3 ANC presidents and Afrikaner economic advance

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3 ANC presidents and Afrikaner economic advance

by Hermann Giliomee

The three ANC leaders who served as president of the country between 1994 and 2009 all grappled with the history of the country and the preceding century and particularly the parallels between the Afrikaner and the African nationalist movements. For Mandela the Afrikaners were both valiant fellow-strugglers against imperial domination and architects of the hated apartheid system.

Mandela shunned the tendency to stereotype the Afrikaners on the basis of a particular reading of their history. Jakes Gerwel, director general of the presidency, wrote: ‘He has special warmth for the Afrikaners, growing from… his basic anthropology. He genuinely believes, and acts, on the belief that human beings are essentially good-doing beings. The evil-doer was a deviation, not the norm.’ He often recounted that as a practicing attorney, he met Afrikaner officials who displayed a humaneness and reason when the contrary was expected.[1]

De Klerk noted that Mandela and Mbeki were two quite different politicians.

Mandela was very interested in the Afrikaners. When I met him the first time (it was in that secret meeting) he spoke almost just about the Afrikaners and their history. He had great empathy for the Afrikaner freedom struggle and saw it in similar terms as the African freedom struggle. He discussed at length the Anglo-Boer War en war heroes, like Generals De la Rey and De Wet.   He saw strong similarities  between Umkhonto we Sizwe and the anti-imperialist Boer guerrilla fighters. Mbeki thought more in racial terms –it was whites and blacks. For him whites long had the upper hande and the time had come for blacks to get their big chance. [2]

The Government of National Unity, with Mandela as president and Mbeki and F.W. De Klerk as deputy presidents, was an inspiring symbol of the keen desire of whites and blacks to put the divisions behind them and join forces in building the country. De Klerk, who rotated with Mbeki in chairing the cabinet meetings, found that the ANC

did not mind him criticizing a colleague’s handling of an issue, provided they did not see it as criticism of the ANC.

Minority right issues occasionally triggered a heated discussion. Once De Klerk asked for a cabinet meeting to be adjourned to make it possible for him to explain to the Minister for National Education the importance that Afrikaners attach to mother tongue education and parental control of schools. In his autobiography he describes the event as a turning point. If the ANC had pressed ahead he would at that point have considered taking his party out of the GNU.[3]

The views expressed in 1997 by Kgalema Motlanthe, who would be elected the third president of South Africa in 2008, presents a revealing picture of the way in which ANC leaders referred to Afrikaner history as they plotted the road ahead.  Born in 1949,  Motlanthe grew up in the Johannesburg townships and was jailed on Robben Island between 1977 and 1987 for assisting the ANC. On his release he joined the labour movement and was elected ANC Secretary-General in 1997.

In interviews Motlanthe depicted the of Africans at the end of the 20th century as very similar situation to that of the Afrikaners at the end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902. The Afrikaners then had ‘no skills, had no capital, had no political power, had no access to institutions of higher learning.’ They then went about ‘creating a situation of full employment by absorbing the skilled white Afrikaner in the public sector’. They used para-statal organizations and technicons to impart skills to the Afrikaners. They established universities for the Afrikaners.  They founded their own businesses on the basis of Afrikaner savings. Afrikaner interests were pursued with a single-minded determination.

To him the Afrikaner nationalists in power after 1948 ‘knew what power means and how it must be utilized to advance the cause of the Afrikaner.’ The Afrikaner intellectuals in the Afrikaner Broederbond provided the ‘economic vision, the affirmative action vision, all the aspects.’  Afrikaner support for the NP government was almost ‘a religious thing’, with the Dutch Reformed Church and its mass following providing an important source of support.[4]

Asked whether the post-1994 ANC drive to further black interests could be compared with that of the NP after 1948, Motlanthe replied: ‘There is not even a comparison. There is just no indication of that kind of determination on the part of blacks because there is no leadership centre.’  In his view the ANC up to that point had been ‘very parochial’.  They dealt more with ‘with internal organizational things …without looking out at in terms of the broader social forces that needed to be mobilized.’  The immediate priority for the ANC government was to narrow the material chasm that separated whites from blacks. Racial reconciliation would be impossible until this gap was narrowed.[5]


[1] Kader Asmal, ed., Nelson Mandela: In his own words – From Freedom to Future (London: Little Brwon and Co. 2003).p.  146.

[2] Interview of author with F.W.de Klerk, 28 May 2009.

[3] F.W. de Klerk, Die Outobiografie: Die laaste trek (Cape Town: Human en Rousseau, 1997), p.362.

[4] Motlanthe stated that he was strongly impressed by a book on Afrikaner nationalism that he read in prison. The book , Hans Strydom and Ivor Wilkins, The Super Afrikaners  (Johannesbug: Jonathan Ball, 1978), deals primarily with the role of the Afrikaner Broederbond. For a different view of the importance of the organisation see pp.430-22 above.

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