by Martin Struthmann

History is never neutral. It is always told from someone’s perspective to explain something. This history is written to explain South Africa as we find it today. Details that were not major turning points or causes thereof were omitted to keep the text short. Readers are encouraged to fill in these details themselves.

The inhabitants of the land on which today Cape Town is located saw ships landing at their coast and their crews developing vegetable gardens as from 1652. The indigenous Khoisan were unwilling to work in the gardens preferring their own independent life-style. They occasionally killed animals of the Dutch settlers who retaliated by shooting them in the field. This practice, and wars over land and deceases brought in from overseas, decimated the Khoisan people to the small number they are today.

As the Khoisan proved unwilling to work in the gardens the Dutch imported slaves from West Africa, Mozambique, some islands in the Atlantic and Indian oceans and Asia. These and Asian people who were brought in later as free artisans adopted a pidgin Dutch as their language which as later adopted by their masters who later called it Afrikaans.

Descendants of the Dutch called themselves Boers and they soon increased their settlements into the interior taking the land of the indigenous population. They superimposed the capitalistic mode of production with individual land ownership and the accumulation of capital over the life-style of the Khoisan hunter-gatherers which did not know individual ownership of land.

In 1795 the British took the Cape as their colony and the Boers, dissatisfied with their rule, left the Cape on what is known as the ‘Great Trek’ to the north and east as from 1820. At the same time king Shaka in what is known today as KwaZulu-Natal waged a war known as the ‘Difaqane’ with the aim of imposing his rule onto huge territories. African people over large stretches of land fled advancing troops which made it easy for the Boers to claim the land theirs and announce their own Boer republics. Africans were left to live on less productive land which later became the homelands.

After diamonds and gold were found on the land of the Boer republics, Britain annexed these at the height of the scramble for overseas possessions by European colonial powers which saw the riches of the annexed territories fall into their hands. This led to the Anglo-Boer Wars starting in 1881 which saw a defeat of the Boers. During the war, the British destroyed Boer farmsteads and kept their captured women, children and black farm workers in concentration camps where many perished of hunger and diseases.

Johannesburg developed rapidly after mining of gold took off on a greater scale and the city was in need of food. Black farmers produced food more cheaply as their families helped in the production of food. White farmers who needed to employ paid staff complained to the government who then imposed the Natives Land Act of 1913. This Act prohibited black people from owning land outside designated areas which later became the homelands and removed competition from white farmers. The mines sought cheap labour and recruited contract labour only in the homelands and neighbouring countries who, after they obtained a contract, lived in single-men compounds at the mines. Black men were unwilling to accept such conditions of work. The state helped the mines by imposing a hut tax which needed to be paid in cash. Black families in the homelands were living a subsistence life-style and men were forced to work on the mines for wages in order to pay the tax. Wages were calculated such to only support the livelihood of the men and the payment of the hut tax. Families left behind were unable to live off the marginal land and lived in poverty. Blacks were barred from living permanently in the cities for the reason that mines would then have to pay wages sufficient for the maintenance of families of their mineworkers. To uphold the system of forced migrant workers, mines did not recruit workers in the cities. Only few black people who worked for industries supplying the mining industry were given special permission to live in the cities.

Poor Boers, now calling themselves Afrikaners poured into the cities. In 1948 the National Party, a party with Afrikaner interests, came to power. The national state with a meaning of ‘one people – one country’ was now the dominant political ideal in many parts of the world and the National Party adopted the idea for the peoples of South Africa. Laws were imposed on blacks that further restricted the little civic freedoms they had and homelands were offered independence status. Four of them accepted independence but this was not recognized by any other state outside South Africa. The state went on a path of what would today be termed as Afrikaner Economic Empowerment and affirmative action for Afrikaners by building a strong Afrikaner government administration, Afrikaner economic institutions and educational institutions for Afrikaners. Better jobs and facilities were reserved for whites and black educational institutions were deliberately of a poor standard to prevent them from gaining skills for higher level jobs.

Black resistance increasingly formed and became more militant. Resistance organisations were banned in the 1960s and went into exile, while some of their leaders were jailed. Internal resistance mainly by high school and university students made the country ungovernable as from 1985. This and the increasing isolation of South Africa in a world in which capital sought profits across national borders and put pressure onto the South African government, forced the government to choose negotiations towards change in 1988. Negotiations between the major political stakeholders led to the first democratic elections in 1994 and the constitutional democracy of today. The government has since embarked on a programme of transforming public institutions, transforming society through the work of commissions on human rights, gender and youth, land reform, Black Economic Empowerment and affirmative action in an attempt to rectify the imbalances stemming from the past and promoting a human rights culture.

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