History of South Africa

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DURING FOUR DAYS IN APRIL 1994, more than 19 million South Africans, roughly 91 percent of registered voters, went to the polls, most for the first time, and elected South Africa's first democratic government. The establishment of a government led by the African National Congress (ANC), under the presidency of Nelson Mandela, signaled emphatically the demise of apartheid and the return of South Africa from the pariah status it had occupied for decades to a respected place in the world community. The change was as swift as it was dramatic. Only five years earlier, in 1989, barely one-eighth as many voters (roughly 69 percent of an electorate restricted by law to members of the white, mixed-race "coloured," and Asian communities) had returned to power those who were committed to maintaining apartheid. The African majority was, until then, explicitly denied full citizenship rights on the basis of skin color. The ANC was an illegal organization, as it had been since April 1960. Nelson Mandela in 1989 was spending his twenty-sixth year in prison. The fact that South Africa went on to overturn the apartheid ideology and, in large part, apartheid practices between 1989 and 1994 was a stunning development, unforeseen by political forecasters and paralleling the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe.

Yet the repudiation of apartheid did not mean the end of racial divisions. Although the electors voted in 1994 to end apartheid, they still cast their ballots largely along racial and ethnic lines. Most African voters supported the ANC, except in KwaZulu-Natal where Mangosuthu (Gatsha) Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) secured a majority of Zulu votes and won control of the newly established provincial government. Most whites--Afrikaners and English speakers alike--voted for F. W. de Klerk's newly antiapartheid National Party (NP), avoiding both the ANC and the Democratic Party (which in a previous form, as the Progressive Federal Party, had led the parliamentary fight to end apartheid). Coloured voters, largely concentrated in the Western Cape province, were concerned that their interests might be ignored by an African majority government. Hence, they voted for the NP, thereby ensuring that it won control of the Western Cape provincial government.

Nor did the repudiation of apartheid mean the end of the economic and social problems that have increasingly bedeviled South African society since the 1980s. Racially discriminatory policies enforced by successive governments throughout the twentieth century have left the African majority of the population in possession of only about 13 percent of the nation's land, and most of that of poor quality. Unable to achieve sustainable agricultural development, Africans continue, as they have for decades, to flock to cities. Urban migration, in turn, has created enormous squatter encampments, particularly in and around Gauteng. Most of these squatters, as well as nearly one-half of the adult African population nationwide, cannot find work within the formal sector of the economy. The results are widespread poverty, appalling living conditions, and an increasing incidence of crime. South Africa's per capita crime rate, overall, has exceeded that of almost any other country since 1992. The government has acknowledged the seriousness of the problem but has not been able to end the wave of crimes against persons and property that is fueled by lingering poverty.

Even for many South Africans who have jobs, economic conditions are difficult, as black wages remain low compared to those of white workers. Mandela's government said in 1995 that it could not afford to equalize pay scales across public-sector jobs in order to compensate for past discrimination. Given these circumstances, one of the most difficult tasks facing the new government is to balance the high expectations of its black supporters against economic realities. Initially, after the historic 1994 elections, President Mandela's personal charisma and the great respect in which he is held by most South Africans--both black and white--helped to ensure political stability. But Mandela has said that he would not remain in office after 1999, and the question of succession, therefore, lingers over many 1990s political debates about the future.

South Africa's contemporary problems have deep historical roots. Although human settlement in the subcontinent extends back thousands of years, racial conflict dates from the Dutch arrival at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, when the Dutch East India Company established a resupply station at Cape Town for its fleets traveling between Holland and its empire in South and Southeast Asia. During the first 150 years of European control of the Cape, the company, a commercial operation, established some of the most enduring features of colonial society. The company was not interested in expanding European settlement across Africa, but only in acquiring goods (fresh water, foodstuffs, replacement masts) to resupply its ships. When local Khoisan peoples refused to provide these goods on terms set by the company, the Europeans took up arms and drove most of the local population into the interior. In place of local producers, the company relied on a combination of European farmers (mostly former employees of the company) and imported African slave labor to work the land that had been seized from local residents.

When the European farmers (known as Boers) attempted to escape the monopolistic trading practices and autocratic rule of the company by moving into the interior, the company prohibited further expansion, ended the emigration of Europeans to the Cape, and expanded the use of slave labor. By the end of the eighteenth century, society in the Cape was marked by antagonism between the local white community (mostly descended from the same small group of seventeenth-century Dutch, French, and German settlers) and a largely disinterested and exploitative metropolitan ruler. The racial divide was reflected in the pattern of land ownership and the authoritarian structure of labor relations, based largely on slavery.

British acquisition of the Cape at the beginning of the nineteenth century accentuated divisions between local settlers and metropolitan rulers and widened the racial divide between whites and blacks. The British conquered the Cape largely to prevent it from falling into the hands of Napoleon, and thus to protect their only sea route to their empire in South Asia. Like the Dutch East India Company, the British were not interested in expanding settlement but wanted to keep down the expense of maintaining their strategic resupply station at Cape Town. Initially, they continued to import African slaves to meet the labor needs of white farmers, and they did not interfere with the farmers' harsh treatment of black workers. But the British also tried to prevent further white expansion in South Africa--with its attendant costs of greater levels of colonial government and the risk of wars with Africans--by closing the borders of the Cape and importing British settlers to create a loyal buffer in the east between expansionist Boers and densely settled African communities. Moreover, the British, influenced by strong humanitarian groups at home, took steps to eliminate the racially discriminatory features of colonial society, first by reforming the judicial system and punishing white farmers who assaulted black workers, and later by freeing all slaves throughout the British empire.

Desperate for more land and fearful of losing all of their black labor, many Boer families in the 1830s marched into the interior of South Africa on the Great Trek, skirting the densest African populations. These Voortrekkers, or trekkers, hoped to establish their own communities, free of British rule. Prevented by the British from establishing a republic on the Indian Ocean coast, where the British colony of Natal helped protect the sea route to India, the Boers formed two republics in the interior, the South African Republic (the region known as the Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. Both republics' economies were based on near-subsistence farming and hunting, and both limited political rights to white males. Thus, white settlement expanded across the region, but almost entirely into areas with few local inhabitants. The majority of black Africans still lived in their own autonomous societies.

The discovery of minerals in the late nineteenth century--diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1886--dramatically altered the economic and political structure of southern Africa. The growing mineral industry created ever-greater divisions between British and Boer, white and black, rich and poor. At the turn of the century, for the first time, South Africa had an extremely valuable resource that attracted foreign capital and large-scale immigration. Discoveries of gold and diamonds in South Africa exceeded those in any other part of the world, and more foreign capital had been invested in South Africa than in the rest of Africa combined. In the Transvaal, the site of the gold discoveries, the white population expanded eightfold, while hundreds of thousands of Africans sought work each year in the newly developed mines and cities of industrializing areas. Yet not all shared equally in this newfound wealth. Diamond and, in particular, gold mining industries required vast amounts of inexpensive labor in order to be profitable. To constrain the ability of African workers to bargain up their wages, and to ensure that they put up with onerous employment conditions, the British in the 1870s and 1880s conquered the still-independent African states in southern Africa, confiscated the bulk of the land and imposed cash taxation demands. In this way, they ensured that men who had chosen previously to work in the mines on their own terms were now forced to do so on employers' terms. In the new industrial cities, African workers were subjected to a bewildering array of discriminatory laws and practices, all enforced in order to keep workers cheap and pliable. In the much diminished rural areas, the wives and children of these migrant laborers had to survive in large part on the limited remittances sent back by their absent menfolk. In short, many of the discriminatory features so typical of twentieth-century South Africa--pass laws, urban ghettos, impoverished rural homelands, African migrant labor--were first established in the course of South Africa's industrial revolution.

But the discovery of minerals also exacerbated tensions between the British and the Boers. Gold had been discovered in the Transvaal, and that was beyond the reach of British rule. Yet the capital invested in the mines, and thus the ownership of the gold industry, was primarily British controlled. Lacking investment capital, the Boers found themselves excluded from ownership and thus from the profits generated in their midst. Indeed, most profits from the mines were reinvested in Europe and the Americas and did not contribute to the growth of additional industries in South Africa. The Boers sought to gain access to some of this wealth through taxation policies; these policies, however, incurred the wrath of the mine magnates and their supporters in England. The South African War, fought by the Boers and the British between 1899 and 1902, was primarily a struggle for the control of gold. Although the Boers lost the war, in large part they won the peace. The British realized that in order for the diamond and gold industries to be operated profitably, they had to have a local administration sympathetic to the financial and labor needs of mining. They also realized--given demographic trends at the time--that Boers would always constitute a majority of the white population. With these factors in mind, the British abandoned their wartime anti-Boer and pro-African rhetoric and negotiated a long-term political settlement that put the local white community in charge of a self-governing united South Africa.

The Union of South Africa, established on May 31, 1910, as a self-governing state within the British Empire, legislatively restricted political and property rights to whites at the expense of blacks. With the exception of a very small number of voters in the Cape Province and Natal, Africans were kept off electoral rolls throughout most of the country. By the terms of the Mines and Works Act (1911), only whites were permitted to hold skilled jobs in the mining industry. The Natives Land Act (1913) prohibited Africans from owning land in any part of South Africa outside a small area (7.5 percent, expanded to 13 percent in the 1930s) set aside for their use. These laws ensured that Africans would have to seek jobs from white employers, that their jobs would be the lowest paid available, and that without the right to vote they could do little to change the laws that excluded them from the political process and relegated them to the bottom of the economy.

Two nationalist movements emerged in the aftermath of the formation of the union, one racially and ethnically exclusivist, the other much more disparate in its membership and aims. The Afrikaner nationalist movement, built around the National Party, appealed to Afrikaners (as they increasingly referred to themselves after the South African War), who were still bitter about their suffering in the war and frustrated by the poverty in which most of them lived. The black nationalist movement, led primarily by the African National Congress (formed in 1912), addressed the myriad injustices against black South Africans.

Although Afrikaner generals helped unite South Africa's first government, most Dutch speakers did not share in the fruits of victory. Much of their land had been confiscated by the British during the war and was not returned after it ended. The main source of employment, the mines, was owned by English speakers. Rural Afrikaners moving to the cities had neither capital nor marketable skills, and thus they found themselves competing with Africans for low-paid unskilled work. As a result, they often supported racially discriminatory legislation, such as the Mines and Works Act, that gave them privileged access to jobs solely on the basis of their color. But because Afrikaners wanted a greater share of the economy than they could earn as employees of English speakers, they pooled their funds and resources to establish banks, insurance companies, and other businesses in order to wrest a portion of the economy out of the control of English businessmen. A few Afrikaner leaders then led in the denunciation of the business community in increasingly extreme, anticapitalist, and anti-Semitic terms.

Afrikaner nationalists spoke of themselves as a chosen people, ordained by God to rule South Africa. They established their own cultural organizations and secret societies, and they argued that South Africa should be ruled in the interests of Afrikaners, rather than English businessmen or African workers. Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the Afrikaner nationalist movement grew in popularity, fueled by fears of black competition for jobs, by antipathy toward the English-speaking mine magnates, by the memory of past suffering, and by the impact of World War II (especially massive black urbanization). In 1948, with the support of a majority of Afrikaners (who constituted about 60 percent of the white electorate), the NP won the election on its apartheid platform. Henceforth, South Africa was to be governed by a party that hoped to shape government policies to work in favor of whites, in general, and Afrikaners, in particular. Moreover, the NP denied that Africans, Asians, or coloureds could ever be citizens or full participants in the political process.

The black nationalist movement had no such success. For most blacks, lack of access to the vote meant that they could not organize an effective political party. Instead they had to rely on appeals, deputations, and petitions to the British government asking for equal treatment before the law. The British responded by pointing out that South Africa was now self-governing and that the petitioners had to make their case to the local white rulers. Although Africans, Asians, and coloureds shared common grievances, they were not united in their organizations or their aims. Physically separated and legally differentiated in practically every aspect of their lives, they formed separate organizations to represent their interests. Moreover, their leaders, with few exceptions, adopted accommodationist rather than confrontational tactics in dealing with the state. Failing to gain any real concessions from increasingly hard-line governments, none of the black political movements succeeded in building a solid mass following. Even the ANC had a membership of only a few thousand (out of an African population of about 8 million) in 1948.

With the introduction of apartheid, the NP extended and systematized many of the features of entrenched racial discrimination into a state policy of white supremacy. Every person resident in South Africa was legally assigned, largely on the basis of appearance, to one racial group--white, African, coloured, or Asian. South Africa was proclaimed to be a white man's country in which members of other racial groups would never receive full political rights. Africans were told that eventually they would achieve political independence in perhaps nine or ten homelands, carved out of the minuscule rural areas already allocated to them, areas that even a government commission in the 1950s had deemed totally inadequate to support the black population.

Coloureds and Asians, too, were to be excluded from South African politics. By law, all races were to have separate living areas and separate amenities; there was to be no mixing. Education was to be provided according to the roles that people were expected to play in society. In that regard, Hendrik F. Verwoerd, the leading ideologue of apartheid and prime minister of South Africa from 1958 until his assassination in 1966, stated that Africans would be "making a big mistake" if they thought that they would live "an adult life under a policy of equal rights." According to Verwoerd, there was no place for Africans "in the European community" (by which he meant South Africa) above the level of certain forms of labor.

Expecting considerable opposition to policies that would forever exclude the black majority from any role in national politics and from any job other than that of unskilled--and low-paid--laborer, the NP government greatly enlarged police powers. People campaigning to repeal or to modify any law would be presumed guilty of one of several crimes until they could prove their innocence. The government could "list," or ban, individuals, preventing them from attending public meetings, prohibiting them from belonging to certain organizations, and subjecting them to lengthy periods of house arrest.

The most draconian piece of security legislation, the Suppression of Communism Act (1950), adopted an extraordinarily broad and vague definition of communism--i.e., the aim to "bring about any political, industrial, social, or economic change within the Union by the promotion of disturbance or disorder." Also included under the act was anyone who encouraged "feelings of hostility between the European and the non-European races of the Union." This legislation enabled the police to label almost any opponent of apartheid as a supporter of the outlawed Communist Party of South Africa (reactivated in 1953 as the South African Communist Party--SACP).

Blacks rose up in protest against apartheid in the 1950s. Led by Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, the ANC sought to broaden its base of support and to impede the implementation of apartheid by calling for mass noncompliance with the new laws. Working together with white, coloured, and Indian opponents of apartheid, the ANC encouraged people to burn their passes (identity documents, then required of all African males and soon to be required of all African females in South Africa). The ANC also urged people to refuse to use the separate amenities (such as public toilets, park benches, and entrances to post offices) set aside for them, to use those intended for whites instead, and to boycott discriminatory employers and institutions. Such tactics, all of them purposely nonviolent, although not successful in changing NP policies, did attract large-scale support and won new members for the ANC.

In 1955 representatives of the ANC, as well as white, coloured, and Indian organizations opposed to apartheid, drafted a Freedom Charter as a basic statement of political principles. According to the charter, South Africa belonged to all who lived within its boundaries, regardless of race. The charter stated that no particular group of people should have special privileges, but that all should be treated equally before the law. It also stated that all who lived in South Africa should share in the country's wealth, an ambiguous statement sometimes interpreted by supporters of the ANC, and more frequently by its opponents, to mean a call for nationalization of private-sector enterprises.

The NP government dealt harshly with all those who opposed its policies. Tens of thousands were arrested for participating in public demonstrations and boycotts, hundreds of thousands were arrested each year for pass-law offenses, and many of the delegates who drew up the Freedom Charter were arrested and tried for treason in a trial that lasted nearly five years. Repression became harsher as opposition grew. In 1960 police at Sharpeville, a black township south of Johannesburg , fired into a crowd of Africans peacefully protesting against the pass laws, and killed sixty-seven. In the aftermath of the shooting, which attracted worldwide condemnation, the government banned the ANC, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), and other organizations opposed to apartheid; withdrew from the British Commonwealth of Nations; and, after a referendum among white voters only, declared South Africa a republic.

During the 1960s, the implementation of apartheid and the repression of internal opposition continued despite growing world criticism of South Africa's racially discriminatory policies and police violence. Thousands of Africans, coloureds, and Asians (ultimately numbering about 3.5 million by the 1980s) were removed from white areas into the land set aside for other racial groups. Some of these areas, called black homelands, were readied for independence, even though they lacked the physical cohesiveness--Bophuthatswana, for example, consisted of some nineteen non-contiguous pieces of land--to make political or economic independence a viable or believable concept. None of the four homelands declared independent received any form of world recognition. The ANC and the PAC, banned from operating within South Africa, turned to violence in their struggle against apartheid--the former organization adopting a policy of bombing strategic targets such as police stations and power plants, the latter engaging in a program of terror against African chiefs and headmen, who were seen as collaborators with the government.

Verwoerd's government crushed this internal opposition. Leaders of the ANC and PAC within South Africa were tracked down, arrested, and charged with treason. Nelson Mandela was sentenced in 1964 to imprisonment for life. Oliver Tambo had already fled the country and led the ANC in exile. Despite growing international criticism, the government's success in capturing its enemies fueled an economic boom. Attracted by the apparent political stability of the country, and by rates of return on capital running as high as 15 to 20 percent annually, foreign investment in South Africa more than doubled between 1963 and 1972. Soaring immigration increased the white population by as much as 50 percent during the same period. Apartheid and economic growth seemed to work in tandem.

Yet a number of contradictory developments during the 1970s displayed the shaky foundations of the apartheid edifice. In 1973 wildcat strikes broke out on the Durban waterfront and then spread around the country. Because Africans were prohibited from establishing or belonging to trade unions, they had no organizational leaders to represent their concerns. Fearful of police repression, strikers chose not to identify publicly any of their leaders. Thus employers who considered negotiations had no worker representatives with whom to negotiate and none to hold responsible for upholding labor agreements. Several hundred thousand work hours were lost in labor actions in 1973. That same year, in a sign of growing world opposition to state-enforced racial discrimination, the United Nations (UN) declared apartheid "a crime against humanity," a motion that took on real meaning four years later, in 1977, when the UN adopted a mandatory embargo on arms sales to South Africa. Go to Page 2.

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