Some thoughts on Afrikaner Nationalism

Afrikaner Nationalism as a Millenarian Movement?

Millenarian movements are defined as social/religious movements that arise at the close or start of a new millennium[1]. Such movements often create idealised visions of the future and romantically glorify the common lost past of participants, expressing discontent and rejection of the present. It is possible to analyse this social phenomenon both in terms of a broadly inclusive definition that would include political movements such as nationalism, socialism and liberalism along with a variety of religious and utopian organisations, or to consider millenarian movements more narrowly by limiting the demarcation of the defining features to certain religious movements, particularly those closely associated with cults and sects. This article will attempt to demonstrate the extent to which Afrikaner Nationalism could be considered as having been a millenarian movement, after creating a typology of millenarianism and suggesting a psycho-analytical origin for millenarianism.

Max Weber uses the heuristic device of the “ideal type” as a definitional tool to describe social phenomena such as the “spirit” of capitalism. It is similarly possible to create a broad definition of millenarian movements into which any or most such groups may be more or less categorised. To do so would require making a list of traits or categories that could be considered “typical” of millenarian movements:

Many commentators have sought to establish the origins of millenarianism and the links between the phenomenon and social change with a particular focus on the manner in which millenarianism may shed light on the relationship between religion and social change. Many note similarities between revolutionary movements and millenarian movements in that both occur at time of immanent social change. From a Freudian perspective millenarianism could be seen as deriving from man’s subconscious desire for paradise, or Utopia, the urge to be ‘reborn’ a return to the safety of the womb or the security and pleasure of the breast (Klein, 1985, p. 306).

Social-psychologists associated with psychoanalysis would argue that sociological accounts of millenarianism merely describe the phenomenon and the circumstances under which it occurs; they fail to explain its origins in the human psyche. Nandor Fodor in seeking to interpret dreams (Fodor, 1951, pp. 3 -35) describes what he perceives to be the origins of religious myths and desires including the human desire for Utopia, for a life after death, for romanticising the past, for the alienation from the present and a desire for a better future. From this we may deduce why people form and join millenarian movements from the perspective of the individual entangled in a web of complex social relations.

Fodor asks why it is that our memories of our first five years of life are few and far between, why is our memory of our infancy clouded by virtual amnesia? “Yet it is at this stage that our perceptive faculties functioned most vividly” (Fodor, 1951, p. 3). He describes birth as a violent tearing away from the maternal body and like Freud he traces all anxiety back to the birth experience (Fodor, 1951, p. 6). Birth is equated with the violent driving out of man from paradise. Paradise is life in the womb; it is the beginning and the end. It is paradise and heaven. It is safety, comfort, a place of warmth, where there is no need to work, and a place where you are never hungry. It is the place we all seek to return to. Fodor describes the Garden of Eden as “the prenatal home of the (human) race” … “the Flood equates with the bursting of the waters before birth, and the crossing of the Red Sea equates with the transition from the prenatal to the postnatal life” (Fodor, 1951, p. 50).

The expulsion from the womb and the weaning from the breast is the source of our inclination to blame our mothers, the female gender “Eve” in the human race for our expulsion from Eden, and while Marx describes the primary social relation of production as that of the relation of love between a man and a woman (Marx, 1978, p. 83), Engels describes the first relation of social exploitation as that based on gender discrimination (Engels, 1988, pp. 125-146) a discrimination born of our subconscious memory of rejection from a state of grace. Once born human beings are driven by a desire for a ‘Promised Land,’ a return to the comfort and security of the womb, a re-establishment of the unity of the flesh. All our yearning and suffering, including the act of marriage, according to Fodor, are geared towards achieving this illusion, and knowing it to be an illusion in this life we strive for it in the next through our suffering in the present.

Formal religion represents a collective venture, a common effort at convincing ourselves that in death we will find that which we are all struggling for in life – a heavenly state in which we need not to struggle anymore. In formal politics we strive to collectively work towards such a state in the here and now. In both political and religious forms we have the formation of strata and classes who by proclaiming their superior knowledge of the road map to our desired destination, proclaim themselves to be our leaders on this journey and demand from us the surplus of our labour as compensation for their proclaimed wisdom. Millenarianism represents a rejection of the imposition of structure and control over the utopian narrative.

Underpinning the myths of Eden and the resulting cycle suggestively based on the subconscious experience of birth we find similar reference points in the origin of millenarian movements. Thus Aberle (Aberle, 1965, p. 538) refers to deprivation as the common thread running through all such movements and argues that it is underpinned by: (1) one’s past versus one’s present circumstances (the idyllic prenatal existence in the womb versus the struggle of life in the world); (2) one’s present circumstances versus one’s future circumstances (the present life struggle measured against the idyllic vision of the future created by the movement); (3) one’s own versus someone else’s present circumstance (why are they better off than me, their present circumstances are responsible for my deprivation, the present is their world, the idyllic prophesized future will belong to the members of the movement).

The golden age of millenarian movements were the 19th and 20th centuries. In this period, European missionaries and in the case of black South African communities, later, North American particularly Baptists carried (potentially) millenarian ideas into the interior of the country, pushing them very hard, often on populations which had never before been exposed to them. The Dutch settlers at the Cape were similarly agrarian and were already Christian in outlook, and equally felt victims of British imperialism. Imperialism meant that the traditional agrarian, non-western communities in the interior were subjugated by the agents of British imperialism, such as missionaries, traders, hunters, explorers, settlers, colonial administrators and more directly the repressive apparatus of the British state in the form of its armed forces. British imperialism had unprecedented levels of power at its disposal, and it set about re-moulding first the Cape colony and later the interior in the image of Britain and to suit its convenience.  This process was hastened by the discovery of diamonds and gold in the late 19th century. Old ways of life were destroyed, more or less deliberately, and new ones imposed and sprang into being (Bundy, 1979). It is not obvious that life in a traditional agrarian society involved any less oppression, in any objective sense, than life in a suddenly-capitalist economy increasingly tied to the world market, but it was a noticeably different sort of oppression. Institutions ceased to exist or ceased to be relevant or were subverted to serve the interests of the imperial power as a consequence ideas bound up with those institutions and those patterns of authority and domination also ceased to be credible and relevant.


Traditional ideas and ideals made it easier to accept traditional forms of oppression, but not the newer forms, and there was generally no (credible) replacement, no ideological explanation which was not, itself, deeply humiliating. Slavery was after-all a long practised institution of the society at the Cape under Dutch rule (Watson, 1990). It is therefore not surprising that in such conditions the past began to assume a romantic hue when compared to the present, and people began to yearn for the past and construct visions of an alternative utopian and often supernatural future dispensation. The conditions were set, then, for the success of all manner of millenarian ideas. And one of the first to emanate from British rule was that of the Voortrekker movement which later supplied the rich fount for Afrikaner nationalism and the flexible adaptation of Afrikaner millenarianism in the 20th century (Preller, 1917).

Millenarian movements have been common in South Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. South Africa is a country which has undergone constant and often violent disruption in the process of its formation and evolution into a modern democratic state, creating fertile ground for millenarian movements. The nationalist myths created around the Voortrekker movement of a part of the Dutch colonists at the Cape from 1834 on into the interior of the country attempted to mould the historical account of this movement around the migration of the biblical Israelites from oppression in Egypt to the God Promised Land, could fit into the “ideal type” discussed above. “Oppression” of these colonists under English occupation and rule from 1806 onwards made life at the Cape intolerable. Thus occurs a symbolic expulsion from the agrarian Eden which existed at the Cape between 1652 and 1806, and the desire to seek freedom from English “oppression” in a new promised land. The journey to the promised-land is replete with danger and treachery, all difficulties that moulded the “god-fearing” character and culture of the Afrikaner as he marched towards the utopia of self-determination and freedom (Preller, 1917, p. xii). The geographical space of the promised-land is filled with ‘savage tribes’ similar to the biblical philistines (Preller, 1917, p. xi), intend on diverting the focus of achieving utopia. The Afrikaner narrative is constantly threatened by ‘foreign ideologies’ often described as ‘heathen’ narratives (Gey van Pittius, 1945).

The discovery of gold and diamonds after 1860 brought the attention of the British at the Cape to once more focus on the Boer republics in the interior of South Africa putting into jeopardy the march to Utopia. Much of the myths about Afrikaner nationalism were in fact created in the 20th century and the ultimate construct of Apartheid could itself be considered as having been millenarian, which is also why it was not sustainable as a system (Gey van Pittius, 1945).  Its failure was brought about because the believers in the millenarian vision of Apartheid had a role to play in the story of its unfolding, and so to accept the vision was to feel that one is, or should be, part of the community of believers, supporters and defenders of the vision. Its defence required increasingly violent actions from its members which could not be morally or ideologically sustained.  Non-believers in the Apartheid narrative, which was claimed to be a biblically founded narrative (Gey van Pittius, 1945), were not part of the Afrikaner community. In such situations, there is a natural tendency to think that everyone who is not part of the community is an enemy of the community, and since the real enemy is the Adversary, they are (at least) the Adversary’s tools.

Afrikaner nationalism was extremely exclusive and the Apartheid vision excluded the majority of the population in the geographical area of South Africa from any real effective participation on the grounds of race.  The Adversary was at first portrayed as British Imperialism, but with the waning of the British Empire after World War 2, the Adversary became communism as the agency behind “black-nationalist” or democratically inclusivist aspirations (Snyman, 1995).  It is hard enough to live peacefully with one’s mundane enemies; but who could be asked to live peacefully with representatives of cosmic evil, especially when the final conflict is approaching rapidly? Apartheid South Africa became in the words of John Vorster and P.W. Botha (Alhadeff, 1990, pp. 148-150) the last “Christian Democratic Bastion against the communist onslaught.” Accepting a millenarian story, then, entails joining a certain narrative community, and often thus cutting oneself off from other communities. This carries very high costs, both emotionally and socially. This discourages people from joining, partly because they’re risk averse, and partly because most people don’t like thinking of their friends and family as minions of Satan. (On the other hand, if you do join, that last effect gives you a very strong incentive to get them to join too.) It is therefore not surprising that the vision and Apartheid narrative collapsed with the collapse of soviet style communism.

Why did Afrikaner Nationalism as a millenarian narrative collapse? It was difficult to continue portraying Afrikaners as victims in a situation where they had become materially prosperous. The long list of “enemies” of outsiders to the Afrikaner community had to be repeatedly adjusted to retain a semblance of credibility, the danger of “heathen savages” as a description of the Black majority simply no longer held up, the rapid waning of the British Empire after 1945 quickly dispelled any notion of a threat to Afrikaner identity and the Apartheid narrative from that quarter, and the spectacular collapse of communism in the later 20th century removed that danger. To hold a millenarian community together requires a credible threat to the existence of such a community, there must be something to struggle against.

Afrikaners became prosperous and successful over the last three decades of the twentieth century, millenarian movements require that their members feel materially deprived excluded and under attack.

Millenarian movements require ideological cohesion. Such ideological cohesion is often provided by a commonly agreed to religious narrative. In the case of Afrikaner nationalism this narrative was based on a common historical mythology as well as a particular Calvinist interpretation of Christianity. The increasing secularisation of religion in South Africa, and contesting Christian interpretations in the market place of religion undermined this ideological unity. The increasing material wealth of many Afrikaners created the need for a religious narrative that would reflect their success, rather than portray them as victims of oppression, exclusion and poverty.

Through exposure to globalisation many Afrikaners have moved out of the millenarianlaager, and have discovered commonalities between themselves and other communities, both within South Africa and globally, which has led to a rejection of the narrowly nationalist and racist paradigm of the Apartheid narrative.

Millenarianism amongst Afrikaners seems to have retreated into extreme right wing tendencies among a small minority of Afrikaners around the historic figure of “Siener” van Rensburg. Van Rensburg is considered to be a prophet from an oppressive past who predicted a new golden era for Afrikaner nationalism in which the Afrikaner would be restored to his rightful place in the natural order of society. The Afrikaner “volk” is portrayed as oppressed, marginalised and victimised in the current economic order. The Afrikaner himself is partly to blame, according to this millenarian vision, because he has become decadent and seduced by modernity, the media and his obsession with sport; he is dancing around the proverbial golden calf instead of being focussed on his God-given mission.  Is the cycle about to restart again?


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[1] Vivelo includes millenarianism into the broad category of ‘revitalisation movements’ along with ‘messianic’ or ‘nativistic’ movements (Vivelo, 1978, p. 197)

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