Updated March 17, 2011The Afrikaners are a South African ethnic group who are descended from 17th century Dutch, German, and French settlers to South Africa. The Afrikaners slowly developed their own language and culture when they came into contact with Africans and Asians. The word “Afrikaners” means “Africans” in Dutch. About three million people out of South Africa’s total population of 42 million identify themselves as Afrikaners. The Afrikaners have impacted South African history tremendously, and their culture has spread across the world.
Settling in South AfricaIn 1652, Dutch emigrants first settled in South Africa near the Cape of Good Hope in order to establish a station where ships traveling to the Dutch East Indies (currently Indonesia) could rest and resupply. French Protestants, German mercenaries, and other Europeans joined the Dutch in South Africa. The Afrikaners are also known as the “Boers,” the Dutch word for “farmers.” To aid them in agriculture, the Europeans imported slaves from places like Malaysia and Madagascar, and enslaved some local tribes, such as the Khoikhoi and San.
The Great TrekFor 150 years, the Dutch were the predominant foreign influence in South Africa. However, in 1795, Britain gained control of South Africa. Many British government officials and citizens settled in South Africa. The British angered the Afrikaners by freeing their slaves. Due to the end of slavery, border wars with natives, and the need for more fertile farmland, in the 1820s, many Afrikaner “Voortrekkers” began to migrate northward and eastward into the interior of South Africa. This journey became known as the “Great Trek.” The Afrikaners founded the independent republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. However, many indigenous groups resented the intrusion of the Afrikaners upon their land. After several wars, the Afrikaners conquered some of the land and farmed peacefully until gold was discovered in their republics in the late 19th century.
Conflict with the BritishThe British quickly learned about the rich natural resources in the Afrikaner republics. Afrikaner and British tensions over the ownership of the land quickly escalated into the two Boer Wars. The First Boer War was fought between 1880 and 1881. The Afrikaners won the First Boer War, but the British still coveted the rich African resources. The Second Boer War was fought from 1899 to 1902. Tens of thousands of Afrikaners died due to combat, hunger, and disease. The victorious British annexed the Afrikaner republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
ApartheidThe Europeans in South Africa were responsible for establishing apartheid in the twentieth century. The word “apartheid” means “separateness” in Afrikaans. Although the Afrikaners were the minority ethnic group in the country, the Afrikaner National Party gained control of the government in 1948. In order to restrict the ability of “less civilized” ethnic groups to participate in government, different races were strictly segregated. Whites had access to much better housing, education, employment, transportation, and medical care. Blacks could not vote and had no representation in government. After many decades of inequality, other countries began to condemn apartheid. Apartheid ended in 1994 when members of all ethnic classes were allowed to vote in the Presidential election. Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.
The Boer DiasporaAfter the Boer Wars, many poor, homeless Afrikaners moved into other countries in Southern Africa like Namibia and Zimbabwe. Some Afrikaners returned to the Netherlands and some even moved to distant places like South America, Australia, and the southwestern United States. Due to racial violence and in search of better educational and employment opportunities, many Afrikaners have left South Africa since the end of apartheid. About 100,000 Afrikaners now reside in the United Kingdom.
Current Afrikaner CultureAfrikaners around the world have a very interesting culture. They deeply respect their history and traditions. Sports such as rugby, cricket, and golf are very popular. Traditional clothing, music, and dance are celebrated at parties. Barbequed meats and vegetables, as well as porridges influenced by indigenous African tribes, are popular dishes.
Current Afrikaans LanguageThe Dutch language spoken at the Cape Colony in the 17th century slowly transformed into a separate language, with differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Today, Afrikaans, the Afrikaner language, is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa. It is spoken across the country and by people from many different races. Worldwide, between 15 and 23 million people speak Afrikaans as a first or second language. Most Afrikaans words are of Dutch origin, but the languages of the Asian and African slaves, as well as European languages like English, French, and Portuguese, greatly influenced the language. Many English words, such as “aardvark,” “meerkat,” and “trek,” derive from Afrikaans. To reflect local languages, many South African cities with names of Afrikaner origin are now being changed. Pretoria, South Africa’s executive capital, may one day permanently change its name to Tshwane.
The Future of the AfrikanersThe Afrikaners, descended from hard-working, resourceful pioneers, have developed a rich culture and language over the past four centuries. Although the Afrikaners have been associated with the oppression of apartheid, Afrikaners today are happy to live in a multi-ethnic society where all races can participate in government and benefit economically from South Africa’s abundant resources. The Afrikaner culture will undoubtedly endure in Africa and around the world.