The South African War and Union

Pilgrims Rest Old cemetery at Pilgrim's Rest, Mpumalanga, South Africa. Picture by Utilisateur:Bel Adone

This topic investigates the ways in which the politics and culture of the Boer Republics clashed with the modernising thrust of the Uitlanders on the rapidly growing Reef in the late 19th century. Study on the South African War from 1899 to 1902 needs to reflect recent research. The topic ends with the Union settlement in 1910. The Union laid the foundation for white co-operation at the expense of black South Africans (in terms of franchise and land). It resulted in the consolidation of white rule, and thereby paved the way for a system of racial capitalism. The Land Act was the precursor (forerunner) to Apartheid land settlement, which resulted in forced removals, with their social and economic consequences.

In 1910 various colonies and Republics were declared a single entity, the Union of South Africa. Until then, these political units were locked in a stiff competition for resources, for advantage and for wealth. Even the various Boer Republics were sometimes at odds with each other, and they were at odds with the British colonies most of the time.

Long before union, the British saw the existence of Boer Republics as a threat to imperial ambitions, and tried to forge a confederation. After the South African War, the second war waged by the British against the Afrikaners, the British finally held sway over the entire country.

The discovery of diamonds and then gold, and the emergence of powerful Capitalist blocs in mining and agriculture united the Brits and the Boers in their need to secure cheap labour. So despite their differences, the Brits and the Boers agreed on certain principles: that the country needed to put in place laws to limit black access to political power, and when Union came blacks were effectively kept off the voters' rolls, despite the 'colour-blind' franchise in the Cape. By 1936, even Cape Africans were stripped of the vote.

The African response to Union was the creation in 1912 of the South African Native National Congress, the first incarnation of the African National Congress. But the new state was on the offensive, and enacted the 1913 Natives' Land Act to dispossess Blacks of land they owned in the 'white areas', and to limit their presence and influence in the Union. The offensive gathered steam and a slew of laws set the scene for segregation and apartheid, and the history of 20th century South Africa is the history of the conflict between whites and the various black groups that eventually culminated in the first non-racial democratic election in 1994.

The following is to be covered in this topic:

‘South African War (a.k.a. the Anglo-Boer War) remains the most terrible and destructive modern armed conflict in South Africa’s history. It was an event that in many ways shaped the history of 20th Century South Africa. The end of the war marked the end of the long process of British conquest of South African societies, both Black and White'. - Gilliomee and Mbenga (2007).

Last updated : 23-Mar-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 08-Nov-2011