History of South Africa

Historical Setting

HISTORY HAS A COMPELLING IMPORTANCE in South Africa. Political protagonists often refer to historical events and individuals in expounding their different points of view. The African National Congress (ANC), for example, has as one of its symbols the shield of Bambatha, a Zulu chief who died leading the last armed uprising of Africans against the British in 1906. Mangosuthu (Gatsha) Buthelezi, leader of the former KwaZulu homeland and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), often refers to Shaka Zulu, the first great monarch to arise in South Africa, who created a vast military state in the 1820s. Afrikaners have frequently called themselves a "chosen people," ordained by God to rule in South Africa. They have argued that their ancestors settled the subcontinent before any African, but that for the past 200 years they have had to fight against the treachery of Africans and the oppression of British imperialists. The study of the history of South Africa, therefore, is a highly contentious arena marked by wide variations of interpretation and infused with politics.

South Africa did not exist as a unified self-governing state until 1910. Indeed, before the discovery of minerals--diamonds and gold--in the late nineteenth century, the emergence of such a country appeared unlikely because the early history of the subcontinent was marked by economic and political fragmentation. Black African settlement of southern Africa, which archaeologists have dated back to thousands of years before the arrival of whites, produced a great number of African societies that ruled much of what we now know as South Africa until the latter half of the nineteenth century. White settlement, beginning in the seventeenth century, was confined primarily to a small area of the southwestern coast throughout the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Slaves imported from outside southern Africa were the colonists' laborers. White settlers expanded into the interior and along the southeastern coast in the middle of the nineteenth century, but they usually skirted areas heavily populated by Africans. Moreover, the white settlers in the interior--Afrikaners, as they became known at the end of the nineteenth century--engaged in the same cattle-farming and hunting activities as their African neighbors. Although African and Afrikaner often competed--for pastureland and game--a balance of power prevented one from conquering the other.

Mineral discoveries in the 1860s and 1880s revolutionized the economic and political settings. Diamonds and gold fueled economic growth in southern Africa, creating both new market opportunities and a great demand for labor. To meet these labor needs, the British conquered most of the African peoples of the region in a rapid series of campaigns in the 1870s and 1880s and subjected the defeated people to controls that persisted practically to the present day: pass laws regulating the movement of people within urban areas and between urban and rural areas; discriminatory legal treatment of blacks compared with whites; and the establishment of "locations," for rural Africans, that were much smaller than the original landholdings of autonomous African societies in the nineteenth century. When the Union of South Africa was instituted in 1910, its constitutional provisions reflected a society in which whites had achieved a monopoly on wealth and power.

The rise of an industrial economy also brought about conflict between English-speaking whites--primarily mine owners and industrialists, and Dutch-speaking whites--mostly farmers and impoverished urban workers, who competed for control over African land and labor and for access to the great mineral wealth of the country. Between 1910 and 1948, Afrikaner politicians organized and developed a powerful ethnic identity, portraying Africans as savage and threatening and building especially upon white fears of economic competition from cheaper black workers manipulated by unscrupulous English-speaking businessmen. In 1948 the Afrikaner nationalists won control of the government and implemented apartheid, a policy that reinforced existing segregationist practices securing white supremacy but that also aimed at ensuring Afrikaner domination of political power.

After 1948, black Africans, "coloureds", and Asians fought against Afrikaner domination and white supremacy, denying the apartheid dictum that South Africa is a white man's country in which other races should find economic and political autonomy within their own geographically separated communities. Peaceful and violent protests alternated with periods of official repression, but during forty-five years of apartheid, the boundaries the Afrikaners had constructed to ensure their own survival proved intolerable for them as well as for other racial groups. Apartheid bred a climate of intolerance that was repugnant to many people of all races and a social system that turned out to be an economic disaster. The deliberately inferior living conditions and opportunities for a majority of citizens fueled frustration with government, deprived South Africa of a significant domestic market, and made it a pariah among civilized states. By the fourth decade of apartheid, the pressures for reform both from within South Africa and elsewhere, the growing realization that the system was intolerable, and the crumbling economy emboldened political leaders on all sides to take steps to dismantle apartheid.

Nelson (Rolihlahla) Mandela, South Africa's most popular anti-apartheid leader, had witnessed the rise and decline of apartheid firsthand. In the mid-1980s, after more than twenty years in prison for opposing apartheid, he assumed a central role in helping to end it. Government and opposition leaders met for talks--tentative ones at first, and then with greater confidence and amid more publicity--and they agreed on a general approach to political reform. Four years of difficult and uneven progress, amid escalating violence and competing political pressures, finally paid off in 1994, when South Africa held its first multiracial democratic elections. And while both sides could claim some of the success in achieving this historic goal, both sides also faced even greater challenges in trying to establish a stable multiracial society in the decades ahead.

South Africa History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress