In order to understand Apartheid we need to view it in the context of the history of colonialism colonialism One country controlling another country, territory, or people. and land dispossession dispossession To take away. in South Africa. It was these processes which set up the structures of oppression on which Apartheid would later be based. However, before we can do this, we need to establish some ideas around how to think about colonialism, and South Africa’s longer history. South Africa’s history did not begin in 1652 when Jan Van Riebeeck stepped off his ship. Indigenous African societies have rich histories which stretch back long before any Europeans arrived in Africa. In fact, even after the Dutch settled at the Cape, the colony there was only one of many societies in Southern Africa. For a long time it was smaller and weaker than some of these other societies too. This was also true of the Boer Republics, which came later.
Colonists were not all powerful, and their power was unevenly spread across the land. This led to many more kinds of interactions than simply white settlers as the oppressors and Africans as the oppressed. People traded, intermarried and depended on each other in ways that go against ideas of white supremacy. It is also true that people fought. Colonists did eventually defeat Africans and strip them of their land and their independence. But the last strong, independent African societies were only conquered in the 1870s and 1880s, more than 200 years after Europeans first started to live in Southern Africa. In view of this, it is not correct to look at colonisation as one inevitable step after another. Rather, it was resisted strongly, and experienced setbacks.
When the Dutch arrived at the Cape, they did not plan to have a large colony. The settlement was intended as a small trading and refreshment station for passing ships. But as more settlers arrived from Europe, and farming proved to be successful, the colony spread. The settlers fought wars against the Khoi, and later the San – in some cases even hunting them – to get animals, as well as land to farm and build settlements on. With the land went their livelihoods – farming for the Khoi, and hunting and gathering for the San – and both Khoi and San were forced either to retreat inland, or to look for employment on the farmlands of white colonial settlers. They also resisted, raiding settlers for cattle and attacking farmlands. This resistance was only broken by settlers raiding for cattle themselves, and forming armed ‘commandos’. The majority of Khoi and San populations were wiped out, killed by new diseases and settlers.
After the British took the Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1806, land dispossession increased as European settlers moved even further into the interior of the country. The Dutch had been too weak to challenge the Xhosa in the East, but over the course of the next 50 years the British fought a number of brutal wars against them, involving tactics like burning farmland and slaughtering livestock to starve out resistance. New British immigrants settled on the land taken in this process. By the late 1850s Xhosa independence had been crushed, and many Xhosas were forced to look for work as labourers in the Cape Colony.
Political tensions between Dutch settlers and British rulers, and the ending of slavery in the Cape (which many Dutch opposed) led to groups of relatively poor Dutch farmers, later called Voortrekkers, leaving the Cape Colony in the 1830s and moving into other parts of the country. Along the way they fought against African communities and took some of their land, often through allying themselves with rival local groups. In some regions, though, they struggled to get land from African farmers, and were forced to survive by hunting ivory to trade. By the 1850s the Boers had formed governments in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. These were still very weak: they had not managed to completely defeat the African kingdoms around them and in fact also depended on them for trade and labour. The Boers were not powerful enough to control all of the territory they claimed, and some of it was under the control of Pedi and Sotho farmers. However, colonists and settlers slowly extended their control over the land. In addition to the two Boer Republics, the British now ruled the Cape Colony and Natal.
The discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa in the late 1800s (known as the Mineral Revolution) gave the white governments further reason to force black farmers into low-wage jobs, this time on the mines. Colonial expansion increased too. Britain moved to take over control of the mines, and conquered other areas of Southern Africa to ensure a steady supply of labour to them. This began when diamonds were discovered, at what became the town of Kimberley, in 1867. Soon afterwards, Britain conquered this area. In 1879 the Zulu and Pedi armies were finally defeated by the British, and the last remaining independent African societies fell under direct colonial control by the 1890s.
Gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand, in the Transvaal, in 1886. At first, the gold strengthened the Boer Governments. They managed to push back neighbouring African societies, such as the Ndebele, Tswana and Venda, and extended their control over the Transvaal. But the British wanted to control the gold mines, and waged war on the Boers. This began in 1899. By 1902, despite a long guerilla resistance, the British triumphed. In 1910 the conquered British territories were united into South Africa as we know it today. This moment was a huge disappointment for black people, thousands of whom had participated in the South African War (on both sides) in the hope of winning greater freedom. Instead, the British gave white South Africans (including Afrikaans and English speakers) self-government and freedom to decide their own affairs, while black South Africans were denied political and land rights.
capital Money or goods which are invested into a business to make a profit.
As well as providing a reason for colonial expansion, the labour needs and costs of the mines themselves also shaped South Africa. To get to the diamonds deep in the ground under Kimberley, diggers needed machinery, a lot of money, and many, many labourers. This capital was unavailable to ordinary diggers, and the diamond mines were quickly taken over by the “mining capitalists” – big businesses who could afford these big costs.
The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand triggered a gold rush. People from all over the world flocked there in search of wealth, and a new town – Johannesburg – sprung up almost overnight. The gold on the surface of the land was quickly extracted extracted Taken out. and the mines went deeper. As mining became more difficult and more costly, a similar pattern to Kimberley arose – small diggers were bought out by large corporations who could afford the costs of machinery and the many labourers needed to process the Rand’s low-quality ore ore The rocks in which gold is found. into gold. Creating a cheap, reliable supply of labour at Kimberley and on the Rand became one of the main goals of the big mining businesses and the white governments. The mine owners had to think very carefully about where they would get labour from and how they would keep it cheap.
One part of this issue was labour supply – who would do such hard work for low wages? There was no ready-made supply of workers who they could recruit to work on the mines. While Africans did come to Kimberley and Johannesburg, many miners only worked for a season or two, until they had enough money for a specific thing – enough for a gun, or for lobola – and then went back to the rural areas. Most African farmers were not interested in working in the mines permanently while they could still make a living working the land. Because supply was less than demand, wages were relatively good at first.
Early migrant labour suited rural African societies (because migrants would return and settle in the rural areas), but after the British extended their control they pushed many more people into the migrant labour system, and for much longer than a year or two. This was achieved by imposing taxes on their African ‘subjects’. subjects People who are ruled, or placed under the control of someone or something else. They made new laws that demanded taxes be paid in cash and not in cattle. Unless you were very wealthy, this meant you would have to find work so you could pay the taxes. Every year, African men had to pay a hut tax for every hut they had (which was often linked to how many wives they had). It took a man about three months to earn enough on the mines to pay the hut tax and many men followed this route. There was also a poll tax, imposed on all adult men no matter how rich they were or how much they earned, and labour tax, which they only had to pay if they didn’t work. In some parts of the country there was even a dog tax. Black unskilled workers had to use most of the money they made on the mines to buy food and clothes for themselves. It took months of extra work on the mines to pay all the taxes. In these ways thousands of people were pushed into the capitalist economy. Those who could not pay the taxes were forced into labour on farms. Most men chose to go to the mines rather than to do farm labour because they could earn higher wages on the mines. Once there were more Africans arriving on the mines and farms, wages dropped.
To blunt the cost of employing so many workers, and to make up for the high salaries offered to machine supervisors and administrators, the companies offered very low wages to ordinary labourers. In fact, laws were passed to make sure that the wages of black labourers remained low and to make sure that these labourers couldn’t get higher paying jobs. For example, the Mines and Works Act (1911) imposed the colour bar. This meant that only white people could get work as skilled labour, and earn high wages, while black people could only be employed as unskilled labour, and earn low wages.
migrant labourers Labourers who travel to their place of work and live there while they work, but remain (with their families) based somewhere else. subsistence farming Farming enough food to meet your own needs, but not farming to sell for profit. While some Africans did move to the new cities, it benefited the mine owners to keep miners as migrant labourers. If they and their families had become permanent residents of the cities, the mines would have been put under pressure to pay them a higher wage to support their families’ costs of living. But by employing them as migrant labour they could ignore the miners’ costs of supporting their families, because in theory these would be met by subsistence farming in rural areas. One of the purposes of the Land Act was to force small, independent black African farmers off their land and onto big commercial farms or the mines as cheap, migrant labourers. By the time it became law South Africa was already moving in the direction of forcing races to live apart from one another on a permanent basis and on land specifically marked for them. The white minority government passed the Native’s Land Act on 19 June, 1913. It had a serious effect on the African population across the country. It also laid the foundation for other laws which increased dispossession, segregation and oppression of African, Coloured and Indian people.
The Land Act made it illegal for Africans to buy or rent land in 93% of South Africa. In essence, Africans, despite being many more in number than whites, and having lived on the land for far longer, could only own 7% of South Africa’s land. This was increased to 13.5% by the Native and Land Trust Act which was passed in 1936. Africans were allowed to buy and sell land in reserves (small areas of the country under the control of the government but run by traditional chiefs) while whites could not own land in these places. These reserves were not areas with fertile land good for farming. As time went by they became more and more overcrowded and over-farmed, which caused soil erosion. Since many farmers in this area could not grow enough crops these areas were poor.
The Act prevented what it called ‘squatting’, or labour tenancy and share cropping (this was when a black family farmed on a white farmer’s land in return for working for him for a few days a week, or giving him a share of their crop) and also defined the boundaries of reserves. As explained above, the effect of the Land Act was to force black people into low wage jobs by shrinking the possibility of them owning or hiring land for farming. The Act forced them to become farm labourers employed by white farmers or to search for work elsewhere, very often on the mines as migrant labourers. For this reason, it has been described as an ‘alliance of gold and maize’.
While the Land Act was very important in the making of a racially and spatially divided South Africa, it built on the land dispossession which was already present, and did not always have an immediate effect. Its effects were also different in different parts of the country – they were toughest in the Free State, for example. Also, despite many white farmers supporting the Act, poorer white farmers often struggled to pay wages to labourers. Renting out part of their land to black farmers was a solution to this problem. This meant that some black tenant farming on white-owned land continued until at least the 1940s.
After the independent African societies were conquered and integrated into the migrant labour system, new forms of resistance started to develop which sought greater rights within the new country – South Africa – rather than a return to the precolonial situation. In 1912 the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), a forerunner of the African National Congress (ANC), was formed to protest racial exclusion, and opposed the Land Act of the following year through petitions and delegations to officials. But the SANNC was largely led by members of the small black middle class, and in its early years it often failed to identify with the struggles of the majority of black South Africans. Black workers also began to organise, and there were a number of strikes, including amongst sanitation workers and miners. During the 1920s the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) spread across the country, uniting skilled and unskilled workers. At its height it claimed over 100 000 members, many of whom were based in rural areas. Here, the organisation campaigned against land dispossession, rent increases and low wages. But it struggled to have much of an effect, and by the end of the 1920s internal divisions and government opposition had torn it apart. These organisations, however, were signs of things to come: in later years both the ANC and Trade Unions would have leading roles to play in opposing racial oppression and Apartheid.