An Overview of the Afrikaner peoples

The Afrikaners, although sometimes referred to as the Burghers or Boers to a lesser extent are a distinct group of people originating from Western Europe who migrated to South Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, primarily from the Netherlands, Germany and the Huguenot community of France. Their way of life is best remembered for their religion, agriculture and war.

Religion was a very important aspect to the Afrikaners way of life from the 1790s. Although initially the earlier colonists did not seem to be particularly affiliated with the Dutch Reformed church, (based on the Protestant teachings of John Calvin), after this date however Religion began to define these peoples. As a whole, the Afrikaner population defined themselves as ‘Christians’ and this identification can be looked upon as a way to distinguish themselves from peoples who are different to them, in this case Africans. The Afrikaners used Christianity in order to identify themselves as civilised peoples, particularly in the eighteenth century. In this case, Religion for the Afrikaners was important as it justified the beginnings of European domination in South Africa.

In popular history, the Afrikaners were remembered as group that were dependent on farming and migration as a way of life and as such they were known as ‘Boers’, the Dutch and Afrikaans word for ‘farmers’. This way of life was particularly highlighted in the late seventeenth century and the Great Trek of 1835, when the Boers migrated from Cape Colony to found two new states: the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. However in spite of the Afrikaner population being a minority ethnic group they enjoyed many privileges in comparison to the black majority. What was particularly evident in the sixteenth century was the amount of white Afrikaners who owned slaves. In 1750 half of the male Afrikaner population owned slaves on the Western Cape and even the white Afrikaners who could not afford slaves had a better life than slaves as they were higher than them in terms of social status.

Opportunities for the Afrikaners increased when the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, Afrikaners held prominent roles in government. For instance South Africa’s first prime minister was Louis Botha, in spite of the Afrikaner population being a minority ethnic group in South Africa they had much power and influence that lasted until the collapse of the Apartheid regime. This was evident when the National Party (a party that emphasised Afrikaner nationalism) who won the general election in 1948, enforced segregation as one of their policies in order to maintain the white minorities political and economic power over the black majority in South Africa.

Moreover, the Afrikaners are remembered for their frosty relations with the British and the Zulus. Warfare was another major component within the Afrikaners lives. Firstly, when the Voortrekkers (mainly the Boers) migrated inland in 1837, encountered the Zulus at Natal. In spite of a land treaty being agreed in 1838 by the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief and the King of the Zulus Dingane, it was Dingane that broke the treaty and killed Retief. When the new leader of the Voortrekkers, Andries Pretorius assumed authority he wanted to take back the lands Dingane denied them. Upon hearing this, Dingane assembled his Zulu troops (approximately 21,000) to fight the Voortrekkers at Ncome River, which became known as the Battle of Blood River, due to the amount of high Zulu casualties.

The Battle of Blood River was not the only battle that the Afrikaners faced and they were not limited to being in conflict with the native population. They too were at odds with the British who also were stationed at the Cape before the Afrikaners migrated northwards. Tensions between the Afrikaners and the British occurred from very early on, particularly when British nationalism became dominant worldwide. After acquiring a vast empire the British believed their way of running affairs was best, this displeased and angered many of the Afrikaner peoples. An example of this would be the Dutch East India Company as the British deemed this company as unfit for governing the Cape. As the years went on the Anglo-Boer wars occurred as a result of the British wanting to expand their sphere of influence in the Transvaal region, a major reason for the outbreak of war between the Boers and the British. Although it was the Second Boer War that can really be argued as being a way of life for those Afrikaners who were captured as many members of their society, particularly at the later stages of the war included women and children. Their way of life was remembered for being one of the first documented victims being subjected to living in concentration camps in modern history. Furthermore, the men who fought are often remembered for their guerrilla warfare tactics, roaming around the land and ambushing the British unexpectedly from 1900-1902.

In spite of the Afrikaners experiencing very little warfare in comparison to other ethnic groups it is clear however that conflict was a way of life when it occurred, although more so when a variety of Afrikaner peoples were affected by it in the Second Boer war.

Further reading

Giliomee, H., ‘The Afrikaners: Biography Of A People’ (London, 2003).


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