Tuesday, 31 May 2016


THE STORY OF THE FIRST PEOPLE OF COLOUR WHO CALLED THEMSELVES AFRIKANERS: When going over a historical account there is always just a little overlooked fact that will be the dead give-away tell-tale fact that will suggest that behind what is being served up as a historical “truth” is a much more interesting story.

So is the case of an organisation established in 1875 by Boer intellectuals in Paarl called “Die Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners” (GRA -The Association of Real Afrikaners…. or True Afrikaners). Their starting point was that they recognised that what was referred to as Cape Low Dutch had emerged as the lingua franca of most Boers who could no longer speak pure Dutch and they christened their observation of this language variant – Afrikaans. Shortly after, they launched their newspaper “The Patriot” which made it clear that their mission was not just a language claim but that they were also founded on a claim to a “God-given land”.

The Association and their newspaper was deeply rooted in three things – language, land and people (language, country and nation) and thus became the early standard bearer of Afrikaner Nationalism. In 1881 a Boer protest movement known as the Zuid Afrikaansche Boeren Beschermings Vereeniging (South African Farmers' Protection Association) of Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr emerged as a proto political party and joined with the GRA and formed a political party called the Afrikaner Bond which took its place in the Cape Parliament.

So why in seeking a more inclusive and respectful term as an aspirant and emergent national group did they not just call themselves “The Association of Afrikaners”. The answer lies in the tell-tale use of the term “regte” meaning “real” or “true”. In asking why they needed to do this, the obvious answer is that there must have already been people that called themselves “Afrikaners” and a language ‘Afrikaans’ that the new association wanted to both distinguish themselves from and lay claim to the term and language for themselves. It is this political usurping of the term “Afrikaner” or “African” and the language of “Afrikaans” that is the more interesting story than what became the dominant narrative.

There were immediately opponents of the announcement of this “new language” and use of the term “Afrikaander” later modified to “Afrikaner” and it came from within the Boer constituency from those who wanted to maintain High Dutch as their language despite the fact that youth were more and more taken by English or spoke the Cape Low Dutch. The reason that they gave for their opposition spells out why they were so opposed. They said that the adoption of this “Afrikaans patois” was nothing but an adoption of the “Hotnotstaaltjie”. Afrikaans was regarded as the language of those regarded as Khoena and ‘Coloured’….. the people derogatorily called “Hotnot-Basters” were those who called themselves Afrikaners and everyone knew it.

A popular story was partially related by the Afrikaans language movement to try to track the genesis of the term Afrikander to European settlers by referring to an utterance by a 16 year old boy, Henrik Biebouw. Detlef Biebouw was a German labourer (knegt) who had a child with a slave, Diana van Madagascar, belonging to Cornelis Linnes. Detlef then later bought Diana when their daughter Susanna was around 6 years old but he married an orphan girl Wilhelmina de Wit shipped from Rotterdam and they lived on the fringe with the mixed Khoena, slave and knegt lower class of Stellenbosch. In 1694 Wilhelmina bore Detlef a son, Hendrik who grew up in this mixed community shunned by the settler mainstream. In 1710 the 16 year old Hendrik was brought to court after a drunk and rowdy disturbance of the peace the night before. Hendrik basically told the magistrate where to get off by implying that as a foreigner the magistrate had no right to be telling him how to behave in public – “because I am an African (Afrikaander)”, in reference to the locally born in his mixed community. The term was quite clear at that time and no respected European settlers would allow themselves to be referred to us such. The fact of the matter is also that by the time Hendrik was 20 he got on a ship and left the Cape for good.

Before 1710 the term was already well used by people of colour at the Cape as can here be illustrated. There were already a proto national group called the Orlam Afrikaners who were descendants of Khoena and Slaves who had trekked up from the Roodezand (Tulbagh) to the Gariep region and had left an indelible mark on the Southern African landscape. This Afrikaner dynasty had been using this term “Afrikaner” as their surname going back to their progenitor Oude Ram Afrikaner since the late 1600s. From a surname the term broadened to mean all of the followers of Jager Afrikaner – the fighter in the Gariep district. His cousin Jonker Afrikaner was the man who founded the city of Windhoek. Jager’s brother Afrikaner Afrikaner died in incarceration on Robben Island.

Some of my own forbears in the Roodezand (Tulbagh) were from this community of “Afrikaners of colour”. One of my 6th great grandmothers (paternal) had the inscription in her baptismal record – Kaatje Hottentotin. Her name was Johanna Catharina Voortman van de Caab. She had a long marriage with Heinrich Voortman, a German, and two of their daughters married two sons of French Hugenot settlers, the le Cordiers. Both sisters make up different lines in my family tree up to my paternal grandmother Elsie Petronella le Cordier who married my grandfather Pieter Francois Mellet in District Six in the 1920s where my father and his siblings were born. Many of today’s le Cordiers, le Codeurs and Kortjes all descend from these three mixed relationships at the Roodezand.

The term “Afrikaner” goes back to the early use of toponyms to denote where slaves were taken from…. Eg: Anthonie van Angola, Angela van Bengal etc. First generation slaves born in the Cape Colony were referred to as Eg…. Catherina van de Caab (Kaap). Persons born out of unions of slaves and indigene Khoena were given the toponym Eg…. Klaas van Afrika which then simply became Klaas Afrika or Klaas Afrikaander. It was thus that the old progenitor of the Afrikaner clan, born circa 1690, became known as Oude Ram Afrikaner whose son was Klaas Afrikaner. Around that time it became common to also refer to people born of mixed Khoena, slave and European relationships as Afrikaanders also known as Free Blacks. But it was considered a term for the low class labourers of colour.

Thus in the Cape as had occurred elsewhere in the colonial world the term “African” was used in the context of slavery. It had never been used within Africa as a term of identity except in North Africa in the town of Afariqa by the Afars. If one thinks through this it makes common sense. Why would anyone in Africa even know the term or think of a continental land mass until people were forcibly taken away and could look back to from where they had been taken into slavery. Each slave had their own locality from which they had been taken to coastal towns and then loaded onto ships and taken to new places. Collectively they began to refer to themselves by the continental name used by their captors – Africans. In the Cape which was the only place on Africa to which the Europeans had brought slaves, the terms van de Caab and van Afrika took its own unique twist. Afrikaner was a term denoting class, colour and mixing.

Afrikaans too, as a written language, predates the translation of the Bible into Afrikaans by a century and the publishing efforts of the Association of True Afrikaners by at least a half century. Texts from the Koran and Madrassa lessons written in phonetic Afrikaans using Arabic script exist to prove this assertion that the earliest written Afrikaans emerged from among the slaves at the Cape.

The first usage of the term Africa and African in South Africa as self-identifying terms for people and language is rooted amongst the Khoena, San and the slaves. Thus the term “Regte” meaning “True or Real” was an unfortunate subterfuge when adopted by the Association of True Afrikaners. Perhaps one day the children of the “Afrikaners of Colour” and the children of those who saw themselves as “Regte Afrikaners” may reconcile and “AfriKaaps” and “Regte Afrikaans” may reconcile too. Perhaps this approach to our history and the tense ties that bind us may hold the key for the resolution of the vexing issues of the future of both the Afrikaans language and those who still see themselves as “Regte Afrikaners”. It is wonderful to see that many young white Afrikaans speakers are exploring those aspects of history that have as Elna Boesak once put it ….fallen “tussen die kraake” and in so doing, finding liberation and connectedness with Africa and the Africans their forebears once rejected.

(Picture - Jan Jonker Afrikaner and the Orlams Afrikaners)

By Patric Tariq Mellet.

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