South Africa: a case Study in European Colonialism

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South Africa:

A Case Study in European Colonialism

The period of European colonialism in Africa took place between 1870 and 1960. However, there are examples of European colonialism that occurred outside of that time frame. The first Europeans to arrive in southern Africa were the Portuguese. The Portuguese did not really change the physical or cultural landscape of southern Africa. They had little interaction with the native Africans living in the region. Peace reigned in southern Africa until 1651 when Dutch sent Jan van Riebeeck to establish a permanent settlement there. The Dutch brought with them a large number of slaves that they had captured in East Africa. They used slave labor to build forts, hospitals and farms. Within 150 years, the Dutch colony had grown to 15,000 members. These white Dutch settlers became known as Afrikaners. The Afrikaners moved inland and conquered/enslaved members of the Bantu and Zulu tribes living in southern Africa.

In 1795, the British attacked and took possession of the Cape of Good Hope. In the early 1800s, the European population of South Africa was 60% Afrikaner and 40% British (but native Africans outnumbered the Europeans). Both the British and the Dutch believed in slavery and racial segregation (providing separate schools, neighborhoods, for people based on their race). The Afrikaners (also known as the Boers) were unhappy with the British rule and in 1899, the Afrikaners declared war on the British. The conflict became known as the Boer War and it lasted for nearly 3 years. At the end of the Boer War, the British defeated the Afrikaners. In 1910, the British government approved a new constitution for the colony of South Africa. From 1910 to 1948, the British maintained strict control of the South African government. During this time, segregation was still widespread, but black South Africans held onto a few legal rights. Even though the majority of South Africa’s population was black, the few white Afrikaners and the British had absolute control of the government and the economy.

In 1948, the Afrikaners gained control of the South African government through democratic elections (though black South Africans were not allowed to vote). The Afrikaner government wanted to create an organized system of racial classification. They created four different racial groups and all South Africans were placed into one of them. Whites made up 13% of the country’s population, blacks made up 77% of the population, coloured (meaning people of mixed race) made up 8% of the population and Asians made up 2% of the population.

A race identification card issued in South Africa

An Introduction to Apartheid…

The Afrikaner government immediately set up a system of laws based on these racial categories. This system of laws became known as apartheid. (pronounced “apart” -“tide”). Apartheid is an Afrikaner word that means “apartness.” Apartheid resulted in legalized segregation. Even though whites made up a small percentage of the population, they possessed all of the power.

Under apartheid, the best schools, the best jobs and the best land were all given to the white people in South Africa. The government of South Africa declared that 87% of the land was reserved for whites (who made up only 13% of the population). When apartheid went into effect, nearly all of the black South Africans were forced out of their homes and required to move hundreds of miles away to towns where they were legally allowed to live. These “black only” communities became known as townships. These townships were overcrowded and the people living in them suffered from extreme poverty. Because the government refused to give them the necessary funding, the townships lacked paved roads and a paid police force. Many townships did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. Jobs that were considered to be difficult or dangerous were reserved for black South Africans. Schools that existed within the townships were underfunded and lacked supplies. Teachers in these schools were forbidden from teaching the truth about South Africa’s government. Black South Africans were denied suffrage (the right to vote) under apartheid. Eventually, free speech was eliminated, making it a crime to speak out against the government.

In the 1980s, countries from around the world condemned the South African government for its system of apartheid. Some countries imposed trade embargos against South Africa (making it illegal to import goods from or export goods to South Africa). Due to pressure from foreign countries, the South African government began to relax some of its apartheid laws in 1983. For example, coloured and Asian people were given some representation in government. Additionally, travel restrictions were eased, making it easier for South Africans to move freely about the country. However, despite these minor changes, life for most people in South Africa remained horrendous.

Segregationist Sign on a South African beach

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