A resurgent Afrikaner nationalist movement drew its dynamism mainly from three sources: the development of Afrikaans as high-culture language, the propagation of a nationalist history and the effort to promote Afrikaans businesses. The government had recognised Afrikaans as an official language in 1925, but only a few respected works, fiction or non-fiction, had as yet appeared in the language. In 1932 only a quarter of the secondary white schools used Afrikaans as the sole medium of instruction against half that used only English and another fifth that used both. It was feared that English would quickly crowd out Afrikaans in the 20% of schools that used both languages.
English-language newspapers, particularly The Star, tended to denounce any Afrikaner attempts to insist on parity for the two official languages as ‘racialism’ that impaired the relationship between the two white ‘races’. When F.W. Beyers rendered the first judgment in Afrikaans in the Appeal Court in 1931, The Star identified him as an ex-politician who pursued ‘an extreme form of nationalism, particularly on the language question’. In exasperation C.J. Langenhoven, the most outstanding Afrikaans popular writer, once asked an English speaker: ‘Why is my politics always racialism to you and your racialism always politics?’ The Afrikaner Broederbond, together with its public arm the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge, would become the main organisation in civil society committed to promoting Afrikaner economic and cultural interests.
From the early 1930s Afrikaans surged ahead as a public and literary language and medium of instruction. For poets and novelists, and also for historians and other writers of non-fiction, the challenge was to build up a national literature with its own character. The syntax and vocabulary of Afrikaans had to a large extent assumed its present form. The translation of the Afrikaans Bible appeared in 1933 and was widely acclaimed – in contrast to the first draft, which was considered to be written in a stompstert Hollands, or broken Dutch, that was ‘neither fish nor fowl’. Dr D.F. Malan welcomed the new translation as the greatest event in the life of the Afrikaner people in the field of culture and religion. Between 1934 and 1937 W.E.G. Louw, Elisabeth Eybers and Uys Krige published their first volumes of poetry, a flowering of talents, (See N.P Van Wyk Louw A Man of letters).
During the 1930s a new generation of Afrikaners sought to rediscover themselves through acknowledging both the heroism and the suffering of the Great Trek and the South African War. A spate of popular books on the war suddenly appeared, along with numerous articles in popular magazines and newspapers, almost all glorifying the Boer fighters, particularly the heroic resistance of the bittereinders, and almost all attacking the deplorable conditions in the concentration camps, largely responsible for the death of 26 000 Boer women and children.
The Great Trek also received much attention from both popular and academic historians, especially as the commemoration of the event in 1938 approached. N.P. van Wyk Louw’s choral play Die Dieper Reg (The Higher Justice) portrayed the Voortrekkers as heroes and heroines who followed the ‘call of their blood’. The celebrations handed D.F. Malan and his party a unique opportunity to broadcast the message that the Afrikaners as a people had had to fight their own battles for survival and could still rely only on themselves.
By the second half of 1938 the celebrations organised by the Afrikaanse Taal- en Kultuurvereniging
were attracting mass enthusiasm among Afrikaners. Nine ox-wagons staged a trek from Cape Town. One route went to Pretoria, where the cornerstone of a massive new monument in honour of the Voortrekkers was to be laid on 16 December. This was the date of the Battle of Blood River, where a commando under Andries Pretorius decisively defeated a large army of the Zulu king Dingane in 1938. The other route led to the scene of the battle in northern Natal.
The re-enactment of the Trek turned out to be an electrifying event, sparking mass Afrikaner enthusiasm as the wagons wound their way through hamlets, villages and cities across the land. Afrikaner men and women, often clad in Voortrekker dress with the men sporting Voortrekker beards, met the wagons. At solemn ceremonies wreaths were laid on the graves of Afrikaner heroes, and streets were renamed for Voortrekker leaders. ‘Die Stem van Suid-Afrika’ (The Call of South Africa) for all practical purposes was elevated to the Afrikaners’ national anthem, while the volksliedjies – folk songs from the FAK volume – became part of popular culture. From that time braaivleis (barbecue), a re-enactment of how the Voortrekkers cooked their meals on the veld, became fashionable among city people.
A crowd of over 100 000 attended the culminating event in Pretoria on 16 December. Writing 30 years after the event, journalist Schalk Pienaar, who accompanied the wagons from Cape Town, remarked: ‘It brought about positively the same result as that which occurs negatively when war breaks out or is being waged, when the volk feels its very existence being threatened. The peaceful wagons made the volk mightily aware of its own existence.’
The celebrations were meant to be above party politics, but the National Party was the great beneficiary. At the mass meeting on 16 December at Blood River, Malan spoke in vivid historical images, singling out the plight of the urban poor Afrikaners as the greatest challenge to Afrikaner survival. Smuts attended the celebration in Pretoria, but did not speak. Hertzog did not participate at all.
Z.K. Matthews, a black intellectual and leading figure in the ANC, tried to strike a positive note. The centenary, he wrote, could demonstrate a ‘large-heartedness and a generous attitude towards former foes’. He pointed to a statement made at a recent Dutch Reformed Church conference that the Voortrekkers had advocated social separation without implying that blacks, in consequence, were to ‘be oppressed or hindered in their development’. For Matthews, the best Voortrekker monument, apart from an improvement in black health services and education, would be training blacks ‘for work among their own people in services for their benefit’ (his emphasis). The architects of apartheid would soon take up this challenge in a way that Matthews in all probability did not anticipate.