Afrikaners are Dutch, German, and French Europeans Who Settled in South Africa

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The Afrikaners are a South African ethnic group who are descended from 17th century Dutch, German, and French settlers to South Africa. The Afrikaners slowly developed their own language and culture when they came into contact with Africans and Asians. The word “Afrikaners” means “Africans” in Dutch. About 4 million people out of South Africa’s total population of 56.5 million (2017 figures from Statistics South Africa) are White, though it's unknown if all identify themselves as Afrikaners. World Atlas estimates that 61% of whites in South Africa identify as Afrikaners. Regardless of their small number, Afrikaners have had a large impact on South African history.

Settling in South Africa

In 1652, Dutch emigrants first settled in South Africa near the Cape of Good Hope to establish a station where ships traveling to the Dutch East Indies (currently Indonesia) could rest and resupply. French Protestants, German mercenaries, and other Europeans joined the Dutch in South Africa. The Afrikaners are also known as the “Boers,” the Dutch word for “farmers.” To aid them in agriculture, the Europeans brought in enslaved people from places such as Malaysia and Madagascar while enslaving some local tribes, such as the Khoikhoi and San.

The Great Trek

For 150 years, the Dutch were the predominant foreign influence in South Africa. However, in 1795, Britain gained control of the country, and many British government officials and citizens settled there. The British angered the Afrikaners by freeing their enslaved people. Due to the end of the practice of enslavement, border wars with natives, and the need for more fertile farmland, in the 1820s, many Afrikaner “Voortrekkers” began to migrate northward and eastward into the interior of South Africa. This journey became known as the “Great Trek.” The Afrikaners founded the independent republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. However, many Indigenous groups resented the intrusion of the Afrikaners upon their land. After several wars, the Afrikaners conquered some of the land and farmed peacefully until gold was discovered in their republics in the late 19th century.

Conflict With the British

The British quickly learned about the rich natural resources in the Afrikaner republics. Afrikaner and British tensions over the ownership of the land quickly escalated into the two Boer Wars. The First Boer War was fought between 1880 and 1881. The Afrikaners won the First Boer War, but the British still coveted the rich African resources. The Second Boer War was fought from 1899 to 1902. Tens of thousands of Afrikaners died due to combat, hunger, and disease. The victorious British annexed the Afrikaner republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State.


The Europeans in South Africa were responsible for establishing apartheid in the 20th century. The word “apartheid” means “separateness” in Afrikaans. Although the Afrikaners were the minority ethnic group in the country, the Afrikaner National Party gained control of the government in 1948. To restrict the ability of “less civilized” ethnic groups to participate in government, different races were strictly segregated. Whites had access to much better housing, education, employment, transportation, and medical care. Black people could not vote and had no representation in government. After many decades of inequality, other countries began to condemn apartheid. The practice ended in 1994 when members of all ethnic classes were allowed to vote in the presidential election. Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first Black president.

The Boer Diaspora

After the Boer Wars, many poor, homeless Afrikaners moved into other countries in Southern Africa, such as Namibia and Zimbabwe. Some Afrikaners returned to the Netherlands, and some even moved to distant places such as South America, Australia, and the southwestern United States. Due to racial violence and in search of better educational and employment opportunities, many Afrikaners have left South Africa since the end of apartheid. About 100,000 Afrikaners now reside in the United Kingdom.

Current Afrikaner Culture

Afrikaners around the world have a distinct culture. They deeply respect their history and traditions. Sports such as rugby, cricket, and golf are popular. Traditional clothing, music, and dance are celebrated. Barbecued meats and vegetables, as well as porridges influenced by Indigenous African tribes, are common dishes.

Current Afrikaans Language

The Dutch language spoken at the Cape Colony in the 17th century slowly transformed into a separate language, with differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Today, Afrikaans, the Afrikaner language, is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. It is spoken across the country and by people from many different races. Worldwide, about 17 million people speak Afrikaans as a first or second language, though first-language speakers are declining in number. Most Afrikaans words are of Dutch origin, but the languages of enslaved Asians and Africans, as well as European languages such as English, French, and Portuguese, greatly influenced the language. Many English words, such as “aardvark,” “meerkat,” and “trek,” derive from Afrikaans. To reflect local languages, many South African cities with names of Afrikaner origin are now being changed. Pretoria, South Africa’s executive capital, may one day permanently change its name to Tshwane.

The Future of the Afrikaners

The Afrikaners, descended from hard-working, resourceful pioneers, have developed a rich culture and language over the past four centuries. Although the Afrikaners have been associated with the oppression of apartheid, Afrikaners today live in a multiethnic society where all races can participate in government. However, the white population in South Africa has been declining since at least 1986 and is expected to keep decreasing, as reflected in South Africa SA estimates of a loss of 112,740 coming between 2016 and 2021.

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Richard, Katherine Schulz. "Afrikaners." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Richard, Katherine Schulz. (2021, September 8). Afrikaners. Retrieved from Richard, Katherine Schulz. "Afrikaners." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).