When the 1948 election campaign started, the UP failed to see that it was in serious trouble. Afrikaners had been seriously alienated from the UP by the split decision in 1939 to take South Africa into the war and by the disruption the war effort caused. By 1948 there was growing irritation with wartime restrictions that were still in place. Living costs had increased sharply. White farmers in the northern provinces were particularly unhappy that black labour was leaving the farms and moving to the cities. They demanded the strict application of pass laws.
In the election of 26 May 1948, D.F. Malan’s National Party, in alliance with N.C. Havenga’s Afrikaner Party – formed during the war from General Hertzog’s core support – won with a razor-thin majority of five seats, and only 40% of the overall electoral vote.
Malan said after the election: ‘Today South Africa belongs to us once more. South Africa is our own for the first time since Union, and may God grant that it will always remain our own.’ When Malan said that South Africa ‘belonged’ to the Afrikaners he did not have the white-black struggle in mind but the rivalry between the Afrikaner and the English community (led politically by Jan Smuts and a few other Afrikaners).
Many Afrikaners felt victimised by the way in which the wartime measures had been applied. Rumours were rife of Afrikaners who had been refused promotion merely on the say-so of informers. According to an analysis of the letter columns in the Afrikaans papers, Die Burger and Die Transvaler, the most salient matter was the belief that the UP government had discriminated against Afrikaners in the previous eight years; next were food shortages and rationing and the treatment of ex-servicemen. Editorials, by contrast, frequently raised the racial question.
The NP that came to power in 1948 was two parties rolled into one. The one was a party for white supremacy that introduced apartheid, promising the electorate it would secure the political future of whites; the other a nationalist party that sought to mobilise the Afrikaner community by appealing to Afrikaans culture – their beliefs, prejudices and moral convictions, a sense of a common past and shared hopes and fears for the future.
Immediately after the 1948 election the government began removing the remaining symbols of the historic British ascendancy. It abolished British citizenship and the right of appeal to the Privy Council (1950), scrapped God Save the Queen as one of the national anthems and the Union Jack as one of the national ensigns (1957) and took over the naval base in Simon’s Town from the Royal Navy (1957). The removal of these symbols of a dual citizenship was seen as a victory for Afrikaner nationalism.
The NP’s advance was the story of a people on the move, filled with enthusiasm about the ‘Afrikaner cause’, putting their imprint on the state, defining its symbols, and giving their schools and universities a pronounced Afrikaans character. Political power steadily enhanced their social self-confidence. In the world of big business Rembrandt, Sanlam, Volkskas and other Afrikaner enterprises would soon begin to earn the respect of their English rivals.
The NP as a ruling party stood mobilised and ready for action. An English editor described its style in the 1950s: ‘Activity is ceaseless; the contact continuous. There is rarely a weekend without a party or public meeting somewhere in each province. Not a week goes by without one or other Minister speaking to the people and participating in their group activities, easily and spontaneously.’
Yet the apartheid part of the policy steadily marginalised the part that appealed to culture and took pride in the achievements of the ethnic group. For other people it looked as if the Afrikaners were obsessed with fears about their own survival, and thus did not care about the damage and the hurt apartheid inflicted upon others in a far weaker position.
The novelist Alan Paton made the pat comment: ‘It is one of the deep mysteries of Afrikaner nationalist psychology that a Nationalist can observe the highest standards towards his own kind, but can observe an entirely different standard towards others, and more especially if they are not white.’ It came as a shock to those Afrikaners who rejected the harsh policies that blacks and coloured people nevertheless saw them as part of an intransigent dominant group.