Rise of Nationalism in South Africa

First stirrings of African nationalism

The Act of Union, and particularly the entrenchment of the Boer republics' voting arrangements, felt like a powerful slap in the face for very many Africans. Most Africans had supported the British during the Anglo-Boer War and had assumed that their loyalty would be recognized in the post-war settlement. Though Africans in the Cape had their voting rights entrenched in the Constitution they feared that the Cape government's willingness (with British backing) to placate the two northern former republics was a very bad omen. This proved all too correct; in 1935 they had their voting rights removed by an Act that amended the Constitution.

In the early 20th century African political opposition to racist policies tended to be exceptionally moderate. During the 19th century there had been small but steady growth of the African educated middle class. They were mostly educated in mission schools, were committed Christians and employed as teachers or government clerks. They tended to look to London for support and were especially concerned about preserving their voting rights. Not surprisingly, these early African political leaders were dismayed by the proposals for Union and sent a delegation to London to try to urge the British House of Commons to amend the Act. Despite receiving some support from Labour politicians they failed in this venture. In 1912 a group of African leaders called for a national convention for all African political groups in the country. This gathering in Bloemfontein marked the formation of a more organized phase in African opposition to racist legislation and lead to the South African Native National Congress, later renamed the African National Congress.

Despite the formation of a national opposition organization, African protest still tended to be extremely moderate. Many African leaders placed a special emphasis on education as a means to achieving political recognition. Many still believed in the old Cape liberal ideology of 'equal rights for all civilized men' and went to great lengths to prove just how civilized they were. London remained the mecca for these early leaders and the most common form of protest was appeals to the Imperial authorities.

Over the next few decades, however, there were also a number of shorter lived, more radical, opposition movements. The most successful of these was the Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU) established by the very colourful figure, Clements Kadalie. The ICU spread rapidly through South Africa in the 1920s and was especially successful amongst farm workers. It demanded fairer wages for African workers and full political rights for all. The organization of the ICU left much to be desired, however, and just as quickly as it grew it subsided.

After the First World War a few white communists also made attempts to forge links between the White Union movements and African workers. Though there were many influential Africans who came up through these Communist Party links the movement was never able to reach out to a wide range of Africans, especially Africans in the rural areas. The Party also suffered from numerous internal splits, often caused by contradictory statements coming from the international Communist leadership and from continual harassment from the police. White Unionists also resisted the attempts to form a non-racial movement and in 1922 the South African Labour Party, which represented the interests of white working-class voters, entered into an election pact with the Afrikaner nationalists in the National Party.

While the 1920s had seen a great deal of protest from African peoples, especially from the ICU, the 1930s were a period of relative quiet. The international depression also affected the South African economy and many Africans found themselves unemployed or on low wages. To make matters worse the early years of the decade also saw one of the worst ever droughts, ruining the residual African farming economy in the reserves. Under these circumstances political protest seemed to be secondary to the tough job of simply surviving. During the Second World War, however, there was an upswing of African protest culminating in a series of protest movements amongst squatters outside Johannesburg and a massive African mineworkers strike. After the war African protest entered a more radical phase as younger leaders came to the forefront.

Rise of Afrikaner nationalism

It is a common misconception that Afrikaner nationalist sentiments existed right from the arrival of Van Riebeeck and that the 'Afrikaner spirit' somehow grew out of the harsh conditions of the frontier. This is a misconception that has often been fuelled by Afrikaner nationalists' versions of history. The reality is very different and, whilst Afrikaners have used the imagery of the Great Trek to help create a sense of nationalism, it was by no means an event in which all Afrikaners took part.

Class divisions were strong among both the descendants of the original settlers who remained in the Cape and those who migrated to the north. The established richer Western Cape farmers looked down both on the people who migrated to the new Republics and their poorer neighbours. Because of these deep-rooted divisions it is not really correct to talk about Afrikaners as a single category prior to the 20th century, when there were potent political forces that led to increased collective nationalism. It is, therefore, somewhat of an anachronism to talk about Afrikaners, which simply means African in Dutch, prior to the 20th century. In the Western Cape it is possible to see an earlier sense of Afrikaner nationalism, but this might more accurately be called a Dutch settler identity, whilst in the two Republics the sense of nationalism was firmly tied up with an extremely local (agricultural) identity, hence the use of the term Boer, which simply means farmer in Dutch.

In the 19th century the Afrikaans language, later to become a potent symbol of Afrikaner nationalism, was regarded by the more elite settlers as a bit of an embarrassment. Because the language had developed out of a mixture of Dutch and the various languages spoken by the Khoi and slaves, it was regarded as a rather low form of dialect and its association with coloured servants was apparently the common description of a language known as kitchen Dutch. There had been one attempt to raise the profile of Afrikaans in the 1870s but it had not spread much beyond the movement's base in Paarl. During the negotiations over Union, Boer leaders were not arguing for Afrikaans to be a dual official language, they were arguing for Dutch. At the very time these negotiations were taking place, however, there was a second attempt to gain respectability for the Afrikaans language. The political climate was much more conducive to the movement and it quickly spread throughout the Cape and the two former Boer Republics.

The ravages of the war and the development of mechanized agriculture meant that many poorer Afrikaner tenant farmers were being forced off the land in the early decades of this century. They migrated to the new towns in search of work, but had few skills to offer and often ended up poor and unemployed. Their plight, often labelled 'the poor white problem', was a continual worry for Afrikaner politicians. They were especially fearful that their marginal position in the new towns was pushing them into closer contact with the growing band of African urban poor. The 'poor white problem' was a key motivation behind the deepening of segregationist policies in the urban areas, designed to keep black and white apart. During the first half of the century the nitty-gritty of segregation tended to be largely left up to local authorities to implement, with central government simply providing the legislative framework for local regulations. Nevertheless, in almost every town residential segregation and pass laws strictly regulated the daily lives of Africans.

The 'poor white problem' was also an important force behind the development of Afrikaner nationalism. As poorer Afrikaners moved to the towns they became immersed in a very different working-class culture to the one they had experienced in the countryside.

The Afrikaner leaders realized that if these new urban residents became part of this new urban culture they may well lose much of their separate Afrikaner identity and the Afrikaner politicians would find their support base undermined. They therefore decided that they needed to create a stronger sense of Afrikaner nationalism that would incorporate all Afrikaners, rich and poor. Historical events, such as the Great Trek, were deliberately resurrected and celebrated, the Afrikaans language was encouraged and, crucially, the Afrikaner leaders developed exclusively Afrikaner economic institutions that deliberately helped Afrikaner small businesses.

Afrikaner politics

Despite the deliberate fostering of Afrikaner nationalism the Afrikaner leadership was constantly fighting amongst itself and political parties frequently split and reformed. One of the key issues of disagreement was over the relationship between the new Union and the British Empire. After Union the British asked an ex-Boer General, Louis Botha to form the first government. He, and his close ally and successor General Jan Smuts, both strongly believed that the Afrikaners should strive to have good relations with the Imperial government and unite English and Dutch/Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans. Their South Africa Party, built on a coalition between the Transvaal and Cape ruling parties easily won the first election, but another important ex-Boer General, Hertzog, felt that they were too keen on maintaining good relations with the British government and formed a rival National Party. At first the National Party only had support in Hertzog's home province, the Orange Free State, but later he was joined by DF Malan, an ardent anti-British Afrikaner from the Cape province.

The First World War caused a further and more vicious split in Afrikaner ranks. A number of important generals resisted Botha's strong support for Britain in the war and his commitment to send South African troops to Europe. Their attempted coup failed and Botha quickly put the rebellion down, but the issue resurfaced again and again over the next few decades. A strike by white miners in 1922, which grew into a mini revolt as workers seized power in Johannesburg, was dealt with in a similar fashion by Botha's successor, Smuts. This time, however, white workers were able to gain a measure of revenge: in 1924 their support was crucial in electing a coalition Labour/Nationalist government.

Under Hertzog, Afrikaner nationalist sentiment was given an important boost by the replacement of Dutch by Afrikaans as one of the two official languages. In 1934 there even seemed a chance of forging a united Afrikaner leadership when Hertzog and Smuts joined together under a new United Party banner during the crisis caused by the great depression. This, however, was not to be, as Malan led a breakaway group to form a new 'Purified' National Party. The decision whether or not to join the Second World War caused a further split and Hertzog resigned as Prime Minister to join Malan in opposition, in so doing creating yet another version of the National Party - this time the Herenigde (Reunited) National Party. Smuts, the ardent supporter of close ties with Britain, became the new Prime Minister and took South Africa into the war. He won an election in 1943 on the back of a wave of pro-British feeling and his international reputation grew and grew.

After the war, however, he found his popularity at home waning. The economic boom caused by the war had lead to massive African urban migration and the National Party was able to use this to stir up fear amongst white, especially Afrikaner, voters. In 1948 they voted in Malan's Nationalists on an election platform promising a new ideology of Apartheid.
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