• Corrections

What was the Great Trek?

The Great Trek was a perilous exodus of pioneers into the heart of South Africa, looking for a place to call home.

the great trek bloedrivier

When the British took control of Cape Town and the Cape Colony in the early 1800s, tensions grew between the new colonizers of British stock, and the old colonizers, the Boers, descendants of the original Dutch settlers. From 1835, the Boers would lead numerous expeditions out of the Cape Colony, traversing towards the interior of South Africa. Escaping British rule would come with a host of deadly challenges, and the Boers, seeking their own lands, would find themselves in direct conflict with the people who resided in the interior, most notably the Ndebele and the Zulu.

The “Great Trek” is a story of resentment, displacement, murder, war, and hope, and it forms one of the bloodiest chapters of South Africa’s notoriously violent history.

Origins of the Great Trek

great trek gouache paper james edwin mcconnell

The Cape was first colonized by the Dutch , when they landed there in 1652, and Cape Town quickly grew into a vital refueling station between Europe and the East Indies. The colony prospered and grew, with Dutch settlers taking up both urban and rural posts. In 1795, Britain invaded and took control of the Cape Colony, as it was Dutch possession, and Holland was under the control of the French Revolutionary government . After the war, the colony was handed back to Holland (the Batavian Republic) which in 1806, fell under French rule again. The British responded by annexing the Cape completely.

Under British rule, the colony underwent major administrative changes. The language of administration became English, and liberal changes were made which designated non-white servants as citizens. Britain, at the time, was adamantly anti-slavery, and was enacting laws to end it.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Please check your inbox to activate your subscription.

Tensions grew between the British and the Boers (farmers). In 1815, a Boer was arrested for assaulting one of his servants. Many other Boers rose up in rebellion in solidarity, culminating in five being hanged for insurrection. In 1834, legislation passed that all slaves were to be freed. The vast majority of Boer farmers owned slaves, and although they were offered compensation, travel to Britain was required to receive it which was impossible for many. Eventually, the Boers had had enough of British rule and decided to leave the Cape Colony in search of self-governance and new lands to farm. The Great Trek was about to begin.

The Trek Begins

great trek battle blaauwberg

Not all Afrikaners endorsed the Great Trek. In fact, only a fifth of the Cape’s Dutch-speaking people decided to take part. Most of the urbanized Dutch were actually content with British rule. Nevertheless, many Boers decided to leave. Thousands of Boers loaded up their wagons and proceeded to venture into the interior and towards peril.

The first wave of voortrekkers (pioneers) met with disaster. After setting out in September 1835, they crossed the Vaal River in January, 1836, and decided to split up, following differences between their leaders. Hans van Rensburg led a party of 49 settlers who trekked north into what is now Mozambique. His party was slain by an impi (force of warriors) of Soshangane. For van Rensburg and his party, the Great Trek was over. Only two children survived who were saved by a Zulu warrior. The other party of settlers, led by Louis Tregardt, settled near Delagoa Bay in southern Mozambique, where most of them perished from fever.

A third group led by Hendrik Potgieter, consisting of about 200 people, also ran into serious trouble. In August 1836, a Matabele patrol attacked Potgieter’s group, killing six men, two women, and six children. King Mzilikazi of the Matabele in what is now Zimbabwe decided to attack the Voortrekkers again, this time sending out an impi of 5,000 men. Local bushmen warned the Voortrekkers of the impi , and Potgieter had two days to prepare. He decided to prepare for battle, although doing so would leave all the Voortrekker’s cattle vulnerable.

great trek voortrekker wagon

The Voortrekkers arranged the wagons into a laager (defensive circle) and placed thorn branches underneath the wagons and in the gaps. Another defensive square of four wagons was placed inside the laager and covered with animal skins. Here, the women and children would be safe from spears thrown into the camp. The defenders numbered just 33 men and seven boys, each armed with two muzzle-loader rifles. They were outnumbered 150 to one.

As the battle commenced, the Voortrekkers rode out on horseback to harry the impi . This proved largely ineffective, and they withdrew to the laager. The attack on the laager only lasted for about half an hour, in which time, two Voortrekkers lost their lives, and about 400 Matabele warriors were killed or wounded. The Matabele were far more interested in taking the cattle and eventually made off with 50,000 sheep and goats and 5,000 cattle. Despite surviving through the day, the Battle of Vegkop was not a happy victory for the Voortrekkers. Three months later, with the help of the Tswana people, a Voortrekker-led raid managed to take back 6,500 cattle, which included some of the cattle plundered at Vegkop.

The following months saw revenge attacks led by the Voortrekkers. About 15 Matabele settlements were destroyed, and 1,000 warriors lost their lives. The Matabele abandoned the region. The Great Trek would continue with several other parties pioneering the way into the South African hinterland.

The Battle of Blood River

great trek map

In February 1838, the Voortrekkers led by Piet Retief met with absolute disaster. Retief and his delegation were invited to the Zulu King Dingane ’s kraal (village) to negotiate a land treaty; however, Dingane betrayed the Voortrekkers. He had them all taken out to a hill outside the village and clubbed to death. Piet Retief was killed last so that he could watch his delegation being killed. In total, about 100 were murdered, and their bodies were left for the vultures and other scavengers.

Following this betrayal, King Dingane directed further attacks on unsuspecting Voortrekker settlements. This included the Weenen Massacre, in which 534 men, women, and children were slaughtered. This number includes KhoiKhoi and Basuto tribe members who accompanied them. Against a hostile Zulu nation, the Great Trek was doomed to fail.

The Voortrekkers decided to lead a punitive expedition, and under the guidance of Andries Pretorius, 464 men, along with 200 servants and two small cannons, prepared to engage the Zulu. After several weeks of trekking, Pretorius set up his laager along the Ncome River, purposefully avoiding geographic traps that would have led to a disaster in battle. His site offered protection on two sides by the Ncome River to the rear and a deep ditch on the left flank. The approach was treeless and offered no protection from any advancing attackers. On the morning of December 16, the Voortrekkers were greeted by the sight of six regiments of Zulu impis , numbering approximately 20,000 men.

slag van bloedrivier

For two hours, the Zulus attacked the laager in four waves, and each time they were repulsed with great casualties. The Voortrekkers used grapeshot in their muskets and their two cannons in order to maximize damage to the Zulus. After two hours, Pretorius ordered his men to ride out and attempt to break up the Zulu formations. The Zulus held for a while, but high casualties eventually forced them to scatter. With their army breaking, the Voortrekkers chased down and killed the fleeing Zulus for three hours. By the end of the battle, 3,000 Zulu lay dead (although historians dispute this number). By contrast, the Voortrekkers suffered only three injuries, including Andries Pretorius taking an assegai (Zulu spear) to the hand.

December 16 has been observed as a public holiday in the Boer Republics and South Africa ever since. It was known as The Day of the Covenant, The Day of the Vow, or Dingane’s Day. In 1995, after the fall of apartheid , the day was rebranded as “Day of Reconciliation.” Today the site on the west side of the Ncome River is home to the Blood River Monument and Museum Complex, while on the east side of the river stands the Ncome River Monument and Museum Complex dedicated to the Zulu people. The former has gone through many variations, with the latest version of the monument being 64 wagons cast in bronze. When it was unveiled in 1998, The then Minister of Home Affairs and Zulu tribal leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi , apologized on behalf of the Zulu people for the murder of Piet Retief and his party during the Great Trek, while he also stressed the suffering of Zulus during apartheid.

blood river monument

The Zulu defeat added to further divisions in the Zulu Kingdom, which was plunged into a civil war between Dingane and his brother Mpande. Mpande, supported by the Voortrekkers, won the civil war in January 1840. This led to a significant decrease in threats to the Voortrekkers. Andries Pretorius and his Voortrekkers were able to recover Piet Retief’s body, along with his retinue, and give them burials. On Retief’s body was found the original treaty offering the trekkers land, and Pretorius was able to successfully negotiate with the Zulu over the establishment of a territory for the Voortrekkers. The Republic of Natalia was established in 1839, south of the Zulu Kingdom. However, the new republic was short-lived and was annexed by the British in 1843.

great trek andries pretorius

Nevertheless, the Great Trek could continue, and thus the waves of Voortrekkers continued. In the 1850s, two substantial Boer republics were established: The Republic of the Transvaal and the Republic of the Orange Free State . These republics would later come into conflict with the expanding British Empire.

The Great Trek as a Cultural Symbol

voortrekker monument

In the 1940s, Afrikaner nationalists used the Great Trek as a symbol to unite the Afrikaans people and promote cultural unity among them. This move was primarily responsible for the National Party winning the 1948 election and, later on, imposing apartheid on the country.

South Africa is a highly diverse country, and while the Great Trek remains a symbol of Afrikaner culture and history, it is also seen as an important part of South African history with lessons to learn from for all South Africans.

Double Quotes

6 Crazy Facts about Cape Town

Author Image

By Greg Beyer BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma Greg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.

famous alien abduction claims

Frequently Read Together

cape town crazy facts

British History: The Formation of Great Britain and the United Kingdom

French Revolution iconic paintings

The French Revolution in 5 Iconic Paintings

nelson mandela 1995

Great Trek Centenary Celebrations commence

Cameron, T. (ed) (1986) An Illustrated History of South Africa. Johannesburg, pp.258-259.|

Gilliomee, H. & Mbenga, B. (2007)  New History of South Africa . Cape Town, pp.290-291.

Know something about this topic?

Towards a people's history

afrikaners great trek

  • Politics & Social Sciences
  • Social Sciences

Kindle app logo image

Download the free Kindle app and start reading Kindle books instantly on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required .

Read instantly on your browser with Kindle for Web.

Using your mobile phone camera - scan the code below and download the Kindle app.

QR code to download the Kindle App

Image Unavailable

The Afrikaners : their last great trek

  • To view this video download Flash Player

The Afrikaners : their last great trek Hardcover – January 1, 1989

  • Language English
  • Publisher Macmillan London
  • Publication date January 1, 1989
  • ISBN-10 0333487206
  • ISBN-13 978-0333487204
  • See all details

The Amazon Book Review

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Macmillan London; First Edition (January 1, 1989)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0333487206
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0333487204
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.32 pounds
  • #65,733 in Ethnic Studies (Books)

Customer reviews

Customer Reviews, including Product Star Ratings help customers to learn more about the product and decide whether it is the right product for them.

To calculate the overall star rating and percentage breakdown by star, we don’t use a simple average. Instead, our system considers things like how recent a review is and if the reviewer bought the item on Amazon. It also analyzed reviews to verify trustworthiness.

No customer reviews

  • Amazon Newsletter
  • About Amazon
  • Accessibility
  • Sustainability
  • Press Center
  • Investor Relations
  • Amazon Devices
  • Amazon Science
  • Sell on Amazon
  • Sell apps on Amazon
  • Supply to Amazon
  • Protect & Build Your Brand
  • Become an Affiliate
  • Become a Delivery Driver
  • Start a Package Delivery Business
  • Advertise Your Products
  • Self-Publish with Us
  • Become an Amazon Hub Partner
  • › See More Ways to Make Money
  • Amazon Visa
  • Amazon Store Card
  • Amazon Secured Card
  • Amazon Business Card
  • Shop with Points
  • Credit Card Marketplace
  • Reload Your Balance
  • Amazon Currency Converter
  • Your Account
  • Your Orders
  • Shipping Rates & Policies
  • Amazon Prime
  • Returns & Replacements
  • Manage Your Content and Devices
  • Recalls and Product Safety Alerts
  • Conditions of Use
  • Privacy Notice
  • Consumer Health Data Privacy Disclosure
  • Your Ads Privacy Choices
  • Search Menu
  • Browse content in Arts and Humanities
  • Browse content in Archaeology
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology
  • Archaeological Methodology and Techniques
  • Archaeology by Region
  • Archaeology of Religion
  • Archaeology of Trade and Exchange
  • Biblical Archaeology
  • Contemporary and Public Archaeology
  • Environmental Archaeology
  • Historical Archaeology
  • History and Theory of Archaeology
  • Industrial Archaeology
  • Landscape Archaeology
  • Mortuary Archaeology
  • Prehistoric Archaeology
  • Underwater Archaeology
  • Urban Archaeology
  • Zooarchaeology
  • Browse content in Architecture
  • Architectural Structure and Design
  • History of Architecture
  • Residential and Domestic Buildings
  • Theory of Architecture
  • Browse content in Art
  • Art Subjects and Themes
  • History of Art
  • Industrial and Commercial Art
  • Theory of Art
  • Biographical Studies
  • Byzantine Studies
  • Browse content in Classical Studies
  • Classical History
  • Classical Philosophy
  • Classical Mythology
  • Classical Literature
  • Classical Reception
  • Classical Art and Architecture
  • Classical Oratory and Rhetoric
  • Greek and Roman Papyrology
  • Greek and Roman Epigraphy
  • Greek and Roman Law
  • Greek and Roman Archaeology
  • Late Antiquity
  • Religion in the Ancient World
  • Digital Humanities
  • Browse content in History
  • Colonialism and Imperialism
  • Diplomatic History
  • Environmental History
  • Genealogy, Heraldry, Names, and Honours
  • Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing
  • Historical Geography
  • History by Period
  • History of Emotions
  • History of Agriculture
  • History of Education
  • History of Gender and Sexuality
  • Industrial History
  • Intellectual History
  • International History
  • Labour History
  • Legal and Constitutional History
  • Local and Family History
  • Maritime History
  • Military History
  • National Liberation and Post-Colonialism
  • Oral History
  • Political History
  • Public History
  • Regional and National History
  • Revolutions and Rebellions
  • Slavery and Abolition of Slavery
  • Social and Cultural History
  • Theory, Methods, and Historiography
  • Urban History
  • World History
  • Browse content in Language Teaching and Learning
  • Language Learning (Specific Skills)
  • Language Teaching Theory and Methods
  • Browse content in Linguistics
  • Applied Linguistics
  • Cognitive Linguistics
  • Computational Linguistics
  • Forensic Linguistics
  • Grammar, Syntax and Morphology
  • Historical and Diachronic Linguistics
  • History of English
  • Language Evolution
  • Language Reference
  • Language Acquisition
  • Language Variation
  • Language Families
  • Lexicography
  • Linguistic Anthropology
  • Linguistic Theories
  • Linguistic Typology
  • Phonetics and Phonology
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Translation and Interpretation
  • Writing Systems
  • Browse content in Literature
  • Bibliography
  • Children's Literature Studies
  • Literary Studies (Romanticism)
  • Literary Studies (American)
  • Literary Studies (Asian)
  • Literary Studies (European)
  • Literary Studies (Eco-criticism)
  • Literary Studies (Modernism)
  • Literary Studies - World
  • Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)
  • Literary Studies (19th Century)
  • Literary Studies (20th Century onwards)
  • Literary Studies (African American Literature)
  • Literary Studies (British and Irish)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
  • Literary Studies (Fiction, Novelists, and Prose Writers)
  • Literary Studies (Gender Studies)
  • Literary Studies (Graphic Novels)
  • Literary Studies (History of the Book)
  • Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights)
  • Literary Studies (Poetry and Poets)
  • Literary Studies (Postcolonial Literature)
  • Literary Studies (Queer Studies)
  • Literary Studies (Science Fiction)
  • Literary Studies (Travel Literature)
  • Literary Studies (War Literature)
  • Literary Studies (Women's Writing)
  • Literary Theory and Cultural Studies
  • Mythology and Folklore
  • Shakespeare Studies and Criticism
  • Browse content in Media Studies
  • Browse content in Music
  • Applied Music
  • Dance and Music
  • Ethics in Music
  • Ethnomusicology
  • Gender and Sexuality in Music
  • Medicine and Music
  • Music Cultures
  • Music and Media
  • Music and Religion
  • Music and Culture
  • Music Education and Pedagogy
  • Music Theory and Analysis
  • Musical Scores, Lyrics, and Libretti
  • Musical Structures, Styles, and Techniques
  • Musicology and Music History
  • Performance Practice and Studies
  • Race and Ethnicity in Music
  • Sound Studies
  • Browse content in Performing Arts
  • Browse content in Philosophy
  • Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art
  • Epistemology
  • Feminist Philosophy
  • History of Western Philosophy
  • Metaphysics
  • Moral Philosophy
  • Non-Western Philosophy
  • Philosophy of Language
  • Philosophy of Mind
  • Philosophy of Perception
  • Philosophy of Science
  • Philosophy of Action
  • Philosophy of Law
  • Philosophy of Religion
  • Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic
  • Practical Ethics
  • Social and Political Philosophy
  • Browse content in Religion
  • Biblical Studies
  • Christianity
  • East Asian Religions
  • History of Religion
  • Judaism and Jewish Studies
  • Qumran Studies
  • Religion and Education
  • Religion and Health
  • Religion and Politics
  • Religion and Science
  • Religion and Law
  • Religion and Art, Literature, and Music
  • Religious Studies
  • Browse content in Society and Culture
  • Cookery, Food, and Drink
  • Cultural Studies
  • Customs and Traditions
  • Ethical Issues and Debates
  • Hobbies, Games, Arts and Crafts
  • Lifestyle, Home, and Garden
  • Natural world, Country Life, and Pets
  • Popular Beliefs and Controversial Knowledge
  • Sports and Outdoor Recreation
  • Technology and Society
  • Travel and Holiday
  • Visual Culture
  • Browse content in Law
  • Arbitration
  • Browse content in Company and Commercial Law
  • Commercial Law
  • Company Law
  • Browse content in Comparative Law
  • Systems of Law
  • Competition Law
  • Browse content in Constitutional and Administrative Law
  • Government Powers
  • Judicial Review
  • Local Government Law
  • Military and Defence Law
  • Parliamentary and Legislative Practice
  • Construction Law
  • Contract Law
  • Browse content in Criminal Law
  • Criminal Procedure
  • Criminal Evidence Law
  • Sentencing and Punishment
  • Employment and Labour Law
  • Environment and Energy Law
  • Browse content in Financial Law
  • Banking Law
  • Insolvency Law
  • History of Law
  • Human Rights and Immigration
  • Intellectual Property Law
  • Browse content in International Law
  • Private International Law and Conflict of Laws
  • Public International Law
  • IT and Communications Law
  • Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law
  • Law and Politics
  • Law and Society
  • Browse content in Legal System and Practice
  • Courts and Procedure
  • Legal Skills and Practice
  • Primary Sources of Law
  • Regulation of Legal Profession
  • Medical and Healthcare Law
  • Browse content in Policing
  • Criminal Investigation and Detection
  • Police and Security Services
  • Police Procedure and Law
  • Police Regional Planning
  • Browse content in Property Law
  • Personal Property Law
  • Study and Revision
  • Terrorism and National Security Law
  • Browse content in Trusts Law
  • Wills and Probate or Succession
  • Browse content in Medicine and Health
  • Browse content in Allied Health Professions
  • Arts Therapies
  • Clinical Science
  • Dietetics and Nutrition
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Operating Department Practice
  • Physiotherapy
  • Radiography
  • Speech and Language Therapy
  • Browse content in Anaesthetics
  • General Anaesthesia
  • Neuroanaesthesia
  • Clinical Neuroscience
  • Browse content in Clinical Medicine
  • Acute Medicine
  • Cardiovascular Medicine
  • Clinical Genetics
  • Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics
  • Dermatology
  • Endocrinology and Diabetes
  • Gastroenterology
  • Genito-urinary Medicine
  • Geriatric Medicine
  • Infectious Diseases
  • Medical Toxicology
  • Medical Oncology
  • Pain Medicine
  • Palliative Medicine
  • Rehabilitation Medicine
  • Respiratory Medicine and Pulmonology
  • Rheumatology
  • Sleep Medicine
  • Sports and Exercise Medicine
  • Community Medical Services
  • Critical Care
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Forensic Medicine
  • Haematology
  • History of Medicine
  • Browse content in Medical Skills
  • Clinical Skills
  • Communication Skills
  • Nursing Skills
  • Surgical Skills
  • Browse content in Medical Dentistry
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
  • Paediatric Dentistry
  • Restorative Dentistry and Orthodontics
  • Surgical Dentistry
  • Medical Ethics
  • Medical Statistics and Methodology
  • Browse content in Neurology
  • Clinical Neurophysiology
  • Neuropathology
  • Nursing Studies
  • Browse content in Obstetrics and Gynaecology
  • Gynaecology
  • Occupational Medicine
  • Ophthalmology
  • Otolaryngology (ENT)
  • Browse content in Paediatrics
  • Neonatology
  • Browse content in Pathology
  • Chemical Pathology
  • Clinical Cytogenetics and Molecular Genetics
  • Histopathology
  • Medical Microbiology and Virology
  • Patient Education and Information
  • Browse content in Pharmacology
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Browse content in Popular Health
  • Caring for Others
  • Complementary and Alternative Medicine
  • Self-help and Personal Development
  • Browse content in Preclinical Medicine
  • Cell Biology
  • Molecular Biology and Genetics
  • Reproduction, Growth and Development
  • Primary Care
  • Professional Development in Medicine
  • Browse content in Psychiatry
  • Addiction Medicine
  • Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  • Forensic Psychiatry
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Old Age Psychiatry
  • Psychotherapy
  • Browse content in Public Health and Epidemiology
  • Epidemiology
  • Public Health
  • Browse content in Radiology
  • Clinical Radiology
  • Interventional Radiology
  • Nuclear Medicine
  • Radiation Oncology
  • Reproductive Medicine
  • Browse content in Surgery
  • Cardiothoracic Surgery
  • Gastro-intestinal and Colorectal Surgery
  • General Surgery
  • Neurosurgery
  • Paediatric Surgery
  • Peri-operative Care
  • Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery
  • Surgical Oncology
  • Transplant Surgery
  • Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery
  • Vascular Surgery
  • Browse content in Science and Mathematics
  • Browse content in Biological Sciences
  • Aquatic Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Bioinformatics and Computational Biology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Ecology and Conservation
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Genetics and Genomics
  • Microbiology
  • Molecular and Cell Biology
  • Natural History
  • Plant Sciences and Forestry
  • Research Methods in Life Sciences
  • Structural Biology
  • Systems Biology
  • Zoology and Animal Sciences
  • Browse content in Chemistry
  • Analytical Chemistry
  • Computational Chemistry
  • Crystallography
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Industrial Chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemistry
  • Materials Chemistry
  • Medicinal Chemistry
  • Mineralogy and Gems
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Physical Chemistry
  • Polymer Chemistry
  • Study and Communication Skills in Chemistry
  • Theoretical Chemistry
  • Browse content in Computer Science
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Computer Architecture and Logic Design
  • Game Studies
  • Human-Computer Interaction
  • Mathematical Theory of Computation
  • Programming Languages
  • Software Engineering
  • Systems Analysis and Design
  • Virtual Reality
  • Browse content in Computing
  • Business Applications
  • Computer Security
  • Computer Games
  • Computer Networking and Communications
  • Digital Lifestyle
  • Graphical and Digital Media Applications
  • Operating Systems
  • Browse content in Earth Sciences and Geography
  • Atmospheric Sciences
  • Environmental Geography
  • Geology and the Lithosphere
  • Maps and Map-making
  • Meteorology and Climatology
  • Oceanography and Hydrology
  • Palaeontology
  • Physical Geography and Topography
  • Regional Geography
  • Soil Science
  • Urban Geography
  • Browse content in Engineering and Technology
  • Agriculture and Farming
  • Biological Engineering
  • Civil Engineering, Surveying, and Building
  • Electronics and Communications Engineering
  • Energy Technology
  • Engineering (General)
  • Environmental Science, Engineering, and Technology
  • History of Engineering and Technology
  • Mechanical Engineering and Materials
  • Technology of Industrial Chemistry
  • Transport Technology and Trades
  • Browse content in Environmental Science
  • Applied Ecology (Environmental Science)
  • Conservation of the Environment (Environmental Science)
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Environmentalist Thought and Ideology (Environmental Science)
  • Management of Land and Natural Resources (Environmental Science)
  • Natural Disasters (Environmental Science)
  • Nuclear Issues (Environmental Science)
  • Pollution and Threats to the Environment (Environmental Science)
  • Social Impact of Environmental Issues (Environmental Science)
  • History of Science and Technology
  • Browse content in Materials Science
  • Ceramics and Glasses
  • Composite Materials
  • Metals, Alloying, and Corrosion
  • Nanotechnology
  • Browse content in Mathematics
  • Applied Mathematics
  • Biomathematics and Statistics
  • History of Mathematics
  • Mathematical Education
  • Mathematical Finance
  • Mathematical Analysis
  • Numerical and Computational Mathematics
  • Probability and Statistics
  • Pure Mathematics
  • Browse content in Neuroscience
  • Cognition and Behavioural Neuroscience
  • Development of the Nervous System
  • Disorders of the Nervous System
  • History of Neuroscience
  • Invertebrate Neurobiology
  • Molecular and Cellular Systems
  • Neuroendocrinology and Autonomic Nervous System
  • Neuroscientific Techniques
  • Sensory and Motor Systems
  • Browse content in Physics
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics
  • Biological and Medical Physics
  • Classical Mechanics
  • Computational Physics
  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Electromagnetism, Optics, and Acoustics
  • History of Physics
  • Mathematical and Statistical Physics
  • Measurement Science
  • Nuclear Physics
  • Particles and Fields
  • Plasma Physics
  • Quantum Physics
  • Relativity and Gravitation
  • Semiconductor and Mesoscopic Physics
  • Browse content in Psychology
  • Affective Sciences
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Criminal and Forensic Psychology
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Educational Psychology
  • Evolutionary Psychology
  • Health Psychology
  • History and Systems in Psychology
  • Music Psychology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Organizational Psychology
  • Psychological Assessment and Testing
  • Psychology of Human-Technology Interaction
  • Psychology Professional Development and Training
  • Research Methods in Psychology
  • Social Psychology
  • Browse content in Social Sciences
  • Browse content in Anthropology
  • Anthropology of Religion
  • Human Evolution
  • Medical Anthropology
  • Physical Anthropology
  • Regional Anthropology
  • Social and Cultural Anthropology
  • Theory and Practice of Anthropology
  • Browse content in Business and Management
  • Business Ethics
  • Business Strategy
  • Business History
  • Business and Technology
  • Business and Government
  • Business and the Environment
  • Comparative Management
  • Corporate Governance
  • Corporate Social Responsibility
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Health Management
  • Human Resource Management
  • Industrial and Employment Relations
  • Industry Studies
  • Information and Communication Technologies
  • International Business
  • Knowledge Management
  • Management and Management Techniques
  • Operations Management
  • Organizational Theory and Behaviour
  • Pensions and Pension Management
  • Public and Nonprofit Management
  • Strategic Management
  • Supply Chain Management
  • Browse content in Criminology and Criminal Justice
  • Criminal Justice
  • Criminology
  • Forms of Crime
  • International and Comparative Criminology
  • Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice
  • Development Studies
  • Browse content in Economics
  • Agricultural, Environmental, and Natural Resource Economics
  • Asian Economics
  • Behavioural Finance
  • Behavioural Economics and Neuroeconomics
  • Econometrics and Mathematical Economics
  • Economic History
  • Economic Systems
  • Economic Methodology
  • Economic Development and Growth
  • Financial Markets
  • Financial Institutions and Services
  • General Economics and Teaching
  • Health, Education, and Welfare
  • History of Economic Thought
  • International Economics
  • Labour and Demographic Economics
  • Law and Economics
  • Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics
  • Microeconomics
  • Public Economics
  • Urban, Rural, and Regional Economics
  • Welfare Economics
  • Browse content in Education
  • Adult Education and Continuous Learning
  • Care and Counselling of Students
  • Early Childhood and Elementary Education
  • Educational Equipment and Technology
  • Educational Strategies and Policy
  • Higher and Further Education
  • Organization and Management of Education
  • Philosophy and Theory of Education
  • Schools Studies
  • Secondary Education
  • Teaching of a Specific Subject
  • Teaching of Specific Groups and Special Educational Needs
  • Teaching Skills and Techniques
  • Browse content in Environment
  • Applied Ecology (Social Science)
  • Climate Change
  • Conservation of the Environment (Social Science)
  • Environmentalist Thought and Ideology (Social Science)
  • Natural Disasters (Environment)
  • Social Impact of Environmental Issues (Social Science)
  • Browse content in Human Geography
  • Cultural Geography
  • Economic Geography
  • Political Geography
  • Browse content in Interdisciplinary Studies
  • Communication Studies
  • Museums, Libraries, and Information Sciences
  • Browse content in Politics
  • African Politics
  • Asian Politics
  • Chinese Politics
  • Comparative Politics
  • Conflict Politics
  • Elections and Electoral Studies
  • Environmental Politics
  • European Union
  • Foreign Policy
  • Gender and Politics
  • Human Rights and Politics
  • Indian Politics
  • International Relations
  • International Organization (Politics)
  • International Political Economy
  • Irish Politics
  • Latin American Politics
  • Middle Eastern Politics
  • Political Behaviour
  • Political Economy
  • Political Institutions
  • Political Methodology
  • Political Communication
  • Political Philosophy
  • Political Sociology
  • Political Theory
  • Politics and Law
  • Public Policy
  • Public Administration
  • Quantitative Political Methodology
  • Regional Political Studies
  • Russian Politics
  • Security Studies
  • State and Local Government
  • UK Politics
  • US Politics
  • Browse content in Regional and Area Studies
  • African Studies
  • Asian Studies
  • East Asian Studies
  • Japanese Studies
  • Latin American Studies
  • Middle Eastern Studies
  • Native American Studies
  • Scottish Studies
  • Browse content in Research and Information
  • Research Methods
  • Browse content in Social Work
  • Addictions and Substance Misuse
  • Adoption and Fostering
  • Care of the Elderly
  • Child and Adolescent Social Work
  • Couple and Family Social Work
  • Developmental and Physical Disabilities Social Work
  • Direct Practice and Clinical Social Work
  • Emergency Services
  • Human Behaviour and the Social Environment
  • International and Global Issues in Social Work
  • Mental and Behavioural Health
  • Social Justice and Human Rights
  • Social Policy and Advocacy
  • Social Work and Crime and Justice
  • Social Work Macro Practice
  • Social Work Practice Settings
  • Social Work Research and Evidence-based Practice
  • Welfare and Benefit Systems
  • Browse content in Sociology
  • Childhood Studies
  • Community Development
  • Comparative and Historical Sociology
  • Economic Sociology
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Gerontology and Ageing
  • Health, Illness, and Medicine
  • Marriage and the Family
  • Migration Studies
  • Occupations, Professions, and Work
  • Organizations
  • Population and Demography
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Social Theory
  • Social Movements and Social Change
  • Social Research and Statistics
  • Social Stratification, Inequality, and Mobility
  • Sociology of Religion
  • Sociology of Education
  • Sport and Leisure
  • Urban and Rural Studies
  • Browse content in Warfare and Defence
  • Defence Strategy, Planning, and Research
  • Land Forces and Warfare
  • Military Administration
  • Military Life and Institutions
  • Naval Forces and Warfare
  • Other Warfare and Defence Issues
  • Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution
  • Weapons and Equipment

The Oxford Handbook of South African History

  • < Previous chapter
  • Next chapter >

Afrikaner Nationalism and White Politics, 1910–1948

Department of History, Stellenbosch University

  • Published: 22 May 2023
  • Cite Icon Cite
  • Permissions Icon Permissions

This chapter unpacks the dynamics of Afrikaner nationalism during the first half of the twentieth century. It includes dimensions such as the historiography of Afrikaner nationalism, the ways in which the movement was mobilized, gender relations, the reification of history, and the manner in which events impinged on developments. The trajectory of Afrikaner nationalism was not a simple, linear process, but several inter-Afrikaner tensions had to be negotiated. It finally points out that at the time of the watershed election of 1948, apartheid was not necessarily a fixed concept and its implications only emerged later.

Afrikaner Nationalism: “Building a Volk”

As a cultural and political phenomenon, a specifically ethnic and narrowly defined Afrikaner nationalism undoubtedly left its mark on twentieth-century South African history. This is about the only uncontroversial statement that can be made in connection with Afrikaner nationalism. There are divergent interpretations concerning the origins of Afrikaner nationalism, the nature and contents thereof, and the way in which it was manufactured, as well as the precise correlation between Afrikaner nationalism and socioeconomic developments.

Much of the historical writing in Afrikaans dealing with Afrikaner nationalism presents it as an unproblematic concept. Afrikaner nationalism is naturalized to the extent that it is seen, in a mechanical fashion, as the automatic outcome of South African history. The weakness in this approach is that that which must be studied is accepted uncritically as a natural given entity. The result is a tautological argument with very little explanatory value: “Afrikaners are nationalistic because they are Afrikaners.”

Liberal, mainly English-speaking historians were more critical toward Afrikaner nationalism. Ironically, though, their basic point of departure did not differ much from that of their Afrikaner counterparts. With Afrikaner historians they shared in analytical terms the unproblematic acceptance of the concept of volk as well as the idealistic notions of the growth of nationalism. The only substantial difference is that whereas some English-speaking historians generally denounced nationalism, often in value-laden terms, Afrikaner historians viewed it as a positive phenomenon.

Subsequent studies tend to pay greater attention to the material basis of Afrikaner nationalism. It is also seen as the cultural and political product of intense ideological labor. While the precise mix of material, cultural, and political factors is a matter of debate, there is nevertheless a degree of consensus that “ethnic or clan affiliation does not survive because it’s an innate characteristic of people and families or of their culture; it survives, or more accurately is recreated or reconstituted, because it is functional to the conditions of peoples’ present lives.” 1

In line with such an approach, Afrikaner nationalism is seen in general terms as a broad social and political response to the uneven development of capitalism in South Africa, which meant that certain groups, including a substantial number of Afrikaners, were left behind. It was within a context of increasing urbanization and secondary industrialization during the period between the two world wars, as well as the continuing British imperial influence in South Africa, that Afrikaner nationalism made headway. Important ideological building blocks in this process were the following: the promotion of a common language, the emphasis on what was perceived to be a common past, and the unity of a common sense of religion.

Prominent in the construction and direction in which Afrikaner nationalism was pushed was the Afrikaner middle class, comprising, for example, ministers of religion, teachers, academics, journalists, farmers, and certain elements in the civil service. Many leading middle-class Afrikaners in the 1930s and 1940s belonged to a secret organization called the Afrikaner Broederbond, which ceaselessly endeavored to promote the exclusive interests of “true” Afrikaners on behalf of the volk . To unite rural people and urban people, rich and poor; political idealists; and pragmatists under the banner of Afrikaner nationalism called for sustained ideological labor on several levels over a number of years.

One of the important concerns was the level of impoverishment among a sizable proportion of Afrikanerdom. This destitution can be traced back to rudimentary farming during the pioneering days of the Boer republics and poor agricultural conditions in large parts of the Cape Colony. It was, however, the wholesale British destruction of Boer homesteads and cattle during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902 (South African War) that ultimately contributed to widespread poverty. The situation was compounded by increasing class tensions as wealthier landowners who had the resources to survive the war started to buy up farms from their less fortunate brethren. Increasingly, the more structural vulnerable, including so-called bywoners who had lost their land or never possessed land, worked as White farmhands and had to bear the brunt of displacement.

While a serious drought in 1916 added to the woes of those on margins, it was the depression of the early 1930s that was a hammer blow, forcing an unprecedented number of Afrikaners off the land and into the cities. Many of them lacked the necessary skills to assert themselves in the new and competitive urban milieu and were relegated to relatively low-paid positions. For example, almost 40 percent of urbanized male Afrikaners found themselves in the following occupations in 1939: manual laborer, mine worker, railway worker, and bricklayer. 2 According to the report of the Carnegie Commission, which inquired into White poverty in 1932, almost 200,000 to 300,000 could be classified as very poor. The cold statistics, however, did not reflect the profoundly human story of suffering and humiliation. A contemporary church commission sketched the lot of the new urban Afrikaner in the following empathic terms:

He was looked down upon, he had to come with his hat in hand, he had to be satisfied with the crumbs which fell from the tables of the rich. To make any sort of progress, however little, he had to beg the English oppressor and had to obey his every command. Any job that was offered him, however humiliating, dangerous and lowly paid it might have been, he had to accept with gratitude. He and his family had to be satisfied with the worst living conditions in the dirty ghettoes. The door to well-paid occupations was firmly closed. His erstwhile independence was reduced to humiliating servitude and bondage. 3

Part of the rationale in the flight to the cities was that a family could benefit from the wage-earning potential of women that was largely absent in the countryside. Single rural women also followed that route. Demanding factory work at breadline wages, which was claimed, was sapping the physical energies of these women and also threatened their moral convictions, leading to sexual immorality. 4

Urbanization hardly relieved rural poverty. It remained particularly acute in the Northern Cape with its nomadic trekboers, in the Bushveld area of the Transvaal, in the Karoo and Little Karoo with its struggling peasant farmers and bywoners , and in the Southern Cape where former independent woodcutters were fighting a rearguard action against rapacious wood merchants.

In middle- and upper-middle-class circles there were serious concerns that not only did the poor reflect badly on Afrikaners per se; but, as they sank further into poverty, their links to nationalist politics might also become increasingly tenuous as they explored what were considered foreign ideologies promising salvation to the marginalized. In short, impoverished Afrikaners had to be rescued for the volk .

In this respect, a range of Afrikaner networks and organizations could be drawn upon to play their part in general upliftment. These included the Broederbond (the Brotherhood), an organization with tentacles across the country and whose male members were sworn to secrecy; financial institutions like Sanlam, an insurance firm, and a bank like Volkskas were touted as premier Afrikaner establishments that could be relied upon to work in the best interests of all Afrikaners. An umbrella body like the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurverenigings saw to it that all Afrikaner cultural forms took a decidedly nationalistic turn. In the Broederbond as well as in other circles, a strategy combining ethnic cultural and political mobilization allied with the promotion of volkskapitalisme (capitalism in the interest of the volk ) was seen as solution to the problem. Moreover, ethnic mobilization encompassed a strong appeal to status and psychological needs in providing a greater sense of “belonging,” assuaging feelings of inferiority engendered by an overwhelming English culture. 5 These were important initiatives in securing the future of the volk.

In a strongly patriarchal Afrikaner society, it was often men who took the lead in nationalistic and cultural projects. The role of women can, however, be easily underestimated. The notion of the self-sacrificing volksmoeder was an integral element in the national ethos. It was the volksmoeder who had to transmit the appropriate aspirations and ideals to the young and who had to provide a home environment in which Afrikaner ideals could be cherished. In addition, her influence was not to be restricted to the household only; she was also expected to play an active supportive role in the promotion of wider nationalistic politics. Although not all Afrikaner women followed the script that had been written for them, the notion of the volksmoeder was nevertheless seen as a role model worthy for young Afrikaner girls to emulate. As a result, the continued incorporation of women into a male-dominated nationalism was assured. The volksmoeder ideal meant that women could gain social recognition only as participants in the lives of their husbands and children; plotting their own course outside the prescribed framework was distinctly frowned upon. The powerful hold of the volksmoeder ideal is evident from the fact that it had resonance even among working-class women who had joined socialistically inclined trade unions under non-Afrikaner leadership, such as the Garment Workers’ Union under Solly Sachs. Working-class women who adopted the symbols and rhetoric of the volksmoeder then proceeded to redefine it for themselves. It was only then, they felt, that they could claim legitimacy as full members of society. 6

Trade unionism was an important field for Afrikaner cultural entrepreneurs. Afrikaner workers had to be organized within a nationalist context and had to be weaned from the existing trade unions dominated by English speakers. Broederbond Afrikaner unions like the Spoorbond and the Afrikaner Bond van Mynwerkers were established to look after the specific interests of Afrikaans speakers on the railways and in the gold mines. The Spoorbond was relatively successful, but the Afrikaner Bond van Mynwerkers met with considerable opposition from the already established Mine Workers’ Union. The Mine Workers’ Union had come to an agreement with the mine owners that the Afrikaner union would not be recognized and that only members of the predominantly English-speaking union would be employed. Thus, Afrikaans speakers were compelled to work as “reformers” within the framework of the often-corrupt Mine Workers’ Union. This gave rise to considerable tension to such an extent that the secretary of the Mine Workers’ Union, Charlie Harris, was shot by an outraged Afrikaner in 1939. To establish an organized Afrikaner influence in the mines was more difficult than originally anticipated.

A marked feature of the way in which Afrikaner nationalism was constructed was the emphasis being placed on history. The past that presented itself was preeminently that of the nineteenth century: the Great Trek, the Anglo-Boer War, and the concentration camps during that war. These events were cast in near religious terms with Afrikaners as God’s chosen people, destined to bring civilization and Christianity to the southern tip of Africa.

Of particular significance in molding an Afrikaner identity during the 1930s were the centenary celebrations of the Great Trek in 1938. The Great Trek, which assumed pride of place in Afrikaner history, was commemorated by nine ox wagons, slowly making their way from Cape Town to the north. It turned out to be an unprecedented cultural and political theater; feverish crowds dressed in period Voortrekker garb welcomed the procession as it approached the towns and cities. Streets were named after Voortrekker heroes; men and women were moved to tears by the spectacle; young people were married alongside the vehicles; couples christened their babies in the shade of the wagons (many infants were given names derived from the Great Trek, such as Eeufesia and Kakebeenwania ). Although this “second Trek” had been carefully orchestrated by Afrikaner cultural entrepreneurs, even they were taken aback by the tumultuous response to the event.

This symbolic trek paralleled the economic trek of Afrikanerdom from a debilitating depression that had reduced large numbers to the ranks of poor Whites. For many former platteland Afrikaners who now found themselves in an urban environment, the centenary trek, symbolically rooted in an ideal and heroic rustic past, gave powerful expression to longings for a better, more prosperous future and to a nostalgia for a fast-eroding rural social order. At the heart of the 1938 celebrations lay the perception that Afrikaners were strangers in their own land, victims of British-rooted capitalism and an alien political culture, and that a solution lay in unified economic, political, and cultural action. And, indeed, as fractured as Afrikanerdom may have been in class terms, the 1938 celebrations served as a powerful binding agent and represented a truly unique moment of cross-class ethnic mobilization. In the celebrations and in the evocation of the heroic struggles of their forebears, Afrikaners saw themselves mirrored in history and drew inspiration from it for survival and for the future.

In evaluating the place of the celebrations in the development of Afrikaner nationalism, it is perhaps best viewed as an important populist phase. It had all the rhetoric of populist movements: “struggle,” “survival,” and “salvation.” It also displayed most of the features of populism: a moralistic rather than a programmatic content; a romantic, consciously anti-intellectual, and deliberately declassed leadership; an overt alienation from the centers of political and economic power; the launching of cooperative economic ventures, involving the small man, such as the Reddingsdaadbond ; and a strong nostalgic element in drawing upon an idealized past in attempts to help shape the present and the future. It is probably true to say that in the long term, the foundations for Afrikaner unity were laid during the centenary celebrations. 7

The Women’s Monument, erected in honor of the women who perished during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902, was another prominent heritage marker. The monument was erected approximately three kilometers south of Bloemfontein. It consists of a thirty-five-meter obelisk; adjoining it is a statue of a woman holding a dying child, supported by another woman gazing resolutely into the distance. On either side, two bas-relief panels depict women being herded into a concentration camp, clutching their few paltry possessions, and an emaciated child dying while a woman kneels at the bedside. The whole monument stands in a circular enclosure. Situated between some small hills against the background of a vast open veld, the monument blends in with the natural surroundings; the landscape itself becomes part of the monument, reinforcing the idea of the Boer people as a rural nation. The monument was largely funded by public subscription.

Despite enthusiasm for the monument, political messages of nationalist intent did not overtly dominate proceedings with the opening ceremony of the monument in 1913. Deliberate attempts were made to elevate the occasion to a spiritual level and not to turn it into an Afrikaner political rally, promoting ethnic exclusivity. Afrikaner political life and religion were, however, often intertwined. Underneath the surface, a vast reservoir of unexpressed emotions swirled that could be channeled along nationalistic lines of common suffering, humiliation, and a need for retribution at a later stage.

What was muted in 1913 became shriller and more strident in the 1930s and 1940s. Cultural entrepreneurs, including ministers of religion and teachers, regularly used the monument as a symbol to drive home nationalistic messages. Author Marq de Villiers, who went to school in Bloemfontein during this period, recalls that they were taken annually to the monument:

We understood viscerally as children that the monument was not merely a stone expression of the evil that outsiders do; it is a symbol of how the volkseie [that which is integral to the volk] is fundamental to a people’s identity: outsiders, people outside the burgerstand [ volk who were foreign to the fundamental thought patterns of the people, will always try to do you harm. The only solution is tight solidarity. 8

Although the Women’s Monument became a focal symbol of ethnic allegiance, it did not attain the same status as the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. The cornerstone of the Voortrekker Monument was laid on December 16, 1938, at the height of the centenary celebrations of the Great Trek. Eleven years later, on December 16, 1949, after the historic victory of the National Party in 1948, the Voortrekker Monument was inaugurated with great fanfare. It was conceived and constructed during an intensively nationalistic period that made the meaning attributed to it unambiguous. In contrast, the Women’s Monument did not bear the mark of nationalism and had to “grow” into the movement; its meaning had to be reassigned. Moreover, the Great Trek represented a preeminently successful period in Afrikaner history with the establishment of independent Boer Republics in the interior, while the South African War, despite the endurance of the bitter-enders and the sacrifices of the women, ultimately represented defeat; it constituted a period of suffering that would serve as a constant reminder of past grievances and therefore did not lend itself to celebration.

Another important factor in the construction of Afrikaner nationalism, as already alluded to, was the confluence of religion as practiced by Afrikaans churches and its alignment with the volk. Religious thinking morphed into a form of civil religion. Afrikaans churches drew heavily on theologies that originated from the Netherlands. It was especially inspired by Calvinism with its emphasis on divinely separate silos or structures in society that gave rise to a notion, though challenged occasionally, that Afrikaners had a religious duty to maintain existing arrangements. The Dutch Reformed Church became known as the volkskerk (church of the volk). This rigid thinking contributed to and foreshadowed later apartheid thinking, in the sense that black people were regarded as comprising separate ethnic units. Missionary work likewise proceeded from the assumption of White trusteeship claiming to represent what was considered in the best interests of black people.

Religion aside, the growth and role of Afrikaans as a public language during this period acted as a nationalist binding agent. In 1925, Afrikaans was declared an official language, alongside English and replacing Dutch. This step provided a platform for the development of what turned out to be a vibrant literary culture and the gradual establishment of Afrikaans as a higher-order scientific language at university level. Afrikaans stood central in the collective endeavors of cultural entrepreneurs. It had a homogenizing effect permeating virtually all Afrikaans circles, from school to pulpit and the world of commerce and technology. Other than White Afrikaans speakers, such as “colored” people, were, however, largely neglected in this process. 9

Evolving Political Dynamics

Although White political parties represented only a relatively small section of the total South African population in an all-White parliament, their rivalry and jockeying for position are of interest as at the time parliament was still the cockpit of power. The unification of South Africa in 1910 confirmed the legitimacy of that position with South Africa as a dominion of Britain.

The ramifications of this became apparent with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. As a dominion, South Africa was automatically at war with Germany but could choose to what extent it was prepared to participate. The South African Party, which spearheaded the new Union Government under General Louis Botha as prime minister and General J. C. Smuts, voted in favor of Britain’s request to invade and secure the neighboring German South West Africa (modern-day Namibia). The campaign was successful, but the decision to invade had a backlash among certain Afrikaners.

A sizable section of Afrikaner voters regarded it as ill advised to do Britain’s bidding so soon after the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902 and to attack a German colony while Germany had expressed some sympathy for the Boer republics during the Anglo-Boer conflict of little more than a decade ago. Febrile circumstances led to an armed uprising in August 1914 of some 11,000 men, mainly in the Free State and Transvaal. The rebellion, which was poorly planned, was quickly quelled by government forces. Its leaders consisted of well-known Afrikaner nationalists, but also a retinue of opportunistic poor Whites who regarded the rebellion as a chance to improve their positions should the rebellion be successful and they be rewarded for their services. Although the rebellion was a dismal failure, it did leave in its wake a set of new nationalist martyrs (in part as a result of Smuts’s perceived callousness in dealing with some rebels) who could be invoked for future nationalist mobilization. General J. B. M. Hertzog, another stalwart from the Anglo-Boer War, who had broken off from the Botha cabinet in 1912 to form the National Party in January 1914, sympathized with the rebels but was careful not to express open support for extra-parliamentary armed protest. 10

General J. C. Smuts, who succeeded Botha as premier after the latter’s death in 1919, managed to estrange himself further from Afrikaner voters through a ruthless suppression of the 1922 strike of White workers on the Witwatersrand. Among the strikers were a fair number of Afrikaners. The 1924 election saw Hertzog coming to power in a coalition with the Labour Party to form the “Pact government.” It gave the National Party, which was the senior partner in this agreement, a firm platform to promote its causes, and the following years were marked by the gradual institutionalization of nationalist ideology and a rapid growth of Afrikaner cultural organizations.

The economic crisis of the Great Depression of 1929 to 1933, compounded by one of the worst droughts the country had ever experienced, prompted yet another political arrangement. The crisis reached such proportions that Smuts and Hertzog in the interest of the greater good decided to merge their two parties (South African Party and National Party) into the United Party. A strong central party, spanning language differences, was required to address the country’s economic ills. Hertzog was to be party leader and Smuts his deputy. Political fusion did not carry the approval of all concerned. D. F. Malan, a Cape nationalist who was of the opinion that “true” Afrikaner interests were not being served by the United Party, broke away in 1934 to form the “Purified National Party,” to distinguish it from Hertzog’s earlier National Party. Gradually, though, after some reinventions, it reverted back to the name National Party, a party that, over time, was destined to play a major role in South African politics.

The personal prestige of Smuts and Hertzog did much to counter fissiparous and fractious elements in the United Party. Hertzog as a champion of Afrikaans causes worked ceaselessly to achieve parity between Afrikaans- and English-speakers in all fields. In a nutshell, his political philosophy can be reduced to three basic elements: equality between all Whites; an insistence, under the slogan “South Africa first,” that South African interest should take precedence over that from Britain; and racial segregation. Fusion was for him an embodiment of his two-stream policy, comprising English and Afrikaner interests in equal measure. Likewise, fusion fit in well with Smuts’s philosophy of the holism of creating expanding spheres of influence and cooperation. In addition, with the incorporation of Hertzog’s nationalists, Smuts was able to broaden his Afrikaner support base considerably. He hoped that such unity as had been achieved would become more durable and put an end to the incessant and, to Smuts, often petty political bickering.

The United Party could claim significant economic advances under its stewardship. Ultimately, though, despite some outward signs of stability, it proved to be a rather brittle union. Matters came to a head with the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Unlike the constitutional arrangement during the time of World War I, South Africa could now choose whether or not it was prepared to enter the war on the side of Britain. The cabinet was divided with Smuts and Hertzog taking diametrically opposing views. On September 4, 1939, the issue was debated in parliament; outside parliament the public waited in suspense to hear whether South Africa would join the fray. Hertzog argued that if South Africa did support Britain, it would be an indication that a certain section of the population was more concerned about British than South African interests. This would have run counter to the policy he had been pursuing in the United Party as it would have compromised the country’s independence and freedom. Smuts in turn deftly outlined the international situation and the possible ramifications of what he considered an ill-fated policy of neutrality. South Africa’s interests would not be served by remaining neutral, he argued. On the contrary, he claimed, in a worldwide conflagration it could only be to the country’s benefit to align itself unambiguously with Britain. It could not afford to stand alone. Smuts won the day, but it was a close call with a margin of thirteen votes separating Smuts and Hertzog. The outcome also marked the beginning of the end of Hertzog’s political career, while Smuts literally soldiered on.

The decision to enter the war was a disappointment for many Afrikaners. It had the effect of boosting extra-parliamentary organizations. One such organization was the Ossewabrandwag (Oxwagon Sentinel). The Ossewabrandwag, established soon after the 1938 Voortrekker Centenary, promoted itself as a cultural organization intent on keeping the “spirit of ’38” alive. It claimed to stand aloof from the sordid squabbles of party politics. Petty political differences were prone to divide Afrikanerdom, and therefore the organization had to guard against divisions generated by the dynamics of party politics.

The movement, with its emphasis on a cultural heritage, grew apace. Membership claims of between 300,000 and 400,000 in 1941 were probably only a slight exaggeration. The strength of its appeal lay in its ability to promote kulturpolitiek (culture politics) which allowed for full individual expression and participation. The advantage of this strategy is well explained by authors Roberts and Trollip:

The OB succeeded because it seemed to offer every man – and at first also to every woman—the chance of an individual and ponderable contribution to the great task of unifying the Afrikaner nation. At “braaivleisaande” [barbeque evenings] and “jukskei” [tenpin] meetings, at the local “kultuurvereniging” [cultural club] and even on occasion at church, Afrikaners could meet in that Trekker dress which was to be the uniform of the movement, and feel a sense of community of culture, of common heritage, of organised progress towards a great goal—a feeling which they did not always (or even, perhaps, often) experience within the framework of their political parties. 11

The leader of the Ossewabrandwag was Dr. Hans van Rensburg, a former administrator of the Free State. As the movement grew, and as it seemed possible in the early stages of World War II that Germany might well emerge as the victors abroad, the Ossewabrandwag became more outspoken and styled itself along more explicitly militaristic lines. This was particularly evident in the formation of an elite corps, the Stormjaers (Stormtroopers). They constituted a semi-military wing of the Ossewabrandwag and committed acts of wartime sabotage. They were also involved in some street thuggery and assaults on soldiers who had volunteered to fight abroad.

The Ossewabrandwag had clearly become more than a mere cultural organization. It had now entered the political fray. Van Rensburg described himself as “leader of disciplined Afrikanerdom” and openly advocated an authoritarian one-party state. This was to set him not only on a collision course with the Smuts government—approximately 2,000 Ossewabrandwag men were placed in internment camps for antiwar activities—but also with the National Party.

Despite an initial cordial relationship between the Ossewabrandwag and the Gesuiwerde National Party, the party as the political voice of Afrikanerdom became somewhat perturbed as it watched with growing unease how the Ossewabrandwag encroached on what the nationalists regarded as their territory. Increasingly, the Ossewabrandwag came to represent a threat to the nationalist leadership. Attempts and agreements to try to delineate a political field for the party and a separate cultural sphere for the Ossewabrandwag proved to be futile; each group interpreted such undertakings to suit their own purposes.

There was an intense rivalry among the entrenched leaders of the party and the new ambitious architects of the Ossewabrandwag . The battle for the soul of Afrikanerdom was on. In opposing the Ossewabrandwag , D. F. Malan projected the party as offering more in the field of realpolitiek than the Ossewabrandwag could deliver. Following the party down the parliamentary route, Malan argued, was the only realistic proposition for ensuring that Afrikaners stay in the race for power. Those Afrikaners who put their faith in the more fanciful ideas of the Ossewabrandwag were not only abandoning establishment politics but also instrumental in actually dividing Afrikanerdom itself. The Ossewabrandwag , Malan warned, was leading Afrikanerdom down a cul-de-sac. It was the party that rightfully occupied the central place in Afrikaner political life, and it was best positioned to lead them into the promised land.

Furthermore, to offset the popular appeal of the Ossewabrandwag , Malan and his lieutenants also decided to reorganize the party to make it more accessible to grass-roots members. The size of the party units was decreased, making it possible for even the smallest grouping of Afrikaners to form their own political cell. The aim was to educate the ordinary member in the political faith; “he was to be made to feel that he counted for something in the deliberation of his chiefs.” 12

Apart from such restructuring, Malan was also aided by events in Europe. As the prospects of a German victory receded, enthusiasm for the Ossewabrandwag began to wane in South Africa. Under a changed set of circumstances, Ossewabrandwag leaders found it difficult to recast their rhetoric and to extol the supposed virtues of authoritarian dictatorship. Even for their most ardent followers, the message of the Ossewabrandwag began to appear somewhat hollow. With Germany out of the picture as the possible outside liberator of Afrikanerdom, the parliamentary route of Malan made more sense. In 1943, the party could confidently claim that it was the dominant political representative of what it regarded as true Afrikaners.

Certain elements in extra-parliamentary movements that had flourished during this time indulged in authoritarian rhetoric. Some authors, critical of later Afrikaner race policies, were quick to equate the post-1948 apartheid state with the Nazi state of the 1930s and 1940s. Given the universal opprobrium heaped upon the Nazis and the general scorn evoked by apartheid, the analogy was a tempting one, and one that could moreover be readily understood and appreciated abroad. Such a one-to-one equation, however, obscures more than it reveals. Although some right-wing Afrikaners did identify with Nazi Germany in terms of realpolitik , Nazi influence in South Africa was rather limited. The affinities between Afrikaner nationalism and German national-socialism appeared to be mainly that of mutual ideological sympathy rather than deep-seated structural similarities. Afrikaner nationalists differed from their German counterparts in terms of their belief in the doctrine of Christian-nationalism as opposed to the crude pseudo-scientific social Darwinism of the Nazis; Afrikaners felt no need to exterminate what they considered the inferior races; and although Afrikaners respected strong leaders, there was no cult of the Führer. Afrikaner nationalism owed its characteristics and thrust more to the evolvement of a specific historical ideology and the localized material conditions of the times than to the adoption of an ideology that originated outside the country. Likewise, whereas Afrikaner nationalism undoubtedly harbored some authoritarian tendencies, its origins were more homespun than imported.

The United Party did well to see the war out. Ironically, though, it was somewhat less adept at dealing with peacetime conditions and dislocations. Certain weaknesses and lapses in the domestic administration of the Union in the post-1945 period gave the opposition issues to exploit for electoral gain before the 1948 election. Voters made much of bread-and-butter concerns such as the shortage of meat, the unavailability of white bread, the rate of inflation, and the government’s dismal housing record. To compound matters, it was said that the government’s immigration program had brought numerous British immigrants into the country and that they had taken homes and employment away from Afrikaners, and that the intention was also to swamp Afrikaners at the polls with a growing number of English speakers. The United Party found it difficult to counter these accusations with an adequate political response. The party was further left in a quandary as how to deal with nationalist propaganda, peddling “black peril” scares; accelerated black urbanization during the war years had given rise to this White rallying call and the incumbent government proved ineffective in countering race-inspired charges.

The National Party victory of 1948 was a close affair. While the United Party was expected to win reasonably comfortably, the nationalists, after drawing in some coalition partners, assumed power with a margin of five seats. The results have often been viewed as a watershed in South African history, and it was labeled “the apartheid election.” Yet despite the National Party’s scare tactics, it did not have a fully formulated blueprint for apartheid policy which it started to implement mechanically after 1948. Much of it was ad hoc and had to be negotiated in the face of different Afrikaner and other competing interests. 13 Besides this, it also has to be seen in the light of what went before. As one historian has succinctly pointed out, apartheid “differed in degree and direction, rather than in kind, from the policies that went before.” 14

Certainly, for the majority of voteless South Africans at the time, the election was not seen as all that crucial. Admittedly, some feared an intensification of discriminatory measures, but they also realized that the issue was more deep-seated and wide-ranging than any White election could reveal. Albert Luthuli, later to become president of the African National Congress, responded to the 1948 elections as follows:

For most of us Africans, bandied TRH Davenport about on the field while the game was in progress and then kicked to one side when the game was won, the election seemed largely irrelevant. We had endured Botha, Hertzog and Smuts. It did not seem much of importance whether the Whites gave us more Smuts or switched to Malan. 15

1   Timothy Keegan , Facing the Storm: Portraits of Black Lives in Rural South Africa (London: Zed Books, 1989), 148 . For concise perspectives on Afrikaner nationalism, see Colin Bundy , Re-making the Past: New Perspectives in South African History (Cape Town: University of Cape Town, 1985), 8–66 ; Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido , eds., The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in Twentieth Century South Africa (London: Longman Group, 1987), 16–19 ; and for more detailed analyses, T. Dunbar Moodie , The Rise of Afrikanerdom: Power, Apartheid and the Afrikaner Civil Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985) ; Herbert Adam and Hermann Giliomee , The Rise of Afrikaner Power (Cape Town: David Philip, 1985) ; Dan O’Meara , Volkskapitalisme: Class, Capital and Ideology in the Development of Afrikaner Nationalism, 1934–1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) ; Hermann Giliomee , Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2003) .

  O’Meara, Volkskapitalisme, 82.

3   J. R. Albertyn , ed., Kerk en stad: Verslag van kommissie van ondersoek oor stadstoestande (Stellenbosch: Pro-Ecclesia Drukkery, 1945), 216–217 .

4   P. Bonner , “South African Society and Culture, 1910-1948,” Cambridge History of South Africa 2 (2011): 292 .

5   Heribert Adam and Hermann Giliomee . The Rise and Crisis of Afrikaner Power (Cape Town: David Philip, 1979), 155 .

6   Elsabé Brink , “Man-Made Women: Gender, Class and the Ideology of the ‘Volksmoeder’,” in Women and Gender in South Africa , edited by Cheryl Walker , 288 (Cape Town: David Philip, 1990) .

7   Albert Grundlingh and Hilary Sapire , “From Feverish Festival to Repetitive Ritual? The Changing Fortunes of Great Trek Mythology in an Industrialising South Africa, 1938-1988,” South African Historical Journal 21, no. 1 (1989): 19–38 .

8   Marq de Villiers , White Tribe Dreaming: Apartheid’s Bitter Roots as Witnessed by Eight Generations of an Afrikaner Family (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), 237 .

9   Hermann Gilomee , Die Afrikaners van 1910–2010: Die opkoms van ‘n moderne gemeenskap (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 24 .

10   Albert Grundlingh and Sandra Swart , Radelose Rebellie? Rasionaal van die 1914 Rebellie (Pretoria: Protea Boekhuis, 2009) .

11   Michael Roberts and A. E. G. Trollip , The South African Opposition (London: Longmans, Green, 1945), 74 .

12   Ibid. , 81.

13   Deborah Posel , “The Meaning of Apartheid before 1948: Conflicting Interests and Forces within the Afrikaner Nationalist Alliance,” Journal of Southern African Studies 14, no. 1 (1987) .

14   T. R. H. Davenport , South Africa: A Modern History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 254.

15   Albert Luthuli , Let My People Go (New York: HarperCollins, 1987), 97 .

  • About Oxford Academic
  • Publish journals with us
  • University press partners
  • What we publish
  • New features  
  • Open access
  • Institutional account management
  • Rights and permissions
  • Get help with access
  • Accessibility
  • Advertising
  • Media enquiries
  • Oxford University Press
  • Oxford Languages
  • University of Oxford

Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide

  • Copyright © 2024 Oxford University Press
  • Cookie settings
  • Cookie policy
  • Privacy policy
  • Legal notice

This Feature Is Available To Subscribers Only

Sign In or Create an Account

This PDF is available to Subscribers Only

For full access to this pdf, sign in to an existing account, or purchase an annual subscription.


  1. The Great Trek stock image

    afrikaners great trek

  2. The Afrikaners

    afrikaners great trek

  3. Historical Triumphs and Disasters: South African history: the Great Trek

    afrikaners great trek

  4. Afrikaners

    afrikaners great trek

  5. The Great Trek in South Africa

    afrikaners great trek

  6. Great Trek 1835-1846

    afrikaners great trek


  1. THE Great Trek

  2. Great Trek On The Globe #voortrekkers #afrikaners #groottrek #ossewa

  3. Die spook trek saam ons, weet ons dit? #shorts

  4. Great Trek Routes

  5. Part 5/8

  6. The great trek of civil action 😇


  1. Great Trek

    The Great Trek (Afrikaans: Die Groot Trek [di ˌχruət ˈtrɛk]; Dutch: De Grote Trek [də ˌɣroːtə ˈtrɛk]) was a northward migration of Dutch-speaking settlers who travelled by wagon trains from the Cape Colony into the interior of modern South Africa from 1836 onwards, seeking to live beyond the Cape's British colonial administration. The Great Trek resulted from the culmination of ...

  2. Great Trek

    Great Trek, the emigration of some 12,000 to 14,000 Boers from Cape Colony in South Africa between 1835 and the early 1840s, in rebellion against the policies of the British government and in search of fresh pasturelands. The Great Trek is regarded by Afrikaners as a central event of their 19th-century history and the origin of their nationhood.

  3. Great Trek 1835-1846

    Great Trek 1835-1846. The Great Trek was a movement of Dutch-speaking colonists up into the interior of southern Africa in search of land where they could establish their own homeland, independent of British rule. The determination and courage of these pioneers has become the single most important element in the folk memory of Afrikaner ...

  4. Voortrekker

    Voortrekker, any of the Boers (Dutch settlers or their descendants), or, as they came to be called in the 20th century, Afrikaners, who left the British Cape Colony in Southern Africa after 1834 and migrated into the interior Highveld north of the Orange River.During the next 20 years, they founded new communities in the Southern African interior that evolved into the colony of Natal and the ...

  5. Great Trek

    Great Trek. Afrikaners left the Cape Colony (in present-day South Africa) in large numbers during the second half of the 1830s, an act that became known as the "Great Trek" and that helped define white South Africans' ethnic, cultural, and political identity. In line with Afrikaners' belief in a separate existence, developing tensions between ...

  6. Afrikaner

    Afrikaners are particularly fond of music and song. During the Great Trek and in the early pioneering days this was expressed in the singing of religious songs. Light music was made using instruments such as the violin, and the concertina and would later develop into a traditional Afrikaans music form, namely 'Boeremusiek'.

  7. What was the Great Trek?

    The Great Trek was a perilous exodus of pioneers into the heart of South Africa, looking for a place to call home. When the British took control of Cape Town and the Cape Colony in the early 1800s, tensions grew between the new colonizers of British stock, and the old colonizers, the Boers, descendants of the original Dutch settlers. From 1835 ...

  8. December 16 and the Construction of Afrikaner Nationalism

    The Great Trek and the murder of Piet Retief. From 1836 parties of trekkers began leaving the Cape Colony with the worldly goods in ox-wagons, moving north beyond the frontiers of the colony. ... The Afrikaners lost the war, and suffered great hardships, with some 25,000 women and children dying in British concentration camps. They were forced ...

  9. The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa 1815-1854

    The mass migration of the Boer farmers from Cape Colony to escape British domination in 1835-36 - the Great Trek - has always been a potent icon of Africaaner nationalism and identity. For African nationalists, the Mfecane - the vast movement of the Black populations in the interior following the emergence of a new Zulu kingdom as a major military force in the early 19th century - offers an ...

  10. Boers

    The Great Trek occurred between 1835 and the early 1840s. ... They feel that the Western-Cape based Afrikaners - whose ancestors did not trek eastwards or northwards - took advantage of the republican Boers' destitution following the Anglo-Boer War. At that time, the Afrikaners attempted to assimilate the Boers into the new politically ...

  11. Afrikaners

    Afrikaners (Afrikaans: [afriˈkɑːnərs]) are a Southern African ethnic group descended from predominantly Dutch settlers first arriving at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. ... The Great Trek split the Afrikaner community along social and geographical lines, driving a wedge between the Voortrekkers and those who remained in the Cape Colony.

  12. The Afrikaner Great Trek, 1836—1854

    The Afrikaner Great Trek, 1836—1854. By the mid-1830s dissatisfaction among the Afrikaner inhabitants of the eastern districts of the Cape colony was widespread. The 50th Ordinance of 1828 and the British parliamentary act of 1833 were depriving Afrikaners of their customary controls over labor. They had lost property in the frontier wars ...

  13. The ideology of a chosen people: Afrikaner nationalism and the Ossewa

    Perhaps the most important happening in South African history was the Great Trek, the massive movement of people, goods, wagons, north from the eastern Cape Colony into what became the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. ... A major battle between better-armed Afrikaner forces and Zulu warriors ended in triumph for the Afrikaners on 16 ...

  14. 'Translating' the Great Trek to the Twentieth Century: Re

    "Afrikaners saw the Great Trek as the central thread of their history; all events after 1806 led to it and the Anglo-Boer War was the Trek's ultimate sequel" (47). The Trek was thus transformed into a 'political myth' that was foundational for Afrikaner identity construction and white minority rule.6

  15. The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa 1815-1854

    The mass migration of the Boer farmers from Cape Colony to escape British domination in 1835-36 - the Great Trek - has always been a potent icon of Afrikaaner nationalism and identity. For African nationalists, the Mfecane - the vast movement of the Black populations in the interior following the emergence of a new Zulu kingdom as a major military force in the early 19th century - offers an ...

  16. Afrikaners on a second Great Trek

    SOME 150 years after Afrikaners left the Cape to set off on their Great Trek north, their descendants are embarking on another odyssey. This time they are not travelling in canvas-covered ox-wagons.

  17. AfricaBib

    The Great Trek centenary of 1938 was a galvanizing event in the unfolding of Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa. To date, little scholarly attention has been paid to the many fictional reconstructions of the Great Trek by both Afrikaners and English-speaking writers in South Africa and abroad in the 1920s and 1930s.

  18. Great Trek Centenary Celebrations commence

    Great Trek Centenary Celebrations commence. 8 August 1938. The Great Trek was a migration that took place between 1838 and the 1840s, and involved the Boers leaving the Cape Colony and settling in the interior of South Africa. White settlement led to the establishment of the republics of Natalia, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

  19. The Afrikaners : their last great trek

    The Afrikaners : their last great trek. Hardcover - January 1, 1989. For South Africa the year 1988 was one of politically charged anniversaries. It was 500 years since the Portuguese explorer, Bartholomeu Dias, became the first European to set foot on the southern tip of Africa. The ruling National Party marked 40 years in power, while ...

  20. Trekboers

    An aquatint by Samuel Daniell of Trekboers making camp. Depicted around 1804. The Trekboers (/ ˈ t r ɛ k b uː r s / Afrikaans: Trekboere) were nomadic pastoralists descended from European colonists on the frontiers of the Dutch Cape Colony in Southern Africa.The Trekboers began migrating into the interior from the areas surrounding what is now Cape Town, such as Paarl (settled from 1688 ...

  21. Afrikaner Nationalism and White Politics, 1910-1948

    The past that presented itself was preeminently that of the nineteenth century: the Great Trek, the Anglo-Boer War, and the concentration camps during that war. These events were cast in near religious terms with Afrikaners as God's chosen people, destined to bring civilization and Christianity to the southern tip of Africa.

  22. Afrikaner nationalism

    The Boer republics. Afrikaner nationalism (Afrikaans: Afrikanernasionalisme) is a nationalistic political ideology created by Afrikaners residing in Southern Africa during the Victorian era.The ideology was developed in response to the significant events in Afrikaner history such as the Great Trek, the First and Second Boer Wars and the resulting anti-British sentiment that developed among ...

  23. Cape Dutch

    Cape Dutch, also commonly known as Cape Afrikaners, were a historic socioeconomic class of Afrikaners who lived in the Western Cape during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The terms have been evoked to describe an affluent, educated section of the Cape Colony's Afrikaner population which did not participate in the Great Trek or the subsequent founding of the Boer republics.