In the 1870s a series of farming associations emerged in the Cape, both in the west and in the east. While both English and Afrikaner associations emerged, the Afrikaner organisations did not form relationships with their English counterparts.
The Boeren vereenigingen (Afrikaner farming associations) were one of the first expressions of Afrikaner political awakening and Afrikaner nationalism, although they began simply as bodies to represent the economic interests of farmers.
The associations emerged in two forms: independent associations in the eastern Cape and midlands, and in the west a set of organisations that united to form the Zuid Afrikaansche Boeren Beschermings Vereeniging (BBV) under the leadership of Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr. Most of the boeren vereenigingen eventually amalgamated with the Afrikaner Bond in 1883.
The movement began to become active on cultural issues soon after it emerged, making demands for the rights of Dutch speakers.
The Zuid Afrikaansche Boeren Beschermings Vereeniging (BBV)
Hofmeyr capitalised on the spontaneous awakening of Afrikaner farmers to the need for representation at a political level, especially after the Cape government of Gordon Sprigg imposed an excise duty on Cape producers of brandy to raise money for the construction of railways and to fund the Gaika-Gcaleka war.
The Excise Bill, which became law in 1878, hit the wine farmers hard at a time when the industry was struggling to come to terms with economic changes. The Bill was pushed through with ‘indecent haste’ after a request that it be referred to a select committee was turned down.
The Bill was preceded by the formation of the Wijnbouwers Vereeniging in October 1877. Farmers held public meetings in Paarl, Stellenbosch, Montagu, Cape Town, Wellington and Worcester to oppose the bill.
Hofmeyr exploited the agitation by proposing the formation of an organisation to oppose the Bill as well as to represent farmers in Parliament. He rejected calls for farmers to stop producing wines and brandy, preferring to go the political route rather than the way of economic boycott.
After talks with leaders of the Wijnbouwers Vereeniging, Hofmeyr and Cape Town attorney HP du Preez were tasked with drawing up a rules for the organisation . Farmers met on August 12 1878 at the Stellenbosch town hall and accepted the draft regulations. Hofmeyr referred to the association as the Boeren Beschermings Vereeniging, and the name became accepted.
Provisional committees were appointed for the Paarl and Stellenbosch districts and other districts soon followed, with a formal act of association being agreed at a meeting in Cape Town on October 31 1878.
The constitution adopted at this meeting sought to protect colonial farmers of all kinds, to secure the election to Parliament of candidates who would represent their interests, work towards the repeal of the Excise Bill, secure labour for farmers through legislation dealing with masters and servants, and attempt to secure state funds to subsidise farmers.
Procedures for the formation of branches was standardised even before the official launch of the organisation, and branches were established in Paarl, Worcester and Stellenbosch (September), and Tulbach (October). Branches were later formed in Prince Albert, Riversdale, Heidelberg, Swellendam, and Malmesbury. Montagu and Caledon formed branches, but they never took off the ground.
The BBV enjoyed remarkable success in Upper and Lower House elections, getting candidates it approved into office.
At the first annual meeting in 1879, the members discussed the brandy excise and its effects, but little of any other issue, and the branches appear not to have been particularly active, and the report of the hoofdbestuur (leaders) lamented ‘the increasingly obvious lack of tangible interest in the Vereeniging’, evident in the fact that none of the branches had paid their subscription fees.
But in 1881 the BBV underwent a change, due mainly to the Transvaal war of independence and the emergence of the radical Afrikaner Bond.
Hofmeyr went on a branch-forming tour and more than doubled the number of branches by late 1882.
Boerenvereenigingen in the eastern Cape
Various boerenvereenigingen (famrers associations) established themselves in the eastern Cape, the earliest in Graaff-Reinet.
The Albert Boerenvereeniging was formed in mid-1879, and proved to be a particularly important branch. The farmers of Albert had become politically conscious before the formation of the Boerenvereeniging, and had called for Dutch to be recognised as an official language in Parliament as early as the 1850s.
The town’s Chamber of Commerce and the Association for General Purposes, both founded in January 1877, were active in campaigns for the elections of 1878-9.
The Albert Boeren Beschermings Vereenigingen held its first meeting on 26 May 1879. The new Member of Parliament, George Sichel, was presented with 19 points presenting the interests of the farmers.
Before it held its second meeting on July 2, 1879, the body’s chairman, DP (Oom Daantje) van den Heever, had read an appeal made by SJ du Toit to form an Afrikaner Bond. At the second meeting, held at Vinkefontein, Van den Heever presented five objectives for the Albert branch to work towards: the right to speak Dutch in Parliament; the redemption of colonial debt; the raising of the franchise; the punishment of corrupt practices in elections; and the formation of a society for the protection of the Afrikaner, an Afrikaner Bond.
The Albert Member of Parliament, Andries Stockenstrom, resigned in September, and the branch chose Jotham Joubert to replace him.
After the Albert Vereeniging voiced support for Dominee WP de Villiers’ efforts to get Dutch recognised in Parliament, SJ du Toit and Hofmeyr lauded the branch. Hofmeyr saw the development as ‘one more proof that a feeling of nationality really is beginning to sprout among our Afrikaners… Such associations as that in Albert will be able to accomplish an incalculable amount towards the joining together of the East and West and towards a nurturing of a true Afrikaner spirit.’
Hofmeyr was concerned to forge unity between east and west and denied allegations that the west wanted to swallow the east. He called on the eastern vereenigingen to organise themselves under an overarching body, as the western associations had done, and for the appointment of leaders (hoofdbestuur) of each district who could meet regularly and organise parliamentary elections.
The Albert branch held a meeting on March 19 to which eastern delegates were invited. They expressed support for Hofmeyr’s leadership, and Hofmeyr said: ‘The organisation started in Albert needs to be spread to all eastern districts where there are Dutch Afrikaners, to make them realise what great political power they possess if only they will learn to use it.’
It was Oom Daantje van den Heever who took the unity initiative further. In December 1880 he travelled to the west, to Cape Town, on the way setting up a branch at Beaufort West. He met with parliamentarians, business people and the Prime Minister. He appeared on a platform with SJ du Toit to discuss the Transvaal crisis after the Transvaal Boers had gone to war against the British Empire in 1880. He also met with the leaders of the western branches, and with the Governor of the Cape (on February 16) before returning home. Van den Heever thus forged the basis of unity between east and west, and with the Afrikaner Bond.
As the movement grew, the Middelburg Vereeniging held a meeting to discuss political developments, and expressed support for the recognition of Dutch in Parliament. Janse van Rensburg made a fiery speech against the British Empire and in support of the Transvaal Afrikaners.
After more vereenigingen were established in Maraisburg, Cradock, Petrusville, Colesberg, Murraysburg, Wodehouse, Aliwal North, Steynsburg and Somerset East, by the end of 1881 the associations had a presence throughout the Cape and beyond.
The boeren vereenigingen began as more or less simple farmers’ associations, but they soon formed a network across the country that discovered a political mission: the mobilisation of Afrikaner power.
They constituted a political campaign for the recognition of Dutch languages (including Afrikaans) and took on issues of cultural and political significance for Afrikaners. Hofmeyr, who was recognised as a leader of the movement, encouraged the development of a political consciousness, even though he was more moderate than radical anti-imperialists such as SJ du Toit.
The movement which had ties to the Afrikaner Bond, eventually merged with it to become a major force in South African politics.