Wednesday, February 25, 2004

I like Abiola Lapite, he's polemical, erudite and not afraid of being controversial. And he has the inestimable habit of backing up his most contentious claims with historical evidence. So I've been following his recent series of posts (see here and here) about the early history of Afrikaners in South Africa with interest. He argues that:

'To talk about the history of South Africa as if it were merely a matter of separate peoples with different customs fighting over land, rather than the constant struggle by one group of white immigrants, little separated in civilizational terms from the blacks they sought to exploit, to use state power to further their own particular ethnic interests, is to perpetuate a travesty of the historical record. Apartheid wasn't about superior "whites" seeking to protect Western civilization in the face of an onslaught of hordes of dark-skinned savages, but about Afrikaners without the skills and resources to flourish in the marketplace using the fact that they could vote, and blacks couldn't, to lever themselves into higher positions than they would have obtained on merit alone.'

As I said, controversial. I don't want to add too much (go and read the posts and make up your own minds) but I would suggest that he overstates the degree to which Afrikaner nationalism emerged in reaction to the economic threat posed by blacks. I would argue that the cornerstone of the political movement which brought Afrikaners to power was dislike of British imperialism. The 1948 election may well have been won over fears about the 'swart gevaar' (black danger) but the fact that Afrikaners where in a position to contest the 1948 election at all was a result of earlier efforts to build up a sense of purpose and unity amongst themselves. And what better way to do that than to latch onto a commonly felt grievance. For all its banality, there is much truth in the assertion that nationalisms usually define themselves in opposition to something. Having said that, although it's clear that antipathy towards British Imperialism provided the means by which Afrikaners where able to organise themselves politically, it is not so clear what they intended that force to be used for. As a means of overcoming the threat posed by cheap black labour possibly?

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