Poverty, inequality, unemployment, “white privilege” and inherited wealth are some of the buzzwords in the current South African political discourse regarding the search for answers to vexing socio-economic issues.
However, poverty is not a strange predator lurking in this corner of Africa. There are winning recipes for us locked in the past – you just have to know where to dig – also in Afrikaners’ own history.
It appears that many opinion makers and politicians draw the wrong conclusions from the history of the Afrikaners’ own bitter struggle against extreme systemic poverty and inequality. The best example of this is the popular, false master story that Afrikaners’ primary vehicle out of the dark depths of poverty was the state.
This is a convenient story for the centralist ANC and EFF who want to consolidate their own power and trap people in helpless state dependence. However, a proper study of history reveals that it was mainly well-organized community initiatives that enabled Afrikaners to break the shackles of poverty.
The most influential of these was the Helpmekaarbeweging. It is sad that even many Afrikaners today do not know this proud and inspiring side of our history.
DIY and self-help
The Helpmekaarbeweging was born in 1915 with the main aim of crowdfunding to help alleviate the heavy burden of fines and prison sentences imposed on rebels such as General Christiaan de Wet and their families after the 1914–15 Maritz Rebellion.
A common slogan of that time was “carry together and work together”. Despite Afrikaners’ generally impoverished circumstances, less than 15 years after the Anglo-Boer War, funds began trickling in from Free State villages such as Bethlehem, Reitz and Lindley. Soon the word spread and residents, rich and poor, of Heilbron, Vredefort, Frankfort and numerous other towns also began to participate in the community-based movement.
The Helpmekaar movement started to spread nationwide like wildfire.
Precisely at this time when Afrikaners suffered from enormous economic challenges and poverty, the flame of DIY and self-help was rekindled among us. Churches collected funds from door to door, women and women’s associations sold pancakes and cookie cutters and children even contributed from their pocket money.
Touching parables have been recorded of simple people who, like the widow in Mark 12:42, were willing to contribute their last bit to a cause greater than themselves. To scrape together funds, some Afrikaner families were prepared to give up meat, butter, sugar and other non-essentials. According to tradition, even farmers on the brink of bankruptcy donated a chicken or a bucket of milk.
Later, the Help Mekaar movement developed a broader awareness of the value of community involvement. Specific focus is placed on education and the education of the youth, skill development, strong family ties and religious values. This is how the power and value of multiple small collective investments in your own community was already discovered more than a century ago.
Finally, special attention was also given to the establishment of new Afrikaner institutions alongside similar existing English institutions. The overall aim was the general development, upliftment and poverty alleviation of the wider Afrikaner community, the establishment of own institutions, the restoration of a healthy self-image and cultural preservation and expansion. This pioneering lifting work was done by relatively poor Afrikaner communities without the support of the government.
By 1917, a total of 100,000 pounds more had been collected in the four provinces than was necessary to fully cover the fines and compensation claims against the rebels. These funds were then invested and the proceeds were used for educational purposes such as scholarships. The Helpmekaar Study Fund celebrates its 107th anniversary in 2023.
The remarkable successes and momentum of the Helpmekaar movement ignited a new sense of standing together, working together and building together among Afrikaners. In 1918, the South African National Trust and Insurance Company Limited (Santam) was founded. A month later, the South African National Life Insurance Company Limited (Sanlam) is launched. Also in 1918 we find the roots of the Cooperative Winegrowers Association of South Africa (KWV) and in 1921 the Afrikaans Verbond Begrafnisonderneming Beperk (AVBOB) was established.
Many Afrikaners were just beginning to find their feet after the devastation of the scorched earth policy, concentration camps, general loss of life and trauma of the Anglo-Boer War when the Great Depression of 1929 to 1939 hit them. For the sake of survival, my great-grandfather had to leave his Karoo family farm behind and trade the large, open spaces and clean desert air for the dark, cramped, stuffy mine shafts of Johannesburg. He always said they believed in those hard times that as long as you always keep a little money in your wallet, you will never run out of money. So I still carry a tiki in my purse today.
Existential crisis answered
The Afrikaner’s struggles and new existential crises have strongly rekindled the Helpmekaar spirit. In 1935, Volkskas Bank was founded as a cooperative loan bank to serve Afrikaners who were devastated by the Great Depression. Today it is known as ABSA. The Reddingsdaadbond was founded in 1939 with the objective of the economic rehabilitation of impoverished Afrikaners. Their famous motto, which still echoes today, reads: “A people saves itself!”
In 1940, Federale Volksbelegings (FVB) was established to further contribute to the economic upliftment and eventual economic independence of the Afrikaner. One of the FVB’s first loans was to Anton Rupert’s Rembrandt cigarette company, which he started in his garage.
Already in the 1930s, the slogan “We build!” popular among Afrikaners – a sentiment which in 2023 can still be found in the Solidarity Movement’s slogan: “We build to stay”. Afrikaners’ drive to build themselves does not arise from a need for individual self-enrichment, but rather from an unquenchable will to survive as a cultural group by creating your own common future.
In 1942, the Afrikaans Trade Institute, a voluntary association of Afrikaans businessmen, was founded to help Afrikaner businesses get off the ground and to represent their interests collectively. In the early 1940s the magazine Volkshandel began to inform Afrikaners about business management and economic matters.
Appeared in 1949 Technique on the shelves as a page with the aim of contributing to the Afrikaner’s entry into the industrial world after the Second World War. Later this page becomes Finance & Engineering and today it is known as Fine week. In 1946, Bonus Investment Corporation (Bonuskor) was founded – a financial institution aimed at the further economic empowerment of Afrikaners. Bonuskor was also the first African company to be listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
The message of these community initiatives was clear: Rather than begging for help, the Afrikaner is simply going to make a place for himself in the industrial, commercial and business world. Self!
Solutions in the face of challenges
These breakthroughs occurred during a period when the South African economy, especially the commercial business world and industries, was dominated by English speakers with their powerful monopolies, which led to a large economic gap between the two groups’ incomes. For example, during the 1940s, Afrikaners controlled only about one percent of the country’s industries.
The Helpmekaar spirit has also retained its mindset of cultural development. In 1929, the Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Associations (FAK) was founded to handle the nationwide coordination of Afrikaner cultural organizations. In 1931, the Voortrekkers’ torch was lit, as a youth organization aimed at cultivating Christian values, resilience, leadership, service, a good character and appreciation for nature. In 1933, the first complete Afrikaans Bible translation was published from Afrikaner ranks.
The historian Jaap Steyn claims: “The success of the Helpmekaar movement made Afrikaners realize that, despite the general poverty, they still have a lot of money.” Flip Buys still reminds us today: “You make big money from small money”.
The Solidarity Movement takes careful note of these valuable lessons from the past and therefore we follow in the glorious footsteps of our forefathers, so that we “bear together and work together” and “We build!” is again the order of the day.
As a proud member of this new Helpmekaar movement, I have developed my own version of my great-grandfather’s saying: “As long as you keep a grain of knowledge of your ancestors’ sacrifices and successes in your heart, your courage will never run out.”