A Time to Dig Trenches

What Westerners can learn from South Africa

“Small nations. The concept is not quantitative; it points to a condition; a fate; small nations lack that felicitous sense of an eternal past and future; at a given moment in their history, they all passed through the antechambers of death; in constant confrontation with the arrogant ignorance of the mighty, they see their existence as perpetually threatened or with a question mark hovering over it; for their very existence is the question.”
— Milan Kundera

The populist wave in the West, which crested in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the successful Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, and victories for populist political parties across Europe in the last few years have lost momentum. What was once a confident, dynamic movement now more closely resembles a shadow of its former self – a tattered and tainted flag. Increasing numbers of Western conservatives and people on the Right are consequently now becoming disillusioned with the party political system and are beginning to look elsewhere for guidance for the challenging road ahead.

What insights can I share on this situation from South Africa? Being part of a minority community with a Western heritage, living on the edge of Western civilization, arguably offers a useful perspective to see things that Westerners in bigger countries sometimes miss, as Czech writer Milan Kundera eloquently puts it above.

Afrikaners have struggled for centuries with many of the existential questions that are only now emerging for the West. In South Africa the future has already happened; political options for decades have been limited to a choice between center-left, leftist and far-left, and many Western utopian visions continue to crash, burn and get stripped for parts. Accordingly, few of us here in South Africa still labor under the delusion of thinking that political parties will save us. But this doesn’t mean that we’ve lost hope.

As a ninth-generation Afrikaner, or Boer, one of the main lessons that communities like mine have learned is summed up by Russell Lamberti’s phrase: “There is a time to move and a time to dig trenches.” Neither of these choices is inherently right. But because I believe that if Afrikaners do not have a future in Africa, we do not have a future at all, I’ve chosen to focus my own energy on the trench-digging industry.

Moving or trekking is deeply engrained in Afrikaners’ historical and cultural memory. Our ancestors arrived in Africa as immigrants, refugees, fortune seekers, or by accident through twists of fate. One of my own ancestors was on his way to New Zealand when he was thrown off the ship in South Africa for kicking the captain’s dog. I’m also a direct descendent of the French Huguenots, who fled to South Africa more than 300 years ago to escape religious persecution. My French Huguenot ancestor, a man with the surname Roux, arrived in southern Africa in 1688, almost 100 years before the United States became a country.

The British occupation of 1806 resulted in the loss of political control over the Cape Colony. Anglo political and cultural repression drove many Afrikaners to pack up their belongings in the 1830s and embark on a great migration into the unknown interior. This exodus has become known as the Great Trek and was mainly an effort to escape ruthless anglicization under the boot of imperial administration. For the Voortrekkers, as those intrepid Afrikaners are now known, the time had come to move.

This was not a move in pursuit of greater material wealth or safety. Many of the Afrikaners in the Great Trek abandoned their farms, businesses and most of their possessions and left, despite the promise of better infrastructure, schools, security and business opportunities under British rule. As luck, or rather fate would have it, the Boers discovered diamonds and gold after establishing the fledgling South African Republic (the Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State in the Southern African interior. The eyes of the empire, therefore, became fixed on them once again, resulting in the First (1880-1881) and Second (1899-1902) Anglo-Boer War.

This time, faced again with a renewed existential threat of imperialism, the Boers decided it was a time to dig trenches. In fact, the use of trench warfare by the Boers in the Second Anglo-Boer War was the first use of this tactic in military history and set the stage for the century to come.


We live in a time where unipolar Western domination is waning. This situation was already predicted by Samuel Huntington in his prescient 1997 essay “The West and the Rest. Huntington observes:

“As indigenisation spreads and the appeal of western culture fades, the central problem in relations between the west and the rest is the gap between the west’s efforts to promote western culture as the universal culture and its declining ability to do so.”

Over the past several decades South Africans have mainly chosen to emigrate to Western, Anglosphere countries. These emigrants concluded that the time has come to move, and that movement closer to the cultural and political power centers of the Western-dominated global order was their best bet. As Russell Lamberti put it: “[w]e now live in a world of people on the run.”

But the problem with constantly moving to higher ground to escape the rising tide is that you eventually run out of higher ground. If you recently emigrated, or semigrated to what you deem a more defendable position, you now have a duty to take root and hold your ground there. The harsh reality is that, at some point, you will have to make a stand. If not you, it will be your children. And isn’t there something abhorrent about “outsourcing” the responsibility of solving the biggest problems and challenges of your time to future generations?

Our mindset should be to fight for what we want to preserve in our towns, neighborhoods and communities. In its prime or in its decline, the crushing boots of advancing empires or the shockwaves of their collapse will always find you, as my Afrikaner ancestors have learned repeatedly throughout our volatile history. No wonder, then, that Southern Africa is also the home of AfriForum, one of the most developed proverbial trench-digging operations in the world.

The largest civil rights organization in the southern hemisphere, AfriForum unites 300,000 paying members behind a common cause. We have established over 150 neighborhood watches and many farm watches. We’ve developed emergency support services and we have more than 155 AfriForum branches across the country, which do everything from cleaning up neighborhoods to planting community vegetable gardens and trees and repairing potholes. AfriForum also has its own publishing company, film and documentary production company, and theatre. The broader Solidarity Movement, of which AfriForum is a part, established its own private institution of higher learning, Akademia, and built a world-class technical college campus, Sol-Tech.

The Solidarity Movement has pursued the ideal of becoming staatsbestand (state-proof) at every level by embracing a selfdoen (do it yourself) philosophy which prioritizes autonomy and pragmatism. This robust approach ensures the reliability of essential services and the integrity of institutions in an environment where state collapse, corruption and decay are widespread. It is the large, active and involved membership base, participating in what Flip Buys, Chairperson of the Solidarity Movement, describes as “creative renewal based on proven values,” that gives the Solidarity Movement its strength.

Paul Kruger, a former President of the South African Republic, said: “Seek out that which is good and noble from the past and build the future with it.” This sentiment dovetails with the prescription of Huntington at the turn of the previous century: “The West should not attempt to reshape other civilizations in its own image but preserve and renew the unique qualities of western civilization.” Men like Flip Buys reached the same conclusion in the 1990s and set out to achieve renewal as a matter of survival.

The time has come for Western communities to stop running and start digging trenches. These trenches will have to be dug in the field of parallel institutions and in the ground of identity and the mountains of heritage. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said: “To destroy a people, you must first sever their roots.” Just as a military and economic balance of powers facilitate world peace, a healthy pride in one’s own cultural identity is essential for coexistence with other cultures. We should encourage healthy cultural pride and a sense of identity in our own community, as well as in neighboring ones. When you remove the cultural heritage of any human being, you uproot them. Anchorless, they float with the currents into the boundless ocean, until one day they are spat out on an unfamiliar beach as driftwood and picked up by strangers as firewood.

The benefit of living in good times is that you have ample opportunities to live a comfortable life. The advantage of living in hard times is that you have plenty of opportunities to live a great life. As my father once observed: “There is a hefty price to pay to live in one of the greatest places on earth.” The older I get, and the more volatile the West becomes, the truer that sentiment rings. Freedom is only truly possible on the frontier, and a frontier is more often than not to be found on the periphery of empires or on the edges of powerful civilizations. So I’ve thrown my lot in with the trench diggers of Southern Africa. To live dangerously on the margins of human expansion like a leopard in the Western Cape mountains is better than growing fat and living safely in a concrete zoo.

Ernst van Zyl is a Campaigns Officer for strategy and content at AfriForum.

Related reading:

As South Africa, So the World, by Robert Duigan

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