Away from Afrikanerdom and back again


Away from Afrikanerdom and back again

ANNELIESE BURGESS talks to Theuns Eloff, facilitator of the recent declaration by the Afrikaner Leadership Network about why he and other Afrikaners want to be part of South Africa's future.


EVERYTHING started with discussions with the Thabo Mbeki Foundation a few years ago, Theuns Eloff says about talks between organisations and individuals representing 2 million Afrikaners that has now culminated in the first joint statement from Afrikaner ranks since 1994.

The goal was dialogue, but also projects that we could undertake together. At that time we had to ask ourselves what we stood for and this led to this internal discussion among the organisations involved. At first we thought we could create greater unity between Afrikaners but we quickly realised that it would only waste time to start a new organisation. We then said, ‘let's decide and talk about what we can agree on'.

Well, you know Afrikaners. There's all kinds of stuff … there's been criticism from the left and the right," Eloff laughs.

One of the issues is that some were unhappy that we did not emphasise the Christian Reformation foundation of Afrikanerdom enough, but finally, after three years, we had something with which we could go forward and which we then issued as a statement.

“We want South Africans to see and recognise the good faith and bona fides of Afrikaners. And know that we are here to stay and we want to help build this country for all its people."

Eloff is open about the criticism they have received (but also pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction from certain ranks, such as an article in City Press and the ANC's Fikile Mbalula). He says this is the start of a process that will develop as more people are drawn in.

Of course Solidarity is the elephant in the room. If you talk about organised Afrikaner groups, Solidarity probably represents 70%. It's just a fact. But we wanted to add other groups as well. This is why I was then elected as chairman of the meetings, because the organisations I work with are about the promotion of Afrikaans in general. And I'm an independent commentator, which means I can also walk that tightrope of wearing two hats."

Among other things, the declaration calls for a “cultural pact" with the government.

“Cultural living spaces are not just about song and dance, poetry and drama, or Voortrekker dresses," says Eloff. “It's about where you live, where your kids go to school, where you go to church, it's about a home for the elderly, it's about safety. So I think that's what we mean by culture. It is much broader than whether we are allowed to practise Afrikaans music.

“And no, of course we are not talking about a homeland or a volkstaat. And we are certainly not talking about secession like some crazy guys in the Cape.

Perhaps a concrete example is a good way to understand where we are coming from and why we want to start this conversation with the government. The possibility of a bill was raised last year in certain government circles to force residential areas such as private estates, which do not reflect the demographics of the country, to have 80% black residents. We think such suggestions are crazy and we want to stop them. We want to prevent that residential areas are restricted by law and that Afrikaners do not have the right to move where they want and live where they feel at home. We don't know what will happen in 10 or 20 years, so that's the nuance of this cultural treaty."

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Other criticism

I knew we would also be criticised because coloured Afrikaans speakers are not part of this. We would very much like them to become part of the initiative, but one of the problems over the three-year process of discussions is that in the Afrikaans community, but also in the English coloured community, there are not really national organisations with whom one can speak.

But ultimately this is just the beginning. Anyone who wants to support it can support it. It is open to all. We did not give a definition that an Afrikaner must be a Dopper, wear leather shoes or come to the Voortrekker Monument every second year. It is open to all."

Personal journey

Eloff grew up in a middle-class Afrikaner home in Potchefstroom. His father was a professor in social work. He went to university at 17. “I didn't know what to do, so I took up law. It was nice. But I was unaware of what was actually going on in our country.

The Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education [PU for CHE] and the student council liaised with other Christian organisations, including black and English organisations."

It was at a camp that a black guy confronted him with the question: “How can you support apartheid and be a Christian?"

Meanwhile, Eloff had added theology to his field of study. “It was a Christian analysis of apartheid that made me realise that apartheid is wrong. And for me it was about the unity of the church. I realised that apartheid's consequences are breaking the unity of the church in many areas. And with that my head started spinning."

Eloff eventually drifted slowly to the fringes of the Afrikaner community. It began in his final year when he took the lead in founding a political student organisation, Polstu.

The Afrikanerbond presented itself as a cultural organisation and we wanted to talk politics. The country was burning. It was after 1976."

They ran into adversity and he was eventually expelled from the Ruiterwag, a youth wing of the Broederbond. At the time, this was big news in the small world of the Afrikaner.

Most Afrikaners then began to regard me as a leftist," he says.

Eloff went to the Air Force, served in the chaplaincy service, then became a minister in Pretoria.

I was in the ministry in the Brooklyn congregation for six years but I also remained involved in reconciliation talks all the time."

One evening, Eloff shared a bottle of wine with Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and Lourens du Plessis. Van Zyl Slabbert told them about his idea that Afrikaners and Africans should start talking to each other.

“I said it sounds like the right thing to me," Eloff recalls.

A few months later, in 1987, an informal discussion took place in Dakar between ANC members and a group of Afrikaners led by Van Zyl Slabbert.

“I was young — 32. And I was very critical of the ANC's philosophy of violence. While one understands why they resorted to violence, I could not condone it. And I took a strong position in our talks in Dakar. But on a personal level, Dakar was a life-changing experience for me. If it wasn't for that, you and I wouldn't be talking today. It was a fork in the road."

When they returned to South Africa, all hell broke loose. The AWB waited for them at the airport and PW Botha crushed them in parliament. But it was the reaction of the church that hit him the hardest and finally pushed him even further to the fringes of the world where he once occupied the heart. 

The church submitted him to suspensions and disciplinary actions for two years and it all came to a head in 1989.

I went to the church council and said I can't just sit here and do nothing while Mamelodi burns. I can't just sit and watch Christians, Doppers, being mistreated by the security police. I wanted to get involved in reconciliation actions. And then there was chaos."

Eloff finally left the ministry and “disappeared a little from the Afrikaner eye until I resurfaced a little in the peace process and the negotiations".

He became involved with CBM, a values-based organisation that advocated dialogue across the political spectrum. This organisation later merged with the Urban Foundation and Eloff became the CEO.


This merger process was a good test run for the merger of North-West University," he says.

Eloff is talking about his time as rector of Potch. “In 2002, the university was still Afrikaans but we knew a merger with North-West University was coming and the pressure for transformation was building," he recalls.

And it was at the same university where I realised in the 1970s that apartheid was wrong and that there was not a just order in the country, that I also realised that one must do something here to preserve Afrikaans, but in a way that would not be exclusive. That we had to put a just order in place for the merger with North-West, because in terms of the constitution that I helped create, the students there had the right to attend Afrikaans classes as long as it was not exclusionary or racist.

“I then started with the idea of ​​simultaneous interpreting, which is international best practice. It is still used today at Potch and interestingly enough some classes are interpreted in Afrikaans because there is now a minority of Afrikaans-speaking students."

Eloff says it was a difficult time. “I had to manage three campuses but also try to secure a place for Afrikaans-speaking students. It made me aware of the unfair demands of the transformation ideology.

Government began to talk more and more about race and this made me realise that there is a problem — that the constitution is not properly respected and that our courts are fantastic except when it comes to transformation, that here they are part of the ideology of the ANC. And it turned me a bit. Today some people say: ‘Goodness, you have become so right-wing.' I always make fun of this and say if you're young and you're not leftist, then you don't have a heart. And if you get older and you're not a little on the right, then you don't have sense. I certainly don't consider myself right-wing, rather moderate."


Eloff says this time was deeply traumatic for him.

At Codesa I was part of a larger team but in Potchefstroom it was much more personal. I was the leader of the negotiation team on the PU for CHE's side, and then the first vice-chancellor who had to hold the place together. And there was no consensus on that. Mahikeng wanted to merge with Potch as little as the other way around, because they very quickly started talking about ‘Potchification' when it came to discipline or structure.

“And that was one of the reasons why I didn't want to introduce the model that is there now, where you have a main campus in Potch with satellite campuses in Mahikeng and the Vaal Triangle, because the university's cohesion suffers. I now see Nehawu in Mahikeng asking for a de-merger. They would not have wanted a de-merger if there was a model with three equal campuses. You cannot manage a campus that is 180km and three worlds away from another campus."

Under a cloud

Two things happened at this time that left a bitter taste in his mouth.

“You will remember I left there under a bit of a cloud. About two things. The first was the story that Adriaan Basson and his team broke in Beeld. It was a month before I finished and was about students who reportedly performed a Nazi salute on campus. I looked into the thing and it was completely out of context. It was a song that first-years sing to their primaria. There are many movements. In the penultimate movement, their hands are in the air and then they bring their hands down. There was no Nazi salute. But in a report after an investigation by my old friend Leon Wessels it was said that there is a culture at Potch that must be broken. Well, let's just say me and Leon lost each other a bit there."

A month after he left there was another report in Beeld, this time suggesting he had embezzled money.

I opened the newspaper one morning and it said that the new vice-chancellor, Prof Dan Kgwadi, had initiated a forensic investigation into R10 million that had allegedly disappeared. It was total bullshit.

It was about an initiative of two former students who at one stage came to me with a business plan for the university where we could raise money by renting out a building at the business school. The university allocated R10 million in seed capital for it. This was discussed with the management, including Kgwadi, and the trust that allocated the money was managed by independent people. The story was eventually found to be a lie but I never received an apology."

New direction

After he left Potch, he became a trustee of the Dagbreek Trust, which promotes the Afrikaans language and culture.

“It made me realise from another angle that there are a lot of Afrikaans-speaking people here, white and coloured, who have a right to promote the Afrikaans language and culture on a non-racial basis."

In 2014 he became the chairperson of the Dagbreek Trust family, which includes the Trust for Afrikaans Education and the Trust for Afrikaans Art, Culture and Heritage. And this is where he is still agitating for the cultural and language rights of Afrikaans-speakers.

I have never been a member of Solidarity or AfriForum. The point of the Dagbreek family is that there is serious money. We allocate R65 million a year to Afrikaans organisations, without which the arts festivals and a number of other organisations and institutions such as Akademia would not have come as far as they have. And I'm proud of it.

“That is my one hat. And that led to my position as chairman of the MOS initiative, a private company founded in 2019 by the Trust for Afrikaans Education with the aim of establishing an Afrikaans school network to ensure and develop excellent education in Afrikaans.

And of course we do this on a non-racial basis. It's not for Afrikaners, it's for Afrikaans. We also try very hard to help in the coloured Afrikaans community and ensure that there is an almost more proportional entry into that community, for example in terms of education.

And so in a way I started to play a leadership role within this African world, but I have never, since I left university, had a mandated position. And this is how I got involved in the recent Afrikaner initiative — precisely because I have no connection with any of the organisations. I can braai well and I am a good chairman. This is how I became the facilitator and the chairman of the meetings around the latest initiative."

Full circle

Eloff is back at the heart of a conversation about the role of Afrikaners and the future of South Africa 30 years after democracy, but also still enough on the fringes to get people in civil society to talk to each other. And hopefully eventually to government.

“There is a Jewish Board of Deputies that negotiates with government. And  government is talking to traditional leaders and the business community. Afrikaners also want to be able to talk to government in this way. And we want to work together to tackle the crises facing South Africa."

♦ VWB ♦

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