Afrikaner (Boer) Identity | Facing History & Ourselves

Afrikaner Identity

Examine the tension between two white European groups in South Africa, the Afrikaners (formerly Boers) and the English, in Afrikaner politician Francis Reitz’s A Century of Wrong.
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English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

While South Africa is known for its history of extreme racism of white South Africans toward black South Africans, it also has a history of conflict between its primary white groups of European ancestry. Two main white groups emigrated to South Africa: first the Boers came, mainly from Holland, later calling themselves Afrikaners. Then the English arrived, drawn initially by the territory’s strategic importance and then by the discovery of diamonds and gold and the prospects for wealth they promised.

Once diamonds and gold were discovered, these differences turned in the 1880s into conflict and, finally, an all-out war for control around the turn of the century. Even though blacks made up roughly 80% of the population, the two white groups battled over which would control the national wealth. Francis Reitz, a leading Afrikaner politician and author, wrote A Century of Wrong in 1899, as the South African War between the English and the Boers was about to break out. When this particularly bloody war ended with British victory in 1902, the two sides managed to come together to create a new single country, the Union of South Africa. However, the minerals stayed firmly in English hands, and tensions persisted between the two groups, only easing when the Afrikaners took sole control of the government in 1948, roughly 50 years after the South African War.

Francis William Reitz, ca. 1895

Francis William Reitz, ca. 1895

Francis William Reitz served as President of the Orange Free State from 1889 to 1895. Prior to that, he was the state’s first Supreme Court Chief Justice, serving from 1876 to 1889.

Image courtesy of Provincial Archives of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa / Dr. Hendrik Muller, Photo Collection.

Despite their sharp divisions, the Afrikaners and the English remained united in two core beliefs: that black South Africans were uncivilized yet important and useful to white South Africans as workers, and that white South Africans must find a way to work together to rule over black South Africans.

Reitz gave the following account of this pivotal period from the Boer perspective:

In 1886 gold was discovered in great quantities and in different parts of the South African Republic [a land which the Afrikaners controlled], and with that discovery our people entered upon a new phase of their history. The South African Republic was to develop within a few years from a condition of great poverty into a rich and prosper­ous State, a country calculated in every respect to awaken and inflame the greed of the Capitalistic speculator. Within a few years the South African Republic was ranked among the first gold-producing countries of the world.

[What had been farmland was now full of cities,] inhabited by a speculative and bustling class brought to­gether from all corners of the earth. [We] the Boers, who had hitherto followed pastoral and hunting pursuits, were now called upon to fulfill one of the most difficult tasks in the world, namely, the management of a complicated administration, and the government of a large digging population, which had sprung up suddenly under the most extraordinary circumstances. . . .

In a part of the world so rich in minerals of all descriptions as [here], it is natural that [British] Capitalism should play a considerable role. Unfortu­nately, in South Africa it has from the very first attempted to go far beyond its legitimate scope; it has endeavoured to gain political power, and to make all other forms of government and influence subservient to its own ends. . . .

In this awful turning point in the history of South Africa, on the eve of the conflict [between Britain and the Afrikaners] which threatens to exterminate our people, it behoves us to speak the truth in what may be, perchance, our last message to the world. Even if we are exterminated the truth will triumph through us over our conquerors . . .

. . . These wild and useless tracts, which had been guaranteed to the Boers, appeared to be very valuable af­ter the Boers had rescued them from barbarism, and opened them up for civilisation. . . . The British . . . succeeded in annexing the Diamond Fields—a flagrantly illegal act.

. . . Our existence as a people and as a State is now threatened by an unparalleled combination of forces. Arrayed against us we find numerical strength, the public opinion of the United Kingdom thirsting and shouting for blood and revenge, the world-wide and cosmo­politan power of Capitalism, and all the forces which underlie the lust of robbery and the spirit of plunder. Our lot has of late become more and more perilous. . . .

For the marauding hordes of the Bantu are once more roving where Eu­ropean dwellings used to stand. And when the question is asked—why all this has happened? Why the heroic children of an heroic race, to which ci­vilisation owes its most priceless blessings, should lie murdered there in that distant quarter of the globe? . . .

If it is ordained that we, insignificant as we are, should be the first among all peoples to begin the struggle against the new-world tyranny of Capitalism, then we are ready to do so . . .

[We] now submit our cause [for freedom from British control] with perfect confidence to the whole world. Whether the result be Victory or Death, Liberty will assuredly rise in South Africa like the sun from out the mists of the morning, just as Free­dom dawned over the United States of America a little more than a century ago. Then from the Zambesi [River in the north] to Simon's Bay [in the south] it will be


Connection Questions 

  1. What does Reitz see as being at the heart of the conflict between the Boers and the British? In particular, what grievances does he express against the British colonial government? How does the kind of rhetoric he uses reflect the strength of his grievances? What does he fear may be the end result of this conflict? How does he portray the Afrikaners?
  2. Reitz also writes about Africans (whom he calls “Bantu”). What language does he use to describe them and their relationship to the land and the Boers?
  3. Reitz ends this passage by “shouting” the slogan “AFRICA FOR THE AFRICANDER.” What does the word Africander (also written as Afrikaner) literally mean? What is the implication of the Boers taking this name for themselves?

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, “Afrikaner Identity,” last updated July 31, 2018. 

This reading contains text not authored by Facing History & Ourselves. See footnotes for source information.

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