Hermann Giliomee is a liberal Afrikaner historian and respected political commentator formerly based at the University of Stellenbosch and now teaching at the University of Cape Town. This extract first appeared as a chapter in a book jointly authored with the Canadian-based sociologist Heribert Adam. Giliomee was responding in part to a much mythologized interpretation of Afrikaner history which suggested that apartheid was the consequence of the racism of Afrikaners as well as their stubborn commitment to doctrinaire neo-Calvinist thought. Giliomee was also reacting to an alternative Marxist interpretation of South African history which located the rise of Afrikaner nationalism as an expression of class interests. Giliomee’s outline of the development of Afrikaner identity rests instead on the idea of ‘ethnic mobilization’ and he argues that Afrikaner identity has undergone constant redefinition in response to different historical circumstances. He recognizes that the rise of modern Afrikaner nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century was shaped by the desire to secure collective economic advantage, in particular to ‘uplift’ Afrikaans-speaking ‘poor whites’. But it also had a vital psychological and cultural dimension, affording a sense of collective security and solidarity. In the post-1948 period Afrikaner identity was powerfully asserted through apartheid ideology. Underlying Afrikaners’ insistence on protecting their political and economic supremacy were lingering fears of their vulnerability. According to Giliomee, apartheid was not a sacrosanct ideology. It was first and foremost a means of securing group survival. From this it followed that if the insistence on Afrikaner exclusivity was no longer perceived to be in their own interests—as was increasingly apparent from the mid-1970s—Afrikaners would be prepared to engage in a painful process of personal redefinition and political reform.
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