Forum Interview – An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival


Dr. Jamie Miller’s new book, An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival (Oxford University Press, 2016), is an ambitious new international history of 1970s apartheid South Africa. In it, he makes sense of the many domestic and foreign political, economic, and ideological forces at work in South Africa at the time: decolonization and European imperialism; economic development and cultural globalization; nationalism and anti-communism; Afrikanerdom and African nationalism; white supremacy and postcolonial rights agendas; local politics and the Cold War in the global south. Based on newly declassified documents and oral histories in multiple languages on three continents, Miller gets inside the “official mind” of South Africa’s apartheid regime in Pretoria and uncovers the ways in which these myriad forces found their complements and contradictions.

Miller, having earned his doctorate from the University of Cambridge in November 2013, has been a Fox Predoctoral International Fellow at Yale University, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Quinnipiac University, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at both Cornell and Pittsburgh Universities. He has published articles in the Journal of African History, the Journal of Cold War Studies, and Cold War History. His work has also appeared in the London Review of Books and the Imperial & Global Forum, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @JamieMiller85.

Here is the Forum interview with Dr. Jamie Miller.

How would you summarize your new book, An African Volk?

The demise of apartheid was one of the great achievements of postwar history, sought after and celebrated by a progressive global community. An African Volk looks at these events from the other side. It explores how the apartheid regime strove to maintain power as the world of white empire gave way to a post-colonial environment that repudiated racial hierarchy. It focuses on how the regime attempted to turn the new political climate to its advantage.

Historians have traditionally focused on South Africa’s efforts to resist and/or undermine decolonization and African nationalism in the name of upholding white supremacy. Equally, most scholars have looked at South Africa’s efforts to combat increasing isolation through building links in the global north based on shared racial and religious content. But this was never the whole story, and in the late 1960s and 1970s this strand of statecraft receded very much into the background. I instead show how the architects of apartheid looked to co-opt and invert the norms of the new global era to promote a fresh ideological basis for their rule. The regime adapted discourses of nativist identity, African anti-colonialism, economic development, anti-communism, and state sovereignty, all to contest and rearticulate what it meant to be African and thereby acquire a new legitimacy.

Situated at the historical nexus of Africa, decolonization, and the Cold War, An African Volk details both the global and local dimensions of this unlikely phenomenon. It shows how the apartheid regime reached out eagerly to independent Africa in an effort to prove its African bona fides. It also tells the domestic story: this outreach both reflected and fueled heated debates within white society over its future, exposing a polity in the midst of profound economic, cultural, and social change. Foreign and domestic policy were in fact intertwined. The regime’s African diplomacy was designed to bolster particular identities and ideologies at home as they emerged out of elite circles, and use them to sideline rival ideas popular with other classes and sectors of Afrikanerdom.

Could you briefly explain to our readers what volk means in the context of your book?

The volk refers to the Afrikaner national movement, also known as Afrikanerdom. Afrikaners were (and are) the descendants of settlers from Dutch, French, and German-speaking parts of Europe, white, and usually Calvinists—though being an “Afrikaner” was, of course, a constructed and politically functional identity. The government behind the apartheid system (roughly 1948-1990) was the National Party. Its self-proclaimed mission was the advancement of the Afrikaner nation; Afrikaans was its lingua franca; nearly all its top-level members were Afrikaners.

Since the 1970s, literature on the South African regime has focused on its materialist or racial ends: scholars have tended to see through the nationalist claims of the regime to argue that it really sought to promote specific drivers of wealth in South African society, or to secure privileges and status for all whites, not just Afrikaners. Both of these stories have merit, and each was heavily influenced by the intellectual and political climate in which they were constructed, respectively dominated by Marxist approaches and anti-apartheid causes.

Influenced by the post-linguistic turn approach to political history, my book argues that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the importance of discourse. The story of Afrikaner nationalism was the medium through which the regime gained its power, attracted votes, and defined its goals—particularly before the massive social changes of the 1980s. It is impossible to understand the improbable story at the heart of my book—the apartheid regime’s effort to reject the mantle of European colonialism and redefine itself as an explicit, full part of post-colonial Africa—without understanding that the leaders who did this were deeply inspired by the notion of the volk, its myths, its meaning, its existential call on their being.

How would you describe yourself as a historian?

I’m very much a broad church historian. I generally don’t believe history should be done a certain way, or that some approaches are good and others bad, or that everything new surpasses that which is old. I think there is merit to be found across the spectrum. I get to indulge this love of all things history in my classes. For example, I’m currently reading Luise White’s book on prostitution in colonial Nairobi. I have no research expertise in any area that she covers and the book is twenty-five years old. What matters is that it’s awesome history, tackling a big question, attacking it from an intriguing angle, and then researched impeccably. I can’t wait to introduce my students to it next semester.

The history of apartheid in South Africa has been widely studied. Why is it that, until your book, historians have recently neglected studying Pretoria’s apartheid policymakers themselves?

Three reasons: approach, politics, and access. The regime sponsored the reproduction of its own nationalist mythology in the public sphere. (Good) scholars predictably repudiated this effort, instead turning to either liberal or Marxist approaches. More recently, the post-apartheid era has seen, in turn, a rejection of this tired binary; South African history has become incredibly diverse. But the history of the regime itself has lagged behind. Our knowledge of even basic elements of how the regime functioned—say, how its leaders understood the world outside them, or how we might conceptualise its power beyond the purely political realm—has not substantially advanced in the last twenty years.

The second reason is politics. The study of the apartheid regime was very closely tied to the struggle to overthrow it. When that cause met with success, the energy in the field evaporated. This book is an effort to resuscitate that energy. The regime is too important, and its legacy on modern South Africa too profound, for scholars not to pick up the baton again, and with rigour.

The final reason is access. The archives are not always easy to use and the vast amount of material is in Afrikaans. There is a lack of investment in maintenance and the training of archivists by the current government, as well as an increasing and disturbing inclination towards shutting off access. The ANC has a deeply embedded culture of secrecy and control, dating back to its days as an underground movement. Moreover, its legitimacy and power rest substantially on its own mythology: its role in fighting the apartheid regime. It therefore has a strong vested interest in managing understandings of the past. And we’re back to politics again.

But even since I started this project there has been a sharp resurgence of interest in the apartheid regime and its history, with dedicated colloquia, new books, and a profusion of new approaches. That bodes very well for the future and it’s great to be part of a broader community of scholars.”

This is an intellectual history—a history of ideas—as well as a diplomatic and political one. Could you explain the role that ideology plays in An African Volk?

The story I tell derives from a realisation among Afrikaner elites that they needed a new ideological basis for their political cause. Part of the impetus for this realisation was external: decolonisation and the creation of a new global community. But a lot was internal, too. The rapidly improving material basis of Afrikaners – urbanization, consumerism, the hugely improved access to formal education — these all drove a more outward-looking, less dogmatic idea of what it meant to be an Afrikaner and new considerations of how society might be organised in a more moral way. The solution that they latched onto was parallel nationalisms, a concept which lay at the core of the homelands vision. This notion dictated that the Afrikaner could only be comfortable in its nation if it committed to providing national independence and rights for other South Africans, too. This notion was self-serving and ignorant of the realities of South African society (as well, of course, of what black South Africans and others wanted). But the new zeitgeist was powerful and ultimately uncontrollable, creating all sorts of unexpected political consequences that ultimately undermined the regime’s power.

How did you go about getting inside the minds of South Africa’s apartheid regime? What difficulties did you encounter along the way?

Early on, I realised the importance of not just accessing the policies and political approaches of the leaders of the apartheid regime, but understanding the ideas and worldviews that informed them. Part of the solution to this was learning Afrikaans. Another part was oral history: I conducted over fifty hours of interviews with various leading figures from the day, as well as many more hours of off-the-record discussions. But the key was broadening my lens beyond the political, studying ideas circulating in the Afrikaner public sphere and how these intersected with the political. This helped me to step inside the shoes of the actors, and try to understand how they saw the world in their own terms. This meant not just reading government documents, but also Afrikaans literature, memoirs, popular magazines. These give you a much better feel for the social norms of the day.

Your book provides a new interpretation of apartheid South Africa’s foreign policy as it encountered the geopolitical forces of decolonization and the Cold War. Could you briefly describe for our readers the South African foreign policy that emerged?

As decolonisation unfolded in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the response of white South Africa was simply fear and dismay. The government’s policy became to keep African nationalism as far away as possible, forward defence. This included sending arms, money, and troops to help sustain allies to the north: white-ruled Rhodesia and the Portuguese Empire.

But when John Vorster came to power in 1966, he launched a different policy, which existed in substantial tension with the forward defence approach. Building on new ideas emerging within the Afrikaner public sphere, he articulated that South Africa had nothing to fear from decolonisation. In fact, he argued, the emergence of the nation-state and self-determination as the singular standard for political legitimacy in the post-colonial era opened a new avenue to justify Afrikaner power on the exact same basis. In this thinking, if white South Africa was to coexist productively with the new homeland states at home, then it was only logical that it had no issue with engaging with independent African countries that already existed. So, as suggested above, South Africa’s statecraft was also mobilised for domestic state-building ends: to bolster particular ideological concepts for Afrikanerdom’s future and provide more support for the homelands vision.

To give some body to this thinking, Vorster did two things. He developed links with African states, emphasising a shared commitment across the colour line to anti-communism, economic development, and state sovereignty. And he slowly but steadily distanced Pretoria from fellow whites in South-West Africa and Rhodesia, committing to helping the international community’s effort to produce multi-racial post-colonial states in both places. All of this was designed to prove his regime’s “African” and “post-colonial” credentials. Both measures were radical departures from the status quo, both put at issue the most fundamental issues of Afrikaner identity, and both were hotly contested not only within Afrikanerdom, but at the highest levels of his own government. His was a very tricky case to make and one that ultimately led to his political implosion.

Your book ambitiously weaves together international histories of decolonization and the Cold War with a political, racial, economic, and ideological history of South Africa. How did you tackle this daunting challenge?

With difficulty. One big help was teaching. It was only through teaching that I was really forced to read way outside my field. This made me think in concrete ways about how my discrete story fit into the bigger pictures far beyond Southern African history. Moreover, I had to do that thinking actively rather than passively: giving lectures and responding adequately to student queries. If I hadn’t had to do that, the scope of the book would be so much smaller. It would really be a completely different book.

What are the main messages that you want readers to take away from your book?

I’d emphasise four points. First, the apartheid regime didn’t look to just reject out of hand the new ideas and norms that formed the post-colonial world; they looked to contest and hijack them.

Second, we need to start thinking more seriously about the Cold War in terms of domestic politics, not just geopolitics. If even the leaders of apartheid South Africa and independent Africa could find common ground through the ability of anti-communism to help them control their societies and repudiate calls for social justice, then maybe we should be returning to the radical/New Left critiques of anti-communism that claimed that the ideology did just that. It should also underline for us that anti-communism was not only forged in the halls of power in the global north, but also defined and redefined by actors on the frontlines of the Cold War in the global south for their own purposes.

Third, South Africa should be integrated into histories of the global south, not the perpetual outlier. Not only was South Africa’s quest to reframe its ruling ideology tightly linked to the decolonisation happening around the world, but the intellectual tools that Afrikaner elites used to make this claim were very similar to those used elsewhere in the global south too. Pretoria looked above all to argue for a nativist nationalism as their foundation for legitimacy, and they sought to manipulate racial identities and discourses to do it. This is a lot like what recent decolonisation literature shows us elsewhere in the global south.

This finding leads to the final point. We should conceptualise the apartheid regime by looking at it not just as an imperial holdover, with its essential truths to be found in studying the political economy of the early twentieth century (or earlier), but also by looking at what was happening in the world at the time period in question. South African politics did not take place in a vacuum. This seems to me to really be self-evident, but it’s a useful guiding light for study, moving forward.

How might An African Volk best be used in the classroom? For what classes is it most suitable?

I hope that the book will work for courses on Africa, decolonisation, Cold War, international history, and the ‘global south’. But I also think it’ll work well for anyone trying to inspire their students to think outside the box and cast aside preconceptions. That’s perhaps the aspect of the book that I’m most committed to: its ability to take something that we thought we knew, 100%, and use rigorous historical treatment to turn that story on its head.

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