More than 20 years have passed since Nelson Mandela was released from prison, yet many – if not most – South Africans still labour under the falsehood that apartheid was a kind of Frankenstein creation spawned by Puritanical Afrikanerdom.
It was anything but. Scholarship on the origins and ideological praxis of apartheid has tended to focus on the political rise of the National Party in the years leading up to 1948 as a kind of spontaneous flowering of racial hatred directed at black South Africans. Unless we search for the truth behind this terrible chapter in South Africa’s history, schools will continue to spout half-baked slogans as a substitute for actual history. That would be a pity.
One need only read pre-apartheid South African history to know that racial harmony was fairly common in many parts of the country where government influence was weak. Lawrence van der Post in Lost Sands of the Kalahari writes that he never witnessed apartheid in practice until he visited Natal as a young man in the early 1900s. Throughout much of the 1800s, commerce, trade and even inter-marriage between black and white was fairly common in areas such as the Eastern Cape.
Yet it remains true that most groups do practice some form of discrimination, however benign, in favour of their own. Muslims and Jews prefer to marry within the faith, though even here the tendency is towards assimilation.
Apartheid, however, was something entirely different. It was an effort to define a person’s identity in terms of racial science – hence, the ridiculous “pencil test” in the hair to determine whether a South African was black or white.
The story of apartheid is one of racial science. Most South Africans have heard of Hendrik Verwoerd, who is generally credited as the architect of apartheid. He left for Germany in 1926 to study at the universities of Hamburg, Berlin and Leipzig, around the time that Nazi ideology had congealed around the failed artist, Adolf Hitler. Verwoerd was swept up by the radicalism of the Nazis though – and there is some dispute about this – he distanced himself from the Nazi obsession with racial genetics. He saw no real biological differences between the races, believing environmental factors were behind the “development of a higher civilisation by the Caucasian race,” as historian Herman Giliomee points out in his recently published book The Last Afrikaner Leaders.
Though born in the Netherlands, Verwoerd was an Afrikaner nationalist, obsessed with solving the problem of the “poor white,” which was a legacy of the Great Depression and the ingress of cheaper, black labour to the mines. He resolved to leave his mark upon this world with his grand scheme of racial separation as a kind of grotesque monument to the Old Testament. Giliomee believes Verwoerd was singled out for demonisation by the ANC, but was quite favourably received elsewhere. “A week before his death Time magazine described him as ‘one of the ablest white leaders’ Africa has ever seen. The Financial Mail published a special edition, entitled ‘The Fabulous Years’ on the period 1961 to 1967, when South Africa grew by 30 per cent in real terms,” writes Giliomee. “There are many misconceptions about Verwoerd. It was not his stance on apartheid that won him staunch support among Afrikaners but his unexpected success in winning a republic. In private he was remarkably flexible about apartheid.”
Giliomee does not dwell much on the cult of racial science, perhaps assuming that its role in shaping Afrikaner politics in the last century is over-stated or now irrelevant.