The White Tribe of South Africa

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July 2011 / Voortrekker Monument / Pretoria, Gauteng Province / South Africa

Hearing a white man introduce himself as an 11th generation African might seem strange, but our tour guide at the Voortrekker Monument did just that. He was an Afrikaner, the descendant of Dutch and other European immigrants to Southern Africa. To understand the history of modern South Africa, one must understand the history of the Afrikaans people, who have played an important role in shaping the history of their country. For this reason Peace Corps South Africa took us a on a field trip to the Voortrekker Monument, which honors the Afrikaner settlers who colonized southern Africa’s interior. It consists of a large, cathedral-like building which draws inspiration from German cathedrals and the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. It contains a long, marble frieze representing the major turning points of the Great Trek.

As Imperial Britain exerted greater control over the Cape of Southern Africa in the 19th century, the fiercely independent Afrikaners began their Great Trek, pushing into the interior of southern Africa, away from Britain’s sphere of control. As they traveled in search of range land for their livestock, they encountered the Zulu, the Pedi, the Ndebele, the Tswana. Believing the land was theirs by divine right, they clashed with each tribe in turn. During one battle, a few hundred Afrikaners fended off Zulu impi of 12,000 with 6 casualties and no deaths, a seemingly impossible victory that fueled the Afrikaner notion that God was on their side.

In another battle, Afrikaners lost most of their oxen to African forces. These Africans later sharpened the horns of the oxen and rode them to meet the white Afrikaners in battle. The whole affair has a cowboys-and-Indians feel to it – except the cowboys spoke High Dutch and the Indians were black. The Afrikaners did all of this wearing what were essentially tweed jackets. In time, the Dutch of the Afrikaners incorporated African and Malay loan words; as High Dutch evolved within southern Africa, it diverged from its parent to form a new language: Afrikaans.

After the Anglos wars at the turn of the 20th century, Afrikaners gained political power in the newly united Republic of South Africa. The Afrikaner government of the 1940’s and 1950’s established apartheid, a system of legalized segregation structured to exclude the black majority from political power. This system was backed by brutal violence against any who protested.

The history of South Africa parallels that of the United States uncannily. In both countries, European colonists – or invaders, depending on your perspective – pushed towards the interior of the continent, away from the control of the government, guided by the belief they were fulfilling God’s will (in the United States, the Manifest Destiny). In each case, the European settlers gained control of land by waging bloody campaigns against the local populations Additionally, both countries set up native homelands with a veneer of independence: in South Africa, the bantustans; in the United States, the Indian reservations. Both countries also established systems of legalized segregation, limiting political and economic power to whites. Both United States and South Africa have had to address the social, political and economic repercussions of centuries of legalized oppression.

One must not dismiss the negative effects apartheid on South Africa. This system divided families and bred mistrust between citizens of the same nation. Black schools in rural areas still reel from the crippling effects of apartheid’s Bantu Education Act. Though amends are slowly being made under Mandela’s plea for reconciliation, a profound degree of mistrust still exists between black and Afrikaans South Africans.

However, while the British were interested in advancing the interests of their Empire, the Afrikaners worked to make South Africa their home. The Afrikaners, however, were pastoralists, largely uninterested in the riches the British lusted for. From an early date, the Afrikaners emphasized their allegiance lay with the land and not the Crown, or to the pursuit of material wealth. du Toit writes in 1879:

“An Afrikaner Bond, in which no nationality divides us from each other, but in which everyone who recognizes Africa as his Fatherland can live together and work as brothers of a single house, be they of English, Dutch, French or German origin, with the exclusion of those who talk of England as their ‘home’ or of Holland and Germany as the ‘Fatherland,’ and only want to fill their pockets with African wealth in order to go and spend it in Europe.”

With this mindset of “Afrika for the Afrikander,” the Afrikaners built up the most developed infrastructure of any country on the continent. South Africa is blessed with a system of roads, healthcare, and military more developed by far than the those of countries elsewhere in the continent. Today the Afrikaners are known as the White Tribe of Africa – a people native to Africa, speaking Afrikaans, a language endemic to Africa.


2 responses to “The White Tribe of South Africa

  1. Another interesting post, Howell! I was unaware of the extent to which the Bantu Education Act affected the schools in South Africa until I read up on it. It seems that such a racist education system really perpetuated the social hierarchy of the time. It was heartbreaking to read about the conditions that the children had to learn in!

  2. Sara,

    Bantu Education is off the books but its effects continue to haunt SA’s rural schools. Bad, bad news. Your comments foreshadow two posts I am drafting now: one on the aftermath of Bantu Education and my observations of some pretty severe corporal punishment; the other a guest article on a friend’s blog comparing poverty in SA and the US. Stay tuned. Thanks for being such a loyal reader! I really appreciate it.


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