Nationalism and race/racism

Nationalism and race/racism

Because of a teaching commitment, much of the last week has involved returning to the large and interesting literature on the origins and development of nationalism in South Africa. For those writing about this who are of a ‘what are the origins’ or causes disposition, the key things mentioned, in the approximate order they are seen to arrive on the scene, are:

  • Republicanism
  • Anti-imperialism
  • War, devastation, defeat
  • Nationalism – cultural
  • Economic interests & divisions – volkskapitalisme, poor whites, bourgeois Afrikaners
  • Nationalism – political
  • Racism
  • Proto-fascism
  • Political institutionalism

Other commentators have eschewed an origins approach in favour of positing developments over time, as with Giliomee hedging all bets in this ‘in a nutshell’ explanation:

“By 1870 the Afrikaner formed an ethnic group in itself. Outside observers could discern a group of people who tended to intermarry, spoke the same language, or variants of it, and shared the same faith. But in articulating their own identity, Afrikaners were probably more conscious as to what they were not – namely, not British – than of what they actually were. They had, moreover, not yet used the idea of a nation as a cause and a spring of action. This began to change when the advent of representative political institutions prompted politicians to mobilize an ethnic constituency without, however, impairing profitable linkages with the imperialist system. Events such as the annexation of the Diamond Fields and of the Transvaal did not ‘awaken’ Afrikaner nationalism… there was on such occasions increased talk about ethnicity and nationalism, increasing consciousness of social tension and increasing ‘cramp’ and irritation. However, such feelings could not sustain a nationalist movement. A movement developed when the idea of the nation became the basis for action in economic as well as in political affairs. This first occurred in the struggles in the Cape Colony at the turn of the century, struggles particularly over protectionism, over state revenue and over access to bank credit. The destruction of the war and rapid urbanization made the Afrikaners’ relative economic backwardness much more visible while the intensifying industrialization turned the question of education and language into a decisive political issue. With the educated elite of the Afrikaners succeeding in aligning themselves with the commercial farmers, the basic elements of a vigorous nationalist movement were in place. It is against this background that the surge of support for Hertzog and Malan in the first decade after Hertzog’s momentous speech at De Wildt can best be understood.” [Hermann Giliomee (1987) ‘The Beginnings of Afrikaner Nationalism, 1870–1915’ South African Historical Journal, 19:1, 115-142; p.142]

However, as close attention to this statement will indicate, firstly, it includes just about everything, hedging his bets indeed; and secondly, the lineage in itself constitutes a kind of causal path, of one thing leading to another, to another, to another. The connected elements in order of described occurrence are:

  • Ethnic group formation
  • National sensibility
  • Representative political institutions
  • Political annexations by outside force
  • Shared economic interests
  • War and destruction
  • Industrialisation
  • Education, culture and language
  • Unity of class groups
  • Surge of support for National Party

Both the sweep of approaches generally and this ‘it’s complicated’ one are distinctive in a particular respect (the other notable feature is that they contain no challenges or contrary movements). This is that the inflection of Afrikaner nationalism by race and racism is often implied to be a relatively late arrival on the scene; and interestingly, it is not mentioned in the summary statement from Giliomee.

This is not the impression gained from working on the archive sources over the last 25 years! Present-day commentators may write as though race matters are not always a visible and pressing factor in contemplating the trajectory of development and change in South Africa, including regarding Afrikaner nationalism. But for people writing and otherwise representing social and political life as they experienced it from the 1770s on to the 1970s, in sometimes positive and sometimes negative and sometimes even bland ways, it is always somewhere on the agenda. Thinking back only to 1909, Olive Schreiner was insistent that the movement for Union in South Africa was propelled by a toxic mixture of nationalism and racism. Earlier, in the 1880s proselytising members of the Dutch Reformed Church’s Vrouwen Zending Bond (Women’s Missionary Society) focused attention on rural takhaars, poor whites who failed to distinguish themselves from members of black neighbouring groups and so betrayed the superiority of ‘the Dutch’. Even earlier, as soon as the first Boer Republics were formed, racial measures were instituted. Indeed, with respect to all the origins or causes or developments identified regarding the rise of nationalism, racialised components can be found for each of them.

What I am not saying! I’m not saying that race/ethnicity/racism was the ‘original’ origin or cause or developmental factor at the root of Afrikaner nationalism.

What I am suggesting! In a context in which a minority of white people arrived in a place and started to coexist with a large majority of black people, questions of ethnicity, skin colour, ideas about racial groups etc were likely always to be part of the factors being considered. That in South Africa this became a dominant factor during the period of ‘high’ apartheid has perhaps taken to mean an earlier absence, rather than it existing in different forms and to different degrees in earlier periods. The archival evidence suggests enormous complexity with regard to such matters, but still, the presence of racial/ethnic factors in the vast majority of aspects of life is clearly indicated, and consequently this needs to be taken into account regarding whenever and whatever and whoever it was that saw the first stirrings and later developments of nationalism.

Last updated:  16 November 2018