How Afrikaner identity can be re-imagined in a post-apartheid world

Birds flock around a statue of Boer War leader Paul Kruger at Pretoria’s Church Square. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

This article is a foundation essay. These are longer than usual and take a wider look at a key issue affecting society.

In a post-apartheid context, is a democratic Afrikaner identity possible? Are there other traditions apart from apartheid that can be drawn on in Afrikaner culture that can advance democracy and social justice? These questions are particularly relevant in South Africa, given that in recent years there has been a heightened contestation over Afrikaner identify, driven by a hardening of whiteness.

When the National Party came to power in 1948 politician JG Strijdom, the apartheid prime minister between 1954 and 1958 who was nicknamed the “Lion of the North”, demanded “eendersdenkendheid”. The Afrikaans word means a condition of thinking the same. It is a collective term as it necessarily requires more than one person to abide by it.

The directive of eendersdenkendheid was founded in apartheid. Opposition to apartheid was as treasonous as refusing to defend your country during a war, hardliner Strijdom told his white, assumed-to-be male audience.

This demand for conformism to a particular ethnic configuration of heteropatriarchal white supremacism – also known as apartheid – permeated Afrikaner nationalism. State power amplified the authoritarian tendency of conformism in Afrikanerdom. Anyone who did not bend the knee was a “volksverraaier”, or traitor to the volk (Afrikaner people).

A democratic Afrikaner identity

In thinking what it means to re-imagine the formerly hegemonic identity of apartheid, namely “the Afrikaner”, and what 22 years of democracy in South Africa should mean for this identity, I want to advance andersdenkendheid – a condition of thinking differently – as the democratic duty of Afrikaners.

Andersdenkendheid refers again to a collective. But it is a countervailing action against conformism in that one adopts a posture of questioning and critical thinking. One then creates a condition of thinking differently to the dominant thinking within a collective, which is literally what andersdenkendheid means.

Certain sections of white Afrikaans-speaking civil society and the media want Afrikaners to think that they all have the same beliefs. They want all Afrikaners to inherently believe that women, black people, lesbians and gays are inferior. They want all Afrikaners to feel so threatened by anyone different to what is regarded as the “norm” that everyone has to suppress their humanity.

Recent clashes over the use of Afrikaans as language of instruction at the University of Pretoria.

But not all Afrikaners are like that. There were those Afrikaners who had the courage to be different, who were the volksverraaiers (traitors to the people) before South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994. Treason in this sense meant rejecting racist and heteropatriarchal oppression and brutalisation.

They are the people who today can show Afrikaners how to once again say “not in my name” when certain organisations pretend to speak on their behalf. Or when certain media corporations pretend to represent “true Afrikaner identity”. The volksverraaiers point the way to full participation in South Africa’s democracy.

A constructed identity

Why was there such a strong emphasis on eendersdenkendheid about apartheid, to the extent that diversion amounted to volksverraad (treason)? As with all identities, Afrikanerness is constructed. It was cobbled together using race, gender, class, sexuality and, importantly, ethnicity.

The neo-nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) epitomised the fascist tendency in Afrikaner nationalism especially during the 1980s. Reuters/Peter Andrews

Afrikanerness was a particularly precarious identity. It wedged a space where it claimed the privileges of dominant Anglo whiteness but also demanded separateness on the basis of ethnicity. However, it did not want to be lumped with black ethnic others because then it would lose the benefits of whiteness.

Therefore Afrikaner nationalism spent the first several decades of the 20th century “purifying” its members.

But seismic changes were under way that would have profound changes.

Militant women, communists and literary dissidents

After the South African War of 1899-1902, Afrikaner nationalist cultural entrepreneurs undertook large-scale political, social and economic work to recruit individuals to their political project. This included emphasising the Afrikaans language over its Dutch predecessor. Class, gender and sexuality were used in the service of whiteness, for example, to “save” thousands of young Dutch/Afrikaans-speaking women under the guise of resolving the “poor white problem”.

These women, who went to work in Johannesburg and Pretoria, were breaking free from the patriarchal Boer family. They were mixing in the diverse communities burgeoning in the multiracial slums of the Witwatersrand. It was an intense scene of ideological battle. Afrikaner nationalism was up against socialism and liberalism.

The troublesome young women organised themselves in the Garment Workers’ Union, described as one of the most militant unions in the years between the two world wars. Leading members Hester and Johanna Cornelius, Anna Scheepers, Katie Viljoen, Dulcie Hartwell and Anna Jacobs created themselves as socialist volksmoeders (mothers of the nation). As Jacobs declared:

We shall take the lead and climb the Drakensberg again.

These socialist volksmoeders serve as a democratic pointer today.

Jacobs drew on the courage and militancy of the Boer women in the face of British imperialism. But she did so in an expansive mode of advancing equalisation. It was a proposition that was anathema to Afrikaner nationalism.

Advocate Bram Fischer similarly serves as a democratic pointer. Fischer, who was part of the legal team that presented the 90-odd accused in the Treason Trial of 1956-1961 and member of the Communist Party, came from “Afrikaner royalty”. He was prosecuted under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1966.

While despised by the Afrikaner community, Bram Fischer was a hero to many black South Africans.

From the dock Fischer quoted Paul Kruger, the Boer republic president:

With confidence we lay our case open before the whole world. Whether we conquer or whether we die: Freedom shall rise in Africa like the sun from the morning clouds.

Again, Fischer was expanding Kruger’s notion of freedom from British imperialism to a much more encompassing idea.

Fischer was sentenced to life imprisonment and subjected to daily humiliations and harsh treatment in prison.

The poet Breyten Breytenbach faced similar treatment. He had become radicalised when his Vietnamese partner Yolande was denied entry to South Africa on the basis of being “non-white” in the mid-60s. His militant organisation Okhela was short-lived. He was arrested and sentenced to seven years in jail.

In “Confessions of an Albino Terrorist”, Breytenbach describes how his Afrikaner male warden singled him out for abuse. The warden was

a complete marionette, fierce and violent. He opened my door with a brusque gesture… and said ‘Ek is die baas van die plaas [I am the boss around here]. I will make you crawl… You will get to know me yet’. Yes, I did get to know him.

Afrikaans poet Breyten Breytenbach was jailed for terrorism by the apartheid state.

These examples make a specific point. Afrikaner nationalism enforced a particularly totalitarian version of identity in which there was little room to manoeuvre for any individuals. Those who dared to transgress were heavily punished.

Writing during apartheid, author Andre Brink explained that dissidence provoked a vicious reaction from the Afrikaner establishment because it subverted apartheid. A dissident was regarded as a traitor to everything Afrikanerdom stood for, since apartheid had become everything that Afrikanerdom stood for.

Afrikaans author Andre Brink was an anti-apartheid dissident.

In the post-apartheid conditions of a reassertion of white supremacism, the socialist volksmoeders, Fischer and Breytenbach can be used as guides. What sets these so-called traitors or volksverraaiers apart from the volk is their ability to identify with the racialised other through a sense of common humanity.

Mandela’s Poet

Ingrid Jonker, poet and daughter of a National Party politician responsible for censorship, exemplified this. Her poems include “The child who was shot by soldiers at Nyanga”, which was read by Nelson Mandela when he opened the first democratic parliament in 1994. Her poem “I am with those” features a line: “I am with those […]/ coloured African deprived.”

Nelson Mandela read an Ingrid Jonker poem at the opening of South Africa’s first democratic parliament.

As the US philosopher Judith Butler reminds us:

One seeks to preserve oneself against the injuriousness of the other but if one was successful at walling oneself off from injury one would become inhuman.

The volksverraaiers lived this truth in the face of a system that dehumanised its outsiders and made its insiders inhuman.

There are again attempts to re-enforce eendersdenkendheid, to narrow down and simplify Afrikaner identities, and to corral Afrikaners into a laager with a view of the world filled with suspicion, fear and arrogance. The volksverraaiers point the way out of this inhumanity. They have done so by claiming the tradition of andersdenkendheid. With that they have provided Afrikaners with a place to build the vibrant democracy that is South Africa.

A version of this paper was first delivered at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies' Re-imagining Afrikaner Identities Dialogue, Johannesburg, March 10 2016.