South Africa: Is the Sun Setting on Afrikaners?

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The recent death of Magnus Malan, the feared former general and defense minister of South Africa, might have ended an era in a country once defined by strict racial separation.

Malan, who ferociously fought to maintain racial apartheid until the very end, was removed from his post by then-President F.W. de Klerk in the early 1990s under pressure from recently freed political prisoner Nelson Mandela.

Malan was part of the White Afrikaner community, the people most associated with establishing and rigidly maintaining the apartheid system for many decades.

The Afrikaners are the descendants of mostly Dutch (as well as German and French Huguenots) who arrived in South Africa in the middle of the seventeenth century (English speakers from Britain came in the following century).

Indeed, the Afrikaners have lived in South Africa so long that they regard themselves as “Africans” or “the white tribe of Africa.”

However, today, Afrikaners find themselves in a brand new, and perhaps for them, perilous, South Africa.

For one thing, their numbers are shrinking.

According to data from Statistics South Africa, as of June 2010, almost 80 percent of the country’s 50-million-strong population were black Africans; with a little more than 9 percent forming the white population.

The so-called “Coloured” population is now almost equal to that of whites.

Professor A.M. Grundlingh of the History Department at Stellenbosch University and an expert on Afrikaner culture, told International Business Times that Afrikaners currently constitute about 6 percent of the total population.

“The percentage [has] dropped substantially as a result of the exponential birth rate of black people and the relaxed immigrant controls as far as the rest of Africa is concerned,” he said.

Another factor in the declining population of Afrikaners in South Africa is the fact that about 1-million of them have emigrated overseas since the end of apartheid, primarily to Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The birth rate among Afrikaners is believed to be among the lowest in the country, raising more fears about the community’s future.

This has also translated into reduced political influence.

In fact, there is now only a handful Afrikaners in South Africa’s national parliament, according to Grundlingh.

Moreover, according to various reports, Afrikaner youth (who have virtually no memory of apartheid) are struggling to find their place in a post-racial South Africa, and are gradually losing interest in their own unique culture.

Afrikaners once dominated the key government positions and the Afrikaans tongue was the official state language. Now, 17 years after apartheid was abolished, many young Afrikaners complain that they are now being persecuted for the crimes of their fathers and ancestors.

For example, under the Black Economic Empowerment policy (which is somewhat similar to Affirmative Action in the U.S.), Afrikaners, other whites, as well as some Asians and "Coloureds" claim they are being discriminated with respect to hiring practices.

There are also widespread accusations of corruption among the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party -- and these complaints comes from across the racial spectrum of South Africa, including the blacks who are purported to be the principal beneficiaries of ANC rule).

Not surprisingly, said Grundlingh, the ANC receives minuscule support from Afrikaners; rather, they overwhelmingly favor the Democratic Alliance (DA) party, which governs the Western Cape province.

Ironically, the DA traces its roots to the anti-apartheid Progressive Party which included among its members such activists like Helen Suzman.

Regarding the current socioeconomic state of Afrikaners, Grundlingh said: “The lower classes [of Afrikaners] have suffered more than the middle classes [who have] certain skills. [However], Afrikaner businessmen have profited with the opening of markets after apartheid and increased globalization.”

Grundlingh also indicates that the use of the Afrikaans language is under threat in such venues as universities, law courts and business etc.

“But at a popular level, that is, arts festivals, music, literature and the like, the language has been thriving,” he added.

One of the bittersweet ironies of Afrikaner culture and history is that -- despite being intimately associated with the philosophy of white supremacy and white ‘purity’ -- they are themselves of mixed race.

This has to do with the fact that when the original Dutch settlers arrived in South Africa almost four-hundred years ago, they brought almost no women. Consequently, they had to marry and mate with local women, or with Malays and East Indians.

Thus, some the oldest and most revered Afrikaner families, including the Krugers, Van Riebeecks, Bruyns, Van Rensburgs, and Zaimans are likely the descendants of mixed-race couples.

Grundlingh said according to estimates, about 6 percent of so-called “white” Afrikaners are actually of mixed blood.

Allegedly, one of the greatest of Afrikaner heroes, Andries Pretorius, the leader of the Great Voortrek, was himself descended from East Indian slave women on both his maternal and paternal sides.

This also helps to explains why many of the current “Coloured” of South Africa speak Afrikaans as their first language.

One of the most notorious Afrikaner figures of recent times was Eugene Terreblanche, who led a violent, Nazi-like movement that demanded a separate white homeland.

In April of last year, he was murdered by two black laborers, allegedly over a pay dispute, However, Grundlingh points out that outrageous characters like Terreblanche never had any kind of significant support among the Afrikaner population. Even before Terreblanche's death, he said, the white separatist movement “was almost moribund.”

In any case, contemporary Afrikaners face a challenging future in the country they once ruled for centuries.

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