Dr. D.F. Malan, a parson-publisher-politician of perilous principles

How does a dangerous idea like Apartheid, fascism, or anti-Semitism germinate in a nation?  I looked for some possible answers in reading “D.F. Malan and the Rise of Afrikaner Nationalism,” by Lindi Koorts.  D. F. Malan is a name that one could previously have found on any number of airports, libraries, and schools.  In fact, a high school very close to my workplace continues to bear his name today.  In today’s South Africa, the names of Apartheid architects are rapidly being replaced by different names.  What did D. F. Malan do in his life that made him a hero to the past and a bane to the present?

Daniel François Malan (1874-1959) and J.C. Smuts (1870-1950) are two different sides to a coin.  As boys, they attended the same school, at Riebeek West, and both completed their Bachelors degrees at Victoria College in Stellenbosch (which later became Stellenbosch University).  Whereas J.C. Smuts left for Cambridge University to study law and become well-versed in the pragmatism of politics, however, D. F. Malan opted for the University of Utrecht to complete his Doctorate of Divinity.  Particularly as a young man, he was powerfully introverted man with some social awkwardness.  Throughout his life, he rarely spoke about a subject until he had fully formed his ideas on it.


D. F. Malan was a hard-working minister.  He was ordained in the Dutch Reformed Church in 1905.  His doctorate earned him serious respect within the Afrikaner population.  From very early in his career, he was committed to the cause of Afrikaner nationalism.  Much of his work was motivated by the plight of the “poor whites.”  In the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer Wars, poverty was widespread in the Afrikaner community.  When he became a minister at Graaff-Reinet in 1913, “Malan was shocked to discover that the white poor lived alongside coloured people… It vexed Malan to witness how those who grew up playing with the children of their coloured neighbours became absorbed into the coloured community– with some even marrying coloured people and leaving the {whites-only} Dutch Reformed Church for the {multi-racial} Mission Church” [from Koorts].  In Malan’s eyes, Afrikaners would only prosper when they elevated themselves to their proper place of sovereignty alongside the people of British ancestry in South Africa.

The Boers (farmers whose European ancestors had arrived during Dutch control of the Cape) had come to see themselves as South Africans, and rather than be belittled as speaking “kitchen Dutch,” they hoped that their dialect would come to be accepted as its own language.  D. F. Malan encountered the writings of Gustav Preller, who challenged the Afrikaner population on their earnestness to retain their language.  D. F. Malan’s response was emphatic: “I have been resolutely convinced that only the elevation of Afrikaans to our written language in South Africa will be able to safeguard the continued existence of the Dutch language, in whatever form” [Koorts, 1905 letter to Preller].  His ministerial experience, then, fixed in his mind several points that would later be expanded: Afrikaner nationalism was necessary to avert the demise of the Afrikaner.  The touchstones of his nationalism would include the following:

  • Afrikaans must have equal standing to English in government and education.
  • The Dutch Reformed Church preserved the soul of the Afrikaner people.
  • The Afrikaner people must be kept separate from other populations to retain their identity.
  • A separate flag for South Africa is necessary to reflect its separate identity.
  • South Africa has the right to become a separate, sovereign republic.

I would highlight two points of decision for D. F. Malan: leaving the ministry to enter politics, and his decision to split the Nationalist Party from the Hertzog-led Fusion.  D. F. Malan felt that he had decided once and for all to be a minister when he pursued his doctorate; he felt that involving himself in politics would always mean dirtying the principles he revered.  William Angus Hofmeyr, chairman of Naspers, was tasked with recruiting D. F. Malan as the editor for a new Afrikaans-language newspaper, “Die Burger” in 1915.  He did so by soliciting letters from the Afrikaans community to Malan, each beseeching him to take on worldly leadership.  In becoming the editor of Die Burger, D. F. Malan made a very public statement that he was entering political life.


Within a couple of years, Malan had become a member of parliament (first for Calvinia and later for Piketberg) and the leader of the Cape Province chapter of the Nationalist Party.  In 1919, he was part of a delegation to visit David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, tasked with clarifying South Africa’s ability to become independent of the U.K.  The mission ended inconclusively when Lloyd George asked J.B.M. Hertzog, the leader of the Nationalist Party, whether the non-white Africans wanted South Africa to become politically independent (he confessed that he had only read a news article on the subject).  Later, though, the Nationalists won the elections of 1924, and J. B. M. Hertzog became the Prime Minister, with Malan serving in the cabinet as Minister of the Interior, Education and Public Health.  His leadership proved to be somewhat divisive.  Placing Afrikaans on a common footing with English in the Constitution went smoothly enough, but the British members of Parliament fought tenaciously against the creation of a South African flag without the Union Jack.

Hertzog, seeing which way the wind was blowing, decided to join the Nationalist Party with the South African party led by J.C. Smuts in order to remain prime minister.  This led to a second major point of decision for D. F. Malan: he split the Nationalists.  Hertzog was a somewhat bewildering politician who contradicted himself as he sought the argument that would win, and Malan believed his joining the Nationalist Party to the South African party would compromise the principles of nationalism (by this time, his childhood acquaintance J.C. Smuts had become something of a bête noire to Malan).  He delivered these words to his party in 1933 to urge them to resist this “fusion” of parties: “We are in a dark night and I ask you: let your ideals be your star and keep your eyes fixed on that star.  If you keep to your course, you will not become lost.”[Koorts]  At this point, Lindie Koorts becomes very finely detailed about many attempts to arbitrate between Malan and Hertzog, but I’ll just say most of it hinges upon whether the joining of the parties was an attempt at “reunion” or at “fusion.”  In any case, Malan insisted on keeping “pure,” and the Hertzog contingent lost some strength because Malan had induced members of Parliament to remain in the “Purified” Nationalist Party.  The happy couple in the photo above had taken separate paths.  As a Monty Python fan, I was reminded of a scene from the “Life of Brian” (contains naughty language).

The work of the next few years in many ways defined D. F. Malan’s legacy.  As one of several leaders of an opposition party, he was faced with the challenge of shaping the Nationalist Party that would come to dominate Apartheid South Africa.  World War II was raging, and many Nationalists wanted Germany to win; some of them, such as the “Greyshirts,” and Oswald Pirow’s “New Order” began using Nazi symbols.  D. F. Malan argued that they were being disloyal and that each country must choose the form of government that is best for it; South Africa was a constitutional democracy and that was what it should stay.  Another Afrikaner organization, the Ossewabrandwag, became strongly associated with Afrikaner nationalism through their organization of the Great Trek Centenary Celebrations.  The organization evolved a side group of pro-German armed saboteurs called the “Stormjaers” (storm troops).  The Ossewabrandwag fought the National Party for the steering wheel of political power.  Malan outmaneuvered and marginalized them.


Throughout this period, he mentored several leaders from the next generation, the “Young Turks.”  Among them were future prime ministers J.G. Strijdom and H.F. Verwoerd (Strijdom appears at the left in the photo).  Malan’s very long-term standing within the Afrikaner community gave him enormous prestige and room to maneuver.  His fencing with other organizations for primacy left him well-positioned to take power in the aftermath of World War II.  The Nationalist Party was able to convince voters that J.C. Smuts, the Prime Minister during World War II, was completely out of touch with South Africa and that the government needed to do much more for the economic relief of poor whites.  He had continued to argue along the lines he had voiced in a 1934 National Conference on the Poor White Problem: “He appealed to his audience to remember that the poor whites were members of the nation: those who wanted to help them had to learn to identify with them, instead of approaching such persons as the objects of study or charity” [Koorts].

In the 1948 elections, D.F. Malan became prime minister when the Nationalist Party achieved 39.85% of the vote, or 70 seats in Parliament.  He had negotiated an electoral pact with Nicolaas Havenga of the Afrikaner Party, so their 9 seats won in Parliament gave their alliance 79 seats to 71 for Smuts plus the Labour party.  After a long career in politics, D.F. Malan served as Prime Minister for six and a half years.  He was 74 at the time he became Prime Minister, and his delegation strategy left his Cabinet ministers to operate how they liked.  The Young Turks, many of whom came from the more extreme Trans-Vaal area, became adventurous.  Malan and Strijdom, in particular, had an intense struggle of wills, culminating in Malan’s effort to name Havenga to follow him as Prime Minister.  Strijdom was able to challenge this succession successfully.

From reading this post to this point, you might have come to the conclusion that D.F. Malan was a political figure like many others, a man of principle who built a party that could challenge the complacent power structures of the past.  That impression, however is missing one of the most salient points!

D. F. Malan is one of the key architects of Apartheid.  If you look at the middle bullet in the list of principles I’ve given early in this post, I think you will see the problem.  D. F. Malan believed it was infallibly true that man was created in different colors and cultures and that those colors and cultures must be kept separate lest disaster occur (see the Tower of Babel).  Koorts puts it this way on p. 364: “Paternalism and trusteeship were the lenses through which Malan viewed Black-White relationships– in his mind these terms had the positive connotation of a familial relationship.”  He was absolutely convinced that having black people, Indian people, Cape Coloured people, and white people living together and working together would lead to the sharing of only the worst traits he imagined were associated with each.

Early in his political career under Hertzog, Malan had pursued the repatriation of ethnic Indians from the Natal province.  As prime minister, Malan presided over the passage of several key Apartheid laws:

  • Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949)
  • Immorality Amendment Act (1950)
  • Population Registration Act (1950)
  • Group Areas Act (1950)
  • Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act (1951)
  • Native Building Workers Act (1951)
  • Separate Representation of Voters Act (1951)
  • Bantu Authorities Act (1951)
  • Native Laws Amendment Act (1952)
  • Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act (1952)
  • Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes Act) (1953)
  • Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953)
  • Bantu Education Act (1953)

Clearly this is a government that bent itself to the task of establishing a new order.  Ironically, D. F. Malan’s government was so busy building Apartheid that they did not manage one of the other key goals of the Nationalist Party.  Twelve years of National Party dominance would pass before a referendum by which South Africa could become a republic.

So who was D.F. Malan?  He was a man who believed in principles, very dangerous and powerful ones.  He was empowered to endure through difficult decisions in his career by his vision of what South Africa could become, and when he achieved control of that nation, he reshaped its society to match his vision.  Whatever notions he had of “paternalism” and “trusteeship” left the government when he retired from it in 1954, leaving the more extreme Strijdom in power.  Within just a few years, the country was aflame with violent protests.

6 thoughts on “Dr. D.F. Malan, a parson-publisher-politician of perilous principles

    1. dtabb1973 Post author

      Thank you, Richard! I really appreciate your reading it. Many of my friends leave comments on the Facebook posts that result from each blog post; that probably is an easier venue for folks who do not already have WordPress accounts. As for chess, well, I am pretty sure my game is appalling! I have been winning some lazy games by email with a friend, but I think I would go belly-up the minute I played someone who studied the game with any seriousness.


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