Of South Africa’s 13 million people in 1950, about 1.5 million whites were “Afrikaners”, mostly descendants of Dutch-speaking colonial inhabitants. Driven by resentment of English-speaking whites who dominated the economy anafikaners_1d by fear of the restive Black majority, the Afrikaner National party won the whites-only election of May 1948. As the newly elected Prime Minister, D.F. Malan put it, “either we must follow the course of equality, which must eventually mean national suicide for the white race, or we must take the course of separation.”

With their new-found power, the Afrikaner leadership passed laws hardening the country’s racial segregation and guaranteeing white supremacy over Africans, mixed-race (“Coloured”) people, and Indians. The system they built was called “Apartheid.”  The Population Registration Act of 1950 required all South Africans to register as a particular “race.”  Racial categorization determined where you could live, what work you could do, who you could marry, what public facilities were open to you, and what political rights you had.

“Either we must follow the course of equality, which must eventually mean national suicide for the white race, or we must take the course of separation.”

–Prime Minister D.F. Malan

Margaret Bourke-White arrived in South Africa in late 1949, shortly before the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument, erected on a hill above the country’s capital, Pretoria. Held on December 16th, this event commemorated the 1838 “Battle of Blood River” in which Dutch “Voortrekkers” pursuing a “Great Trek” out of the British Empire fought off thousands of Zulu warriors. This celebration of the defining moment in Afrikaner nationalist history, photographed in detail by Bourke-White for Life, drew 250,000 people, a large proportion of the country’s Afrikaner population.

Well aware of the new government’s dictatorial racial policy, Bourke-White began her visit by photographing Afrikaners and winning the trust of her white hosts. As her editors at Life remarked, “first she got her coverage of white officialdom out of the way, then began digging into the gold and diamond mines, the lives of the negroes [sic] and Indians.” In addition to photographing the country’s triumphant new rulers, she tried to capture the everyday lives of ordinary rural Afrikaners. Their combination of poverty, dignity, and racial defensiveness reminded her of the poor whites she had encountered in the American South in the 1930s.


2 responses to “Afrikaners”

  1. Henri Le Riche says :

    Would be worthwhile documenting and photographing life in the “new” South Africa and how poor white and black people now in many cases suffer worse than under Apartheid.

    As for this sentence: “Driven by resentment of English-speaking whites who dominated the economy”.

    It is a half truth. The resentment comes from how English Speakers, of mostly British decent treated Boers, which later became Afrikaners after the Anglo-Boer war. It was the British, and not the Nazis, that invented concentration camps, and herder Boer women and children into these camps of which thousands died. Farm houses burnt, life stock killed, was just added insult to injury. That resentment is where take came from, and in many cases are still there because there was never an apology and closure.

    Even I had family in the concentration camps that died.

    I don’t resent anyone, but I do understand where people are coming from.

    • alichtens says :


      Of course the historical grievances tied to the brutal actions of the British in the South African war were a central aspect of Afrikaner nationalism in this period, so thanks for pointing that out. Still, I wonder how much the 1948 campaign and triumph turned explicitly on that memory. Malan’s rhetoric tended to focus on a) how the UP was going to give the country away to Africans and Communists; and b) how electing the HNP to power would empower formerly poor Afrikaners in the economy–as it did. So I chose to focus on that. Thanks for the addition.

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