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White Tribe’s tale

22 December 2016

John D. Davies on the the Afrikaners’ history

Bridge over Blood River: The rise and fall of the Afrikaners
Kasja Norman
Hurst £17.99 (978-1-84904-681-7)
Church Times Bookshop £16.20


KASJA NORMAN is a skilful jour­nalist, courageous in entering dan­gerous situations, shrewd in investi­gating, patient in listening. As she enters the communities of South Africa, she has the advantage, as a Swede, of not carrying with her any baggage drawn from economic domination or colonial oppression.

This book is not a formal history of the Afrikaner nation. Rather, it is a series of windows into the Afrik­aner story, presented in 29 short chapters of personal encounter.

The Afrikaner community, “the White Tribe of Africa”, is identified by its use of the Afrikaans language. It had to struggle for its language; the British imperial administration tried to kill it by means of the same tactics in the classroom as it was using in this country in the attempt to kill Welsh. Without this struggle to survive, Afrikaans might have remained an insignificant kind of Dutch Creole. Instead, it developed into a language of defiance, identi­fying a nation of about four million people; and it became the vehicle of a culture of racial domination and institutionalised cruelty, under­girded by a toxic perversion of deterministic Calvinism.

Norman tells the story of this process, although, I think, it is a pity that she did not take the opportun­ity to compare how the other four million people who speak Afrikaans, the “Coloured” people, developed the same language with a different motive.

Afrikaans was a language of dissent. In spite of the power of the Broederbond, the secret society which provided almost all the cabinet ministers of the apartheid government, there were other voices, notably that of Beyers Naudé, Moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church of the Transvaal; he was dismissed from his ministry on account of his questioning of apartheid from within. He became leader of the Christian Institute, a haven, and almost an alternative Church, for some of us.

Norman shows how this provided a radicalising force, especially in the student world. She introduces “Rev­erend Albertyn”, a Dutch Reformed minister who found him­self ques­tion­ing his deeply con­serva­tive back­ground. After leaving univers­ity, he was called up into the De­­fence Force and acted as a preacher there. In his preaching, he says, “I never tried to convince them of something they didn’t want to be­­lieve. . . Set ideas are hard to change; but if you undermine the theological foundation of the ideo­logy then you can change the mind­set without saying anything about the politics.”

Albertyn went on to become the first white minister of the DRC to minister to a black congregation and live among them — a difficult way of life for his wife and children.

Another expression of dissent, to which Norman returns several times, is Orania. After the collapse of apartheid, a group of Afrikaners bought some farms in the arid and inhospitable region south of Kim­berley, to set up (with government permission) a semi-independent republic, with its own laws and currency; it was to be a whites-only Afrikaans-speaking Calvinist community, leaving behind the wealth and privileges and status of Afrikanerdom, and being totally independent of black labour: a kind of purified apartheid. Norman introduces several indi­viduals with their stories, showing how this community has grown to be about 2000 strong. We meet again Albertyn, who joined them as a non-stipendiary tent-making minister.

Altogether, this book gives a fascinating insight into one of the worst periods of religion-dominated social cruelty, subverted by a power of conscience from within.


The Rt Revd John Dudley Davies was for 15 years a mission priest and university chaplain in South Africa.

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