'Afrikanerdom' and the unity of the volk is, of course, a myth. Even before the English arrived at the end of the 18th century there was a division between the better-off burghers and farmers around Cape Town and their poorer relatives beginning to press out into the empty spaces beyond the mountains.
The comfortable Kaapenaars refused to rally to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State during the Boer War; and afterwards Afrikaners quarrelled about reaching an accommodation with the British Empire. In 1948 the defeat of General Jan Smuts by Dr Daniel F Malan was the defeat of one Afrikaner by another. And throughout the 40 years of apparently monolithic National Party rule Afrikaner voices were prominent in dissent, from Beyers Naude to Frederick van Zyl Slabbert.
Broedertwis - strife between brothers - is an Afrikaner tradition: one Viljoen, brother Constand, leads the Freedom Front in a continuing quest for a volkstaat, while his identical twin, Abraham, is a leading supporter of the Democratic Party, which has for 20 years conducted the parliamentary struggle for multi-racialism. The difference is one of conscience. Is the change among Afrikaners perhaps explained by this conscientiousness?
Certainly, Afrikaner history can be read as the story of an unfolding religious consciousness. The Voortrekker Monument near Pretoria, begun in 1938 to commemorate the Great Trek northwards away from British rule, embodies a Calvinist version of a Romantic nationalist self-understanding: a 'people apart' sets forth into the wilderness, smites the heathen, cultivates its taal (language), is laid low by Mammon in the shape of the British Empire, but struggles through the valley of tears until it builds up its Christian-national substance to the point at which it finally inherits its Kingdom. But the Calvinist conscience is restless. Perhaps the speed and suddenness of the Afrikaner change is like a conversion experience, St Paul on the road to Damascus, being born again?
This drama of Sin and Repentance is probably how many in the National Party leadership see the change they have wrought: on his recent visit to London, F W de Klerk is reported to have bewildered his hosts at a private dinner, including Baroness Thatcher and a brace of businessmen, by explaining how God had told him to break with apartheid. And, for the historically minded, this redemption narrative offers the charm of a paradoxical continuity of spiritual striving between those who built apartheid in the name of conscience, and those who dismantled it for conscience's sake.
Or is this continuity spurious? Another reading of the Afrikaner change sees in it the story of a Loss of Faith. This is also the familiar story of a project defeated by its own success. Fifty years ago the Afrikaners were a poor and provincial people; but after half a century of power most of them are affluent and well-educated, their world view no longer determined by a provincial Calvinist religiosity, but incorporated into that loose, pragmatic, hedonistic and cosmopolitan 'Free World' culture that American power has promoted all round the world. In short, it is affluence and higher education which have dissolved the local perspectives and made apartheid seem, finally, irrelevant.
But was apartheid ever merely a provincial heresy? The Afrikaner intellectual leaders of the Twenties and Thirties were men of advanced education and vision. Their idea of engineering a new form of society in South Africa by the application of rational bureaucracy to ethnic planning was a local form of that great international movement of ideas which created modern architecture, gave the United States its interstate highways, Russia its gigantic tractor factories, Germany its 'Final Solution', and Britain its mass slum clearances and monolithic council estates and tower blocks. On this reading, apartheid rose with the tide of international political modernism; its dissolution similarly exemplifies the post- modernist turn against social and political utopianism.
'Class' as a universal category of social analysis can be brought into clear focus in this account of the rise and fall of apartheid. Its rise belongs to the phase of the emergence and consolidation of the Afrikaner working-class from the Forties to the Sixties; its fall follows on the rapid 'embourgeoisement of the Afrikaner', which was already largely accomplished by the Seventies. The earlier generation of technocrats planning massive bureaucratic interventions to defend the Afrikaner 'labour aristocracy' gave way, as that class dwindled, to a new generation of leadership orientated towards markets rather than plans and increasingly recognising the needs of South African capitalism for better educated and more emancipated non-white labour.
The history of Afrikanerdom has largely been written by traditionalists concerned with ethnic exclusiveness and Calvinist dogma, or by non-Afrikaners opposed to apartheid. Whether the focus has been on ideology or on class, the impression is given that the Afrikaners are alien settlers whose roots lie outside the land in which they live. But the turning of Afrikaners against apartheid opens up new perspectives which will stress that people's African-ness. The novelists are already inventing this new history, and the historians will surely follow.
More and more we will see as an aberration apartheid's obsession with ideals and purity, its dream of a European-style nationality wishing away the African fact. The roots of Afrikanerdom will, instead, be discovered in that earthy, miscegenating, creolising frontier culture - fighting where it must, making native alliances where it can - which gave birth to the 'coloured' people and to the Afrikaans language with its simplicity, directness, and capacity for Rabelasian obscenity.
The Afrikaners are a people full of surprises, possessed of a remarkable vitality and inventiveness. Today is their day, as much as it is a day for all in the new South Africa.
The writer is Conservative MP for Wantage; he has been in Cape Town observing the South African elections.