South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Unit 2. Colonialism and Segregation: The Origins of Apartheid

We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labor that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.
Cecil John Rhodes

The rise of apartheid in 1948 was a complex phenomenon. Some historians view it as a 20th-century development, closely linked to the peculiar evolution of South African capitalism, with its strong reliance on cheap black labor as advocated by Cecil Rhodes in the quote above. Other scholars believe apartheid was a product of earlier racial prejudices and policies imposed by Dutch and British settlers. Recent explanations point to a combination of several factors ─ colonial conquest, land dispossession, economic impoverishment, and exclusion from citizenship of Africans ─ that paved the way to apartheid. This unit explores the historical roots of apartheid, from the colonial occupation of the Cape in 1652 through the creation of the Union of South Africa and the segregation period (1910-1948). The emphasis is on patterns of economic and political transformation and how racism and segregation increasingly restricted the lives of black South Africans.

Three main, interrelated forces influenced the nature of South African society and economy: colonial conquest, the expansion of mining, and the actions ─ also known as “agency” ─ of individuals. Colonial conquest by the Netherlands and, after 1795, by Britain, stimulated limited if uneven capitalist growth. The Dutch East India Company established a settlement at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, which gradually expanded along a frontier at the expense of the Khoikhoi, Xhosa, and other indigenous peoples, a process similar to the one that unfolded in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. In South Africa, destruction of Khoi societies produced an underclass of domestic and farm workers, but their ability to earn a decent wage was severely curtailed by the Dutch East India Company's use of slaves imported from Angola, Mozambique, Madagascar, and South East Asia.

We know little about the lives of ordinary people of these times, but archival evidence reveals glimpses of slaves’ struggles against harsh conditions imposed by their white oppressors. Krotoa (known to the Dutch settlers as “Eva”) was a Khoi woman caught in the identity crisis of colonization: used by Dutch leader Jan van Riebeeck as an interpreter against her own people in the mid-1600s, she married a European but was rejected by white society. Sarah Baartman was taken in 1810 from Cape Town to Europe and displayed in exhibitions like an animal. Katie Jacobs, interviewed in 1910 as one of the last surviving ex-slaves, told of her harsh life, of a master who even refused to baptize her. Inhuman treatment sometimes led to resistance. For example, the slave woman Dina escaped during the Boers’ (or Afrikaners') Great Trek of the 1830s. In another instance in 1825, after suffering repeated floggings, Galant van der Caab, a slave on a farm northeast of Cape Town, led a small-scale revolt of slaves. Eventually, Great Britain pronounced the emancipation of slaves in the Cape Colony in 1833, but slavery was replaced by draconian Master and Servant laws that preserved a social hierarchy in which race closely corresponded to class.
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH