South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Unit 2. Colonialism and Segregation: The Origins of Apartheid

The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 and of gold on the Witwatersrand (centered on the city of Johannesburg) in 1886 transformed South African from an agrarian society at the edge of world trade into a globally integrated industrial economy. The mineral revolution led to the quick spread of European colonization into the interior. By the end of the 19th century, all the indigenous peoples of South Africa had lost their political and economic independence.

Racist laws enabled the white-owned mining companies to control workers, keep wages very low, and gain immense profits from the diamonds and gold that black miners extracted from the earth. Many African men worked on the mines and farms under dangerous conditions for wages that could not sufficiently feed and clothe their families. The diamond and gold mines also imposed pass laws, a humiliating means of control (that was to continue under apartheid), which required black men to carry documents that identified where they could and could not work and live.
Most African miners became migrant laborers, spending nine to eleven months of the year in the mines while their wives and children remained in the countryside. Racial discrimination in the pre-apartheid era also kept the few Africans who received training as apprentices from finding suitable employment. Furthermore, enterprising kholwa (Christian) Africans often were forced out of their jobs, even though they were qualified. By 1920, Silas Modiri Molema of the Barolong people wrote that the African “is tabooed all round to force him to unskilled work.” Such informal “job color bars” ─ limitations on what jobs one could work based on one’s race or ethnicity ─ were a blueprint for later apartheid laws like the Job Reservation Act.

Industrialization and British imperialism in South Africa, driven by economic and political ambitions, and the individual actions of mining magnates like Cecil John Rhodes, resulted in a slow but steady expansion of manufacturing and transport infrastructure. The British government fashioned a more uniform policy after the South African War of 1899-1902 (also known as the Anglo-Boer War, or Boer War), when the Act of Union of 1910 brought together the previously separate colonies of the Orange Free State, Transvaal, Natal, and the Cape to form the Union of South Africa—which later became a white dominion of the British Empire. In response, a group of black South Africans traveled to London to petition Parliament to reject the denial of the vote to Africans in the 1910 Act of Union, but their voices went unheard. In the end, the British and the Boers (Afrikaners) put aside the bitterness of war in order to entrench white power and privilege at the expense of the black South Africans’ civil and human rights.
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