The Journal of African History

Constructing Identities

Afrikaner Nationalism, Apartheid and the Conceptualization of ‘Race’

Saul Dubowa1

a1 University of Sussex

This paper analyses the ideological elaboration of the concept of race in the development of Christian-nationalist thought. As such, it contributes to our understanding of the ideological and theological justifications for apartheid. The paper begins by pointing to the relatively late moment (c. mid-1930s) at which Afrikaner nationalist ideologues began to address the systematic separation of blacks and whites. It takes its cue from a key address given by the nationalist leader, Totius, to the 1944 volkskongres on racial policy. Here, racial separation was justified by reference to scriptural injunction, the historical experience of Afrikanerdom and the authority of science. Each of these categories is then analysed with respect to the way in which the concept of race was understood and articulated.

The paper argues that both scientific racism and distinctive forms of cultural relativism were used to justify racial separation. This depended on the fact that the categories of race, language and culture were used as functionally interdependent variables, whose boundaries remained fluid. In the main, and especially after the Second World War, Afrikaner nationalist ideologues chose to infer or suggest biological notions of racial superiority rather than to assert these openly. Stress on the distinctiveness of different ‘cultures’ meant that the burden of explaining human difference did not rest solely on the claims of racial science. As a doctrine, Christian-nationalism remained sufficiently flexible to adjust to changing circumstances. In practice, the essentialist view of culture was no less powerful a means of articulating human difference than an approach based entirely on biological determinism.