The (defeated?) coloniser must know his place. But does he have a place and if so, where should that be?

deur Wynand Boshoff

Oorspronklik in Engels gelewer by die prof Koos Malan simposium in 2022.

Unpacking the title

This title seems as if each word is meant to be provocative – some even in more than one sense.

If the subject is the Afrikaner, both “coloniser” and “defeated” are polarised concepts.

To know one’s place is to have been put in one’s place – indicating that one mustn’t become too familiar, or in Afrikaans, “moenie tuis raak nie, ken jou plek!” In other words, this (South Africa) is someone else’s place, where you need to know your subordinate place. Not charming to hear.

Then the question: Does the Afrikaner have a place – even a subordinate one – or is he a visitor who might have overstayed his welcome.

And every “he” implicates a “she”, “them”, or “us”.


All consulted definitions of “colony” refers in one way or another to “a body of people living in a new territory but retaining ties with the parent state; the territory inhabited by such a body” as quoted here from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Several elements are important:

  • It is people, as well as place
  • It is at a distance of a “parent state”, “mother country”, “metropolis”, “actual place”
  • Which means that there is a hierarchical relationship
  • And implies that this settlement might have taken place where other people had already been living

The word originates from the Latin “colonus” which means farmer. The practise was to settle Roman citizens as farmers in newly conquered territories, in order to establish and maintain Roman authority.

Colonisation seems like a planned and managed enterprise.

To gain insight in the history of Afrikaners, it might be useful to refer to older and more spontaneous political enterprises, namely war and migration. I make extensive use of the Biblical history of the Old Testament. The same concepts and general tenets could be illustrated by several other histories as well, but my own familiarity with the Bible, which I might share with many other people, influenced my choice. It does not suppose any similar status, especially in religious terms, between Israelites and Afrikaners.

War and migration

The easiest way to acquire personal wealth is to take it from someone else. If a person does it to another person, it is theft. If a group of people do it to another group, it is war, or at least, plunder. In less sophisticated instances, the difference is not so clear at all.

When productive farming families or communities are not well defended, they are easy targets for gangs of thieves/warriors. This is the kind of thing Gideon in the Bible experienced when he tried to thrash wheat secretly in a wine cellar.

From the aggressor’s perspective it is to be recommended not to be too greedy, otherwise the victim may organise résistance, like Gideon in fact did.

Migration is quite complex. Oppressed people may flee to wherever, either in organised bands, or as individuals. An earlier Biblical narrative, of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, is perhaps the most famous.

The complexity becomes conspicuous when the poor slaves’ descendants enter Canaan forty years later, conquering the land and committing genocide.

The zenith of being blessed, as mentioned in Deuteronomy 6:11, would be “houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant”.

Defensive and offensive wars are never too far from another. In Samuel, the Israelites ask for a king, like the nations around them, as they needed centralised military power to defend themselves against more powerful neighbours. And once they secured themselves, no other nation in their vicinity would know freedom and security at the same time.

To complete the picture, Israel would divide into two smaller empires, both of which would in time perish before the military superiority of Assyrians, and later Babylonians.

As prisoners of war they would forcibly migrate to other countries, where some were assimilated and others retained their identity.

Power relations between old-timers and newcomers

A settled people receiving new entrants to their territory will typically react differently to a sudden large influx and a trickle of newcomers. A large influx will be more likely to provoke a violent response to either expel or eliminate them. The gradual entry of foreign people may be more peaceful, with newcomers assimilating fast enough not to disrupt social relations, or being appreciated for whatever they contribute. The attitude may change, as the numbers of new entrants do.

The same goes for the entering people. If they enter in large numbers, they will tend to be more assertive than isolated migrants. The expression goes: First the traders, then the missionaries, then the soldiers. When the soldiers arrive, it may be too late.

To take the Biblical example once again: There is a definite ambiguity regarding people from other nations. On the one hand, several texts including Exodus 22:21 implore Israelites: “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” On the other hand Deuteronomy 11:23 promises that if Israelites will remember the commandments, ”then the LORD will drive out all these nations from before you, and you will dispossess greater and mightier nations than yourselves”.

In Joshua, where Israel conquered the promised land and had to get rid of these “mightier nations”, the Gibeonites escaped by deception. The whole narrative is found in Joshua 10, where their punishment is to be the hewers of wood and carriers of water in perpetuity.

Isaiah 61 is written after the fall of Jerusalem, which left Israelites and Judeans bereft of all the answers they used to have without thinking. The everlasting covenant between Yahweh on the one hand, and the people, the land, the city, the temple and the dynasty chosen by Him, was broken. While being humiliated by the gentiles upon whom they used to look down, they received the message of salvation in verse 5 and 6:

“Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
And the sons of the foreigner
Shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers.
But you shall be named the priests of the Lord,
They shall call you the servants of our God.
You shall eat the riches of the Gentiles,
And in their glory you shall boast.”

Question: Whose place is this?

The Old Testament was a product of exile. Israel and Judea were both beaten in war and lost their countries – a clear indication that their God was weaker than that of their enemies. They lost their place – in their world that was as clear as daylight.

In exile old stories, legends, songs, genealogies and other historical sources were collected and redacted to form a narrative which was dynamite for a defeated people: Millennia ago their patriarch, Abraham, was called from afar and promised this land. The promise was never forgotten. In the time of David and Solomon glory and wealth was their blessing, but the reciprocal honour and obedience was not rendered and in the end the land was taken by gentile nations, as tools in the Hand of Israel’s own God.

But: God was still almighty and could restore their place. In passing, that is what was so disappointing about Jesus of Nazareth – He seemed able to reclaim the place and then said that his kingdom was not of this world.

Now back to South Africa – or first to America!

The Puritans were English Calvinists. Some, who saw no prospect of reforming England to what is should be, boarded the Mayflower in 1620 and founded the New England colonies – England as it should be under guidance of a Calvinist God. They did not land there by accident; they were called there. This call of honour was the narrative which compelled them – even in a much more secular form later on – to fill a whole continent. That other nations needed to perish was not their choice. It was just meant to be.

That is all about America.

Now to South Africa – really

The landing of Jan van Riebeeck was nothing like the pilgrims aboard the Mayflower. They just came to open a spaza shop, so to speak, like the Dutch United East Indian Company (VOC) did at many places at that time.

The limited scope of the establishment fits the above description of a colony. The fundamental difference between the colony at the Cape of Good Hope and other VOC colonies, is that it was purely a support base. The goods traded there were not in demand in Europe and could not be sold at a profit. It was just necessary to keep the wheels of the company going, preferably as cheaply as possible.

Fresh water, fresh food, maintenance of ocean battered ships, repacking of cargo and recuperation of crew were the most pressing needs. Food was harder to grow than anticipated and the VOC turned to outsourcing of labour.

Employees were turned into free citizens, which may sound impressive, but only meant that the company would have obligations toward them. The conduit which might have directed them to other colonies or back to Europe, was all but cut off. Without due consideration, colonists became permanent inhabitants, migrating inland.

By introducing slavery, another population of migrants was established: Slaves mainly from other parts of Africa, but also some from Asia. Apart from mingling with one another, they also entered into relations with locally displaced Africans, travellers who had some time to pass, and local farmers who sometimes had to make a “Kaapse draai” – a turnaround in Cape Town.

These two communities could have amalgamated, but in fact did not… or have not to date. The result is “Afrikaners” and “Coloureds”, “brown people”, or “Camissa Africans” – the name suggested by activist historian Patric Tariq Mellet.

Afrikaners, although the proper noun only came into general use some 250 years later, moved into the interior. This move did not have a political motive, but it did have political consequences. They became proper migrants, with all the disruptions migrants often cause. Because all of them farmed, they became known as “Boere” or “Boers” – the Afrikaans of “farmers” – strikingly similar to “colonus”.

The VOC, still nominally their government, was always two steps behind. It attempted to limit the migration, but once it has happened, they would establish a town with a church and a magistrate. A semblance of government had to be created, although migrants were largely left to their own devices regarding natural and human dangers.

Their relations with other population groups were asymmetrical. Bushmen, who were hunter-gatherers, were in fierce competition with all other groups, Khoi, Black and White. The result was virtually genocide, although some descendants are still present.

Khoi were subjugated and then employed on farms. A combination of defeat and decimation caused by small pox led to ethnocide – many people were left, but without their own languages and social structures. Today they are largely Afrikaans speaking.

The first Black people encountered, was the Xhosa. All Black peoples encountered were socially much more coherent and had well organised military forces. In the areas where Black communities could grow summer grains, expansion of Boer migrants was never easy.

A long and bloody history can be summarised by stating that Boer migrants settled on land they could conquer or trade from Africans. An unequal mutual relationship developed, which turned Boers into colonial masters, although they had since around 1750 not been colonialists in the strict sense of the word at all – having lost any real link to a mother country.

The wide dispersion of Boers was made possible by the use of Black labour. Boer settlements like Rustenburg were expressly selected because of the proximity of friendly Black communities.

Formed by a history where slaves were dark skinned and free people light, and subsequently augmented by social Darwinism, Boers believed that they had the right to use Black labour, without granting political rights.

As a God-fearing people reading little more than the Bible, eighteenth and nineteenth century Afrikaners (Boers) saw much of themselves in the Old Testament. They could associate with the patriarchs, wandering in a land which was destined to become theirs, although it was invisible. They could associate with slavery under Egypt, although the comparison between England and Egypt stretched it a little far, but they could definitely associate the Great Trek – the political kink to the long history of migration – to the Exodus. And fighting wars of conquest or survival against African kingdoms could definitely remind one of the entrance in Canaan.

In time, even Van Riebeeck’s landing would be construed much like the Pilgrims of the Mayflower, although the fundamental dissimilarity had already been pointed to.

The result was a society which was economically integrated, although consequently unequal, and socially segregated. In fact, it was a kind of feudal society which emerged. Boers were a landed gentry, with Black serfs. Blacks would be registered with a white employer and needed a pass to either move (a “trekpas”), or to visit someone. In this way contact between black farmworkers and those with political freedom in unconquered areas was limited; contributing to law and order in “whiteman’s land”.

The discovery of diamonds and gold in 1865 and 1886 respectively, thrusted a modern economy onto southern Africa. With it came increased British attention, with its military superiority and economical demands. The migrant labour system was actually an extension of the feudal type of social organisation which had emerged before.

We can cut the twentieth century short by stating that it saw the formation of South Africa as an understudy of the British Empire; and that in time the “South African empire” became an Afrikaner empire.

After 1948 Afrikaners developed a political system with a split personality. On the one hand it attempted to maintain feudal relations between white and black, even after urbanisation. On the other hand it attempted to sidestep the effects of African emancipation, by granting self determination to black peoples in their “homelands”.

The assumption was that all the rest of South Africa was legitimately and unquestionably white property. That included the economic powerhouses of the country. In these metropolitan areas, black people were required, but only in the numbers and at the times it suited the white owned economy. Political rights excluded.

While Afrikaners would vehemently deny that they were colonialists, they lived a colonial lifestyle. This was part of the split personality: We were not colonial, because we had no other home or loyalty; but we were colonial, because we treated black people like colonialists used to do.

One cannot argue against numbers. Afrikaners tried to, and it led to an increasingly brutal war of suppression, concluded in 1994. The military never lost, but more and more Afrikaners opened their eyes to the unsustainability of minority rule; especially over a highly politicised majority. Negotiations were entered into; in what many still believe could have been a win-win result.

The realisation that the glorious constitution of 1996 did not freeze a miracle indefinitely; that black people were not grateful because “we gave them everything for free”; that economic transformation must inevitably follow political transformation, brought many Afrikaners to an “exile-consciousness.

There are still hopeful individuals who maintain that we were not defeated. If you turned a situation where you could decide on your people’s future into a situation where you hope that others will grant your people a future, you have been defeated. One needs to know that, because one who does not know that he fell, will not know to stand up.

So: What is the place of the defeated colonialist?

Firstly, in front of the mirror: See why others call you a colonialist while you despise the label. See that you are defeated, although it does not suit your ego. And see what you still have that can assist in regaining the ability to determine your own future.

Afterwards, it will be easier to distinguish between economic contribution and political power. You can contribute (and gain from it) where you cannot govern. That is not your place, in the political sense of the word, but you can assist it in being a happy place.

To find your place, you have to see where you can exercise authority, without denying anybody else’s rights. Maybe it will require some migration – and if you want to be free, you have to migrate, not others. Again, if one realises that you might have economic interests in “someone else’s place”, it is easier to divert some of your interests to what can conceivably be “your place”. And then it is possible to decide where to live.

In “someone else’s place” one should have, and be allowed to have, “your own small places” – Afrikaans schools, heritage sites, etcetera. But it is your space in someone else’s place.

Judeans built “their places” during the exile. Not even the ruins of Jerusalem were “their place”… until a sufficient number returned and rebuilt the temple and the city wall. Then it was “their place”, whatever whoever said about it… until the next defeat, and so on and so on.

It does not suit me well to be called a defeated colonialist, but at least in a certain sense, I am. I have my spaces all over South Africa. Many had to be abandoned, but new ones are also built.

My real place cannot be expropriated, because we own it as a community. People may joke and say the wall will fall over when a jackal jumps up against it, as Sanballat mocked Nehemiah, but it is still my place because my people live there without exploiting others, without denying anyone their rights.

Some of my people don’t care about place. As long as they can earn money, they will dwell in anyone’s place. Some can only imagine themselves in an urban setting; in their own space, albeit within someone else’s place.

For me and my house, we are freedom fighters.

My place is Orania. And how big my place is, will depend on the oldest of Afrikaner traditions: Migration. But without my place, in time I will cease to be what I am: An Afrikaner, a child of Africa.

19 August 2022

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *