D’s Abbreviated History of South Africa in a Nutshell for Dummies

At some point in the past several years, I read a book about memory and learning.  I can’t remember which book this was, which is a bit funny I suppose.  Anyway, the portion I am recalling is about the need for something upon which to hang new information.  Without that, the new information will simply disappear.  The example in the book was of two people walking the streets of Tokyo.  One was an expert in Japanese history and culture and the other knew nothing of either.  Neither had ever been there before.  They walked down the same street, observed the same activity.  One learned a great deal more.  This was because much of what was to be learned required some understanding of how it fit into the broader culture – the greeting of shopkeepers was not merely a friendly gesture instituted by a particular shop, but was part of a long history of honor and deference, its manifestation in the shops a continuation of years of culture.  Only the informed observer could place this – the uninformed observer may not have even noticed and would only have remembered it if it was so far out of the ordinary as to become memorable.  I’ll have to find that book again.  In December.

So I have approached this experience with a strong desire to create context to hang new conversations and experiences on.  Part of that effort has been the task of compiling a rudimentary understanding of the stories that brought South Africa to its current place.  If you are not interested in history, skip this post – it has nothing directly to do with our trip (and its rather longer than I anticipated).   Here goes…

From the Beginning of Human Existence to the Beginning of the 20th Century

A long, long, long time ago (2.5 million years), the first humanoids lived in South Africa   Skip ahead.  Over the centuries, a multitude of African tribes settled onto the land (Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Swazi, Sotho, Venda) and set up varying civilizations: agricultural, coastal, etc.  There were many conflicts between these tribes as they fought over land and resources.  Tribal governance and loyalty was the norm.  As trade between Asia and Europe picked up, the cape at the southern tip of Africa was settled by Europeans in the 1600s.  Europeans, primarily Dutch and British, developed the area around Cape Town as a trading port along the route from Asia to Europe, displacing or enslaving native tribes where necessary.  Eventually and as elsewhere in the world, there was conflict between the white colonialists, causing a Dutch-descended group to trek hundreds of miles across the land toward the central regions.  This trek is known as the Voortrek and the primary group involved was the Boers, today’s Afrikaners.  Eventually, gold and later diamonds were discovered in these central regions in the late 19th century.  This discovery brought more colonialists, more displacement of native Africans, use of Africans for cheap or free labor in the mines, and more conflicts among colonialists.  Of note also here is that British colonialists began importing additional cheap labor (indentured servants) from other colonies in the commonwealth, primarily India.  It is this connection that gives South Africa its sizable Indian population.

The Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) to World War II

At the turn into the 20th century, the land was governed primarily by the British and the Boers, each governing 2 provinces.  Native African tribes still control portions of the land and come into conflict with the colonialists, but continue to be displaced.  Eventually, the white colonialists find themselves at war with one another.  By this time, the Boers have more-or-less become a new native population, having lived in their provinces for several generations and having been largely disconnected from any European roots.  They have created their own language (Afrikaans) and culture.  From 1899-1902, the two primary white groups (British and Boers) fight the second of the Anglo-Boer wars, with the British prevailing.  During the war, as the British pushed into the central Boer strongholds, they engaged in a “scorched earth” strategy and displaced tens of thousands of Boers (and the African workers living alongside them) from their land, placing many in concentration camps where nearly 50,000 people died.  This event, along with the original trek to the central provinces, looms large in the Afrikaner consciousness still today.

In the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War, there was a native uprising in the 1900s (the Zulu uprising) that the British-led forces suppressed, and by 1910, the white sides of the war had come to a shared governance agreement and the Union of South Africa was created.  This is essentially the birth of the nation that exists today.  British commissioners and Boer provincial heads shared governance for several decades, imposing racial segregation in living and other aspects of life along the way.  Although Africans and Indians both served (largely on behalf of the British), neither group was given voting or other rights once the Union was created.  British power began to weaken (as elsewhere) during the World Wars and Great Depression, and though there was a cooperation in shared governance among the British and Boers/Afrikaners, there was still great animosity between the groups.

The Apartheid Era

After World War II, an Afrikaner nationalist party was “elected” (only white males voting) on a platform of strict racial separation that would “improve upon” the segregation that had been practiced up to that time.  This was apartheid.  The ruling party, the National Party, capitalized on British weakness, disenfranchisement of non-whites, and a growing sense of Afrikaner supremacy (not so different from Nazi ideology) to take power.  The National Party remained in power until the 1990s.  Anti-racist activism had begun many years before, but took on a new importance in the face of the apartheid state.  The early years of the apartheid regime saw strikes (including by white mineworkers) and a “defiance campaign,” in which Africans defied the increasing restrictions of the regime.  Into the 1960s, the country was urbanizing and many rural Africans were moving into the cities. This led the apartheid regime to tighten its racial codes, particularly those related to where people lived.  Forced relocations and land theft were common as the government attempted to relocate Africans into ghettoes in cities and “homelands” outside of the cities, all the while maintaining access to the cheap labor Africans provided.

Another side effect of the migration of Africans into cities is the subversion of tribal identities to a broader “Africa” identity, a change that allowed greater unity among black anti-apartheid groups.   All this time, the government was also cracking down on political activism and any sort of dissent, including black nationalist groups (like the ANC), communists, and other multi-racial groups pushing for change.  Leaders were “banned” and eventually imprisoned, groups were declared illegal and treasonous, and the regime undertook violent repression and complex surveillance, and opened fire on a protest in Sharpeville, killing dozens.  Military groups affiliated with banned organizations operated from bases in nearby countries, carrying out acts of sabotage.  An intense wave of violence came in the 1970s as the frustration of the oppressed boiled into rage, leading to further violent crackdowns by the government, a tightening of the apartheid grip.  Of particular note for me is a 1976 uprising in Soweto (townships in Johannesburg) started by students protesting the mandatory teaching in Afrikaans (a language few Africans understood) in schools.

Intensifying violence continued through the 1980s as South Africa became a pariah nation for its racist policies and the international anti-apartheid/sanctions/divestment campaign began to put pressure on the regime.  Toward the end of the 1980s, the volatile-bordering-on-civil-war situation, the decreasing threat of communism (fall of Berlin Wall), and the international pressure for reform led the government to begin negotiating with imprisoned leaders of the ANC (Mandela) for a transition.

Movement Toward Non-Racial Democracy

Although Mandela was released in 1990, the years 1990-1994 brought more deaths from political violence than the previous 4 decades as the National Party (Afrikaners), the ANC, and other organizations sought to negotiate the terms of a new, democratic nation.  They eventually agreed on an interim constitution and the first elections were held in 1994 when Mandela was elected president.  The violence subsided, a result some consider a miracle and one of the most hopeful truces of the 20th century.  The two decades since are quite complex as the divides of the past have remained and the government has sought to balance any inclination toward retribution for past crimes with a desire to build a common nation out of the diverse groups, including Afrikaners (there are 11 official languages in South Africa). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission attempted to document the crimes of the past, but with an eye on catharsis more than accountability – there is widespread disagreement as to the efficacy of the commission.  By 2015, Intense poverty and inequality remain alongside substantial economic development.  The legacies of colonialism include both strong infrastructure and institutions of higher education and wildly unequal access to these resources.  Although the ANC remains the dominant party in national politics as the party that delivered freedom, there are signs that its grip is loosening amidst corruption, economic stagnation, and persistent social and health problems (including AIDS).

Sources include Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, Wikipedia, visits to the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloomfontein and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Jonathan Jansen’s Knowledge in the Blood, and various other newspaper and magazine articles.  Many apologies to anyone who actually knows South African history in greater depth – this is an amateur’s quick compilation as I try to grasp the context of the country in which I am living.

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One thought on “D’s Abbreviated History of South Africa in a Nutshell for Dummies

  1. Pingback: Cause and Effect | Kiels Abroad

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