The British moved to occupy Transvaal again in 1899. Through a bloody conflict known by the British as the Second Boer War and by the Afrikaners as the Second Freedom War (1899–1902), the British took permanent control of both Transvaal and the Orange Free State. While both sides suffered immense casualties during this war, the Afrikaners regarded British actions as particularly brutal. The British torched farms in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, destroying crops and killing cattle, and they placed families in concentration camps, where some 26,000 Boers died of famine and disease. The British effectively drove the “chosen people” out of their land, humiliated them, and committed a massacre that was seared into the collective memory of the Afrikaners. The memory of the war played an integral role in the solidification of modern Afrikaner national identity in the 1920s and 1930s.
This second war was fueled by the British desire to seize control of the gold mines, particularly given the fear that the rail line through Mozambique would shut the British out of the gold trade. Having been occupied repeatedly and ultimately defeated by the British, the Afrikaners regarded themselves as a persecuted group whose God-given rights to control South Africa were being denied by the British. As the Afrikaner nationalist movement grew over the course of the next century, these Africans of European descent asserted their own rights in part by denying those of the indigenous black South African population.
With Britain in control and the region becoming more urban and industrialized, Afrikaners felt increasingly marginalized by their fellow whites. An English-speaking urban population dominated the Union of South Africa, which was created in 1910 when the British brought together the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange Free State, and Transvaal as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. The farmer’s lifestyle that was at the core of Afrikaner identity was on the decline, as British tactics in the Second Boer War had devastated the livelihood of many rural farmers. Many moved to the cities, joining a multitude of immigrants and local people clamoring for industrial employment. Some sought work in the mines, competing for jobs with black South African migrants.
Owners of the mines, most of whom were either English or had strong ties to England, grew concerned about the labor situation. The owners viewed the workers on whom they relied as a threat. The Afrikaners, though defeated in the war, remained resentful and could potentially turn to violence again. The mines relied on extensive human labor, and the owners encouraged blacks from throughout southern Africa to migrate to the mines. Yet they also worried that blacks increasingly outnumbered whites in the region. The owners were particularly worried that the white and black workers might unite across racial lines to force extensive and expensive concessions in terms of wages and improved working conditions.
The British capitalists crafted a compromise to co-opt the Afrikaner miners by reserving managerial and skilled-labor positions for whites, while low-skilled and heavy labor jobs, which paid much less, were to be held by blacks. This allowed a pay scale to develop that boosted the wages for whites while lowering the wages for black South Africans, who became the vast majority of the workforce.
This system of racially based labor differentiation, an invention of English-speaking white South Africans, won backing from the government of the Union of South Africa, which enacted far-reaching legislation after independence in 1910. Among the laws were restrictions on the mobility of black South African laborers, most of whom were required to live in designated areas and prohibited from bringing their families with them. These laws were the antecedents to apartheid.
As the search for gold drove the workers deeper into the earth, the industry entered into a new technical phase that required more skilled labor. A dispute between mine owners and 20,000 white laborers sparked the bloody 1922 Rand Revolt. The government declared martial law and employed military force to restore order, but the white strikers were ultimately successful: they won concessions that shored up and exacerbated the two-tiered pay scale for whites and blacks. As the reading Mines in South Africa indicates, the work that black South Africans carried out in mines was back-breaking, difficult work, and they were treated as subhuman.
South Africa’s English-speaking population maintained close ties with Great Britain and identified themselves as British, often speaking of places like Cornwall or Cardiff as home. Furthermore, England’s cult of individualism hindered the development of a single group identity. Many European immigrants to South Africa—such as German miners—learned English and were integrated into the English-speaking community. While British immigrants and their descendants had commitments to local concerns, they did not develop a clear identity as uniform and independent as that of the Afrikaners.
South Africa’s wealth was built more on the cheapness of black South African labor and on slavery than on its gold and diamond mines. To make a profit, the gold mine companies needed to find hundreds of thousands of men who were willing to work for little pay. Wages were generally below the cost of survival for a family. Yet the companies were able to attract black South Africans, in large part because they had been deprived of their land and many other ways to earn a living. Men lived in crowded compounds for the period of their (unbreakable) contracts of nine months or more. Families were forbidden from visiting. Conditions underground were both dangerous and physically exhausting.
The scholar Francis Wilson described a typical miner’s work:
[I]t is perhaps easiest to start by thinking of a road labourer digging up pavement with a jack-hammer drill. Now imagine him doing that work thousands of feet underground, in intense heat, where he cannot even begin to stand upright, and where the drill . . . has to be held horizontal and driven into the wall in front. Add to this picture the noise of a road-drill magnified several times by the confined space . . . and the possibility that the roof of the mine might suddenly cave in under pressure . . .
As long as whites labored to legislate racism, black South Africans stood up to them. It is important to remember that the resistance that took hold at this time was preceded by centuries of resistance to colonial oppression. One political activist of this period, John Tengo Jabavu, was an early foe of laws that raised the property qualification for voting and in time also became a champion of women’s education. In 1884, he established a newspaper that he used to promote resistance to the Cape Legislative Assembly; his vision and drive led to the creation of the Union of Native Vigilance Association. The most successful protest association, the South African Native National Congress, was founded in 1912 to protest the treatment of black South Africans. In 1919, the group changed its name to the African National Congress (ANC).
Prior to 1910, the rights enjoyed by “citizens of colour,” as journalist Sol Plaatje referred to black South Africans at the time, varied widely in the four separate colonies. In the Cape Colony, for example, voting rights were based on property ownership rather than skin color. The establishment of the Union of South Africa, however, proved a considerable setback for the citizens of colour, as an exclusively white parliament was announced. John Tengo Jabavu said at the time: “The colour bar in parliament has taken away the prized guarantee of political freedom and political contentment, and has made the African franchise illusory.”
An important ingredient in the responses of black South Africans was a conversation in 1911 between Pixley ka Isaka Seme, a black South African lawyer who conceived of the group that would become the ANC, and Mohandas Gandhi, an Indian-born immigrant to South Africa who enjoyed early successes leading passive resistance there before returning to his homeland and leading India to independence. They met at Gandhi’s farm, shortly before Seme attended the meeting that founded the ANC, for a long conversation about the importance of an organization that could rally the black South African population. In the first years following the ANC’s formation, its founders regularly consulted with Gandhi over strategies for organizing their group and influencing policy. Gandhi encouraged them to embrace a nonviolent approach that included participation from people of all races.
The politics and popularity of the ANC shifted over the years. The ANC operated alongside a host of other associations for non-whites, labor unions, and even the Communist Party. The ANC leadership believed that the identity of South Africa could only be understood as a composite of all its ethnic groups—their affinity to other Africans across the continent was secondary to their alliance with other South Africans, including those of European descent. The ANC has always included in its ranks white, “coloured,” and Indian members.
In response to a sense of political and economic marginalization, Afrikaners rallied around a nationalist movement in the early twentieth century. Leaders emphasized the alleged racial superiority of Europeans over black South Africans and insisted on the cultural superiority over the British of Afrikaners, with their history of self-reliance and strict Christianity. This was very much a dogma that appealed to the Afrikaner grass roots: working-class white men and women who believed that they had been mistreated by the British.
To be an Afrikaner was to speak Afrikaans, a dialect of Dutch with many words borrowed from the languages in South Africa: English, German, Portuguese, Malay, and Khoikhoi. Some non-Europeans, including the Cape Malay and the mixed-race populations of the Cape, spoke Afrikaans as well. As part of a movement to strengthen Afrikaner nationalism, white elites moved to standardize Afrikaans, purging the language of some of its non-Dutch influences. In the 1920s, Afrikaner nationalists fought to replace Dutch, recognized as one of the country’s official languages, with Afrikaans.
In the following decade, efforts were made to restore the Afrikaner self-confidence crushed by the Boer War. A reenactment of the Great Trek in 1938, on the 100th anniversary of the Afrikaner victory over the Zulu in the Battle of Blood River, climaxed with the ceremonial laying of the foundation for the Voortrekker Monument outside of Pretoria. Afrikaners revisited military victories over black South Africans, emphasizing their own innate superiority to the groups they defeated.