People who shaped South Africa’s History


European Arrival.

Johan Anthoniszoon van Riebeeck
Jan van Riebeeck (21 April 1619 – 18 January 1677) of the Dutch East India Company, VOC, was a Dutch colonial administrator and the founder of Cape Town. He was the 1st Commander of the Cape Colony (Kaapkolonie) from 1652 until 1662.

Although human settlement in the subcontinent extends back thousands of years, racial conflict dates from the Dutch arrival at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, when the Dutch East India Company [Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC, existed 1602-1798] established a resupply station at Cape Town for its fleets traveling between Holland and its empire in South and Southeast Asia. During the first 150 years of European control of the Cape, the company, a commercial operation, established some of the most enduring features of colonial society. The company was not interested in expanding European settlement across Africa, but only in acquiring goods (fresh water, foodstuffs, replacement masts) to resupply its ships. When local Khoisan peoples refused to provide these goods on terms set by the company, the Europeans took up arms and drove most of the local population into the interior. In place of local producers, the company relied on a combination of European farmers (mostly former employees of the company) and imported African slave labor to work the land that had been seized from local residents.

When the European farmers (known as Boers) attempted to escape the monopolistic trading practices and autocratic rule of the company by moving into the interior, the company prohibited further expansion, ended the emigration of Europeans to the Cape, and expanded the use of slave labor. By the end of the eighteenth century, society in the Cape was marked by antagonism between the local white community (mostly descended from the same small group of seventeenth-century Dutch, French, and German settlers) and a largely disinterested and exploitative metropolitan ruler. The racial divide was reflected in the pattern of land ownership and the authoritarian structure of labor relations, based largely on slavery.

British acquisition. British acquisition of the Cape at the beginning of the nineteenth century accentuated divisions between local settlers and metropolitan rulers and widened the racial divide between whites and blacks. The British conquered the Cape largely to prevent it from falling into the hands of Napoleon, and thus to protect their only sea route to their empire in South Asia. Like the Dutch East India Company, the British were not interested in expanding settlement but wanted to keep down the expense of maintaining their strategic resupply station at Cape Town. Initially, they continued to import African slaves to meet the labor needs of white farmers, and they did not interfere with the farmers’ harsh treatment of black workers. But the British also tried to prevent further white expansion in South Africa–with its attendant costs of greater levels of colonial government and the risk of wars with Africans–by closing the borders of the Cape and importing British settlers to create a loyal buffer in the east between expansionist Boers and densely settled African communities. Moreover, the British, influenced by strong humanitarian groups at home, took steps to eliminate the racially discriminatory features of colonial society, first by reforming the judicial system and punishing white farmers who assaulted black workers, and later by freeing all slaves throughout the British empire.

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The Great Trek Desperate for more land and fearful of losing all of their black labor, many Boer families in the 1830s marched into the interior of South Africa on the Great Trek, skirting the densest African populations. These Voortrekkers [pioneers], or trekkers, hoped to establish their own communities, free of British rule. Prevented by the British from establishing a republic on the Indian Ocean coast, where the British colony of Natal helped protect the sea route to India, the Boers formed two republics in the interior, the South African Republic (the region known as the Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. Both republics’ economies were based on near-subsistence farming and hunting, and both limited political rights to white males. Thus, white settlement expanded across the region, but almost entirely into areas with few local inhabitants. The majority of black Africans still lived in their own autonomous societies.

The Discoveries of Gold and Diamonds. The discovery of minerals in the late nineteenth century–diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1886–dramatically altered the economic and political structure of southern Africa. The growing mineral industry created ever-greater divisions between British and Boer, white and black, rich and poor. At the turn of the century, for the first time, South Africa had an extremely valuable resource that attracted foreign capital and large-scale immigration. Discoveries of gold and diamonds in South Africa exceeded those in any other part of the world, and more foreign capital had been invested in South Africa than in the rest of Africa combined. In the Transvaal, the site of the gold discoveries, the white population expanded eightfold, while hundreds of thousands of Africans sought work each year in the newly developed mines and cities of industrializing areas. Yet not all shared equally in this newfound wealth. Diamond and, in particular, gold mining industries required vast amounts of inexpensive labor in order to be profitable. To constrain the ability of African workers to bargain up their wages, and to ensure that they put up with onerous employment conditions, the British in the 1870s and 1880s conquered the still-independent African states in southern Africa, confiscated the bulk of the land and imposed cash taxation demands. In this way, they ensured that men who had chosen previously to work in the mines on their own terms were now forced to do so on employers’ terms. In the new industrial cities, African workers were subjected to a bewildering array of discriminatory laws and practices, all enforced in order to keep workers cheap and pliable. In the much diminished rural areas, the wives and children of these migrant laborers had to survive in large part on the limited remittances sent back by their absent menfolk. In short, many of the discriminatory features so typical of twentieth-century South Africa–pass laws, urban ghettos, impoverished rural homelands, African migrant labor–were first established in the course of South Africa’s industrial revolution.

The South African War [The Second Boer War 1899-1902].

Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger
Paul Kruger (10 October 1825 – 14 July 1904) affectionately known as Oom Paul (Uncle Paul) was State President of the South African Republic (Transvaal). He gained international renown as the face of Boer resistance against the British during the South African or Second Boer War (1899-1902). The Kruger National Park is named after him, as is the Krugerrand coin.

But the discovery of minerals also exacerbated tensions between the British and the Boers. Gold had been discovered in the Transvaal, and that was beyond the reach of British rule. Yet the capital invested in the mines, and thus the ownership of the gold industry, was primarily British controlled. Lacking investment capital, the Boers found themselves excluded from ownership and thus from the profits generated in their midst. Indeed, most profits from the mines were reinvested in Europe and the Americas and did not contribute to the growth of additional industries in South Africa. The Boers sought to gain access to some of this wealth through taxation policies; these policies, however, incurred the wrath of the mine magnates and their supporters in England. The South African War, fought by the Boers and the British between 1899 and 1902, was primarily a struggle for the control of gold. Although the Boers lost the war, in large part they won the peace. The British realized that in order for the diamond and gold industries to be operated profitably, they had to have a local administration sympathetic to the financial and labor needs of mining. They also realized–given demographic trends at the time–that Boers would always constitute a majority of the white population. With these factors in mind, the British abandoned their wartime anti-Boer and pro-African rhetoric and negotiated a long-term political settlement that put the local white community in charge of a self-governing united South Africa.

The Union of South Africa. The Union of South Africa, established on May 31, 1910, as a self-governing state within the British Empire, legislatively restricted political and property rights to whites at the expense of blacks. With the exception of a very small number of voters in the Cape Province and Natal, Africans were kept off electoral rolls throughout most of the country. By the terms of the Mines and Works Act (1911), only whites were permitted to hold skilled jobs in the mining industry. The Natives Land Act (1913) prohibited Africans from owning land in any part of South Africa outside a small area (7.5 percent, expanded to 13 percent in the 1930s) set aside for their use. These laws ensured that Africans would have to seek jobs from white employers, that their jobs would be the lowest paid available, and that without the right to vote they could do little to change the laws that excluded them from the political process and relegated them to the bottom of the economy.

Nationalist Movements. Two nationalist movements emerged in the aftermath of the formation of the union, one racially and ethnically exclusivist, the other much more disparate in its membership and aims. The Afrikaner nationalist movement, built around the National Party, appealed to Afrikaners (as they increasingly referred to themselves after the South African War), who were still bitter about their suffering in the war and frustrated by the poverty in which most of them lived. The black nationalist movement, led primarily by the African National Congress (ANC, formed in 1912), addressed the myriad injustices against black South Africans.
Although Afrikaner generals helped unite South Africa’s first government, most Dutch speakers did not share in the fruits of victory. Much of their land had been confiscated by the British during the war and was not returned after it ended. The main source of employment, the mines, was owned by English speakers. Rural Afrikaners moving to the cities had neither capital nor marketable skills, and thus they found themselves competing with Africans for low-paid unskilled work. As a result, they often supported racially discriminatory legislation, such as the Mines and Works Act, that gave them privileged access to jobs solely on the basis of their color. But because Afrikaners wanted a greater share of the economy than they could earn as employees of English speakers, they pooled their funds and resources to establish banks, insurance companies, and other businesses in order to wrest a portion of the economy out of the control of English businessmen. A few Afrikaner leaders then led in the denunciation of the business community in increasingly extreme, anticapitalist, and anti-Semitic terms.

Roots of Apartheid. Afrikaner nationalists spoke of themselves as a chosen people, ordained by God to rule South Africa. They established their own cultural organizations and secret societies, and they argued that South Africa should be ruled in the interests of Afrikaners, rather than English businessmen or African workers. Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the Afrikaner nationalist movement grew in popularity, fueled by fears of black competition for jobs, by antipathy toward the English-speaking mine magnates, by the memory of past suffering, and by the impact of World War II (especially massive black urbanization). In 1948, with the support of a majority of Afrikaners (who constituted about 60 percent of the white electorate), the NP won the election on its apartheid platform. Henceforth, South Africa was to be governed by a party that hoped to shape government policies to work in favor of whites, in general, and Afrikaners, in particular. Moreover, the NP denied that Africans, Asians, or coloureds could ever be citizens or full participants in the political process.

Failure of the Black Nationalist Movement. The black nationalist movement had no such success. For most blacks, lack of access to the vote meant that they could not organize an effective political party. Instead they had to rely on appeals, deputations, and petitions to the British government asking for equal treatment before the law. The British responded by pointing out that South Africa was now self-governing and that the petitioners had to make their case to the local white rulers. Although Africans, Asians, and coloureds shared common grievances, they were not united in their organizations or their aims. Physically separated and legally differentiated in practically every aspect of their lives, they formed separate organizations to represent their interests. Moreover, their leaders, with few exceptions, adopted accommodationist rather than confrontational tactics in dealing with the state. Failing to gain any real concessions from increasingly hard-line governments, none of the black political movements succeeded in building a solid mass following. Even the ANC had a membership of only a few thousand (out of an African population of about 8 million) in 1948.

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