Among AfriForum’s latest attempt to rile South Africans, along with bending the Aussie ear with Ramaphosa misquotes, is what can only be called a strange affair. It is a music video, and if you thought that meant the Afrikaner rights group is trying to be hip, you’d halt in your tracks when you read the title: Die Gelofte. Yes, The Covenant. The same title as the document that has been at the centre of the racist version of Afrikaner nationalism, which brought us apartheid, decades of minority rule and untold misery for generations of nonwhites.

Five sombre khaki-clad lads in a beige, khaki kind of wash sing about beating off the “enemy” and the sweetness of victory. Their effort is being broadcast to a farm, an elderly couple, some kids listening on a 1930s-style radio and two soldier types, one with a plastic training helmet somewhere in a veld, on the border perhaps?

There is no reference to any race in Voortrekker leader Sarel Cilliers’s original text, written before the Battle of Blood River on December 16 1838. But these are not innocent words; they have been treated as near sacrosanct as biblical verses are by Christian fundamentalists. They are at the very core of Afrikaner civil religion, which excused racial repression as necessary for the civilising mission that brought their forefathers to SA. It was proof that white supremacy was a key part of God’s plan.

What little empathy there is in the new elite for victims of farm torture and murders has been overwhelmed by hatred ever since AfriForum put a racial slant on the issue. Similarly, mention Afrikaans and the legitimate rights of its speakers, even its majority black ones, and you are seen as an AfriForum apologist and therefore racist.

What is strange, or perhaps not so strange, is that in style and aura the video could be placed in the 1970s, when establishment types discovered that rock music was not so revolutionary as the 1960s made it out to be, but could be used to sell anything from Jesus Christ Superstar to locomotives. Who wants to go back to the ’70s?

But then AfriForum has always been a little perplexing. One could construe it as one of the success stories of the new SA and the constitution. And some of the things its various units have come up with can be said to advance the cause of a democracy like ours that has the protection of human rights at its centre. It is good that Grace Mugabe is being pursued when the powers that be neglect to do so after her attack on a SA model, right?

AfriForum has been technically inventive, streetwise, determined and often state-of-the art in getting its message across. But in equal measure it can be said to have done lasting damage to the causes it espouses. What little empathy there is in the new elite for victims of farm torture and murders has been overwhelmed by hatred ever since AfriForum put a racial slant on the issue. Similarly, mention Afrikaans and the legitimate rights of its speakers, even its majority black ones, and you are seen as an AfriForum apologist and therefore racist.

Rather than regrouping and finding more effective ways to engage in the national debate, it sometimes seems as if AfriForum relishes its status as hate object. The rant of Ernst Roets, its deputy head, in parliament in September is a case in point. All he achieved was a dire warning from former ambassador to Ireland Melanie Verwoerd that AfriForum is bringing SA to the abyss. I can’t agree with Verwoerd, but she may have put her finger on it. An apocalypse, where a brave band of brothers fight off hordes of the enemy, is probably what its members fantasise about. It wants a new Battle of Blood River, this time just with the treble and bass clef added.

The irony is that the historical facts about that event show it is somewhat dicey to bet one’s future on it. Andries Pretorius’s men (including a few black ones) failed to keep their promise to build a church and institute a Day of the Covenant, for one very good reason. In the next battles in the attempt of the Trekkers to settle in the then Natal, they had to retreat. God obviously favoured the English, or the Indians, or Jacob Zuma.

The first commemoration only came in 1865, more than a generation later. A fresh attempt was made to found an “emigrant” (as the Voortrekkers called themselves at the time) republic at Utrecht in northern Natal, by then a British colony. The few people in the town desperately needed a way to attract more Dutch speakers, and dug up the old history of the battle nearby. They held a nagmaal, according to the diary of the local dominee, and the gathering attracted the notice of some Zulu residents, who joined with their own tales about the battle. The first gathering hardly promoted racial purity.

When they were presented with the idea to hold the commemoration every year as promised, there was little enthusiasm. They compromised with one every five years, and the Republic of Utrecht’s fate was sealed; it would never come to anything. 

This state of affairs endured until 1877 and the annexation of the struggling Transvaal republic by the British. At first the Redcoats were welcomed because the state was bankrupt and its people believed London would help to set up a bulwark against the Zulu threat. But then a British force was annihilated at the Battle of Isandlawana in 1879, enabling Afrikaner nationalists to exploit the disillusionment and use raised taxes as a prompt to revolt. A bantustan kind of independence was assured with victory at the Battle of Majuba in 1881.

The new Boer regime wanted to commemorate Majuba, but because it was in February came upon the idea to conflate it with the lacklustre December 16 event, and so the annual Day of the Covenant was instituted. Beating back the British and the blacks was the same thing for them. The Day of the Covenant was held for more than a century until 1994, when it was subsumed in the Day of Reconciliation.

Apart from the original facts not following the script, the descendants of the Blood River Trekkers hardly set an example of racial purity or ethical probity. Many of their descendants became anglicised. By 1865 Pretorius’s son, Marthinus Wessel, had founded Pretoria and would soon be embroiled in a scandal around corruption with property deeds.

But all these absurdities may suggest a way to approach AfriForum. Another perplexity about its high profile is that so much attention is paid to it when it represents a minority in a minority. Its membership is still rooted in the mindset that prompted about 30% of white Afrikaans speakers to vote no in the 1993 referendum on handing over power to the majority of South Africans. The fact that they are seen to represent mainstream Afrikanerdom is simply a case of racial profiling.

The truth is that AfriForum’s adherence to Die Gelofte — and that of other organised Afrikaners — turns it into a quasi-religious society, something like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is a political sect, and nutty statements and action should therefore be expected of it and treated as such. They are always going to find something to rile South Africans with.

It is often demanded of Afrikaners to apologise for apartheid, which is problematic. Apartheid was ditched as policy by PW Botha, to be replaced by separate development. Some Afrikaners feel they should not apologise for the homelands that created a good part of the contemporary black middle class.

Perhaps Die Gelofte provides a way out. Is it far-fetched to ask white Afrikaans speakers to publicly distance themselves from it? One could envisage a one-off Day of Disavowal. Afrikaners nowadays are a fragmented lot, but many organisations still claim to represent them. Perhaps the Afrikanerbond will make the call?

• Pienaar is a journalist and author. His next novel, Die Generaal (The General), is out this month.