The Pre-Mandela Period: Colonial History of South Africa (1652-1917)

Introduction

More than two and a half centuries prior to the birth of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Jan Van Riebeeck and his expedition of Dutch Calvinist settlers landed at the Cape on 6 April 1652.

Van Riebeeck had received a commission from the Dutch East India Trading Company (VOC) to establish a refreshment station for passing ships. The station was to supply the ships going East with fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. The settlers grew the vegetables and fruit themselves, but meat was obtained through trade with the indigenous population (mainly of Khoikhoi extraction) derogatorily referred to as "natives."

From the beginning their relationships with the Khoikhoi (formerly known as Hottentots) who resided in the area was antagonistic and trade with these people for slaughter stock soon degenerated into raiding and warfare. In 1657 the colonial authorities started a process of allotting farms to European settlers ("free burghers") in the arable regions around Cape Town, where wine and wheat became the major products.

As the port developed the need for labour increased. In response to the colonists' growing demand for labour, the VOC imported slaves from East Africa, Madagascar and its possessions in the East Indies. Soon more Dutch settlers arrived followed by settlers from all over Europe. Increased European encroachment ultimately led to the colonisation and occupation of South Africa by the Dutch.

British settlers arriving in 1820

The Cape Colony remained under Dutch rule until 1795 before it fell to the British Crown, before reverting back to Dutch Rule in 1803 and again to British occupation in 1806. After this British seizure of the territory, many of the Dutch settlers (the boers) trekked north, to avoid living under British rule.

The discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1884) spurred wealth and immigration and intensified the subjugation of the indigenous inhabitants as well as the conflicts between the Dutch and the British.

The Trek Boers and the Great Trek

By the beginning of the eighteenth century the Cape settlers were expanding their territory north east. This expansion was primarily led by the trek boers seeking fresh grazing for their cattle. These cattle farmers had no fixed dwelling place and many led a semi-nomadic existence, moving ceaselessly between summer and winter pastures. As most trek farmers had large families, the system encouraged swift expansion. The Cape government had done nothing to hinder expansion inland since it provided a source of cheap meat.

As the trekkers' expansion increased they inevitably came into conflict with first the Khoikhoi and later the Xhosa people (a Bantu-speaking group to which Mandela belongs) into whose land they were encroaching. This marked the beginning of the subjugation of the Tembu, Pondo, Fingo and Xhosa in the Transkei. The Xhosa in particular fought nine wars spanning a century which gradually deprived them of their independence and subjugated them to British colonial rule.

In the towns, tension was also increasing between settlers and the Dutch authorities, with the former becoming increasingly resentful at what they perceived as administrative interference. Soon the districts of Swellendam and Graaff-Reinette pronounced themselves independent Republics, though this was short-lived: in 1795 the Cape Colony was annexed by Britain.

Consequently, in 1835, ten thousand Boers left the Cape Colony and went north and northeast. Of these voortrekkers, about five thousand settled in the area that later became known as the Orange Free State (present day Free State). The rest headed for Natal (present day KwaZulu-Natal) where they appointed a delegation to negotiate with the Zulu king, Dingaan, for land.

Thomas Bains painting of Trek Boers

Dingaan granted them a large area of land in the central and southern part of his territory, but as the voortrekker delegation left they were ambushed and killed  by the Zulu. The newly elected Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius prepared the group for a retaliatory attack and the Zulu were subsequently defeated at the famous 'Battle of Blood River' (16 December 1838), leading to the founding of the first Boer Republic in Natal.

The Anglo-Boer War

The Voortrekkers in Natal moved northeast after they were defeated by the British in 1842. They settled north and south of the Vaal River and founded the independent Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek or Transvaal Republic. In 1854 the contract of Bloemfontein was signed and the Republic of Orange Free State was founded by the Boers.

British sentiment was strongly in favour of uniting their colonies with the Boer republics into one union and thereby gaining control of the gold mines of Transvaal. The Boers not only resisted this proposal, they resented and resisted British encroachments.

On 11 February 1899 war broke out between the two Boer republics and the two British colonies (the Anglo-Boer War). On 13 March 1900 Bloemfontein was occupied by the British, followed by Johannesburg and Pretoria on 1 September.

The Boers continued a guerilla war, which was countered by the British by devastating the boers' farms and placing their women and children in white- and black concentration camps where some 28 000 died. Although attempts at peace were made as early as March 1900, nothing significant was achieved until 1902. It was only on 31 May that a truce (the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging) was signed by the Boers and the British. The former eventually accepted the peace conditions, including the loss of their independence. As far as the British were concerned, their victory seemed to pave way for Union.

In the meanwhile, no thaw had been achieved in relations between Africans and the White administration.

The Legislative Framework and Opposition to White Rule

Even before after the Anglo-Boer War, relations between Black and White were very strained. By the turn of the twentieth century Mandela was not yet born, but the racial discrimination which he fought against nearly all his life was already deeply entrenched in South Africa. The pro-white policies of the British colonial administrator Alfred Milner followed by the discriminatory legislation enacted by the Union of South Africa engendered considerable resistance from Blacks and led to the formation and growth of new political bodies.

In 1902 Coloureds in Cape Town formed the African People's Organisation to represent the interests of "educated ... Coloured people." Abdullah Abdurahman, who became president of the organisation in 1904, stressed his organisation's displeasure at the political discrimination to which Coloureds were subjected. By 1910, he had managed to build an organisation of 20 000 members. Another political activist, Mohandas Gandhi, began a passive resistance campaign against the pass laws in 1906, leading Indians in Natal and the Transvaal (they were legally prohibited from living in or entering the Orange Free State) in demonstrations and organising stop-work protests that won thousands of supporters.

Discrimination policies assumed new urgency with the formation of the South African Native Affairs Commission in 1903. That year witnessed the introduction of the pass system that would later be the focus of much resistance by Mohandas Gandhi, among other people. The pass system effectively meant that Africans could not be employed by any farmer, miner or industrialist without a pass. 

The following year, indentured Chinese labourers (who were repatriated to their country in 1907) were imported to work on the gold and diamond mines, with the consequence that Black workers' wages were further eroded. Poor wages together with inhumane working and living conditions were among the major causes of worker disgruntlement at the time. The situation was exacerbated by the introduction of a poll tax (a flat-rate tax levied on all members of the population and often a requirement for voting eligibility) in 1906. Failure to pay taxes, which included taxes on salt and homes (the hut tax) compelled the Black population to seek work in White-owned businesses.

In the same year there were attempts to reconcile English and Boer populations. This culminated in the Bambatha uprising in which 3 000 Black and 30 White men were killed at Nkandla in Natal. In the aftermath of these massacres, numerous meetings organized by Africans, Coloureds and Indians protested the Whites-only exclusivity of the constitutional discussions that took place between 1908 and 1909. These activities culminated in the establishment of the South African Native Convention or National Convention in March 1909, which called for a constitution giving "full and equal rights" for all Blacks, Coloureds, and Indians. However, it entrenched White supremacy under a unitary state. Subsequently, an African delegation traveled to London to protest this, but was ignored.

Instead of addressing the constitutional crisis, in the following year the South African Act was passed in Britain granting domain to the White minority over Native (African), Asiatic (mostly Indian) and "Coloured and other mixed races". The British dream of a union between Britain's Cape and Natal colonies and the defeated boer republics was realised on 31 May 1910 when the Union of South Africa was established in terms of the South Africa Act of 1909.

General Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister of the Union, introduced the policy of formal racial segregation, leading to the further erosion and the Black majority's political rights and the aggravation of the plight of African communities. Under the new system of government, for example, , white magistrates were given increased control of local African communities. Mandela would later describe this reform as the capture of the institution of chieftaincy "to suppress the aspirations of their own tribesmen." From the outset, the White Union government implemented a policy of Apartheid (the separate development of the races) and  it became highly unpopular as successive laws further curtailed the rights of the Black majority.

The Mines and Works Act of 1911 was an importat factor leading to the formation of the South African Native National Congress in 1912, renamed the African National Congress in 1923. The Act legislated that Black workers could only be engaged as cheap semi-skilled labourers and effectively prohibited Black workers from seeking skilled work. For these so-called "unskilled" workers, the political environment created by racist rule ensured that they worked under appalling conditions. Their plight was exacrbated in 1914 by the formation of the Afrikaner National Party (NP) under General Hertzog. The NP dedicated itself to racial separation, hierarchical stratification and republicanism (the belief that the supreme power of a country should be vested in an electorate). Eligibility to vote was seen as a right belonging to Whites who granted it at their discretion as a privilege to non-whites. Suffice to say, electoral privileges were not extended to Blacks. Initially, the ANC provided feeble opposition to the White government, but became a more powerful force in later decades.

Land dispossession lies at the heart of South Africa's history and heritage of inequity and the new ANC was created against the backdrop of massive deprivation of Africans' right to own land. 

Since 1652, successive colonial administration had systematically deprived Black communities of their land.  The loss of this crucial resource was arguably the most important factor leading to the impoverishment and marginalization of African communities. It was also arguably the most important factor spurring on formative forms of organized resistance. As will be demonstrated later, it was opposition to the Natives Land Act, preliminary drafts of which were debated in 1911, that led to the formation of the ANC. Several hundred members of South Africa's educated African elite met at Bloemfontein on 8 January, 1912 to establish a national organisation to protest against racial discrimination and to appeal for equal treatment before the law. The founding president was John L. Dube. A minister and schoolteacher who had studied in the United States, Dube was strongly influenced by the American educator and activist Booker T. WashingtonPixley Ka Isaka Seme, a lawyer and a prime mover in organising the meeting to establish the congress, was appointed treasurer. Solomon T. Plaatje, a court translator, author, and newspaper editor who had worked in Kimberley and Johannesburg, became secretary general. The meeting to establish the ANC opened and closed with the singing of the hymn "Nkosi sikelel'i Afrika" ("God Bless Africa"), which had been composed at the end of the nineteenth century by a Xhosa poet. Today, it is half independent South Africa's national anthem. (The other half is The Stem, the national anthem of the apartheid government.)

Overall, the congress was moderate in composition, tone, and practice. Its founders, all men, felt that British rule had brought considerable benefits, especially Christianity, education, and the rule of law, but who also considered that their careers as teachers, lawyers, and court translators were hindered by the racial discrimination so deeply entrenched in South Africa. They called not for an end to British rule, but rather for respect for the concept of equality for all, irrespective of colour. They respected traditional authorities in African societies and made chiefs and kings office-holders within the congress. They believed that they could best achieve their aims by dialogue with the British. As John Dube said, the congress pursued a policy of "hopeful reliance on the sense of common justice and love of freedom so innate in the British character." Such reliance, however, was proven unfounded by the adoption of the Natives Land Act in 1913.

The Natives Land Act (1913) and World War I

As already noted, political agitation and opposition to White rule in South Africa goes back to the earliest colonial times, when indigenous lands, especially prime agricultural land, were expropriated from their rightful owners - often without compensation. Although the colonial government passed many discriminatory laws against Blacks the most severe, the 1913 Natives' Land Act codified those injustices by preserving some 87% of the Union's land for the exclusive use of the white minority and a paltry 13% for use by African farmers, some 80% of the population. The Act prevented Africans from purchasing, leasing or using land, except in the "reserves" or "Bantustans." The Act effectively meant that access to land and other resources depended upon a person's racial classification. This legislation caused endemic overcrowding,extreme pressure on the land, and poverty. The Act prompted a protest march led by Mahatma Gandhi (the late Indian leader). At the same time, there were mine protests and 800 women were arrested in a related protest against pass laws.

African dissatisfaction culminated in the ANC sending a deputation to London in 1914 to protest the Land Act. However, the colonial secretary informed the delegation that there was nothing that he could do.

This was the year the First World War broke out and the National Party was formed under Hertzog. A number of Africans were called upon to assist the Allied cause against Germany. Nevertheless, at the end of the war Africans continued to be accorded second-rate status and found it very difficult to access skilled jobs. Those who were absorbed by the emerging industries continued to receive paltry wages and were subjected to sub-standard housing and inferior sanitary facilities, prompting the formation of the first African trade union, the Industrial Workers of Africa, in 1917. After the end of the war in 1918 the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU) was formed by dockworkers, spearheaded by a prominent Malawian migrant worker and activist, Clements Kadalie.

In 1919 another deputation to London complained against the Natives Land Act. Although the delegation is said to have been "received sympathetically" by the then Prime Minister, Lloyd George, they came back more disgruntled than ever as the British Premier told them that their problems would have to be resolved in South Africa by the South African government. Resistance against unjust laws such as the Land Act persisted.

Nelson Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 as the war in Europe still raged. Alongside a new generation of Black activists, he would enter the political fray years later to challenge the political environment created by whites supremacy.

References

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