The Afrikaner Volkstaat – dream or pipe-dream?

President Nelson Mandela meets with Betsie Verwoerd in Orania, August 1995

The Afrikaner volk is a very easy group to mock. They fulfil all the stereotypes of bigotry, backwardness, stubbornness, parochialism and raw nationalism. They love to tweak the beard of liberals and progressives, and they are full of fire and brimstone about their own minority rights and how those rights are being eroded.

But here’s the thing about the Afrikaner – they’re doing all right, thank you very much.

Afrikaans music is lucrative. The Afrikaans film industry is alive and well and regularly turning out award-winning films. Afrikaans farmers no longer talk about tractors and labourers, they talk about drone monitoring, genetic modification and nano-technology. Afrikaans cultural events are packed. Afrikaans academics are welcome at symposiums all over the world as the ‘leading authority’ in their subjects. Afrikaans middle-class administrators are buttressing the walk-in counters at banks, post offices and service providers. Afrikaans entrepreneurs are creating businesses and employment in their thousands. They are building schools and universities, and establishing networks and foundations and mini-governments. The Afrikaans poor are being assisted by community schemes, devised by fellow-Afrikaners. And Afrikaners are not scared to go to court – with finely-wrought arguments which they usually win – if they feel put-upon.

Present them with a common enemy, and they are invincible (as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle noted). And the common enemy now for the volk is the ANC government, which – in their view – is trying to cover up its own failings by blaming them for the country’s woes.

In August last year a small group of Afrikaans intelligensia got together at the Voortrekker Monument to discuss their betrayal by this ANC government, and what they intend to do about it.

The number of delegates at this conference was small, but each delegate represented a larger organisation, such as the Afrikaner Bond, Transvaal Landbou Unie (TLU), AgriSA, and the Afrikaner Self-beskikkingskomittee (ASK), the Nasionale Belastingbetalers Unie (NBU) and the Boer Afrikaner Volkstaat.

These are groupings that have had many meetings with various ANC government ministers and delegations over the years, asking for the protection of their rights as a minority and the preservation of their culture. An estimate of their true numbers would put them at about 2 million people.

Their influence belies their small numbers, as last year the Afrikaner Bond’s centenary celebrations were attended by Pres. Cyril Ramaphosa, the DA’s Mmusi Maimane and COPE’s Terror Lekota (the IFP’s Buthelezi sent his apologies, having a prior arrangement). During those celebrations, the chair of the Afrikaner Bond made it vehemently clear that the Afrikaner had always wanted to be part of economic growth and redress, as long as their language and culture was left alone.

This request goes back to 1993, during the heady days of the CODESA talks. Genl Constandt Viljoen – who had headed the SADF until 1986, and who could recruit a heavily armed and well-trained citizen force of 50 000 men – had meetings with the ANC. He revealed that the Afrikaner nation was worried about reprisals under a black government.

“If there was a chance of violence against whites, he said would not hesitate to use his private army to protect them,” says Louis Smuts, the chair of the Tabok Trust (an Afrikaans cultural organisation) and a conference speaker. “He asked for an undertaking that whites would be safe from harm, and that they would have their rights protected as a minority group under a black government.”

It was during this same time that Mangosuthu Buthelezi had declared that he, as the tribal leader of the Zulus, would call out his impis in defence of a Zulu homeland. Nelson Mandela persuaded both groups to abandon violence and take part in the 1994 elections.

But while Buthelezi was given his ‘homeland’ in the form of the problematic but legislated Ingonyama Trust, the Afrikaner got nothing but empty promises.

Mooted areas in South Africa where self-determination is possible

“What we had wanted,” said Viljoen, a delegate at the conference, “was the recognition of our language, religion and culture, and the protection of those. At that time there was strong and moral leadership, with vision, and we were confident that we could help to build the country. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. There is no leadership. The promises have come to nothing.”

Viljoen had presented Mandela with a list of requests. These included the right of the Afrikaner to protect their language, their religion, their culture and their homogeny. Mandela replied, in writing, that the ANC was completely in agreement with Afrikaner self-determination, and that he had personally appointed Jacob Zuma to guide the legal processes to give the Afrikaner nation the same status as the Zulu nation. The next logical step would be to meet with Jacob Zuma to begin the process. Encouraged by this letter, Viljoen and a group of academics, jurists, businessmen and community leaders compiled a legal document called the Afrikaner Accord.

This Accord was signed on 24th April, 1994, by Viljoen, Thabo Mbeki and Roelf Meyer, and included a provision for a ‘10th province’ (parts of the Northern Cape, Free State and North West) as a potential Afrikaner ‘homeland’.

But even then, the volk did not entirely trust the new ANC government-in-waiting. Part of this distrust stemmed from an intercepted 1993 internal ANC memo. The memo states quite baldly that the ANC needs to placate the Afrikaner at all costs, because the ANC ‘needed their money’. The memo continued that it was necessary ‘not to be truthful’ to the Afrikaner about the ANC’s true aims and ambitions – deception was required in order to ‘milk the Afrikaner’.

This document, which is breathtaking in its cynicism, has been vouched for as genuine document, and is taken as proof that the ANC government had always intended to disempower the Afrikaner.

In the event, Zuma has never made himself available for a meeting and the Afrikaner has been trying vainly ever since to attract the attention of government. The matter has been raised in Parliament on many occasions, and every time the can is kicked down the road.

Over the last twenty-five years, the gloomiest predictions of the Afrikaner have come to pass. There are quotas, affirmative action, cadre deployment, forced integration, the removal of Afrikaans from schools and colleges, spatial re-arrangement, and job reservation. None of this, they say, matter as much as the mismanagement, corruption, violence, crime, infrastructure collapse, economic decline, erosion of standards, international indifference and a consistent demonisation of the Afrikaner.

Viljoen is even gloomier about the future.

“Now, there is only race politics and oppression by the majority,” he says. “The situation is dire.”

The only way for the Afrikaner to survive, he believes, is through self-determination.

There is plenty of precedent for this.

Article 235 of the South African Constitution makes allowance for a community to apply for self-determination, as long as they have significant support for such a move, a cohesive national identity, and they must feel that their existence as a minority is under threat.

As far as the first is concerned, the Afrikaner Accord points to a census held in 1994 where 800 000 people voted for Afrikaner self-determination (twice the number required to fulfil this condition). They define their cohesive national identity as being a) of European heritage; with b) the common language of Afrikaans, c) a common religion based on Calvinism and d) a common culture and identity.

The contraventions that they believe apply to them are: land expropriation (where the Afrikaans farmer has particularly been singled out for punishment); the murder of farmers, the elimination of Afrikaans from schools and universities, and the taking over of Model C schools.

According to the Afrikaners represented at the conference, a unified South Africa – with redress and reparation – has been tried and failed.

“Up till now, R1.4 trillion has been spent on land reform since 1994,” said Smuts. “And the results have been disappointing. Land ownership is a fundamental pillar of self-determination, and the Afrikaner wants to be assured of their property rights. We are worried that this ‘expropriation without compensation’ is just an excuse to target the Boer, not a real attempt to redistribute land. That’s what happened in Zimbabwe. This is why we are so opposed to it.”

Some people view Boer self-determination as an attempt by the Afrikaner to secede. As they admit themselves, this is no longer viable.

“Afrikaners do not want to secede, but they do want internal self-determination,” says Jaap Kelder, Chair of the NBU. “A ‘Boer Republic’ is only viable in an area where the Afrikaner is in the majority. Afrikaners are now too widely dispersed.”

The proposed area within which a Volkstaat is seen as feasible.

So Boer self-determination now takes the form of ‘doing it for themselves.’ They want to be able to preserve their own history, create their own cultural institutions, build and maintain their own schools and colleges, create their own sports teams, run their own medical services and security firms, and look after the poor and vulnerable within their own ranks.

“But we don’t want to build our own universities and schools, and create our own groups, and then the government comes along and imposes quotas, or tells us we have to change the language policy,” says Smuts.

None of these goals are particularly unusual or outrageous. Many groups around the world have asked for minority protection in these terms. The Maori All Blacks is a rugby team made up entirely of ethnic Maoris. The San are currently applying to the United Nations to be recognised as a protected minority. The Zulu nation already has this status. South African Indians run private schools for Gujarat, Tamil, Hindu and Moslem children. Traditional healers, black professionals’ groups, Jewish organisations, religious clubs and ethnic sports teams – all of these survive peacefully without any interference from government.

“But the moment the Afrikaner builds or creates something for themselves it is called racist and exclusionary and the government feels compelled to intervene,” says Smuts.

Orania. A settlement of approximately 2 000 residents, created specifically for Afrikaners on private land. The community has a thriving economy, based on agriculture and tourism.

Now, with impending legislation such as the Expropriation Without Compensation Bill, it seems that the ANC government is trying to change the Constitution to take even more rights away from the Afrikaner.

In response, the various Afrikaner groupings are preparing to go to court to force the ANC government to implement the Accord. Buttressing their argument is a set of around 80 historical documents, treaties, court records and agreements. If their court bid fails, they intend to approach international courts.

“The Afrikaner feels like an outcast in their own country,” says Smuts. “We are constantly blamed for everything that the ANC government is doing wrong, and everything we stand for is constantly ridiculed and undermined. We don’t want to return to apartheid, we do not want to return to power. All we want, is to be left alone to practice our culture our own way.”

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