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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


BOTMA, Gawie. De Zuid-Afrikaan and the contradictions of 19th century Cape liberalism. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2022, vol.62, n.1, pp.92-111. ISSN 2224-7912.

The Cape colonial newspaper De Zuid-Afrikaan, which was published in 1830 for the first time, is traditionally regarded as the founder of Afrikaans journalism in South Africa. But how should its legacy be remembered? Historians of different generations seem to differ. Was the newspaper the reactionary forerunner of Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid, or must it be viewed as a liberal voice within the context of the 19th century which has perhaps been underemphasised in 20th century historiography? This article revisits the editorial coverage of De Zuid-Afrikaan on two key issues, the emancipation of slaves in 1834 and the introduction of a representative elective government system in 1854. The newspaper was conservative towards the former issue, but liberal towards the latter. The portrayal of the newspaper is revisited by engaging in a literature review and quoting selected passages from the newspaper. In conclusion it is argued that past evaluations of De Zuid-Afrikaan as one-sidedly reactionary should probably be revisited, because much of the contradictions and nuances of the specific 19th century surroundings in which it was founded might have been lost in most recent versions of its history. This probably happened because the rise of Afrikaner nationalism in the 20th century was projected backwards onto De Zuid-Afrikaan. The result is a simple dualistic view of South African newspaper history in which De Zuid-Afrikaan represents a reactionary pole and its main competitor, The South African Commercial Advertiser, a liberal one. These two poles are then seen as representative of respectively Afrikaans and English journalism as it developed in the 20th century. A closer look at the founding and development ofDe Zuid-Afrikaan reveals a much more nuanced picture. Although the owners and editors of the newspaper were Cape Dutch in the main, it also made available its copy in English for at least seven decades. Afrikaans language nationalism in the form in which it later developed was not its aim nor its legacy to Afrikaans journalism. It is also a mistake to view the newspaper's defence of the interests of slave owners as a precursor to the support that Afrikaans newspapers provided to apartheid. De Zuid-Afrikaan did not try to justify and promote slavery as an ideology in the way in which Afrikaans journalists did with apartheid. In the 19th century slavery was regulated and based on accepted practice. The newspaper emerged as mouthpiece for slaveowners who had legitimate interests, claims, and fears when the system was no longer acceptable, and the law changed. The case of apartheid was different: first the Afrikaans journalists created visions, and then the laws followed. This article does not try from the moral high ground of the 21st century to whitewash the history of De Zuid-Afrikaan or present it as liberal ahead of its time. The point is that the newspaper was exactly a product of its time, and part of a greater Western movement from patriarchy to a more liberal order. Its editors were learned men who were in touch with the changes in parts of the world like France, the Netherlands, Britain and the United States of America. The support that De Zuid-Afrikaan provided to the liberal (in its time) constitution of 1854 shows an attitude towards other members of society, white and black, which seems to differ from later incarnations of Afrikaner nationalism in the press. De Zuid-Afrikaan was part of the development of Cape liberalism, which should be distinguished from the Afrikaner nationalism of the 20th century. Perhaps the question should be addressed whether it would have been more suited to the inclusive democracy of the 21st century or the fatherland of apartheid?

Keywords : De Zuid-Afrikaan; Afrikaner nationalism; Cape colony; conservative; De Zuid-Afrikaan; historiography; journalism; liberal; newspapers; representative government; slavery; South Africa; 19th century; 20th century.

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