Afrikaans Speakers

South Africa Table of Contents


Roughly 3 million people, or 7 percent of the people of South Africa, trace their roots to Dutch, German, Belgian, and French forebears (see Early European Settlement, ch. 1). Their language, Afrikaans, and membership in the Dutch Reformed Church are the most widespread common features of this population. Afrikaans, a seventeenth-century African variant of Dutch, differs from its parent language in that it has eliminated grammatical gender and many inflected verbs. Afrikaans was recognized as a separate language in the nineteenth century, after a significant literature began to develop.

Many of the Afrikaners' forebears arrived in southern Africa in search of independence from government oppression. They settled the region by fighting a series of wars, first with Khoikhoi and Xhosa peoples who had preceded them in the area, and then with Zulu and British armies, who also hoped to defend their territorial claims. The Afrikaners' defeat in the South African War was a crucial turning point in their history; their greatly outnumbered troops suffered a military defeat, and more than 26,000 Afrikaners--including many women and children--died in British concentration camps. The two formerly independent Afrikaner republics, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (later the Transvaal), were incorporated into the Union of South Africa within the British empire in 1910.

The war left much of the Afrikaners' farm land devastated, the result of the British "scorched earth" policy. Farmers had also been hard hit by cyclical occurrences of drought and rinderpest fever. This desperate rural poverty drove many Afrikaners into urban areas for the first time, to seek jobs in the growing industrial sector and particularly the flourishing mining industry. But many Afrikaners lacked educational credentials and urban work experience, and they were threatened by competition from the large black population in the cities. Africans had, in some cases, become accustomed to the work and lifestyle changes that were new to Afrikaners at the time. Afrikaner mineworkers, nonetheless, demanded superior treatment over their black counterparts, and they organized to demand better wages and working conditions through the 1920s.

During the 1920s and the 1930s, Afrikaner cultural organizations were important vehicles for reasserting Afrikaners' pride in their cultural identity. The most important of these was the Afrikaner Broederbond, also known as the Broederband (Brotherhood), an association of educated elites. The Broederbond helped establish numerous other Afrikaner social and cultural organizations, such as the Federation of Afrikaner Cultural Organisations (Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge--FAK), and a variety of Afrikaner social service organizations. Most of these groups represented people of different classes and political persuasions, but Afrikaner leaders worked hard in the 1930s and the 1940s to forge a sense of unity and pride among them.

By the 1940s, the National Party (NP) had gained widespread appeal among Afrikaners by emphasizing racial separation and Afrikaner nationalism. Its narrow election victory in 1948 brought apartheid into all areas of social and economic life in South Africa. The force of the government's commitment to apartheid, and the popularity of the Dutch Reformed Church among Afrikaners, contributed to the impression of Afrikaner unity during the decades of National Party rule. But numerous rifts divided the community, and heated debates ensued. Some believed that the basic assumptions of apartheid were flawed; others, that it was being applied poorly. A small number of Afrikaners worked to end apartheid almost as soon as it was imposed.

Most Afrikaners strongly supported the government's 1960s and 1970s campaign to stem the spread of communist influence in southern Africa--the Total Strategy--based in part on their suspicion of strong centralized government and on their religious beliefs. But many were critical of South Africa's military intervention in neighboring states during the 1980s, and of escalating military costs in the face of the receding threat of what had been called the communist "Total Onslaught." By the late 1980s, enforcing apartheid at home was expensive; the unbalanced education system was in disarray and could not produce the skilled labor force the country needed. Most Afrikaners then welcomed the government's decision to try to end apartheid as peacefully as possible.


Roughly 3.2 million South Africans of mixed-race (Khoikhoi and European or Asian) ancestry were known as "coloureds" in apartheid terminology. About 83 percent of them speak Afrikaans as their first language, and most of the remainder speak English as their first language. Almost 85 percent of coloureds live in Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces, and a sizable coloured community lives in KwaZulu-Natal.

The largest subgroup within the coloured population is the Griqua, a largely Afrikaner-Khoikhoi population that developed a distinct culture as early as the seventeenth century. Their community was centered just north of the area that later became the Orange Free State. Growing conflicts with Afrikaner farmers and, later, diamond diggers, prompted Griqua leaders to seek the protection of the British, and later, to relocate portions of their community to the eastern Cape Colony and Natal. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century demands for land and the implementation of apartheid forced Griqua communities to move repeatedly, and many eventually settled north of Cape Town. They number at least 300,000 in the 1990s. Most speak a variant of Afrikaans as their first language and are members of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Another large subgroup, the Cape Malays, number about 180,000, primarily in the Western Cape, in the 1990s. Most are descendants of Afrikaners, indigenous Khoikhoi, and slaves brought to South Africa from the Dutch East Indies. The Cape Malays have retained many cultural elements from their diverse origins, but they are recognized as a distinct community largely because most are Muslims.

The coloured population suffered many indignities under apartheid, such as eviction from homes and neighborhoods preferred by whites. But the limited political reforms of the 1980s gave them political rights that were denied blacks, such as a separate house of parliament in the tricameral legislature and the right to vote in national elections. Coloured politicians took advantage of their status to improve life for their constituents, but at the same time, many were active in the antiapartheid movement.

In April 1994, the coloured community in the Western Cape gave the NP its only provincial victory in the national elections. Coloured voters outnumbered black voters by three-to-one, and white voters by two-to-one, according to local estimates. The population voted for the NP by a large margin, in part out of fear that its interests would be sidelined by a provincial government dominated by the ANC, and in part because conservative members of the coloured community had distanced themselves from the ANC's revolutionary rhetoric over the years. Another important consideration for many was their desire to preserve their first language, which is Afrikaans.

More about the Ethnic Groups of South Africa.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress