman-Dutch law, "Dutch servants enjoyed so many privileges that their masters could not even hit them". Perhaps that’s what the Dutch and British empires had in common – reserving charity for subjects at home while exporting gratuitous violence for use against colonial subjects overseas.

The distressing consequences of violence pop up again in another little tit-bit close to the end of the story, where discussion of the Angola and Namibia border-war touches on the impact of traumatic experience where the extremes of the bush war left some troops bosbefok or "bush crazy". If the Anglo-Boer War can be described as having been Britain’s Vietnam, in some respects the smaller bush war was perhaps apartheid South Africa’s Vietnam.

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If the Anglo-Boer War can be described as having been Britain’s Vietnam, in some respects the smaller bush war was perhaps apartheid South Africa’s Vietnam.

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These two historical moments top and tail an evocative account of the Afrikaners, how they climbed into history and made themselves – where they emerged, where they went, and where they have ended up: a resilient pale majority of a pale minority in an African country. Taking us into the very-near present, A concise history is a portrait of survival in a country in which they no longer hold the dominant power they once had to choose the political circumstances of their existence. That survival – whether as under- or as top-dog – has been sustained through successive cycles of making and re-making themselves, employing agility and adaptation, especially when up against the odds.  

Giliomee’s guide to this people’s history unfolds across twenty chapters, some with snappy titles, like "Colonists and Republicans", "Inventing a White Land", and "The risk of not taking risks". It begins at the predictable beginning, with the arrival at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 of "some 90 Europeans under the leadership of Jan van Riebeeck’. In this early Cape colonial period it took time for a ’strong sense of colour-consciousness" to dictate conduct and define human relations. For several decades, boundaries in the Dutch East India Company Cape were porous, resembling the English East India Company’s India where, as William Dalrymple points out in his White Mughals (2002), in the eighteenth-century one in three British men were married to Indian women.

In both heavily male places, it took the eventual arrival of white women to provide the nutrient of a distinctive white community, branded at birth by a Christian pedigree. In charting its growth, Giliomee notes that it was only towards the end of the eighteenth-century that the term "Afrikaner" became commonly attached to people who were "predominantly of European descent".

Previously, it had been used occasionally for the offspring of slaves and free blacks. Afrikaans as a medium of communication also developed through interplay and interpenetration, with the author recognising its creole origins as "the collective creation of slaves, burghers, Khoikhoi and San".

The familiar seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and earlier nineteenth-century landscapes which are crossed, excavated, and thoughtfully examined make up about four-fifths or what’s probably the richest and most instructive portion of A Concise History. Giliomee’s approach combines a loose chronological narrative – coastal colony, interior Boer republics, Union and republican states, and the advent of black majority rule - with a cluster of influential themes.

In these, he steers us through the volk’s shaping experiences such as the impact of slavery, the start of troubles with the British, inland migration, the influence of Boer women, anti-British nationalist sentiments, language, literature and religion, racial attitudes and segregation, the complexities of class relations, and the push from Afrikaner capitalism for greater elbow room.

Numerous small observations and thoughtful insights keep it all highly readable and help to make a good deal of what would otherwise be familiar historical territory interesting again. The author’s concluding judgements are also invariably cool-headed. Thus, while the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer cataclysm was a "hard war", the British "never went as far as waging total war". All the same, the assertion that this was "the first war that targeted the civilian population in a massive way" may come as a surprise to other peoples conquered in the nineteenth century, like the Algerians, Tunisians and Cubans or – for that matter – to the Southerners of Georgia in the American Civil War.

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One over-arching element which Giliomee conveys well is a restlessness – of both mind and body – as Afrikaners lurched through a series of formative experiences across the twentieth century, creating instruments and securing agencies in their own image to eventually come into their own.

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One over-arching element which Giliomee conveys well is a restlessness – of both mind and body – as Afrikaners lurched through a series of formative experiences across the twentieth century, creating instruments and securing agencies in their own image to eventually come into their own. At times, the molecular advance of a constellation of ambitions – for status, acquisitions, security and power – brings to mind something uttered by the famous Welsh statesman David Lloyd George, in the early years of the last century. It was about the impact of ’the little five-foot-five nations of the world’. What matters, of course, is when they stop being modest and start to develop a six-foot reach.

That "reach" looked to have been not merely attained but consolidated by the 1970s when, as Giliomee underlines, "all political power was concentrated in Afrikaner hands". The old smugness had been wiped from the faces of English-speaking whites and most were falling into line. Those who were not part of the Afrikaner-led white nation were expected to do most of the sweaty work, to stay in their prescribed place, and to keep quiet. A dominant nationalist volk was like the cat that had got the cream.    

 The last quarter of A concise history provides both a micro- and macro-account of the rooting, flowering, and withering of apartheid. Chapter sixteen’s sub-title points to the terminal weakness of the apartheid order: "The Afrikaners have never experienced the luxury of safety in numbers." Ultimately, there were never enough of them and there were never enough shoulders to the wheel to keep the great juggernaut on the road indefinitely. As the author observes: by the later-1970s there was a growing awareness of demographic realities among those who could see that the apartheid road was running into sand. For the shadowy high priests of the Afrikaner Broederbond, "the weight of black numbers forced a fundamental rethink about apartheid as the solution to Afrikaner survival".

Although this final part of the story covers very familiar terrain, what really stands out is how much Hermann Giliomee loves getting his teeth into the intricate game of high-level politics. The hawkish zealots of Afrikaner nationalism are weighed up astutely, and the sage critics of its extremism – such  as gifted writers DJ Opperman and NP van Wyk Louw – get their fair due. In a similar vein, A concise history studiously avoids popular sensationalism and rhetoric in its dissection of the twists-and-turns of the apartheid order through til its eclipse by majority rule after an elbow-wrestling transition. Readers are reminded that the loss of political power did not leave its beneficiaries completely stranded, for "there was also much that the Afrikaners had retained".

While almost bloodless in tone, the author’s measured dissection of the apartheid era doesn’t skip over the most gangrenous racial obsessiveness of Nationalist mania, such as the Kafkaesque consequence of the 1950 Population Registration Act. Its grotesque imposition of a "racial grid" classification of South African society meant that for some people, "fingernails were examined or combs pulled through their hair". Some of the more speculative interpretations of other topics, such as what counted most in the 1948 Nationalist election victory or the workings of Bantu Education, run counter to prevailing assumptions. That ought to spark some debate.       

After all that, and much more besides, it’s a little odd to find Giliomee concluding that the National Party had been unable "to transform apartheid into a system that incorporated people from all racial groups". Faintly rueful, it’s a quixotic conclusion to this admirable volume. In a sense, it brings to mind the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, except that here it imagines the whale being swallowed by Jonah.  

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In their place in the historical imagination and in mythology, what is the significance of their place on the fringe of the African and European pasts?

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Giliomee’s history tails off, ending abruptly in the 1990s – it’s a pity that there isn’t an epilogue from one of the most eminent of "people’s remembrancer" historians. I, for one, would have enjoyed some broad retrospective reflections on the Afrikaners and their dogged march through – but assuredly not out of – history. In their place in the historical imagination and in mythology, what is the significance of their place on the fringe of the African and European pasts? If we put aside the racial nationalist tyranny of 1948-1994, can the Afrikaners be best understood, perhaps, as another version of those restive five-foot-five nations, such as the Irish or the Welsh, Canada’s Quebecois or Spain’s Catalans and Basques?

 While more prim and steely in its tone, Giliomee’s A concise history has its comparative counterparts in the distinctly exuberant, noisy histories of Mark Kurlansky, The Basque History of the World (2001) and Gwyn A Williams, When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh (1985). Like these peoples, the Afrikaners have possibly shown more relish than most for a trinity of plain-speaking politics, linguistic versatility and a rich literary culture. To which, in their case, we would surely also have to add Pinotage. And a supple language that has more than twice as many vowel sounds as Catalan and Welsh put together!

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