Afrikaners are a Southern African ethnic group descended from predominantly Dutch settlers first arriving in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They traditionally dominated South Africa’s agriculture and politics prior to 1994. Afrikaans, South Africa’s third most widely spoken home language, is the mother tongue of Afrikaners and most Cape Coloureds. It evolved from the Dutch vernacular of South Holland, incorporating words brought from Indonesia and Madagascar by slaves. Afrikaners make up approximately 5.2% of the total South African population based on the number of white South Africans who speak Afrikaans as a first language in the South African National Census of 2011.
The arrival of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at Calicut in 1498 opened a gateway of free access to Asia from Western Europe around the Cape of Good Hope; however, it also necessitated the founding and safeguarding of trade stations in the East. Very rapidly one European power followed another, all eager to trade along this route. The Portuguese landed in Mossel Bay in 1500, explored Table Bay two years later, and by 1510 had started raiding inland. Shortly afterwards the Dutch Republic sent merchant vessels to India, and in 1602 founded the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company; VOC). As the volume of traffic rounding the Cape increased, the Company recognised its natural harbour as an ideal watering point for the long voyage around Africa to the Orient and established a victualling station there in 1652. VOC officials did not favour the permanent settlement of Europeans in their trading empire, although during the 140 years of Dutch rule many VOC servants retired or were discharged and remained as private citizens. Furthermore, the exigencies of supplying local garrisons and passing fleets compelled the administration to confer free status upon employees and oblige them to become independent farmers.
Encouraged by the success of this experiment, the Company extended free passage from 1685 to 1707 for Hollanders wishing to settle at the Cape. In 1688 it sponsored the immigration of 200 French Huguenot refugees forced into exile by the Edict of Fontainebleau. The terms under which the Huguenots agreed to immigrate were the same offered to other VOC subjects, including free passage and requisite farm equipment on credit. Prior attempts at cultivating vineyards or exploiting olive groves for fruit had been unsuccessful, and it was hoped that Huguenot colonists accustomed to Mediterranean agriculture could succeed where the Dutch had failed. They were augmented by VOC soldiers returning from Asia, predominantly Germans channeled into Amsterdam by the Company’s extensive recruitment network and thence overseas. Despite their diverse nationalities, the colonists used a common language and adopted similar attitudes towards politics. The attributes they shared came to serve as a basis for the evolution of Afrikaner identity and consciousness.
Afrikaner nationalism has taken the form of political parties and secret societies such as the Broederbond in the twentieth century. In 1914 the National Party was formed to promote Afrikaner economic interests and sever South Africa’s ties to the United Kingdom. Rising to prominence by winning the 1948 general elections, it has also been noted for enforcing a harsh policy of racial separation (apartheid) while simultaneously declaring South Africa a republic and withdrawing from the British Commonwealth.
The term “Afrikaner” presently denotes the politically, culturally, and socially dominant group among white South Africans, or the Afrikaans-speaking population of Dutch origin—although their original progenitors also included Flemish, French Huguenot, and German immigrants. Historically, the terms “burgher” and “Boer” have both been used to describe white Afrikaans speakers as a group; neither is particularly objectionable but Afrikaner has been considered a more appropriate term. At one time, burghers merely denoted Cape Dutch, settlers who were influential in the administration, able to participate in urban affairs, and did so regularly. Boers often referred to the settled European farmers or nomadic cattle herders. During the Batavian Republic, “burgher” was popularised among Dutch communities both at home and abroad as a popular revolutionary form of address, or citizen. In South Africa, it remained in use as late as the Second Boer War.
The first recorded instance of a colonist identifying as an “Afrikaner” occurred in March 1707, during a disturbance in Stellenbosch. When the magistrate, Johannes Starrenburg, ordered an unruly crowd to desist, a white teenager named Hendrik Biebouw retorted, “Ik ben een Afrikaander – al slaat de landdrost mij dood, of al zetten hij mij in de tronk, ik zal, nog wil niet zwijgen!” (“I am an African – even if the magistrate were to beat me to death, or put me in jail, I shall not be, nor will I stay, silent!“). Biebouw was flogged for his insolence and later banished to Jakarta. It is believed that “Afrikaner” in question initially indicated Cape Coloureds or other groups claiming mixed ancestry. Biebouw himself had numerous half-caste siblings and may have identified with Coloureds socially. However, this defiant secession from Dutch law and sovereignty was a leap towards defining another consciousness for white South Africa, suggesting for the first time a group identification with the Cape Colony rather than any ancestral homeland in Europe. In 1902, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became the earliest English author to use “Africander” in reference to the Boers‘ eastward expansion from the Cape.
The Dutch East India Company did not wish to plant a European settlement at the Cape of Good Hope; until 1679 the only whites permitted to hold land were Company employees who were expected to produce by their own labour the commodities needed to provision passing ships. Nevertheless, after a futile attempt to recruit Khoikhoi slaves, Holland became convinced of the need to grant land to permanent settlers better motivated to raise crops and livestock for their own profit. Although the soil and climate in Cape Town was suitable for farming, willing immigrants were in short supply; the Company often secured orphans, refugees, or foreign exiles accordingly. Beginning in 1685, Dutch orphan girls found themselves dispatched in small parties. They were swiftly joined by Huguenots, driven from France by the Edict of Fontainebleau, who had accepted free passage to Africa.
South Africa’s white population in 1691 may be regarded as the matrilineal Afrikaner parent stock, as no remarkable effort was made to secure more colonist families after 1688. Although some two-thirds of this figure were Hollanders, there were 150 Huguenots and a nearly equal number of Low German speakers identical in racial characteristics to the Dutch. Also represented were Swedes, Danes, and Belgians.
Traditionally Christian, the Calvinism of Boers in South Africa developed in much the same way as the New England colonies in North America. The original South African Boer republics were founded on the principles of the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1985, 92% of Afrikaners were members of Reformed Churches. However, an opinion poll conducted among Afrikaners in February 2015 found that only 38% of Afrikaners claimed to attend church on a weekly basis. Another online poll conducted in February 2013 by a newspaper revealed that just over 30% of Afrikaners read the Bible at home.