The Helpmekaar Movement: Afrikaners’ historical self-empowerment – Ernst van Zyl

The South African political discourse revolves around poverty, inequality, and unemployment. While the narrative of state intervention is popular, history reveals Afrikaners’ self-empowerment initiatives. The Helpmekaar Movement, born in 1915, fostered community support and upliftment. Churches, women, and children contributed, laying foundations for institutions like Santam and ABSA. Despite economic challenges, a spirit of self-reliance thrived, inspiring cultural and economic progress, demonstrating the power of community-driven initiatives for prosperity.

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Afrikaner poverty and self-empowerment: What was the Helpmekaar Movement?

By Ernst van Zyl*

Poverty, inequality, unemployment, “white privilege” and inherited wealth are some of the defining concepts in the current South African political discourse. However, poverty is not an unfamiliar predator lurking in this corner of Africa. There are winning recipes to be found in the past. You just need to know where to look.

However, it appears that many commentators and politicians draw the wrong conclusions from the history of the Afrikaners’ own struggle against extreme systemic poverty and inequality. The best example is the popular, false narrative that Afrikaners’ primary vehicle out of the dark depths of poverty, was the state. This is a convenient narrative for the centralist ANC and EFF, who want to consolidate their power and trap people in a state of dependency. A proper study of history reveals that it was in fact well-organised community initiatives that primarily enabled Afrikaners to break free from the clutches of poverty. 

The most influential of these was the Helpmekaar Movement, which was born in 1915, with the primary goal of alleviating the heavy burden of fines, debts and prison sentences imposed on rebels and their families after the 1914–1915 Maritz Rebellion. Despite Afrikaners’ general impoverished circumstances less than 15 years after the Anglo-Boer War, funds began trickling in. Word spread, and soon, residents of numerous towns nationwide, rich and poor, also started participating in this community-based movement.

During a time when Afrikaners were suffering from enormous economic challenges and poverty, the flame of selfdoen (do-it-yourself) and self-empowerment was kindled. Churches collected funds door-to-door, women and women’s associations sold pancakes and koeksisters, and children even contributed from their pocket money. Heart-warming accounts have been recorded of people who, like the widow in Mark 12:42, were willing to donate their last coins to a cause greater than themselves. Some Afrikaner families were prepared to give up meat, butter, sugar and other non-essentials to scrape together funds. Even farmers on the brink of bankruptcy donated a chicken or a bucket of milk.

Later, the Helpmekaar Movement developed a broader value-driven approach to community-empowerment. Focus was placed on the education of the youth, skills development, strong family ties and religious values. Later, a focus emerged on establishing new Afrikaner institutions to match the dominant existing English institutions. The overall goal was the general development, upliftment and poverty alleviation among Afrikaners, the establishment of Afrikaans institutions, the restoration of a healthy self-image and cultural preservation. Notably, this pioneering upliftment was achieved by relatively poor Afrikaner communities without any government support.

By 1917, a total of 100 000 pounds more had been collected than was necessary to cover the fines and compensation claims against the 1914 rebels. These funds were invested, and the proceeds were used for educational purposes like scholarships.

The Helpmekaar Movement’s remarkable successes and momentum ignited a new sense of standing together, working together and building together among Afrikaners. Afrikaner self-empowerment initiatives like the South African National Trust and Insurance Company Limited (Santam) and the South African National Life Insurance Company Limited (Sanlam) were founded a month apart in 1918. The Cooperative Winegrowers Association of South Africa (KWV) also dates back to 1918 and in 1921 the Afrikaans Verbond Burial Enterprise Limited (Avbob) was established.

Many Afrikaners just started finding their feet when the Great Depression (1929–1939) hit. To survive, my great-grandfather had to leave his Karoo farm behind and trade the wide, open spaces and clean desert air for Johannesburg’s dark, cramped, stuffy mineshafts. He always said they believed in those hard times, you will never run out of money if you keep a tickey (threepence) in your wallet. I therefore carry a tickey in my wallet today.

In 1935, Volkskas Bank (today ABSA) was founded as a cooperative loan bank to serve Afrikaners devastated by the Great Depression. The Reddingsdaadbond (literally “The rescue act alliance”) was founded in 1939 with the objective of the economic rehabilitation of impoverished Afrikaners. Their famous motto: ‟’n Volk red homself!” (A nation saves itself!). In 1940, Federale Volksbeleggings (Federal People’s Investments) was founded to further contribute to the Afrikaner’s economic upliftment and eventual economic independence. One of their first loans was to Anton Rupert’s Rembrandt cigarette company, which he started in his garage.

In 1942, the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut, a voluntary association of Afrikaans businessmen, was founded to help Afrikaner businesses get off the ground and to represent their interests collectively. In the early 1940s, the magazine Volkshandel was started to inform Afrikaners on business management and economic matters. In 1949, Tegniek (today known as Finweek) emerged as a magazine aiming to contribute to the Afrikaner’s entry into industry after the Second World War. In 1946, Bonuskor was founded – a financial institution to further the economic empowerment of Afrikaners. Bonuskor was also the first Afrikaans company to be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The message of these community initiatives was clear: Rather than begging for help, Afrikaners would simply create and establish a place for themselves in industry, trade and business.

These breakthroughs occurred when the South African economy, especially the commercial business world and industries, was dominated by English speakers with their powerful monopolies, which led to a large gap between the incomes of the two groups. For example, during the 1940s, Afrikaners controlled only about 1% of the country’s industries.

The Helpmekaar spirit also retained a mindset of cultural development. In 1929, the Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Associations (FAK) was founded to coordinate Afrikaner cultural organisations nationwide. In 1931, the youth organisation the Voortrekkers was founded to cultivate Christian values, leadership, good character and appreciation for nature. In 1933, the first complete Afrikaans Bible translation was published from Afrikaner ranks.

According to historian Jaap Steyn, ‟The success of the Helpmekaar Movement made Afrikaners realise that, despite the general poverty, they still had a lot of money (when pooled together).” Flip Buys often reminds us, ‟You can make big money from small change.” The Solidarity Movement is inspired by these lessons from the past. As a proud member of this new Helpmekaar Movement, I have my own variation of my great-grandfather’s saying: as long as you keep a grain of knowledge of your ancestors’ sacrifices and successes in your heart, your courage will never run out.

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*Ernst van Zyl is the Head of Public Relations at AfriForum and the director of the documentary film Selfbestuur. Ernst obtained a master’s degree (cum laude) in Political Science at Stellenbosch University. He is a co-presenter of the Podlitiek podcast, hosts the Afrikaans podcast In alle Ernst and has a channel for political commentary and interviews on YouTube. Ernst usually publishes contributions on X (formerly known as Twitter) and YouTube under his pseudonym Conscious Caracal.

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