Introduction: Before Apartheid | Facing History & Ourselves

Introduction: Before Apartheid

Understand the origins of racial and ethnic division and discrimination between native South African tribes, the first European settlers, and later European colonizers in the South African region.
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The First South Africans | New Arrivals | Indian Immigrants | Gold, War, and Shifting Identities | Black South Africans Organize | Afrikaner Nationalism | Foreshadowing Apartheid 

Between 1948 and 1994, South Africans lived under a racist system of laws called apartheid. The men and women who created, opposed, maintained, resisted, and dismantled apartheid are the subject of this book. Some people in South Africa have belonged to ethnic groups present in the area for centuries or even millennia; others trace their genealogy to Holland and England and other parts of Europe, while others arrived from Southeast Asia, the majority as slaves, and still others from South Asia, more than a century ago. A long period of colonial rule and the recent decades of apartheid helped determine how all of these groups conceive of their identities as well as the identities of others. This history has shaped the way they see themselves and the way they see people of other identity groups.

Map of Africa, ca. 1867

Map of Africa, ca. 1867

This nineteenth-century map depicts the known boundary lines, cities, rivers, lakes and elevation changes in Africa.

Image courtesy of Michigan State University Libraries

The First South Africans

People have lived in southern Africa for many millennia. In fact, remains of some of the earliest human ancestors have been found there, in an area known as “the Cradle of Mankind.” Early humans migrated from this region, and migration has remained a major factor in the formation of identities in southern Africa. Over the centuries, people from other parts of Africa, from Europe, and from Asia have migrated into what is today South Africa.

The diversity of the population has presented a challenge for how different groups live together. Conflict between the groups has never been inevitable; at times, diverse groups lived together peacefully. But as the territory became increasingly prosperous, with lush farmland and the mining of diamonds and gold, some groups sought to keep the country’s wealth for themselves by controlling and excluding other groups. The history of struggle for control and for resources shaped how groups came to understand their own identities.

Prior to the arrival of European colonists, a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups lived in the southernmost region of the African continent. The earliest known inhabitants were the Khoisan peoples. The more egalitarian San lived by fishing, hunting, and gathering, while the more hierarchical Khoikhoi (“men of men”) were primarily herders. For centuries, they lived in small communities of 20 to 80 families related by blood and marriage; a male leader was marked by a degree of wealth, distinctive clothing, and in some cases several wives. While these groups once occupied much of what is today South Africa, newcomers migrating from other parts of Africa gradually displaced them. Over thousands of years, the newcomers integrated many San and Khoikhoi into their communities and pushed the remaining San to the most arid regions of the interior and the remaining Khoikhoi to the territory’s southwestern edge.

The new arrivals were mostly farmers and herders who spoke languages from a large African language group known as Bantu. As the migrants settled in various parts of the territory, people living in close proximity gradually developed distinct languages and cultures, creating new ethnic groups. For example, the modern Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, and Swazi ethnic groups all trace their origins to an earlier group, known as the Nguni, and their languages today remain mutually understandable.

Over time, many smaller groups gradually merged into larger political communities, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes by force. The process of group formation remained fluid until relatively recently. For example, until the late 1700s, the Zulu were a small group in the east. Under the leadership of several powerful kings, especially Shaka Zulu, who came to power in 1816, the Zulu conquered a number of neighboring groups. Those who would not submit to Zulu rule had no choice but flight, and some moved as far north as modern-day Zimbabwe. Today, South Africa includes ten large African ethnic groups and a number of smaller groups. Together these African ethnic groups constitute over 80% of South Africa’s population.

The arrival of Europeans in South Africa and their gradual conquest of African peoples, the establishment and exercise of colonial control over Africans, and, later, apartheid all had major impacts on group identity formation and change. European colonial practices, wars between the Dutch and the Koi, and Dutch “hunting raids” over time caused the disappearance of the Khoikhoi as a distinct ethnic group as they lost control of their land to white colonists or fled colonial control and were incorporated into other ethnic groups, particularly the neighboring Xhosa.

In modern South Africa, particularly in urban settings, black South Africans of various ethnic groups live together in diverse communities, where individual ethnic identities are less important. Yet the traditions of the different ethnic groups are not entirely lost. Ceremonies such as namings, weddings, and burials often follow the traditions of specific ethnic communities. Arts and crafts and music and dance that bear the marks of specific groups are part of the modern scene of both rural and urban South Africa. More importantly, as the reading African Identities illustrates, pride in the traditions and cultures of the various African groups was an important resource and inspiration for black South Africans as they fought against apartheid and other forms of oppression.

Diverse locations, experiences, and traditions have shaped black South African cultures and promoted an array of different identities with many overlapping features. References to a uniform oppositional identity—the idea that black South Africans’ identity was shaped exclusively by the experience of apartheid—are misleading. While most black South Africans recognize a shared experience, most remain very much members of a specific ethnic group as well. The challenge of maintaining control over their culture was one of the factors in the African struggle against colonialism, as reflected in the reading and poem My Name.

Tswana and Venda Wedding

Tswana and Venda Wedding

This Tswana-Venda wedding demonstrates the continued importance of traditional culture in contemporary South African society.

Photograph by Hanyani Makumbani. Image courtesy of the Bontle Bride website.

New Arrivals

Dutch colonists, known as Boers (the Dutch word for “farmers”), settled in the Cape of Good Hope region beginning in 1652 to provide fresh food and water for ships passing from Europe to Asia. They lived the hard frontier life of settlers, supporting themselves through farming, ranching, and hunting. They developed an outlook of self-sufficiency and independence, at the center of which was their strict Calvinist Protestant faith. The Boer population expanded when French Calvinist Protestants fled Europe to escape persecution after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Jan van Riebeeck Arrives, 1652

Jan van Riebeeck Arrives, 1652

The arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, a Dutch navigator and colonial administrator, at Table Bay (Cape of Good Hope) marked the beginning of permanent European settlement in the region.

Charles Bell, painter, (1813-1882)

As the number of Dutch-speaking colonists grew, they began to push farther inland and up the coast, forcibly taking over land for their farms and causing a great deal of conflict with indigenous African peoples. Although white South Africans historically portrayed their settlement of South Africa as a peaceful process, in fact the European occupation of the territory involved considerable violence and is better understood as colonial conquest. One of the groups the Europeans sought to displace, the Xhosa of the Eastern Cape, put up successful resistance to the European invasion for a number of decades, but the Dutch-speaking colonists possessed better weaponry that they used to subdue the Xhosa and drive many of them off their land. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, many of the original African inhabitants had been dispossessed of most of their land and were forced into positions of servitude as laborers on the farms of the European settlers. The Boers employed many local people in exploitative arrangements, and they also imported slaves from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Madagascar, people who eventually came to be known collectively as “Cape Malays” and were considered part of the “coloured” population, along with people of mixed ancestry. Exploitative economic practices enabled the Boers to dominate the region until they gradually lost power to a second group of colonists: the British.

In 1795, as part of a large conflict between Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and other European states, the British dispatched troops to the Cape, which its merchants trading with India had long relied on for supplies. They captured Cape Town after six weeks of fighting. John Barrow, an Englishman who founded the Royal Geographical Society, traveled to southern Africa two years later. In An Account of Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa, he declared that the Dutch had neglected their responsibility to humanity by treating black South Africans (whom he described as “mild, rational, and in some degree civilized”) as objects. Barrow and others who followed were interested in possessing the Cape, and they made a moral justification for colonialism by arguing that British colonialism was more humane. In 1803, the Cape Colony was briefly returned to the Dutch, but in 1806, during the Napoleonic Wars, the British took permanent control.

English speakers began to migrate to the colony in large numbers and quickly dominated urban areas, taking control of politics, trade, finance, mining, and manufacturing, while Boer farmers remained largely rural. Boer encounters with the local black South African populations led to endless conflicts over stolen cattle and crops. While the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and Boers fought among themselves, the same groups also struggled, ultimately unsuccessfully, against encroaching British domination. The British often exploited the divisions between the other inhabitants of the region.

The Great Trek

The Great Trek

Dutch colonists (Boers) load supply-filled wagons in preparation for their migration into the interior of South Africa in the 1830s.

James E. McConnell, painter, (1903-1995)

Having lived as independent pioneer farmers for many decades, the Boers resented British rule. When the new rulers of the Cape abolished slavery in 1834, many Boers objected. To maintain their way of life, Boer farmers moved north in search of new land outside British control. The migration of thousands of Dutch-speaking families into the southern African interior became known as the “Great Trek” (die Groot Trek); those who migrated were known as “Trekboers.” Some of the land where the Trekboers arrived was lightly populated, because of the disruptions of the Zulu wars, but some places were already inhabited. After killing or violently driving out these local black South African populations, like the Ndebele, and decisively defeating the Zulu in the Battle of Blood River in 1838, the Trekboers occupied large portions of land, particularly in a fertile plateau area known as the Highveld. The black South Africans who had formerly lived in some of these territories were pushed increasingly into more remote and less fertile territories. The Trekboers created three new independent states: Natalia, the South African Republic (or Transvaal), and the Orange Free State. The British occupied Natalia, strategically located along the coast, in 1843 and changed its name to Natal.

Because Transvaal and the Orange Free State were far from the coast and seemed to have little value, the British allowed them to exist for a while as independent states. Eventually, however, diamonds and gold were discovered on the lands the Trekboers claimed. In spite of this extraordinary opportunity to enrich themselves, the Boers chose to maintain their rural agrarian lifestyle, allowing outside interests to exploit the new resources—particularly British investors, who established mines. Many British thought of the Boers as backward farmers, while the Boers referred to the newcomers as rooineks, a pejorative reference to sunburned necks. Afrikaners like the Boers, descendants of the region’s earlier European settlers, considered the British to what would eventually be South Africa, with one foot in England and the other in Africa, while they saw themselves as the rightful owners of the territory.

Boer Family, 1886

Boer Family, 1886

The Boers, semi-nomadic farmers of Dutch descent, often lived in impoverished conditions due to social isolation and their views on racial superiority.

Joseph Rauscher, 1886 / The National Archives and Records Service of South Africa. Courtesy of the Swaziland Digital Archive

Here, in an early and simple form, are the roots of the identities the two main European groups would come to embrace in South Africa. If the Boers saw themselves as pioneers, fighting to fulfill their destiny in the vast landscape imagined as uninhabited, the British fancied themselves enlightened and rather liberal rulers. Both groups saw themselves as superior to the local black South African populations, whom they considered uncivilized, unproductive, and violent. These racist attitudes shaped European interactions with black South Africans and served to justify the increasing oppression of the majority of the population in the territory.

As the British and Boers competed for control of the region, the British offered promises of security to some black South African groups threatened by the Boer republics. In practice, these protectorates became British colonies, where the leaders gradually lost control over their own territories. At the same time, as the British sought to extend their control and gain access to more land in the Cape Colony and later Natal, they used force to suppress other groups, such as the Xhosa, who faced a series of British attacks throughout the 1800s, and the Zulu, who faced a large-scale British attack in 1879.

When the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 launched the “scramble for Africa,” where European powers met to divide and make their claims on the African continent, the British pushed farther into the interior of southern Africa, creating new colonies in what are today the countries of Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. For all of their talk of enlightened attitudes toward black South Africans, the British proved themselves to be as interested in colonial conquest and domination as the Boers.

Indian Immigrants

People from the British colony of India began to arrive in South Africa in large numbers after the British abolished slavery throughout their empire in 1833, forcing settlers to seek new forms of cheap labor. Although these people came from territories that now constitute the countries of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, in southern Africa they were known collectively as “Indians.” Some came as indentured servants, often committing to serve under harsh labor conditions, particularly on sugar plantations. The workers agreed to five or more years of labor in exchange for—in principle—being allowed to immigrate and begin a new life, but as the terms of their service ended, they were encouraged to renew their “contracts” or return to their home country. Many chose to stay.

Other immigrants were “passenger Indians” who paid for their travel by themselves with the goal of finding better economic prospects. They generally came from a merchant background and set up retail shops; competition with European shop owners led to widespread discrimination. 1

  • 1Until 1948, the state referred to groups as Europeans, Bantu, Cape Coloured, and Asiatic.

Indian Fruit Sellers

Indian Fruit Sellers

Indian merchants, who initially operated in Durban, expanded inland to Transvaal, establishing communities and settlements between Johannesburg and Durban.

Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

The Indian population was concentrated in the Natal colony, where, by 1904, they had expanded enough to outnumber the white South Africans in the region. Their economic power swelled at that time, and in coal mines they made up 44.5% of the workforce. 1 This growth of the largely free Indian community, whose members now considered South Africa their home, caused many European settlers, especially those in rural areas, to push the colonial government for restrictions on further immigration. It was also during this time period that European settlers, believing that they were losing their monopoly on power, insisted on legislation prejudicial to Indians—attitudes evidenced in the reading Indian Identities: Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Gold, War, and Shifting Identities

The discovery of diamonds in 1869 in the Orange Free State and gold in 1886 in Transvaal marked a major turning point in South African history. The diamond and gold fields—all in the hands of entrepreneurs with ties to England—turned out to be extremely productive. The Kimberley mines increased world diamond production tenfold, and the Witwatersrand plateau near Johannesburg turned out to hold nearly one-half of the world’s known gold reserves.

The Dutch-speaking population in southern Africa increasingly viewed themselves as a distinct national group. Calling themselves Afrikaners, they developed an identity based on an embrace of rural life, the sense that they were pioneers bravely resisting both British oppression and black South African “savagery,” and their strong Dutch Reformed faith, a strict and austere version of Protestantism drawing on the teachings of Swiss Reformation leader John Calvin. They came to believe that they were God’s new “chosen people” who had been given the territory as a new promised land.

Favoring a farming lifestyle, the Afrikaners had limited interest in developing the resources newly discovered in their territories at first, but the British regarded this as a great opportunity. The British easily gained control of the Kimberley diamond mines, simply annexing the area to the Cape Colony. But the Witwatersrand in Transvaal, where the gold reserves were located, was in the heart of the territory controlled by the Afrikaners. The British had originally moved to annex the South African Republic (Transvaal) in 1880, even before the discovery of gold in the territory, but the population of Transvaal rose up against the British attempt at occupation and successfully defeated the British in an 1880–1881 war, regaining independence for the South African Republic.

When gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand a few years later, British interest in the Transvaal intensified. Large numbers of Europeans from Great Britain, Wales, Germany, and elsewhere migrated to Transvaal to work in the mines. British capitalists invested heavily in developing gold mines, and British-run conglomerates soon monopolized the mining industry. Facing taxes and administrative obstruction from the Transvaal government, the mine owners appealed to the government of Great Britain to intervene on their behalf. For their part, the Afrikaners had considerable antipathy toward the British, as reflected in the reading Afrikaner Identity, and their governments moved to limit growing British dominance. The decision by the Afrikaner government to build a railroad line that would link the gold mines to the coast through the Portuguese territory of Mozambique rather than through Natal proved to be the final straw.

  • 1Bill Guest, “Gandhi’s Natal: The State of the Colony in 1893,” Natalia 23 and 24 (1993/94) (Natal Society Foundation, 2010): 72.

De Beers Diamond Mine, ca. 1885

De Beers Diamond Mine, ca. 1885

In 1887 and 1888, Cecil Rhodes consolidated a number of individual diamond mine claims around Kimberley to form a single company called De Beers Consolidated Mines.

Image licensed from: Universal History Archive / Getty Images

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. 1 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. 2 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. 3

Black South Africans Organize

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. 4 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 . . . 5

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.

Afrikaner Nationalism

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.

  • 1Dominique Lapierre, A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa, trans. Kathryn Spink (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2009), 43–45.
  • 2George M. Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 229–34.
  • 3John Lambert, “‘An Unknown People’: Reconstructing British South African Identity,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 37, no. 4 (2009): 601.
  • 4In 1927, out of every thousand African miners, 30 suffered a serious accident and one died. Many other workers, on returning home, would develop cancer, pneumonia, or tuberculosis from their time in the mines. Safety measures could have lowered these figures substantially, but replacing labor was cheaper. See H. J. Simons, “Death in South African Mines,” in Africa South (1961).
  • 5Francis Wilson, Labour in the South African Gold Mines, 1911–1969 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 20–21.

Voortrekker Monument

Voortrekker Monument

The Voortrekker Monument, located in the Pretoria region of South Africa, commemorates the history and migration of the Afrikaner people. The structure was designed by Gerard Moerdijk and was completed in 1949.

Courtesy of Timothy Longman

The two world wars served as a major source of tension between the Afrikaners and the Anglophone population of South Africa. Given their anti-British sentiments, a significant group within the Afrikaner population resented South Africa’s entry into World War I on the side of Great Britain, even though the decision was made by Prime Minister Jan Smuts, who was himself an Afrikaner. In the 1930s, as Afrikaner nationalists were developing their own ideas of racial superiority, many came to admire Nazi Germany’s policies on “racial purity.” They urged South Africa to remain neutral in the growing conflict between Germany and Great Britain and objected when South Africa joined World War II on the side of the Allies.

Foreshadowing Apartheid

In the prelude to the formal implementation of apartheid, the largest groups in South Africa redefined themselves. Black South Africans set aside ethnic divisions, forming national organizations to oppose oppression. Afrikaners reacted to the devastation of the Boer War with lasting antipathy to British South Africans and with campaigns to formalize Afrikaans as a distinct language.

Identities were recast by outsiders, as South Africa’s native peoples were pressed into legal categories originally created to identify and control slaves. Slaves who had been formally freed from slavery lacked freedom in practice, as by the 1790s they could leave their area of residence only by permission of the colonial authorities. This system was extended to all black South African men and women in the Transvaal and Orange Free State by the mid-nineteenth century. Segregation was reaffirmed in the Representation of Natives Act, the Native Trust and Land Act, and the Native Laws Amendment Act, passed in 1936 and 1937.

Scores of laws and regulations separated the population into distinct groups, ensuring white South Africans access to education, higher-paying jobs, natural resources, and property while denying such things to the black South African population, Indians, and people of mixed race. Between union in 1910 and 1948, a variety of whites-only political parties governed South Africa. As the agreement that created the Union denied black South Africans the right to vote, a major focus of the government was on keeping the large Afrikaner population happy—for example, by providing the agricultural sector with cheap black labor. Regulations set aside an increasing amount of the most fertile land for white farmers and forced most of the black South African population to live in areas known as reserves. Occupying the least fertile and least desirable land and lacking industries or other developments, the reserves were difficult places to make a living. The bad conditions on the reserves and policies such as a requirement that taxes be paid in cash drove many black South Africans—particularly men—to farms and cities in search of employment opportunities. Regulations on movement forced many families to split up, as men went in search of work while women were left in rural areas to farm and raise children. By the late 1940s, the shantytowns set up on the outskirts of white cities by poor blacks who depended on the cities for income had grown enormously, and the failure of President Jan Smuts of the United Party to cope with this demographic shift drained the party of support. As seen in the reading Africans Resist White Control, black South African groups and individuals pushed back against each of these laws in order to stand up for their rights.

The opening offered by the flagging authority of the United Party after the Second World War was seized by Daniel François Malan, leader of the Herenigde (“Reunited”) National Party. Malan and his colleagues were very close to the Afrikaner Broederbond (“brotherhood”), a secret organization dedicated to the promotion of Afrikaner interests. The Broederbond included many influential Afrikaners in its membership and had considerable political influence. Almost every Afrikaner general, high-ranking politician, law enforcement officer, educator, and judge became part of the Broederbond, which was often called the “nerve center of apartheid.” The Broederbond was sympathetic to the Nazi Party in Germany and opposed South Africa’s entry into the Second World War. The organization threw its weight behind Malan’s Herenigde National Party, believing that the party would serve the interests not simply of whites but specifically of Afrikaners. Malan campaigned on a promise to “protect the white character of our cities” and to eliminate many of the already meager rights that black South Africans enjoyed. 1

Handed a majority in the national House of Assembly on May 26, 1948, the Herenigde National Party and its Afrikaner Party allies strengthened South Africa’s discriminatory laws, implementing the apartheid system to segregate the country’s races and guarantee the dominance of the white minority.

  • 1Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story, 3rd ed. (Cape Town: The Reader’s Digest Association Limited, 1994), 373.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, “Introduction: Before Apartheid,” last updated August 3, 2018. 

This reading contains text not authored by Facing History & Ourselves. See footnotes for source information.

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