RW Johnson: Hermann Giliomee, Afrikaner historian, puts cards on table – Apartheid warts and all

RW Johnson
Author RW “Bill” Johnson behind his desk at home in Cape Town.

Who better to ask to review a South African historian’s autobiography than worldclass historian RW Johnson? That’s precisely what South Africa’s top politics website,, did in commissioning Johnson to assess Hermann Giliomee’s ‘Historian. An Autobiography’. Giliomee’s work is evidently a fascinating read, not so much because Giliomee’s life is interesting – but because through the Giliomee lens readers are given rare insights into the South African story. Refreshingly, notes Johnson, Giliomee does not shy away from his controversial roots in the Afrikaner national movement. Johnson concludes that Giliomee’s book is a must-read for students of the South African situation in this article, first published at – Jackie Cameron

By RW Johnson

Hermann Giliomee, Historian. An Autobiography (Tafelberg) xii, 344pp. R380

The appearance of this autobiography by one of South Africa’s greatest historians is something of an event, not just for the light it sheds on his life but on the history of his country in that time, with all its debates and divisions. Giliomee is, of course, an Afrikaner to the roots of his soul. At one point he quotes Hannah Arendt: “I do not “love” the Jews nor do I “believe” in them. I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute and argument”.

This is the way in which he is an Afrikaner and it is not something he would ever want to hide or apologise for. At the same time he takes his cue from an Israeli historian, bitterly disappointed by the seizure of Arab land on the West Bank, who tells him that he is at once proud of his people and ashamed of them, and that it is important to feel both emotions and hold them within one.

Giliomee writes with refreshing frankness. Since 1994 one is all too used to whites who suddenly discover new anti-apartheid biographies considerably different from their actual lives up to that date. Even people who were hardened Nats or UP suddenly turn out to have been ANC-sympathisers all the time. Giliomee has no time for such Vicar of Bray antics and happily tells us of his idyllic Boland childhood where he felt from birth part of the Afrikaner national movement, his father in the Broederbond and, thanks to a German grandfather, in a household which strongly favoured the German side in the Second World War – and which was shattered by the revelation of the Holocaust.

Giliomee was gradually to move a long way from these roots, voting for the Progs from 1970 on, and thanks to his eminence as a historian, travelling far and gaining wider perspectives.

However, two things remained constant. First, his attention as a historian was unwaveringly focused on the problem of how to understand the collision of various groups in South Africa’s history: he learnt much from the great American historian, C. Van Woodward, but (like so many South Africans) he wanted such knowledge merely in order to understand his own country better.

Being a historian, he always felt, was a deadly serious business and largely defined who he was. He can, quite un-self-consciously, write a sentence like “Albert and I largely saw eye to eye on historiography, and we became good friends”. Even many other historians would not write that.

Second, he early on imbibed the truth that much of the English-speaking criticism of Afrikaners over apartheid concealed a quite ethnic dislike of Afrikaners as such. The result is a strong sensitivity about the Afrikaans-English-speaking divide. When he gets a job in Grahamstown he goes to “a major stronghold of the British settlers”. His chapter on joining the faculty of UCT is entitled “Among the English” and he refers to “the English city council of Cape Town.”

Indeed, while at an early stage, and despite apartheid doctrine to the contrary, Giliomee acknowledged that black and brown South Africans were his fellow citizens, it is not entirely clear that he accepts English-speakers so easily. For Giliomee is an unashamed patriot – nationalist, if you like – as regards the Afrikaans language and culture, a culture which was defined in opposition to the British.

Giliomee’s picture of the intellectual world of Stellenbosch University (the reader must get used to “US” referring to this, rather than the somewhat more famous country) begins with the reign of H.B. Thom who presided rather like a headmaster both over US and history in particular. Gradually, the author realised that he stood somewhat apart from the sort of volkische history enjoined by Thom and also from the verligte-verkrampte divide as well as the Marxist vs liberal disputes then racking English-speaking historians.

Hermann Giliomee: refreshingly frank; one of the greatest South African historians of our time

As he puts it, “Afrikaner historians were generally not interested in participating in a debate whose basic terms had been formulated by academics outside the group.” This stance apart, as also his visits to Yale occasioned grave suspicions amongst his department and even further afield.

Giliomee is even able to reproduce the correspondence of this witch-hunt against him in which the chief protagonists were his own professor, Dirk Kotze, Diko Van Zyl (who was, absurdly, preferred over him for a chair), the reliably reactionary Sampie Terblanche and, most of all, Prof. Floors Van Jaarsveld who pursued Giliomee as a “snake in our midst” and a heretic.

Amazingly, even when Van Jaarsveld decided to modify his own position, earning him a tarring and feathering by the AWB, he still came after Giliomee. Inevitably, like his friend and Stellenbosch colleague, the political philosopher Andre Du Toit, who was the subject of similar persecution, Giliomee ended up as a professor at UCT.

A number of figures stand out vividly in these pages. One is, indeed, Andre Du Toit who helped Giliomee found and run Die Suid-Afrikaan. In the struggle atmosphere of the 1980s donor money helped finance a number of ephemeral publications but Die Suid-Afrikaan is really the only one which deserved a more permanent position, presenting an eclectic and wide-ranging mix of articles on serious subjects, mainly in Afrikaans. It was read by the whole spread of the Afrikaans intelligentsia ranging from Nats to radicals, by whites and the Coloured elite – though Mandela too, was a reader from jail.

Such journalism had the effect of getting Giliomee to interview a wide range of characters, including the (still banned) Joe Slovo who opined of his black comrades “They are going to fuck things up, we know it”. He also spoke of the idiocy of simply handing over land to “Joe Tshabalala” and telling him to “start farming”.

The other great figure to feature in these pages is Lawrie Schlemmer, Giliomee’s friend and close collaborator. Schlemmer was the supreme social scientist of the South African situation, who was not only au fait with a wide international literature but simply knew South Africa more deeply than anyone else. It was a frustration in the last decade of Schlemmer’s life to see the way in which he was marginalised and sidelined, with the limelight taken by commentators and analysts who knew only a tiny fraction of what he did. But that is a minor loss compared to the fact that we have no biography, let alone autobiography of Schlemmer.

Giliomee’s book is full of stimulating debates. Three of these are worth mentioning. One is that he is somewhat puzzled by the way Verwoerd has become the symbolic hate figure who epitomizes all the evils of apartheid. After all, under Smuts’ United Party regime skilled and semi-skilled jobs were reserved for whites. Group Areas legislation had already been passed and sexual relations between black and white had been forbidden since 1927.

Further, Giliomee deftly punctures the claim that apartheid was “a crime against humanity”. It did not, of course, in any way resemble such genuine crimes against humanity as the Holocaust or the Rwandan massacres though it is tell-tale fact that Kader Asmal, who wrote a book arguing that it was a crime against humanity, found it necessary to accuse apartheid of genocide, clearly realising that without that, the charges can hardly stick.

In practice, of course, African life expectancy and population both flourished enormously under apartheid. The only genocide we have seen was the 365,000 African mothers and children killed as a result of Mbeki’s murderous refusal to allow them anti-retroviral drugs. Mbeki is extremely fortunate not to be on trial at the Hague.

It is true that compared to that, Verwoerd seems almost a humanitarian but in fact his emblematic fate is not hard to understand. He was not only the intellectual architect of the homelands but he was in power at the time of Sharpeville and was responsible for the very determined refusal to modify apartheid after that.

Instead he banned the ANC and PAC, drove them abroad, appointed the iron-handed Vorster to handle the all-out repression of radicalism and presided over the ruthless crushing of the liberation movements, leaving Africans cowed. In that sense, he did all the things which 1994 had to undo.

When, soon after 1994, Giliomee visited the Afrikaans writer, Jan Rabie, he asked him about the future of the language and received the reply “Allesverloren” (It’s a lost cause.) Giliomee is determined that this shall not be so and has fought a bitter rearguard action to safeguard the status of Stellenbosch as the sole remaining Afrikaans-medium university. He is angry that De Klerk did not manage to get any guaranteed protection of Afrikaans at schools and universities as part of the constitutional settlement.

This does indeed seem a lamentable failure, especially since Mandela strongly favoured such guarantees himself, so De Klerk would have been pushing at an open door. In a fighting chapter Giliomee details how the university authorities at Stellenbosch have ducked and dived, using every form of subterfuge in order to surrender ground to English. Many of the faculty have joined their cause, citing any number of reasons – for example, Sandra Liebenberg, a professor of human rights law, attacked Afrikaans as “a historically privileged language” without, apparently, realising how overwhelmingly that epithet applies better to English.

Although not myself an Afrikaans-speaker I have supported Giliomee for two reasons. One is just the obvious truth that without at least one Afrikaans university, the language and culture cannot continue and thrive. But what matters still more is the fact the Coloured people of the Western and Northern Cape overwhelmingly speak Afrikaans.

Without an Afrikaans-medium university they will have no hope of upward social mobility. In that sense, for Stellenbosch to go over to English is a betrayal of the Coloured people comparable in scale only to the Group Areas Act. It defies belief that so many “progressive” intellectuals at Stellenbosch can wilfully ignore this fact.

However, at the end of the day, the decision rests with the Afrikaner community. Giliomee is not hopeful:

“The Afrikaans communities have reverted to what they were in the last decades of the nineteenth century…The people in the south are once again loyal subjects, this time not of the queen and her empire, but of the Anglo-American economic and cultural empire. The northern Afrikaners, with the Solidarity movement at the forefront, have again become citizens like the republicans of yore….”

Finally, there is a splendid chapter in which Giliomee argues with Dave Steward of the F.W. De Klerk Foundation as to whether De Klerk could and should have obtained a better settlement. Giliomee argues indignantly that De Klerk promised his voters in the 1992 referendum power-sharing and then surrendered it completely, without ever allowing voters to judge the final terms.

This, like the failure over Afrikaans, is indubitably true – but Steward argues, tellingly, that in effect power-sharing would have meant giving the power of veto to the 10% of voters who were white; that this would never have been acceptable either to the ANC or to the Western powers and that even if De Klerk had stuck out for it, he would have come under irresistible international pressure to concede. This seems to be true – and is borne out by the fact that Van Zyl Slabbert, the Progressive Party leader, adopted a power-sharing solution only to abandon it in similar fashion.

On the other hand, De Klerk’s negotiating strategy was woeful. As Hernus Kriel noted “We had no plan, no strategy, no bottom line where we would refuse to yield any further. We had no clarity on the goal at which we wanted to arrive” – and he details the times without number that Roelf Meyer brought news to the cabinet which led De Klerk to thump the table and say “never !” only to concede meekly a little later on.

One realises, as one reads this, that one could be reading about the UCT authorities “negotiating” with their student opponents in 2016. In effect there is no principle, no bottom line: vandals can haul pictures of the walls and burn them and the vice chancellor will still sit down to “bargain” with the vandals. Even after they rough him up, even after they burn down his office. What do they have to do to cross the line?

The answer seems to be that of white collapse, that there is never a bottom line, just endless concession. We are back to Disgrace where the writer’s daughter decides to have the child of the men who raped her, to try to make peace with them, become their friend.

In fact this cannot be the right strategy in any situation. And a better deal for the whites would, in all probability, have been a better deal for the whole country. The real failure was not to achieve a federal solution allowing a far greater devolution of power. No doubt the ANC would have resisted but how could the West have objected to arrangements which are standard in the USA, Canada, Russia and Australia?

The great lost opportunity had come in the 1980s with the Buthelezi Commission and the KwaZulu-Natal Indaba. Had the NP government embraced that experiment it would have launched the country on the road to asymmetrical federalism. This could not have been undone and the whole country would be a happier place today.

Instead the ANC’s centralist drive was allowed to triumph. The result has been ironic. Giliomee quotes the verdict on the Bantustans of Derek Keys, the NP’s last minister of finance: “It was a failed system. The homeland elites raked off the system. There was a huge salary bill, but very little service delivery or tax returns.” The ANC, of course, vituperated against the Bantustans for thirty years – but then embraced them. The result, 22 years later, is that South Africa is a giant Bantustan.

The elites are raking off the system, there is a vast civil service salary bill and for all of this the country gets virtually nothing. The civil service is useless, the elites are not only unable to contribute but make no attempt to try. So this too is a failed system, a cul-de-sac. Only a lawyer could imagine that a constitution would help much. The Transkei’s constitution never seems to have seriously constrained Kaiser Matanzima. Kriel is right: had De Klerk had a destination in mind he surely would not have opted for this.

Giliomee’s book is a must-read for students of the South African situation. It is a masterful work of contemporary history masquerading as an autobiography.

  • RW Johnson is a Rhodes scholar, historian and journalist.

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