Friday, June 24, 2011

A Brief South African History Lesson

“In confidence we lay our cause before the whole world. Whether we win or whether we die, freedom will rise in Africa like the sun from the morning clouds.” *

San rock painting
The earliest signs of human habitation in South Africa were found in the Sterkfontein caves about 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg. When Darwin wrote in On the Origin of the Species, “It is ….probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent”, the Victorian world was horrified as man was considered too grand to have his cradle in Africa.

The first known people group in South Africa were the San, who were hunter-gatherers. Gradually, some of the San began to acquire livestock from the Bantu speaking people of the north. These pastoralists started to call themselves “Khoikhoi”, which is thought to mean ‘men of men’ or ‘real people.’ Most of the San were eventually assimilated into the Khoikhoi, although some of them retreated to the mountain and desert regions. As a result, the Khoikhoi became the dominant people in South Africa until the Europeans arrived.

Bartolomeu Dias
Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias is considered to be the first European to reach South Africa in 1487. Only five years later would another European, Christopher Columbus ‘discover’ North America. Legend has it that in February 1488, when Dias’ crew came ashore to fill their casks, one of the Khoikhoi threw a stone. Other Khoikhoi joined in as the strangers shouted back. Suddenly there was a hiss and one of the Khoikhoi fell dead from a crossbow shot. The Khoikhoi fled and thus began decades of turbulent relations between native Africans and European settlers.

Landing of van Riebeeck by Charles Bell
By 1600’s Portuguese dominance of the seas gave way to Dutch and English dominance. The Dutch East India Company (or VOC for the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) was a major European trading house sending ships around southern Africa en route to the East Indies. Looking for a way-station where their ships could restock, the VOC sent Jan van Riebeeck to look for a suitable site on the southern tip of Africa. He reached Table Bay on April 6, 1652.

Out of necessity, the VOC traded with the Khoikhoi but the relationship was not an easy one. The VOC deliberately attempted to limit contact between the Europeans and the indigenous peoples. For labor, the VOC brought slaves from Indonesia, Madagascar, and India. Needing to stock the Cape Town base camp with food stuffs, some VOC employees were given an early release from their contracts in order to establish farms that could supply Cape Town. These early Dutch farmers were quite successful and started to move inland from coast. They were joined by Germans, a smattering of Scandinavians and French Huguenots. As these European farmers intermarried they became known as ‘Afrikaners’. Those who pushed further inland to escape the autocratic VOC, became known as the Trekboers (“wandering farmers”), and eventually as just Boers.

Karoo Trekboer by Charles Bell
Like the American frontier settlers who experienced harsh lives in the American West, the Boers were staunch individualists; hardy, self-reliant people who knew the land. As the Boers continued eastward, their need for livestock and land led to a series of wars with the Khoikhoi. With land and livestock lost to the Boers, Khoikhoi tribes fought each other for what was left.

Their traditional life fading away, many Khoikhoi had little choice but to work for the Boers. As a subjugated people, the Khoikhoi could only find positions of “dreadful servitude” on Boer farms. Those Khoikhoi still trying to maintain their pastoral life and not work for a white master, ran the risk of being shot on sight. The first attempt to overcome this oppression was in 1659, when a Khoikhoi named Doman led a revolt against the Dutch. It was unsuccessful and, by the turn of the century, the Khoikhoi were decimated. However, the ever expanding Boer migration was to face a new challenge in the Bantu-speaking peoples further north known as the Xhosa and the Zulu.

the Wedderburns who were part of the 1820 Settlers
By the time of the French Revolution, VOC power waned and the British, wanting to keep South Africa out of French hands, seized the Cape in 1795. The British initially had little interest in the Cape Colony other than as a strategically located port. This attitude gradually changed and in 1820, about 5,000 middle-class British were persuaded to immigrate and cultivate the land in the Eastern Cape region. In Part 2 of her story, “Childhood”, Arlene mentioned that her father could trace his ancestors back to ‘the 1820 settlers.’ The British authorities hoped that the settlers would not only increase the British hold on South Africa but also provide a buffer zone between the feuding Boer and Xhosa/Zulu groups. Seeing the British encroaching on their land created tension between the British and the Xhosa/Zulus as well, which, in 1879, erupted into full out war. Eventually, almost half of the ‘1820 Settlers’ moved to towns, notably Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth, giving up farming to pursue jobs like they had in Britain.

The arrival of the ‘1820 Settlers’ solidified the British presence in South Africa, much to the angst of the Afrikaners. During the height of VOC dominance, the Afrikaners and their ideas had largely gone unchallenged. Now white South Africa had two different languages and cultures. A pattern soon emerged of the English-speakers being considered urbanized and educated, dominating politics, trade, finance, and manufacturing, while the Afrikaners, and specifically the Boers, were considered uneducated, simple farmers. Further aggravating the Afrikaners was the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 (thirty years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation). The Afrikaners generally regarded their dominance of the native Africans as the God-given ordering of the races. It was what was preached from their church pulpits and so they took offense to the Act. Tension between the two white groups over the treatment of a third group seems somewhat reminiscent of the tensions between the American North and South over the issue of slavery. Neither group treated the third group well. It was just a question of who was more obvious about their prejudice.

the two Afrikaner states (in orange)
In 1836, frustrated at what they felt was a forced acceptance of English language and culture and a lack of representation in governance, approximately 12,000 Afrikaners left the British controlled Cape Town for lands to the northeast. Past the Orange River in the north, they founded two republics: the South African Republic (sometimes called the Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State. This migration, later known as The Great Trek, is looked upon today by Afrikaners as a defining moment in their history, a symbol of their self determination.

However, Boer attempts to evade the British rule were all but lost with the discovery of diamonds and gold in the Boer controlled areas in the late 1800’s. The British desire to control this mineral rich area not only further angered the Boers, but also intensified the subjugation of the native Africans as the need to acquire cheap labor increased. The Boer republics successfully resisted British encroachments during the First Boer War (1880–1881) using guerrilla warfare tactics, but the British returned with greater numbers, more experience, and new strategy in the Second Boer War (1899–1902), which they won. This was a bitter defeat for the Boers, and like the American Civil War, the mere mention this defeat will conjure a bitterness in some that would make one think the war was lost yesterday.

Combined with the British territorial acquisition after the Anglo-Zulu War, the former Boer republics, the British states and Zulu lands became known as the Union of South Africa. After German defeat in World War I, South West Africa (now Namibia) was added to this as well. These territories were considered British dominions with the Afrikaners being granted home rule within British oversight. Blacks could only become representatives in the South African government if nominated by whites.

During World War I, South Africa joined with the United Kingdom against the Germans. Whether due to their partial German heritage or the thought that any enemy of the British was a friend of theirs, a lot of Boers refused to fight and at one point rose up in open revolt. In general, there was a delicate unity among white South Africans that lasted through World War II. However, given their history together, this unity was short lived.

Daniel Malan
In 1948, riding on a wave of economic discontent, the Afrikaner dominated National Party won a majority of seats in the national election leading party leader, Daniel Malan, to announce, “Today South Africa belongs to us once more.” And by “us” he meant the Afrikaner. No one was surprised at the outcome of the ‘48 election. The British dominated United Party thought they’d have the power back in four years and the black Africans thought it was the same evil but with a different face.

However, within three years, the most restrictive set of laws against not only Blacks, but any non-white South African were in place. As Nelson Mandela said in his book, Long Walk to Freedom, “What had been more or less de facto was to become relentlessly de jure. The often haphazard segregation of the past three hundred years was to be consolidated into a monolithic system that was diabolical in its detail, inescapable in its reach, and overwhelming in its power.” This was the birth of Apartheid.

As Mandela mentioned, from the beginning of South African history, the black South Africans were discriminated against. The Boers, through their Dutch Reformed Church, were taught that the white man was meant to dominate the black man, who was not capable of self determination. The British, while holding out promises of reform prior to the Boer Wars, afterward showed no intention of holding to them. Indeed in 1905, the British formed South African Native Affairs commission rejected political equality between the races and advocated for territorial separation of the races as well. There was a pecking order of value: whites meaning those of European extractions, Colored, meaning those who intermarried at the very beginning of the colony, Asian, meaning Indian, Malaysian, Chinese and then Black, the indigenous peoples.

To address such discrimination, in 1898, the South African Native Congress was formed. It’s weapons were pressure groups, petitions and newspaper editorials mainly aimed at the British. In 1912, the South African Native National Congress (‘SANNC’) was formed to advocate for reform. It was hoped that the SANNC could peacefully articulate their political aspirations and thus affect change. In 1923, the group was renamed the African National Congress (‘ANC’). The ANC initially opposed the use of violence. However, by 1951, it was obvious that the moderate stance of the ANC was not accomplishing the desired goal of racial equality. In June of 1955, the ANC drafted the ‘Freedom Charter’, “a blue print for a new, non-racial South Africa”. With the charter came a new game plan of strikes, work stoppages and mass protest. The Nationalist government responded with further restrictions and laws. By 1960, many African activists felt the only avenue left was violence and the Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’) was formed to initiate armed struggle. Their expressed hope was that the dramatic actions would “bring the government and its supporters to their senses before it is too late, so that the government and its policies can be changed before matters reach the desperate stage of civil war.” During the next 18 months, 2,000 bombings were carried out.

Again the government responded with an even heavier hand, using what ever judicial and physical means at hand to crush the opposition. Some of the weapons used were the 'banning' laws created under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. To be banned was to be under house arrest with limits on movement and speech without the recourse of a trial. A banned person was, among other restrictions, prohibited from meeting with more than one person at a time and from writing anything for publication. Another government weapon was the General Law Amendment Act No. 37 of 1963 which came to be know as the 90 Day Law. Under this law, the police could hold a suspect for 90 days without charge. In her book Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country, Gillian Slovo wrote that the 90 day detainment "...was an arbitrary sentence that could be endlessly prolonged. Anybody could be picked up and held in solitary, without charge or recourse to legal advise. The period of ninety days itself was a euphemism. At the end of it, the prisoner could be summarily rearrested and held for another ninety days - on and on and on, as the then justice minister Vorster put it, '...until eternity'."

Finally, in 1963, the South African Police Force arrested Nelson Mandela along with 19 other ANC leaders on charges of sabotage. Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. Those who were not imprisoned fled South Africa and lived in exile. So complete was this crack down that the opposition which would stay quiet until the mid 70’s.

In 1975, eager to rid itself of its unwinnable war, the new Portuguese government vacated Mozambique and Angola. As Gillian Slovo wrote, “...driven by the example of these recently independent black states, tens of thousands of young South Africans rediscovered the power of anger.” In 1976, thousands of African school children took to the streets in Soweto to protest the use of Afrikaans in their school. When the police responded with the usual force, the protest march boiled over into a full on riot throughout the area, and caused violence in other parts of the country.

Realizing that the apartheid as they knew it was falling the pieces, and with the surrounding countries throwing off the shackles of whites-only rule, the South African government, under John Voster tried to implement reforms.

map of "Homeland" areas
Hoping to revitalize the economy and quell the rebellion, the government tried to create a black South African middle class through the revocation of the Pass Act. This would allow blacks Africans to travel freely and not have to vacate “white areas” by certain times of the day. The government also started to pursue the ‘homeland’ political structure. The homeland idea was to set up areas where the various tribes of native Africans could have a homeland for their particular tribe. The ‘homelands’ had no basis in historic tribal locations or current population distribution. The government merely thought that if the black Africans could “exercise their political rights in their respective ‘homelands’ ”, they would cease protesting against the white South African government. Another reform was the tricameral parliament created in 1984 with one house for whites (with 178 seats), one for coloreds (85 seats) and one for Asians (45 seats). As one can see from the seat distribution, this new parliament did little to appease government critics as the power still remained in the hand of the whites and black South Africans were still excluded.

While the race struggles in South Africa could be seen as similar to struggles in American, Mandela pointed out to a US journalist in 1985, “the conditions in which Martin Luther King struggled were totally different conditions from my own: The United States was a democracy with constitutional guarantees of equal rights that protected nonviolent protest (though there was still prejudice against blacks); South Africa was a police state with a constitution that enshrined inequality and an army that responded to nonviolence with force.” The ANC knew they could never physically overpower the government forces, so they did the next best thing: make South Africa exceedingly difficult to govern.

The ANC succeeded at their task. By the mid 80’s, international sanctions, internal violence and the economic difficulties made the government realized that the above reforms were not working. Having previously referred to the ANC as a communist terrorist organization, the government refused to negotiate with them. Both sides saw initiating talks with the other as a sign of weakness or betrayal of their followers. Yet both realized, as Mandela said, “If we do not start a dialogue soon, both sides would be plunged into a dark night of oppression, violence and war....It simply did not make sense for both sides to lose thousands if not millions of lives in a conflict that was unnecessary.”

This is not to say the violence was nation wide. Outside of the townships and large cities, one might be hard pressed to see the violence. In 1987, on a rare drive through Cape Town with a prison guard, Mandela noticed that despite a country that was in upheaval and black townships on the brink of open warfare, white life went on placidly and undisturbed. Their lives seemed unaffected.

None the less, the Nationalist Party government was coming to the end of itself. In 1988, talks started between the South African government and ANC through Nelson Mandela. In 1989 the government repealed the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act which prohibited black Africans from using facilities that whites used. In 1990, the government lifted its ban on the ANC and other black organizations. And on February 11, 1990, after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was released.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela on his release from Verster Prison
While the release of Mandela and the other ANC political prisoners was a huge step by the government in recognizing the futility of Apartheid, Mandela knew beforehand that his release would not end the violence in South Africa. Before there was to be a new democratic government, there would be power struggles among the groups long denied a voice in their future. “What should have been an era of peace turned instead into what Reuter journalist Rich Mkhondo described as ‘a time of weeping’.” Like Mkhondo, many South Africans, jubilant at Mandela’s release, greatly feared what lay ahead for their country.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela

* the quote at the beginning of this post is the inscription from the base of a statue of Paul Kruger in Church Square, Pretoria. Kruger was the president of the Afrikaner Republic of the Transvaal and fought against the British in the nineteenth century.

Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom. Little, Brown & Co., 1994.
Slovo, Gillian. Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country. Little, Brown & Co., New York, 1997.
Woods, Donald, Asking for Trouble. Beacon Press, 1980.
Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story, Dougie Oakes, ed. The Reader’s Digest Association South Africa, Ltd. Cape Town, SA, 3rd ed. 1994.

No comments: