Obituary: Andries Treurnicht
Tuesday 27 April 1993
THE DEATH of Andries Treurnicht, the leader of South Africa's far-right Conservative Party, removes from the scene one of the most emblematic figures in both the rise and decline of apartheid.
In the first half of his career Treurnicht was a leading figure in the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), by far the largest of the Afrikaans churches. Here he personified the fusion of neo-Calvinist and Afrikaner nationalist doctrines which provided the legitimation for the remorseless application of apartheid. Entering politics in 1970, he resisted any deviation from the policy with baffling displays of rectitude. Yet in the final months of his life he came to accept the need for negotiation with the African National Congress for a much smaller white state and held the ring against the violent men of the far right who threatened rebellion and a racial Armageddon.
Treurnicht studied at the University of Stellenbosch before moving on to the University of Cape Town, from which he received a doctorate in political philosophy. He became a minister of the DRC in 1946 and shot into national prominence in the early 1960s as full-time editor of Die Kerkbode, the influential official journal of the DRC.
Treurnicht immediately aligned himself to Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister, who attempted to present apartheid as an ideologically coherent and morally defensible racial policy. For this it was crucial to gain the support of the Afrikaans churches. After the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the state's clampdown on black resistance, the Afrikaans churches appeared to waver in its support for apartheid. At a consultative conference convened by the World Council of Churches in December 1960 DRC delegates endorsed the concluding statement which rejected all unjust discrimination and specifically migrant labour, job reservation and the ban on racially mixed marriages. Verwoerd immediately attacked the statement and, with Treurnicht throwing the weight of Die Kerkbode behind him, the reformist impulse in the Church disappeared until the mid-1980s when another racial revolt rocked South Africa.
More than 20 years younger than Verwoerd, Treurnicht at an early stage contemplated the prospect of succeeding him as leader of the National Party (NP) and prime minister. However, his model was not Verwoerd but Daniel Francois Malan, who founded the party in 1934 and led it to victory in 1948 as the party of Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid.
Also a DRC minister before becoming first editor and then politician, Malan, like Treurnicht, was strongly influenced by the thinking of Abraham Kuyper, a leading neo-Calvinist thinker who also served as prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905. Kuyper argued that God created the cosmos as a multitude of spheres of life, in which each circle was characterised by its own authentic nature and was independent of other spheres. Under his influence, the Netherlands was divided into a nation of separate, largely autonomous religious and secular groups.
Malan (in the first half of the century) and Treurnicht in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s ceaselessly propagated the doctrine that the strength of the Afrikaners and of all ethnic groups in South Africa lay in separate cultural, religious and political institutions. Both believed that apartheid would grant each ethnic group the chance to fulfil its own vocation, sovereign in its own sphere of life.
But the flaws in this thinking were all too obvious. Kuyper was concerned with the self-isolation of religious groups on the basis of a specific world view and distinctive beliefs. Malan and Treurnicht favoured statutorily entrenching the groups in South Africa primarily on the basis of race and only secondly on that of culture. In a non-democratic context it became a pretext for freezing the existing inequalities.
When Treurnicht entered politics in 1970 race as a basis for official discrimination had become quite invidious in the Western world. Furthermore, rapid economic growth had made whites and blacks increasingly interdependent and had created the need for an integrated, multi-racial middle class which could legitimise the economic system and inaugurate a new political order.
Treurnicht nevertheless assumed the mantle of a conviction politician, vowing to uphold his bedrock beliefs. In the 1970s and 1980s he became the political leader most closely identified with the opposition to racial integration. Dubbed 'Dr No' by newspapers, he adamantly rejected abandoning apartheid whether it be in politics or playing sport. Failing to recognise the dwindling base of Afrikaner power, he helped to trigger the Soweto uprising of 1976 when, as the responsible deputy minister, he insisted on the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black schools.
By 1982 Treurnicht as cabinet minister and leader of the NP in the Transvaal was within reach of the ultimate political prize. However, in the same year, he broke away from the party when it accepted the idea of a tricameral parliament in which whites, coloured people and Indians would be represented in separate chambers but from which Africans would be excluded. As founding leader of the Conservative Party, he personified the image of the party's image as that of the 'NP-in-exile', using the same slogans, symbols and political rhetoric of the Verwoerd years two decades back. He openly admitted to wanting to turn the clock back regardless of the fact that the conditions which had made apartheid possible had disappeared. Locked in his Kuyperian system of thought, he could only think of South Africa as comprised of different nations when the reality of single polity in a unitary state had become undeniable.
Under Treurnicht the CP came close to winning majority Afrikaner support, but its weak English-speaking base prevented it from winning power in the election of 1989 when it issued its greatest challenge. When the white electorate in March 1992 strongly endorsed negotiations with the ANC the party and the white right wing was permanently relegated to the political fringes.
Treurnicht's greatest service to South Africa was in restraining violence in right-wing ranks and committing his party to negotiations despite the fact that the new political order coming about in South Africa represented the nightmare which had haunted him his entire life.
Although the policies which he advocated were clearly racist in their effects, Treurnicht did not conform to the reactionary stereotype. A dapper, courteous man, he refrained from using racist rhetoric in public. In this way he personified the ambiguities of apartheid, at least on the ideological level, which for so long perplexed and outraged the world.
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