Articulating Afrikaner Identity

Daniel Naudé: Dirk next to an Afrikaner Bull Skeleton. Onderstepoort, Pretoria, 27 October 2010

This specimen – the articulated skeleton of an Afrikander Bull – was constructed many decades ago as a teaching model for the students of the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. The original bull was donated by a local farmer. Unlike the majority of the anatomical collection, the specimen does not display a developmental anomaly or specific pathology, but represents what from the perspective of veterinary practitioners might be considered a ‘standard’ model. Dirk, the lab technician pictured here, spent hours slowly simmering the tissue from the bones, degreasing them, painstakingly reassembling them, and finally setting the entire articulated specimen in a steel armature.

But the preserved and mounted skeleton is more than just a didactic tool. It is also a cultural monument commemorating the draught animal that pulled the ox-wagons of the Afrikaners who set out on the Great Trek. Taking place in South Africa during the 1830s and 1840s, the Great Trek was the mass emigration of Afrikaners from the British Cape Colony. The Afrikaners journeyed inland to establish independent republics. From the late nineteenth century, as the ideology of Afrikaner nationalism began to foment, the interweaving of Afrikaner history and strong Calvinist traditions recast the Great Trek as the South African equivalent of a biblical exodus from British dominion to the Promised Land of the Boer republics. As the Great Trek assumed a central position in the construction of Afrikaner identity, so the narrative and genealogical pedigrees of the Afrikaner Bull become intertwined: its genetic characteristics associated with the ability to endure hardship and emerge with its character unaltered.

Afrikaner nationalism – as well as eugenic concerns around miscegenation, race purity and human ‘breeding’ in South Africa – reached a formative point in the interwar period in South Africa. And it was in this context that a telling article emerged in the Journal of Heredity (1933). Writing about the origin and development of the breed, environmental historian Helmut Epstein declared that the Afrikander Bull was:

‘… not a mixed but a pure breed, evolved from indigenous cattle by severe and careful selection. A mixed breed would never have been capable of such a marvellous preservation of its pure and uniform character in every part of this country as the red Afrikander cattle were after the profound economic changes following the Great Trek, the Rinderpest of the nineties and the destructive consequences of the Anglo-Boer War.’1

Here, the ‘purity’ of the breed is used to account for its survival over generations of environmental and political adversity, its unique conformation emerging as the result of these travails. Because it was ‘evolved’ from indigenous cattle, the breed was simultaneously produced as autochthonous and ‘improved’; the article thereby associated Afrikaners with a lineage of both indigeneity and progressive cultivation of the land and its resources (a central tenet legitimating land seizure). The historical and genetic pedigree of Afrikander cattle and the pedigree of the Afrikaner nation thus become thoroughly entangled.

Returning to the animal specimen, then, we might see the relationship of Dirk and the Afrikander bull differently: it is not just the juxtaposition of a teaching model and the man responsible for its preservation. Rather, we see Dirk, with his long thin limbs – ensconced in the long socks and khaki shorts that are the stereotypical Afrikaner garb – enclosed by the articulated skeleton in a visual doubling of its armature. This portrait – by young Afrikaans photographer Daniel Naudé – thus partakes in a culture of preservation that is not just about the maintenance of this particular specimen, but about a beleaguered cultural and ethnic group in South Africa that is struggling to (re)articulate its identity.


1 Helmut Epstein, ‘Descent and Origin of the Afrikander Cattle’, The Journal of Heredity, vol. 24, no. 12 (1933), pp. 449-462, p. 450.

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Dirk, the lab technician pictured here, spent hours slowly simmering the tissue from the bones ...