Rise and Fall of Afrikaner Nationalism

Cape Times (South Africa), January 18, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Rise and Fall of Afrikaner Nationalism

Amid an avalanche of books about South African politics, this well-timed study stands out, telling the story of our past in a way that illuminates history and the present - with South Africa again facing an uncertain future.

While still at school, Christi van der Westhuizen was questioning the attitudes and assumptions of those around her, arousing the intense hostility of her school mates and teachers alike. Born into an under-privileged Afrikaans family, she grew up to become a courageous, award-winning newspaper reporter, her skills enhanced by a thorough grounding in history and the social sciences.

She began at Max du Preez's Vrye Weekblad and went on to be senior political correspondent of Beeld.

The principal theme of this book is a well-argued assertion that negotiations, when they eventually came, produced an elite pact which allowed African nationalism to enter the political kingdom, yet ensured that white economic power was securely embedded for the foreseeable future.

The result, while it gave the upper echelons of the economy an increasingly multi-racial character, did not decrease or threaten white economic interests. This was done, she argues, by adopting a liberal-democratic constitution that safeguarded individual rights and "most significantly" property rights.

In the process it was the ANC's constituency of the poor and unemployed black masses which lost out, we may conclude. The black middle class increased in numbers and affluence to rank alongside the white middle class, while the gap between the black poor and the comfortably off multi-racial middle class widened by the day. This, we may further conclude, helps to explain what is driving the succession crisis which led to the upheaval at Polokwane and has been exacerbated by President Thabo Mbeki's secretive and strictly top-down managerial style.

In the result the country now faces an unsettled and potentially destabilising struggle between two centres of power - the new Zuma-led ANC at Luthuli House, and the Union Buildings, seat of the ANC government of President Mbeki. (In the run-up to the opening of Parliament a series of important meetings of the ANC as a party and the ANC in government are now taking place which, we may hope, will remove some of the uncertainties about the future. But they could do the opposite.)

Van der Westhuizen offers a readable account of the complex web of events and upheavals in the long story of Afrikaner nationalism's rise and fall. She shows how a relatively peaceful transition was achieved in a way which safeguarded Afrikaner and white interests pretty well, although this was not seen like this by everyone at the time, nor is this the perception of quite a few people today.

There were those who believed, and still believe, that FW de Klerk and the NP had surrendered Afrikaner self-determination and had been "routed at the negotiating table". But entrenching white political power was never a sustainable goal. Persistence in attempts to achieve such a goal would have plunged the country into civil war.

Van der Westhuizen says that mainstream analysts tend to err by excluding economics from their analysis. It is essential that the economic concessions made by the ANC are taken into account, she believes. Her own analysis draws on secondary sources and is informed by Dan O'Meara's Volkskapitalisme: Class, capital and ideology in the development of Afrikaner Nationalism and Sampie Terreblanche's A History of inequality in South Africa 1652-2002. Heribert Adam and Hermann Giliomee's Ethnic Power Mobilized: Can South Africa change? is also cited, and other seminal works. She also conducted extensive interviews with key players.

She notes that the class struggle within Afrikanerdom occupied centre stage for much of the NP's history. Pandering to the racism of the lower classes successfully drove election after election campaign.

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