Several factors seemed to pave the way to apartheid, among them a colonial conquest, land dispossession, economic impoverishment, and exclusion from citizenship of Africans.  Part one examines the historical roots of apartheid, from the colonial occupation of the Cape in 1652 through the creation of the Union of South Africa and the period between the formation of the Union and the Nationalist Party coming into power - (1910-1948).

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 travelling East, to obtain spices and other goods, 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 Khoikhoi) derogatorily referred to as “natives”. 

From the beginning their relationship with the Khoikhoi was antagonistic and trade with them 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 Angola, Mozambique, Madagascar, and South East Asia.  Soon more Dutch settlers arrived followed by settlers from all over Europe. The colony gradually expanded along a frontier at the expense of the Khoikhoi, Xhosa, and other indigenous peoples, a process similar to the one that unfolded in North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Slavery and early colonisation in South Africa

In South Africa, destruction of Khoi societies produced an underclass of domestic and farm workers, but their ability to earn a decent wage was severely curtailed by the Dutch East India Company's use of slaves.  Little is known of the lives of ordinary people at this time, but archival evidence reveals glimpses of slaves’ struggles against harsh conditions imposed by their white oppressors.

Eventually, Great Britain pronounced the emancipation of slaves in the Cape Colony in 1833, but the draconian Master and Servant laws replaced slavery that preserved a social hierarchy in which race closely corresponded to class.

Colonial conquest by the Netherlands until 1795, before it fell to the British Crown, before reverting to Dutch Rule in 1803 and again to British occupation in 1806, stimulated limited if uneven capitalist growth.

Expansion from the Cape, the Trek Boers and the Great Trek

The Great Trek.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Cape settlers were expanding their territory northeast.  The Trek Boers seeking fresh grazing for their cattle, primarily, led this expansion.  These cattle farmers had no fixed dwelling places 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 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 Britain annexed the Cape Colony.

This development and, in particular, the emancipation of slaves in 1834, had dramatic effects on the colony, precipitating the Great Trek, an emigration North and Northeast of about 12 000 discontented Afrikaner farmers, or Boers.  These people were determined to live independently of colonial rule and what they saw as unacceptable racial egalitarianism.

The early decades of the century had seen another event of huge significance - the rise to power of the great Zulu King, Shaka.  His wars of conquest and those of Mzilikazi - a general who broke away from Shaka on a northern path of conquest - caused a calamitous disruption of the interior known to Sotho-speakers as the difaqane (forced migration); while Zulu-speakers call it the mfecane (crushing). 

Shaka set out on a massive programme of expansion, killing or enslaving those who resisted in the territories he conquered.  Peoples in the path of Shaka's armies moved out of his way, becoming in their turn aggressors against their neighbours.  This wave of displacement spread throughout Southern Africa and beyond.  It also accelerated the formation of several states, notably those of the Sotho (present-day Lesotho) and of the Swazi (now Swaziland). 

This denuded much of the area into which the Trekkers now moved, enabling them to settle there in the belief that they were occupying vacant territory.  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, under the leadership of Piet Retief to negotiate with the Zulu King, Dingaan (Shaka's successor), for land.  Initially, Dingaan granted them a large area of land in the central and southern part of his territory but Retief and his party were later murdered at the kraal of Dingane.

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 discovery of Gold and Diamonds

The discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886) transformed South African from an agrarian society at the edge of world trade into a globally integrated industrial economy, which spurred wealth and immigration and intensified the subjugation of the indigenous inhabitants as well as the conflicts between the Dutch and the British.  The mineral revolution led to the quick spread of European colonization into the interior.  The period saw the making of magnates and migrants, of millionaires and bankrupts, shopkeepers and entrepreneurs.  It also saw the emergence of a new working class, one that was deeply divided along both colour and social lines.

Racist laws enabled the white-owned mining companies to control workers, keep wages very low and gain immense profits from the diamonds and gold that black miners extracted from the earth.  Most African miners became migrant labourers, spending nine to eleven months of the year in the mines while their wives and children remained in the countryside.

The Anglo-Boer War

Anglo-Boer War, The Mafeking Siege, Boers surrounded Mafeking, with a Long Tom. 1899-1900. © WITS ArchiveThe Anglo-Boer war.

The Voortrekkers in Natal moved northeast after the British defeated them 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 Boers founded the Republic of Orange Free State.

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 opposed 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, the British occupied Bloemfontein, then Johannesburg and Pretoria on 1 September.

The Boers continued a guerrilla war, which was countered by the British devastating Boer farms and placing their women and children in 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 between 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 the way for the establishment of the Union of South Africa.

Most rural and urban Black people tried to stay neutral during the war.  At the same time, the nature of hostilities made it difficult to avoid getting mixed up in the war, directly or indirectly.  As warfare spilled across the countryside, many Black people found themselves in harm’s way.

Some were pulled into participating in military operations by the warring sides; others chose to serve in the war effort to escape extreme rural poverty or in the hope of gain or reward.  In addition, some became involved in hostilities against the Boers on their own account, defending themselves against invading commandos, seizing opportunities to settle old scores over land losses or harsh treatment, and seizing opportunities to plunder.  

According to Gilliomee and Mbenga (2007), the Anglo-Boer War (or South African 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.

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