The Constitutional Court’s ruling that Afrikaans as a language of instruction has to be content with a marginal place at Stellenbosch University is the most serious assault of the past 25 years on Afrikaans as a public language and the continued existence of the shrinking Afrikaner ethnic group.

The challenge of ethnic survival confronts all small nations living in the proximity of nations that are politically, or economically or numerically much more powerful. Piet Cillié, editor from 1954 to 1978 of Die Burger frequently referred to the Afrikaners’ vulnerability. As an ethnic group it took such extremes to ensure its survival that Cillié in the mid-1960’s described it as the ‘polecat of the world’. It was a term that stuck in the political discourse.

Cillié was without doubt the most influential editor in the South African press during the second half of the twentieth century. In 1960 Peregrine Worsthorne, editor of the London Sunday Telegraph, wrote in his memoirs that no journalist of any nationality impressed him as much as Cillié. He was especially struck by Cillié’s argument that what was happening in South Africa should not be judged in moral terms but as a true tragedy –‘an irreconcilable struggle not between right and wrong, but between right and right.’ [i] In 1965 The Times of London included Die Burger in a series on the most outstanding newspapers of the world.

One of the main themes of Cillié’s writings is his attempt to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable goals: on the one hand there was the black demand for freedom and justice and on the other hand there was the Afrikaners’ quest for ethnic survival,

Cillié appealed to the Afrikaners to be true to their historical heritage as the first nation in Africa that had become involved in an anti-colonial struggle, The Boers took on the might of the British Empire in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. The valour of the Boer bittereinders in the last two years of the war was the crucial factor in prompting Britain to introduce self-government a mere five year later.

Small nations

In 2015 the Israeli scholar Uriel Abulov published a remarkable book with the title The Mortality and Morality of Nations (Cambridge University Press, 2015). It is a riveting comparative study of three ‘small nations’: Afrikaners, French Canadians and Jewish Israeli’s. All three are small nations that have long harboured existential fears about their very survival as a people.

The book’s epigraph is a passage out of Testaments Betrayed by Milan Kundera, a superb writer who was born and bred in the Czech nation. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Czech nation’s demands for freedom were constantly frustrated by stronger nations, most notably the Germans, Magyars and Russians, living in close proximity to them.

Kundera wrote:

‘Small nations. The concept is not quantitative; it points to a condition, a fate; small nations lack that felicitous sense of an eternal past and future; at a given moment in their history they all passed through the antechambers of death; in constant confrontation with the arrogant ignorance of the mighty they see their existence as perpetually threatened or with a question mark hovering over it; for their very existence is the question.’ [ii]

The Afrikaners passed through the ‘antechambers of death’ both in the Great Trek into the interior (1834-1844) and in the South African War (1899-1902) fought over the Transvaal gold mines against the might of the British Empire A tenth of the republican Afrikaners died as a result of the war and more than two-thirds of the stock on farms in the Boer republics was destroyed.

In May 1902 sixty delegates from the Boer bittereinders (commando’s prepared to fight to an unspecified ‘bitter end’) were addressed by one of them, Jan Christian Smuts, who would become Prime Minister seventeen years later. He urged them to accept the British demand for unconditional surrender and issued this warning: ‘We must not run the risk of sacrificing our nation and its future to a mere idea which can no longer be realized.’ [iii] For Smuts the obvious approach was for the Afrikaners to forge a coalition with like-minded English people to build a white supremacist state and strong economy. [iv]

But if independence was lost, on what other issue could the Afrikaners unite to cohere as a people? Only one of the delegates of the Bittereinders at the Vereeniging assembly of May 1902 suggested the retention of Dutch as an official language as the basis for future ethnic survival. He was Jozua Francois Naudé, a 29-year-old Transvaal teacher, later a co-founder of the Afrikaner Broederbond and father of the Rev. Beyers Naudé, who founded the Christian Institute that fought apartheid.

Naudé reminded delegates that the Bittereinders in the field insisted that in the peace treaty the rights of the Dutch language had to be guaranteed. Dutch was in Naudé’s view of great significance, forming ‘the channel through which the volk could again become volk.’ He refused to sign the peace treaty.

The interventions of Smuts and Naudé presaged the different responses of the Afrikaners to survive as a people in the twentieth century. On the one hand there was Smuts who sought allies to build a new South Africa and yet retain a private Afrikaner identity. On the other hand there was Naudé, who argued that without a language as the symbol of their ethnic identity the Afrikaners would disintegrate as a people.

Fears of vanishing

In numerical terms the Afrikaners remained a small nation. In 1936 their numbers stood at 1,121 200 and they formed just over half of the white population but only one tenth of the total population. By 1996 they made up just over 60 per cent of the white population but only six per cent of the total population. [v]

After the end of the Second World War pressure soon mounted for granting independence to the indigenous people in the European colonies in Asia and Africa. Some of Afrikaner intellectuals considered this prospect with foreboding. N.P. van Wyk Louw, the leading Afrikaans poet and essayist, made this ominous prediction: ‘If the Afrikaners were to lose power they would be as helpless as the Jews were in Germany.’ [vi]

In 1954, the same year that Piet Cillié became editor of Die Burger, Lewis Gann, arrived in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. He was born in a Jewish family in Germany who escaped to Britain in 1938. He studied at Oxford and went to Salisbury to take up the job of archivist in Salisbury where he worked for ten years. He would subsequently become a resident fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University where wrote several important books on African history and politics.

While Gann was working in Salisbury the prospects for a stable, multi-racial democracy was a live issue with a constitution being drawn up for the soon to be founded federation of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Malawi. With a view to that Gann published his seminal article ‘The liberal interpretation of South African history’ in 1959. It is not known whether Cillié ever read it, but if he did he probably would have warmly endorsed it.

Gann argued that liberals in Rhodesia and South Africa incorrectly take as their model nineteenth century Britain with its belief in the invisible hand making for the greatest good of the greatest number. In this interpretation the fact that the unskilled workers mostly belong to a different ethnic group is considered to be irrelevant. The different parties were all seen as seeking their political ambitions while eschewing violence to overthrow or disrupt the political order. Political and social emancipation was regarded as compatible with the maintenance of something like the existing class structure, as had happened in Britain in the nineteenth and early the early twentieth century.

But, as Gann pointed out, the analogy was all wrong. Britain was a wealthy country and a well-established homogeneous society without important ethnic or racial or religious divisions. Protest movements were not reinforced by national or cultural demands.

Gann concluded that the history of Britain was of no relevance to South Africa. In his view liberals in South Africa should rather interest themselves in the history of states with national minority problems, where class divisions coincide with ethnic divisions, as was the case in many states in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Here national minorities can expect rough treatment when they become subjected to a nationally distinct majority.

This would be especially true if the minorities appear to be possessed of more than their fair share of the economic wealth. Gann wrote: ‘They may even be liable to be liquidated altogether.’ [vii] The chaos surrounding the withdrawal of the Belgians from the Congo in 1960 seemed to confirm all the fears of privileged minorities in Africa and Asia.

A debate over survival

From the early days of the Union the issues of the survival of the Afrikaners and of Afrikaans as a public language was debated extensively in Afrikaner ranks. In 1948 A.I. Malan, a Nationalist MP and father of Magnus Malan, who would become head of the Defence Force, acutely articulated the survival fears of the Afrikaners as a small nation.

‘[The Afrikaner] belongs to a small nation ... If he should vanish from the [political] stage, who remains to perpetuate his way of life, his culture? ... Can it thus be wondered at that, for the Afrikaner, the matter of survival has become an irresistible life force, a veritable obsession.’ [viii]

When the National Party government began to cede power in 1992 the debate over Afrikaner survival suddenly became much more urgent. It soon become clear that the NP and the ANC held radically different views on issues such as affirmative action and control over public schools and universities except if these institutions dance to the ANC’s tune.

Until the early 1990s the chances of the Afrikaners yielding power looked slim, but the unexpected happened in 1992 when the NP and ANC government co-signed the Record of Understanding, which gave the momentum to the ANC. It spelled the end of the NP government and that of the NP itself within the next seven years.

During its first decade in power the ANC paid lip service to the liberal democratic sheen of the constitution and the Constitutional Court as an independent watchdog over both individual an communal liberties, By 2004, however, the masked had slipped and the Jacobin character of the ANC had begun to reveal itself. In 2004 James Myburgh, later editor of Politicsweb, made this very perceptive observation:  

 "The Constitutional Court has been filled with judges most of whom are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the objectives of the ruling party. The court for its part sees its role not as protecting political or racial minorities, but merely ensuring the government remains true to its compact with the black majority. (It will act to ensure that pregnant women receive Nevirapine, but is unlikely to ever intervene to protect members of the white minority from escalating racial discrimination.)" [ix]

With ‘Jacobin’ is meant a system in which the power elite insists that the interests ‘the people’ invariably prevails. A liberal democracy, by contrast tries to balance majority rule with minority rights.

 It was already clear in the judgment of the Constitutional Court of the language policy of the University of the Free State in 2018 that the court has little or no interest in the rights of a cultural minority. It scornful of the suggestion of a two stream policy in which students can choose to receive their instruction in either English or Afrikaans.

The majority of the CC judges were not even interested in the suggestion of Judge Johannes Froneman that the case be referred back to the Supreme Court in order to make a proper investigation of the university’s claims about the negative nature of parallel medium instruction. The majority’s attitude was clearly one of: ‘Don’t confuse us with the facts.’

After the judgement in the UFS case that made instruction in English medium alone compulsory ex-President FW de Klerk said it appeared that there was a ‘deliberate erosion’ of the rights and freedoms of minorities.

The ANC, De Klerk, continued, ‘is in the process of restricting our property, our companies, our employment prospects and our cultural heritage to the shrinking percentage of the population we represent.’ He concluded: ‘I have come to the conclusion that the future of our people and all minorities once again is in our hands - as it has been many times in our stormy past.’ [x]

The Constitutional Court’s judgement in the recent Stellenbosch University case, brought by the movement Gelyke Kanse was as shocking in the way it dealt with the cultural issue. Gelyke Kanse argued that the introduction of a system of parallel medium instruction on undergraduate level offered a way of resolving the case equitably.

The SU opposed it, claiming that it would be prohibitively expensive. To substantiate this claim its lawyers submitted an unsigned document of two pages to the court that greatly exaggerated the number of modules for which interpreters had to be provided. This document calculated that the costs of parallel medium would necessitate an increase of a hefty 20% in student fees.

An ex-Vice-Chancellor of SU briefed by Gelyke Kanse rejected the calculation. He estimated that an Afrikaans stream would require an increase of approximately 4% in student fees. The judgement written by Edwin Cameron blandly accepted the former estimate and exploited it to dismiss the Gelyke Kanse case. On cultural and other minority issues the Constitutional Court can be written off. Its recent judgements display nothing more than bluster and posturing.

Jan Heunis, SC, the advocate of Gelyke Kanse and earlier a member of the SU Council, often pointed out that the university administrators have never shown any interest in expanding parallel medium or even investigating it as an option. It has never been debated properly in Council. Yet it works very well at highly regarded universities in Ottawa and Freiburg.

The impression the saga gives is that of a university that is prepared to sacrifice Afrikaans as medium of higher learning in order to win the favour of government and improve its ranking in the academic world whose scientific value many experts question.  

The group that is suffering most from the declining Afrikaans offer at SU is the Afrikaans-speaking coloured community. Since 1970 the proportion of students from this community that received a Bachelor’s degree has dropped from 10 per cent in 1970 to 6 per cent. It is the lowest figure for all communities. Between 2004 and 2017 their numbers on undergraduate level at SU remained stagnant at approximately 1400 in the total of 13 455 undergraduate a while those of white English-speakers increased from 2384 to 5458 in the same period. (Between 2004 and 2017 the total numbers of undergraduates increased from 13 455 to 19 840)

The white English numbers in 2017 were double that of blacks. (The university claims it is to accommodate the latter group that it decided 2017 to give all its lectures in English and the CC obviously thinks that this fact trumps all other facts.)

White Afrikaans-speakers have betrayed coloured Afrikaans speakers on three occasions. During the 1950s they took away their vote. During the late 1960s they forcibly removed 3 000 coloured people from a ward in the centre of Stellenbosch called Die Vlakte. Now SU denies the opportunity to brown Afrikaans-speakers to receive their university education in their mother tongue, simply ignoring the decline in this field since 1970, when the University of Western Cape, founded for coloured Afrikaans-speakers, was forced to become English-medium. Stellenbosch has chosen to take in large numbers of white English speakers, the wealthiest community in the country, and shuts its eyes at the plight of the Afrikaans-speaking coloured community. So does the once-respected CC.

At present Afrikaans as medium of instruction on university level survives only on the Potchefstroom campus of Northwest University and in a few courses at SU. These courses are sure to diminish rapidly. Following the Afrikaans-medium universities will be the secondary schools. Many will argue that it does not make sense to teach people in the medium of Afrikaans if no effective Afrikaans-medium universities exist.

A shift away from the state

The Solidariteit Movement under the dynamic leadership of Flip Buys stepped in the breech created by the demise of National Party and other Afrikaner organisations. Afrikaans in tertiary institutions of learning. Over the past twenty years the trade union wing of the movement has protected members against unfair dismissals or blocked promotion, Afriforum, a civil society organisation promotes the interest of Afrikaans-speakers in the public sphere, the FAK focuses on the Afrikaans culture, Sakeliga looks after the interests of business men and farmers, and Helpende Hand provides charity to the poor. In total the Solidariteit Movement has more than 500 000 paid-up members.

At university level it has introduced distance learning by way of modern technology. For this purpose it has founded Akademia, an Afrikaans medium tertiary institution based on the Christian faith and community values. It has so far established thirteen study centers across the country (and one in Windhoek), each of which is equipped with modern conference technology.  Each center offers free internet access to an online support system and library. At present Akademia offers four B.Com degrees and a B. Social Sciences degree (Politics, Philosophy and Economics).

Buys has just published the book Die Pad na Selfbesikking: Anderkant die mislukking van staatsbestuur (Kraal Uitgewers). The title can loosely be translated as ‘The Road to Self-determination: Beyond the Failure of State-directed Management’. It brings an urgent message to specifically the Afrikaners that assaults on Afrikaans and whites in general will not abate. He urges minorities to organise to organise and reposition themselves to be better prepared for facing an uncertain future.

During the 1930s the winged words ‘A people saves itself’ were used to inspire Afrikaners to launch projects to alleviate the wide-spread Afrikaner poverty and to establish Afrikaner businesses. Seventy years later, Buys says: ‘Live where you can govern yourself.’

Buys writes in his book that the majority would always be tempted to blame a well-performing minority. He warns that no constitution, political system, court or even military force would be able to permanently protect a powerless minority against a majority group targeting it. The inescapable consequence is that the well- trained section of the minority would soon emigrate to safer pastures.

Is there any alternative?

According to Buys, the most important stumbling block in the Afrikaner’s struggle to survive is not their small numbers but the fact that there is no region where Afrikaners make up the majority. To organise them effectively is the only solution.

Afrikaner self-management is rendered essential by the decay of numerous rural towns and inner cities. Because of mismanagement and corruption, people find it difficult to live there in safety. With a government that is denying the rights of minorities in numerous fields, Buys is pleading for communities, specifically the Afrikaners, to organise themselves so as to protect their own interests and ensure their future as a community.

It is a clarion call that no one dares to ignore.

Hermann Giliomee’s latest book The Rise and Demise of the Afrikaners (Tafelberg) appeared earlier this year.


[i]  Jaap Steyn, Penvegter: Piet Cillié van Die Burger (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2002), p.211.

[ii] Uriel Abulov , The Mortality and Morality of Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, p.vii.

[iii]  Leaders like Smuts and Gen. JBM Hertzog did not always use the term ‘volk’ in an ethnic or nationalist sense. In this particular case Smuts appeared to be using it in an ethnic sense, referring to white Afrikaans-speakers.

[iv]  I discuss the debate in my The Afrikaners Biography of a People (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2003), pp. 259-63.

[v]  Jan Sadie, The Fall and Rise of the Afrikaners in the South African economy (Stellenbosch University, 2002/1, pp. 30-31.

[vi]  N.P. van Wyk ouw, Versamelde Prosa,(Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1986), vol.1, p.505.

[vii]  Lewis Gann, ‘Liberal interpretations of South African history, Rhodes-Livingstone Journal, 1959, p.51.

[viii]  René de Villiers, ‘Political Parties and Trends’, G.H. Calpin (ed.), The South African Way of Life (Melbourne: William Heineman, 1953), p. 137

[ix] /politics/the-ancs-jacobin-conception-of-democracy

[x]  F.W. de Klerk,‘Hof versaak minderheid’ Rapport Weekliks, 21 January 2018.