The Dutch East India Company established a permanent settlement. Initially intending only to create a base camp for sailors going around the Cape for the spice trade, they gradually establish farms to grow produce and move inland. The expansion creates a labor shortage, and they begin to import slaves from West Africa, Madagascar, Malaysia and India.
Some Dutch farmers, the “Trekboers” (meaning “Wandering Farmers”), later shortened to Boers, migrate into territories inhabited by Bantu and Khoi peoples, and seize lands, which the indigenous tribes had used for cattle grazing. The Boers live isolated lives, independent of official controls, with intermittent warfare against the chiefdoms. In the 1820s, the Zulu leader Shaka gains dominance over vast areas of southeast Africa. But the Zulu nation splinters, facilitating the expansion of the Boer settlers.
In 1806, when the British conquered the Cape, the colony includes 20,000 white colonists, 25,000 slaves, 15,000 native black Africans, and 1,000 freed black slaves, with Boers and Africans in small farms and communities in the hinterlands. The British are critical of the racist practices of the white elite of Cape Town. As the colony prospers, the British guarantee the political rights of the various races, and slavery is abolished in 1838. European influence spreads east and northward. Some Boers leave the Cape Colony and coalesce in two landlocked, white-ruled republics, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State.
The discovery of diamonds and gold starts the “Mineral Revolution” and fuels a new economy. To meet the need for labor, the British subjugate the neighboring areas, and institute discriminatory racial practices. Africans are allowed only the most dangerous jobs, housed in fenced barracks and kept under constant surveillance. The diverging fortunes of the mine-owning British and the Boers, who are mostly farmers or urban workers, also cause competition and conflict.
The South African War, sometimes referred to as the Boer War, 1899–1902, ends with the British victory over the Boers and the annexation by the Empire of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State.
The Union of South Africa, a British dominion, is created in 1910 from the Cape and Natal colonies, the Orange Free State and South African Republic. The constitution reflects a society where wealth and power are controlled by whites. Three of the four states strip Africans of all political rights. The 1913 Native Lands Act gives Africans, who made up 80% of the population, only 7.3% of the country’s land. Africans are allowed on white land only if they are working for whites.
In 1948, the National Party, representing Afrikaner nationalists, is elected to power and institutionalized segregationist policies under the name “apartheid.” Laws include the Population Registration Act, which classified people into three racial groups: white, colored (mixed race or Asian), and native (black African), and outlaws marriages between races. The Group Areas Act creates communities for each race, with the majority of the land, including the best areas, reserved for whites. Non-whites are relocated into “reserves.” The Bantu Homelands Acts designates the lands that reserved for black Africans as independent nations, stripping millions of their South African citizenship. Blacks are required to carry passes to enter white South Africa, and are only allowed to enter to work menial jobs.
The African National Congress (ANC) is founded in 1912 in response to the oppression of blacks, institutionalized in the formation of the Union of South Africa. In the 1950s, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, the ANC begins civil disobedience campaigns. In the 1960s, ANC’s new military wing, headed by Mandela, launches sabotage campaigns. In 1964, Mandela is sentenced to life imprisonment.
A major turning point in the struggle to end apartheid was the 1976 Soweto Uprising, triggered by a regulation that students be taught in Afrikaans. Police respond to the massive student protests with gunfire, and an estimated 600 people were killed in the ensuing riots.
In the 1980s, international boycotts of South African products and governmental pressures to end apartheid, coupled with civil disobedience and escalating violence, undermine the government and damage the economy. In an effort to maintain control, the government repeals some of the laws.
When F.W. de Klerk replaced P.W. Botha as president in 1989, he and Mandela meet and many ANC activists are freed. The following year, the ban against the ANC is lifted and, after twenty-seven years in prison, Mandela is released.
In 1991 de Klerk calls for the repeal of the apartheid laws and the drafting of a new constitution. South Africa holds its first multiracial democratic elections in 1994, bringing the ANC to power. Nelson Mandela is elected president.
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