South Africa

South Africa

Is nationalism part of our political DNA? A new biography of DF Malan holds contemporary lessons

Biographies, like jokes about tragedies, can oftentimes be written too soon. However, 20 years of constitutional democracy has provided the opportunity and the safe distance to excavate the life of a man who single-mindedly shaped the history of this country and whose ideas were to permeate South African politics for over 70 years. These would prove cataclysmic to the lives of millions of South Africans for years to come. A dispassionate new biography of DF Malan, the man who dreamed up Apartheid, not only offers insights into how we came to be where we are, but also echoes with eerie contemporary resonances. By MARIANNE THAM.

The small tree that is planted today and watered by my blood, will grow and become large, and will carry the fruits of our nation.”

Boer rebel Jopie Fourie’s last words before he was executed in Pretoria on 20 December 1914.

My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them.”

uMkonto weSizwe soldier Solomon Mahlangu’s last words before he was executed in Pretoria on 6 April 1979

In the beginning was Genesis 11:4-9, the story of the Tower of Babel. It was these six Old Testament verses, as interpreted by a Dutch reform theologian, Abraham Kuyper, that were to form the bedrock of the racial nationalist philosophy of Apartheid as it hatched and grew in the mind of a shy, studious, near-sighted farm boy, Daniel François Malan, and which came to set the course for much South Africa’s tragic history until 1994.

Understanding how this portly and outwardly apparently unremarkable and plodding man, born in the Swartland region of the then Cape Colony, could have had such a profound influence on the hearts and minds of generations of Afrikaners (and ultimately on the lives of a disenfranchised black majority), is a task that historian Lindie Koorts has undertaken in her monumental biography, DF Malan and the Rise of Afrikaner Nationalism (Tafelberg). The book (at 466 pages) deservedly made it to the shortlist for this year’s Alan Paton Award.

Koorts is a young historian, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Free State’s Centre for African studies and who holds an MA from the University of Johannesburg and a DPhil from the University of Stellenbosch.

The biography, with it’s black and white photograph of a rarely smiling Malan with his characteristic thick spectacles and his homburg is not one a reader would instinctively reach for on the bookshelves. Until now biographies of former nationalist leaders have tended to be hagiographies enhancing their mythical status.

But Koorts’ book – four years in the making and based on extraordinary detailed research – is a dispassionate and compelling read filled with insider accounts of ambition, skullduggery, betrayal and political manoeuvring not unlike that which occurs in contemporary politics.

Anyone closely following current headlines and political developments will find traces of today’s power plays, ideological battles, circles of patronage, horse-trading and betrayal, much of it reported on by a partisan media (Malan was the first editor of Die Burger). There are shades of Julius Malema, Zwelinzima Vavi, Blade Nzimande. There are nationalist leaders with 21 children and unruly and disruptive MPs.

Here is a reference to a 1943 motion by Malan to Parliament: “He declared that the government had to develop the country’s resources and industries in order to increase its income, while assuring a more even spread of wealth and eliminating parasitic exploitation. He wanted greater government control over the economy, with regard to banking and credit provision in particular. Land that lay fallow because it was being held for speculation purposes had to be distributed to landless farmers and the state had to accept responsibility for creating employment, he argued. Urban slums had to be eradicated through state housing projects and a national health service had to be established. He also appealed for an improvement in welfare services and pensions.”

In her introduction Koorts writes, “Grim-faced photographs of Malan and his successors have become synonymous with a rigid system of racial oppression, which dehumanised the majority of South Africa’s population. Yet, 20 years after Apartheid ended, a space has opened up for a new generation of historians to explore the past in its own right, and to challenge both Afrikaner and African stereotypes without the constraints of yesteryear”.

She adds that the biography is not the study of a movement through the lens of Malan’s life but rather “the story of a man; and through his story that one inevitably becomes acquainted with a movement which was riddled with its own divisions and conflicts, and which often placed personal rivalries ahead of ideology.”

While Koorts is an academic, her biography is by no means a dry read. Her time spent at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands honing her writing skills have rendered this a hugely accessible, nuanced and lucid work.

With the cushion of 20 years of constitutional democracy – while the damage wreaked by Malan’s policies implemented vigorously afterwards by a succession of National Party leaders, is still tangible and visible today – it is possible to engage with this historic figure in an attempt to understand what it was exactly – which qualities he possessed – that inspired and found traction with Afrikaners.

The lesson, of course, is that Malan’s ideology itself ultimately sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Apartheid was later declared “a crime against humanity” and former president FW de Klerk apologised (albeit with a strange condition) for it in 1993. Malan’s legacy, as Koorts explained in an interview, is still visible today, all around us.

Koorts has deliberately focussed on Malan, his life and the complexities of Afrikaner politics without losing focus by attempting to draw in wider political currents of black resistance to Apartheid at the time. The assumption is that a reader of the work will be well acquainted with these.

While Malan was a man shaped by the political currents and ideologies of the time, if we were today to consult a contemporary psychoanalyst he would probably be diagnosed as severely delusional (white people are superior beings) and suffering from a dangerous messiah complex (like so many individuals still drawn to the political realm). Malan was a patriarch who was absent-minded, a man who could hardly look after himself without a bevy of female carers and who appeared completely oblivious to and unconcerned with black political history or movements.

Malan’s idealism about racial relations revealed a deep naïveté about the nature and dynamics of interracial relations,” writes Koorts.

But he was also a complex man, deeply religious, a keen strategist, principled in his own way, clumsy and awkward with some women, open and accessible to others, a loving father and a workaholic.

Malan had been raised in a religious household and from a young age had believed his career or calling lay with the church. Malan insisted that “Christ did not approach the life of His age thorough external organisation or mass movement or force of numbers, but through interior inspiration and the force of personality”.

It was this example set by Christ, writes Koorts, that would be the “method” Malan would follow throughout his political career. And Malan would soon learn, she explains, that “South African politics could not be separated from the personalities of its leaders.”

It was while completing his studies in the Netherlands that the young Malan was exposed to imminent reform theologians of the time, his mentor Professor JJP Valeton, and Abraham Kuyper, who was later to become prime minister of the Netherlands.

While Malan had initially believed politics and religion were incompatible and had hoped to lead Afrikaners under a single Reformed South African church that was united, nationalist, evangelical and that should act independently of a political party, it was politics where he ultimately left his indelible impression.

When he later found himself drawn into politics, particularly sparked by his concern for the “poor white Afrikaner” question Malan “wanted to approach his new career with the tried and tested manner of the church, it had to be a matter of determining and following the correct principles”, writes Koorts.

To Malan nationalism was a living, growing organism. It was holy since the nation existed only because God had willed it so. Malan believed that God revealed himself in history, which proved time and again that disintegration rather than integration, was the natural order.”

While Valeton was a proponent of Higher Criticism with regard to studying the Bible – an attempt to read ‘the word behind the text’ – it was Kuyper who advocated for the uncritical acceptance of the Bible’s accuracy. It was a text that was “true and accurate”.

Which is where the Tower of Babel story comes in. That a few verses from the Bible could cause such misery to the lives of millions of fellow human beings is utterly tragic and unforgivable. Enough reason to agitate tirelessly for a secular state.

From a rational perspective it seems somehow unfathomable that a ‘nation’ of people would be so stirred or moved to follow a leader – even if the end result was self-destruction. Of course history is littered with many examples – Adolf Hitler to name the most notorious of these – each of these must be viewed together with the unique international and regional political currents of the time. This is why Koorts’ biography is so important in the South African context because while politics is ever-changing, human beings appear not to be.

In an interview Koorts explained that Malan’s leadership can be viewed through philosopher and political economist Max Weber’s model of the “charismatic leader”.

Charisma, in this context, does not mean charm, but the ability to convince one’s followers of one’s ‘divine’ mission. Weber modelled the charismatic leader on the Old Testament prophets – whom Malan consciously emulated. It helps to explain why Afrikaners chose to follow him.”

It was also the issue of language and a fear that Afrikaners would be dominated (and rendered extinct) by English-speaking South Africans (and their culture) that drove Malan’s vision. This as well as the then Union of South Africa’s subservience to Britain would all contribute to his particular brand of nationalism.

Malan shared a contemporary contempt for mine owners and “greedy capitalists” whom he viewed as the power behind Jan Smut’s South African Party. He believed that South Africa’s minerals should not be exploited by foreigners.

Malan was anti-capitalist in so far as it created class differentiation, of which he disapproved. However, he was also opposed to socialism, which he regarded as a subversive force that threatened legitimate authority, and which was hostile to cultural and individual uniqueness,” writes Koorts.

Koorts book excavates the history of Afrikaner politics from Malan’s birth in 1874 to his death in 1959. Ultimately it is a complex and riveting historical biography, one of the best to have been published in recent years. It is also a revealing study in behind-the-scenes political life that will offer some insight into what may still happen today behind closed doors and away from the eyes and ears of the electorate when coalitions and compromises are forged.

Writing on the 1922 miners strike, when 2,000 white miners went on strike after the post-war recession forced owners to cut costs replacing white workers with cheaper African labour, we find echoes of Marikana. In that strike 200 people were killed as the Smuts government crushed the strike, dropping bombs on working class suburbs.

The crisis provided Tielman Roos [a founding member of the National Party in the Tranvaal] with an opportunity to shine – appearing before charged crowds had always been his forte. In addressing the striking workers he was in his element. He politicised the strike and encouraged the workers, many of whom were newly urbanised Afrikaners, to use the ballot box to banish the Smuts government – all the while skillfully moderating their explosive tempers.”

At the end of this work one cannot help but sit back and marvel about just how far we have come but also absorb at what great cost to so many lives. And all in the name of God. DM

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