By Aaron Kahland, ambassador of Orania in Germany.
I’d like to start by telling you a story from the country where I live, Germany. It is the story of Max Planck, the great German physicist. In 1918 Professor Planck won the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum theory. With this new fame he was asked at universities throughout Germany to give speeches on his discoveries. One evening he was due to give a speech in Munich. On the way there, Planck was having a discussion with his driver and his driver asked him if he had prepared the speech he was to give that night. Planck answered ‘no, I haven’t prepared, I have given this speech so many times that I can tell it by memory.’ His driver responded, ‘I have heard your speech so many times I could probably give it.’ Hearing this, Max Planck thought for a moment and then said to his driver, ‘why don’t we test your theory and you dress nicely and give the speech and I’ll sit in the front of the audience and pretend to be your driver and we’ll see if anyone notices.’
And, according to their plan, when they arrived Planck’s driver got up in front of the audience and gave a speech on very complicated physics in front of an audience of Munich’s scientific community. He delivered it so well that no-one noticed that it was not Planck himself. However, after the speech was given, there was time for questions from the audience. Sure enough someone from the audience stood up and asked a question on Planck’s quantum theory. For a moment the driver stood still and then he slowly shook his head and said, ‘I was led to believe that Munich was a sophisticated and intellectual city. So it surprises me that someone from this audience could ask me such a simple question.’ The driver then pointed to Max Planck in the audience and said ‘Indeed it is so simple that I am confident that even my driver could answer it.’
The reason I told you this story is that today I feel a little bit like Max Planck’s driver because I have been asked to speak a little about Afrikaner history. I am an economist by trade but I shall do my best and hopefully, I can introduce something new to you anyway.
I’d like to begin by going back in time to the mid seventeenth century when the Dutch state established a mercantilist outpost in Southern Africa whose mission it was to establish a port to provision Dutch trading ships travelling between Europe and the Dutch East Indies. In 1652, around two hundred Dutch East India employees and indentured servants arrived to create a settlement that would later become Cape Town. I want to emphasize that this was not some colony of free settlers but that the people brought over were in an initial state of semi-slavery and were provided very few freedoms. In 1657, 40 of these indentured servants were freed by the Governor. These freed men took up farming and grazing. These activities were permitted by the Dutch East India Company who wanted food to feed their growing town. Any other activities were strictly regulated and attempts by freemen to engage in free enterprise were forbidden including trading with the local KhoiKhoi though this happened despite the regulations. The monopolist V.O.C. did not allow the establishment of a free market but instead fixed the prices for goods produced by the burghers. These fixed prices often did not cover the costs of transportation and left free burghers economically impoverished. To escape this tightly controlled economic environment, many burghers began trekking east beyond the company’s control. The company then forbade migration or trade with the natives, a law that was introduced in 1677. The law wasn’t terribly effective because the government reintroduced similar laws in 1727, 1739, 1770, 1774, and 1786.
I have to say that I very much admire the attitude of your ancestors towards stupid laws restricting their freedoms. A very healthy attitude in my view.
I want to return to the Boer treks a little later but first I want to take a little look at what else was happening in the world at around this time.
The most important political development at this time was the growing rebellion against British rule in North America which had broken out in 1775.
Around a year after the outbreak of war against Great Britain the Declaration of Independence was issued which outlined the reasons the American colonists now considered themselves free of political ties to the former motherland.
The most often quoted portion of the declaration is the following,
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’
These words were largely borrowed from John Locke a philosopher of the Enlightenment who wrote that man had the right to life, liberty and property.
Perhaps more important than this part of the preamble however is the means of achieving them. So wrote Thomas Jefferson,
‘That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.’
These words are very powerful and help to make this document, I feel, one of the key political writings of Western Civilization. Peoples have a God given right to rebel against their government. This was the principle upon which the United States of America was founded – and according to Thomas Jefferson, a principle which all men were granted.
Going back to the Cape now, it wasn’t long after the US achieved independence that the first Boer attempt to break-away from Dutch colonial rule was attempted with the creation of the short lived Graaf-Reinet republic along the frontier. By the time the British returned to the Cape in 1806, the Boer national consciousness was well established and with it the concept of self-rule.
In 1815, some frontier Boers began a renewed revolt against British rule at Slagters Nek after colonial authorities attempted to enforce British law along the frontier. In the trials following the failed rebellion, which led the execution of five men, one of the defendants stated before the court, ‘I am a young man who does not yet know what a Government is, as I was never near one.’
If the young man’s statement in his defense is representative of the motives for rebellion then this early Boer rebellion is illustrative of something very interesting. Unlike the American rebellion against British rule which established the right to rebel and form a new government, this early Boer rebellion was a fight to remain free from government. This is an important distinction.
The idea that a people can live without government seems, in our day and age, a difficult concept to accept. People tend to think of chaos and lawlessness. However, living without government, or living without a state, is not the same as living without governance. I believe that the early Boer experience is a good place to look to find evidence of this.
Indeed the American historian Joseph Stromberg wrote of the early Boer ideal as maatskaapy, a society of ‘free and independent men.’ A Boer felt that he required 6000 acres to be economically independent and as Stromberg writes, ‘Boers would move each generation, and would trek large distances to get away from unwanted government supervision.’
Stromberg also writes that ‘The Boers were united as maatskappy, a loose community of individual proprietors, the commando, a volunteer military arm their society, and as co-relioginists. More supervision than this they did not want. A Boer patriarch, sovereign on his own plek, with his wife, children and retainers, and armed for defense of his family and property, corresponded quite well – like the Anglo-Celtic Southerner – to the ideal citizen of classical republican theory.’
Indeed, Stromberg was right. The old Boers very much represented the ideal citizen of classical liberalism which was promoted most prominently by many of the founding fathers of the United States, and in particular, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson believed that an agrarian society was one which offered the best prospect for a free society. Despite being well known as an author, he only wrote one book, titled ‘Notes on the State of Virginia,’ written in 1781. In it he wrote,
“Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people,
whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus
in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.
Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has
furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own
soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties
and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of
virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. . . . “
Thomas Jefferson as US president went to great lengths to achieve his vision of a free people in a new land. He reduced the size of government, cut taxes and avoided conflict with foreign nations as best he could. He wrote that,
‘Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories.’
Jefferson’s ideal of an agrarian republic was best illustrated in the south of the U.S., including his native Virginia, where society was dominated by independent farmers. This is a society that shared some similarities with the Boer republics established in Southern Africa.
Stromberg wrote however that, ‘unlike the Southerner, the Boers were of a simpler school. Their nearest approach to liberalism was the notion of covenant. Thus it makes sense to think of the Boers as patriarchal, pastoral Calvinists living out a practical frontier anarchism.’
Now, I realize the word anarchist might seem unusual but what Stromberg means here anarchy in its true definition which comes from the original Greek meaning ‘without a leader’ or ‘without a state.’ Living without a state today seems like an unusual concept however what is it we speak of when speaking of a ‘state’? The German philosopher Hans Hermann Hoppe defines it as such,
‘A state is a territorial monopolist of compulsion, an agency which may engage in continual, institutionalized property rights violations and the exploitation of private property owners through expropriation, taxation, and regulation.’
So a state affords itself a monopoly on violence so that it can exploit those living within its territory of control. And so it is here South African government that has forbidden the use of the age old Commando system of voluntary self-defense. The Commando threatens the state’s monopoly on violence.
Piet Retief wrote in his manifesto before undertaking his Great Trek that he and his followers had decided to ‘quit this colony with a desire to lead a more quiet life than we have heretofore done.. under the full assurance that the British government had nothing more to require of us, and will allow us to govern ourselves without its interference in future.’
Hermann Giliomee writes that Retief emphasized in his manifest that ‘those undertaking the trek would take no-ones property but would defend themselves against attacks on their lives and property. They would make laws to govern themselves and would make their intention to live in peace clear to the black tribes amongst whom they settled.’ Retief wrote in his manifesto that ‘We desire to be considered a free and independent people.’
So off the Voortrekkers went to free themselves from Imperial state control. When they undertook their monumental trek, it is important to note that they did not travel without purpose. They intentionally avoided areas already settled. So they did not travel directly to the North where they were aware the Griqua lived. Nor did they travel to the East where the main Xhosa areas were. Instead the wagon trains headed North East into territory that had been decimated by a violent Zulu war of extermination against neighbouring tribes – a war that is estimated to have killed up to one million Africans.
So when the Voortrekkers set-off to live free of British rule they intended from the outset to find land on which to live that would not bring them into conflict with existing inhabitants. This is something that is largely unique in the history of the New World. Unlike Northern European settlers in North America, Australia, or New Zealand, the Boers did not engage in the extermination of already established peoples in order to settle a new land for themselves.