Thursday, February 19, 2004

Afrikaner Nationalism and the Emergence of Apartheid

Here's a page that gives a fairly detailed and, for the most part, accurate overview of how Afrikaner ultra-nationalism led to the emergence of apartheid as official state policy. Some of the statements made in this document are particularly worthy of notice, especially in light of all the claptrap that is usually wheeled out about "anti-communism" where South Africa is concerned.

Afrikaners were stridently anti-communist and anti-Soviet Union. The Cold War provided the basic mode for viewing world politics. But there were 2 curiosities:
  • S. Africa was more like the Soviet Union than most other countries; there was the prominence of the state over the individual; political crimes and police were very important; there was a highly developed police state; and individual freedoms were whittled away to almost nothing, even for whites (all ‘rights’ were at the discretion of the minister of justice).
  • The dominance of state capitalism. Government ownership was more extensive than anywhere in most western societies—railways, telephones, airline, merchant marine, ISCOR (steel), SASOL (oil from coal), etc. Only in socialist countries was the proportion higher. Yet at the same time the South African gov’t opposed social welfare measures as ‘socialism’. Nevertheless, the colour bar was really a massive social welfare programme for poor whites!
Also note the following, which is thoroughly corroborated by other sources*, particularly where pre-1948 Afrikaner hygiene is concerned:
“There is a vast difference in civilisation between the various national groups which is reflected in their mutual relations. In this disparity of civilisation—and this is not always realised by foreign observers—difference in hygienic development plays a very important role.” [my emphasis]
- this is a very curious statement; in the oblique reference to ‘hygienic development’, there is the traditional white objection to the way Africans smell. Here, ‘civilisation’ seems to have been reduced to the way people smell!

- there are several ironies in such a contention:
  • as we noted in a previous lecture, Afrikaners brought into the concentration camps in the war horrified British military and medical people with their habits;
  • traditionally, where water was available, Zulu and Xhosa washed much more frequently than the Voortrekkers—every day in warm weather.
  • water is a scarce resource in much of S. Africa and most of it was appropriated for use by whites. Most municipal locations (this was the term for residential areas for Africans although ‘townships’ came to be the preferred term in the 1950s) had only communal faucets in the street several hundred feet apart. Thus, all water had to be carried to the houses. In rural areas, Africans often have to go 2-5 miles and even more.

The point of all this isn't to say that modern day Afrikaners are dirty pigs - I'm sure they're just as fastidious as any other group of people - but to illustrate that the present-day conception of South African development owing mostly to the superior mores and acumen of generic "whites" (as opposed to the highly-vetted groups of skilled British immigrants who began arriving in 1820) is a complete fiction. Most 19th century Afrikaners were unlettered and unversed in the refinements of higher culture, particularly amongst the trekboers who were far from Cape Town's influence. Truth be told, many European visitors to South Africa who had to deal with both the Boers and the Xhosa formed a much higher opinion of the latter than the former, whose slovenliness, boorishness and hardscrabble existence they deplored.

Even when we restrict our attentions to those 19th and early 20th century Afrikaners resident in Cape Town and Stellenbosch, what is notable is the intense anti-intellectualism that is remarked upon by commenter after commenter, along with an intense cruelty towards Hottentots and Bantu speakers, who the Afrikaners couldn't even bring themselves to refer to as "mensen" ("humans"), preferring the term "schepsels" ("creatures"). The much ballyhoed Great Trek was stirred in large part by British insistence on according equal status before the law to all free subjects, regardless of skin color, and the fact that the British actually dared to enforce penalties against Afrikaners who mistreated their non-white servants (as was the case with Freek Bezuidenhout) particularly grated on Afrikaner sensibilities.

To talk about the history of South Africa as if it were merely a matter of separate peoples with different customs fighting over land, rather than the constant struggle by one group of white immigrants, little separated in civilizational terms from the blacks they sought to exploit, to use state power to further their own particular ethnic interests, is to perpetuate a travesty of the historical record. Apartheid wasn't about superior "whites" seeking to protect Western civilization in the face of an onslaught of hordes of dark-skinned savages, but about Afrikaners without the skills and resources to flourish in the marketplace using the fact that they could vote, and blacks couldn't, to lever themselves into higher positions than they would have obtained on merit alone; by far the biggest employer of Afrikaans-speaking whites during the apartheid years was the government, whether through the civil service, through the various government parastatals, or through that employer of last resort (and the single largest corporate employer in the nation), South African Railways. I'm no cheerleader for affirmative action, but for the beneficiaries of affirmative action on so vast a scale to bitch about blacks now getting to commandeer the spoils of office strikes me as a bit rich.

See, for example, Frank Welsh, "A History of South Africa", 1998, HarperCollins. Also see this page, hosted on an Afrikaans website.