Apartheid: The Shameful Record

By Davidson, Basil | UNESCO Courier, May-June 1986 | Go to article overview
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Apartheid: The Shameful Record


Davidson, Basil, UNESCO Courier


Apartheid: the shameful record

THE history of apartheid is the record of a racism conceived and used by small white minorities in South Africa in order to dominate a large black majority, deprive this majority of its land, and maximize the exploitation of its labour for the benefit of the whites and their foreign partners. Apartheid is colonial racism carried to an extreme.

Up to 1899 the white politics of all the lands south of the Limpopo river--the lands that form modern South Africa-- were largely those of military power used to defeat black resistance. Broadly, those politics were contained within two areas of competition. As soon as the British were established securely at the Cape of Good Hope, following victory over the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805, they embarked on a long series of what were euphemistically called "frontier wars'. Against continuous black resistance, not always defeated, British forces pushed east and northeastward from their little colony at the Cape, invading and dispossessing one African community after another until their final conquest of the Zulu kingdom in 1879.

The descendants of the Dutch settlers (enlarged by immigration from Holland

but still more by unadmitted unions with black women) had meanwhile gone some way towards forming themselves into a distinctive nation, the Afrikaner volk, and by this time spoke a variant of Dutch which was already beginning to be a distinctive language, Afrikaans. They were far too weak in numbers and technology to tackle strong African communities such as the Xhosa and the Zulu, whose destruction as independent entities was left to the British, but were strong enough to dispossess a wide range of small African communities. These lived to the west of the areas of British conquest, and were duly enclosed in the Afrikaner (or Boer, a term meaning simply "farmer') republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

By the 1880s there were four white political units: the two British colonies of the Cape and of Natal, and the two Afrikaner republies in the north and west. Diamonds had been discovered in quantity at Kimberley as early as 1867, and in 1871 the British duly annexed these diamond fields which became, a little later, the scene of a veritable "diamond rush', with a railway completed from the Cape to Kimberley in 1885. But even this new source of wealth could change little in the general picture. What changed everything, with violent drama, was the proving in 1884-1886 of the great goldfields of the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal Republic.

For reasons imperialist and narrowly economic, major British interests now saw that they must secure political control of a Transvaal governed by farmers who had little or no interest in large-scale capitalist development. After many skirmishes there followed the Anglo-Afrikaner war of 1899, provoked by the British and won by the British, though at a sorry cost in lives, two years later.

Having won the war, the British were quick to reassure their Afrikaner opponents that systematic discrimination against the black majority would be written into the foundation of the Union of South Africa (that is, the union of Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal, and the Orange Free State) which followed in 1910. For thirty-eight years after that, the English-speaking minority generally dominated the all-white parliament of a now-independent Union, but invariably on apartheid lines.

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