A short history of Apartheid: A timeline
December 13, 2013
A short history of Apartheid: A timeline

Fri Dec 13, 2013

by Garrey Michael Dennie PhD

History Professor,

St Mary’s College of Maryland.

The word apartheid is derived from the Afrikaans language (which is itself a variant of Dutch) and literally means “apartness” or “separateness.” Afrikaans is the language spoken by the descendants of Dutch settlers in South Africa who arrived in South Africa in 1652 and would make South Africa their permanent home. That in fact had not been the settlers’ original intention. When the Dutch first landed in South Africa in 1652, they came ashore at Cape Town, the last stop on their way to India, their intended destination. But they needed water, fresh vegetables, fresh meat, all of which the indigenous Africans at the Cape, who call themselves the Khoisan were perfectly willing to supply in exchange for European products, particularly iron, that they did not possess.{{more}} However, just five years later, in 1657, the Dutch sailors made a crucial decision which would have enormous consequences for the history of South Africa proper. They decided that rather than continuing to rely on trading with the Khoisan to re-supply their ships, they would create a Dutch colony instead, where Dutch settlers would permanently occupy African land, claim legal ownership of this land, reject African jurisdiction over the land, and proclaim Dutch sovereign power over said land. In so doing, they stripped Africans of all rights within this Dutch declared colony. The year 1657 therefore stands as the beginning of the imposition of the doctrine of white supremacy in South Africa which while at first confined to the Cape Colony, would over the next 300 years spread across the length and breadth of what would become modern day South Africa. It is critical to understand that in South Africa, the policy of “apartheid” as it became known in 1948, was simply the most brutal and sophisticated manifestation of the doctrine of white supremacy practiced anywhere in the world. But white supremacy in South Africa did not begin in 1948. It began in 1657.

Africans, of course, did not simply stand aside and allow their lands to be stolen from them. They fought back. And for the next 150 years, the Dutch Cape Colony was often the scene of intense confrontation between the Khoisan people and the Dutch settlers. But through a genocidal campaign distinguished by the unremitting slaughter of children, women, and non-combatants, the Dutch settlers destroyed Khoisan resistance, expanded the Cape Colony far beyond its original confines to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and constructed the architecture of oppression that would be the hallmarks of white supremacy in South Africa – (1) alienation of African land, (2) exploitation of African labour, and (3) the exclusion of Africans from the institutions of governance within South Africa. By 1795, fuelled by their military, economic, and political success in South Africa, the descendants of the original Dutch settlers had developed a distinct national consciousness where they no longer saw themselves as migrants to South Africa, no longer as Dutch nationals, but as “Afrikaners,” a people with special claims on Africa itself.

In 1795 the British invaded the Cape and shattered the Afrikaners’ self confidence in their belief that Providence and history gave them privileged status in South Africa. The British left South Africa after one year, but returned again in 1800, and this time, they never left. The arrival of the British set the stage for a new phase in South Africa’s history. First, the British insisted that the continuous expansion of the Cape Colony which had been a distinctive feature of past 150 years of South Africa must come to an end. Second, they confirmed that British laws will replace Dutch laws in the governance of the colony. Third, English became the language of governance. And fourth, the British declared that in a court of law, Africans and Afrikaners had equal rights. In short, the British upended 150 years of Afrikaner dominance in the Cape.

The Afrikaners responded to this change in status in the most extraordinary manner possible: they fled British rule en masse. Between 1836 and 1854, in an event now known as the Great Trek, thousands of Afrikaners invaded African lands north of the Cape Colony and declared sovereign Afrikaner republics in the midst of African kingdoms. Through a series of wars, the Afrikaners dispossessed and dislocated African peoples from African lands and set out to re-create in the interior of Southern Africa the economic and political dominance which they had exercised at the Cape. Initially resistant to Afrikaner claims of sovereign power in African lands, in 1854, the British ultimately accepted that the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free States were truly independent nations, white enclaves of power.

This policy of white rapprochement held until 1869, when diamonds were discovered in Kimberly, a region of South Africa claimed by the Afrikaner led Orange Free State. And in 1884, gold was discovered in the Afrikaner led Transvaal Republic. The discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa altered the political ambitions of the British in South Africa. Powerful political and economic interests in England decided that the most effective way to exploit the mineral wealth of South Africa, would be to bring all of southern Africa including Black kingdoms and Afrikaner republics into a single political entity. Thus, between 1869 and 1902, the British fought a series of wars against independent African kingdoms and independent Afrikaner republics. The African kingdoms fell first – much to the joy of the Afrikaners. But in 1899, the British launched their final war for the unification of South Africa against the Afrikaners themselves. The war was long, bitter, but it destroyed the Afrikaner republics and by 1902 brought all of South African under British rule.

With British dominion secured, often with the support of Black Africans against the Afrikaners, the British then joined hands again with the Afrikaners against the interest of Black Africans. First, in 1910, they created a new constitution which united all of South African in a single central state but deprived Africans of equal citizenship within the newly created state. Second, in 1913, the new South African government promulgated the Land Act which gave 87 per cent of African lands to white South African and 13 per cent to Africans. This law was particularly vicious because Africans constituted about 85 per cent of South Africa’s population and allowed white South Africans to remove Africans from lands they had occupied for thousands of years. In fact, between 1910 and 1948, successive South African governments imposed a thick web of racial legislation which affected every corner of black South African life. All of these laws were built on the platform of the racially discriminatory legislation of 1910 and 1913. And all of these laws were put in place by English speaking white South African governments.

The year 1948 is commonly identified as the first year of apartheid rule in South Africa. This description makes sense in two respects. First, an Afrikaans speaking government would replace the English speaking governments which had led South African between 1910 and 1948. And second, they were the ones who coined the term “apartheid” to indicate their more complete commitment to White supremacy than that contemplated by all previous white governments of South Africa. This manifested itself in two ways. First they developed and imposed a more rigid classification of race and race based privileges than had ever been employed in South Africa. Under the Population Registration Act, the South African government identified four races – White, Coloureds, Indians, and Africans. And in a series of concomitant legislation, the government legally circumscribed where these separate races could live, work, which schools they could attend, with whom they could sleep, which buses they could ride, which beaches they could swim, just about every aspect of their social, economic, and political lives. Second, the Afrikaner led apartheid governments were utterly brutal in the use of the police and army in South Africa to maintain the system of race based privilege at the heart of South Africa’s political economy.

Africans’ resistance to the imposition of apartheid was swift, sustained, and ultimately triumphant with Mandela’s ascension to the South African presidency in 1994. But Africans in fact had been resisting white supremacy from the very beginning. Indeed the African National Congress (ANC) was formed in 1912 to plead the case for equal rights in South Africa. Mandela himself joined the ANC in 1944, long before the term apartheid would be used to describe racial oppression in South Africa. But Mandela’s entry into the ANC marked the beginning of the transformation in the ferocity of Black opposition to white minority rule. Where previously Africans were content to appeal to the good conscience of whites to step away from racial injustice, Mandela and others of his generation came to the conclusion that a more confrontational posture would be needed if Black liberation was to be more than simply a dream. As apartheid became more brutal, Black resistance intensified. Hence in 1961, in response to the massacre of Black South Africans by the South African government, the ANC finally turned to armed struggle as a legitimate option in the struggle to break white supremacy in South Africa.

Mandela was the first commander in chief of the armed wing of the ANC. In 1962, he was caught and in 1964, sentenced to lifetime imprisonment. But his imprisonment, rather than dim the struggle for freedom, transformed Mandela into the most iconic figure of the liberation movement. For the next 27 years, as the struggle for freedom ebbed and flowed in South Africa, Africans were sustained by the example of Mandela who while imprisoned remained unbroken in his resistance to white supremacy. Hence, when he walked out of prison in 1990, it signaled to the millions of Black South Africans and a watching world the collapse of apartheid and the beginning of the process to reconstruct a South Africa built on his vision of a non-racial democratic South Africa. Between 1990 and 1994, he skillfully led the negotiations for the transition of South Africa from apartheid to freedom. In ascending to the presidency, he became the first democratically elected president in the history of South Africa. He would therefore forever stand as the father of the new nation.