The history of White Rule and Black Resistance

Hunting and Gathering

In the beginning... Long before Europeans arrived hunting and gathering San and Hottentot herders roamed freely over South Africa's green pastures. They traded for iron and copper with Bantu-speaking people from the great Zimbabwe civilisation founded in 400 BC.

Subsistence farming

Dutch settlement A stop-off at the Cape for Dutch trading ships en route to India grew into a subsistence farming settlement which encroached increasingly into the ancestral lands of San and Hottentot. Angle-French discord in Europe led to a British take over of the Cape in 1806 to protect their trading routes.

Cash cropping

British Colony 4,000 British farmers arrived to consolidate British rule and began producing wool and other goods for export. Dutch farmers resented the new comers who imposed the abolition of slavery and equality of men before the law. The most recalcitrant Boers - Voortrekkers - packed up and headed north in the Great Trek of 1836.

Small scale mining

Diamonds and Gold Initially the British offered only token resistance to their expansion. But the discovery of diamonds and gold in Voortrekker country - the Transvaal - led to active territorial disputes. The British fought two wars to protect their mining interests. First against the Zulu, and then against the Boers themselves in 1899.

Monopoly mining

The Boer War The Boers fought to preserve their austere heritage from corruption by the modern mining communities and 'Cape Liberalism'. Defeated Afrikaaners never forgot the 20,000 who died of disease in British concentration camps. Afrikaaner Nationalism wascarried forward by the Broederbond (Brotherhood) who resolved in 1918 to undermine British control of politics, mining, commerce and industry. When the newly-independent four states of South Africa were joined in Union in 1909, Afrikaans influence prevented blacks sharing in white democracy.

Growth of Manufacturing

Afrikaaner Nationalism The British-Afrikaans truce was an uneasy one. Agricultural and mining interests conflicted. Rural drought and urban prosperity weakened Afrikaaner farms. High taxes to pay for farming subsidies and a drop in the gold price forced British mineowners to economise. They sought to recruit cheap black labour. This enraged the white artisans who protested in the Rand Revolt of 1922. A fast-growing Afrikaaner population with an aggressive working class led to a succession of coalition governments with stricter racial policies. The manufacturing boom of the 30's and 40's brought a recurrent cycle of black militancy, then liberal concessions, followed by right-wing backlash. This culminated in the 1946 black miners strike which brought in the 'Purified Nationalists'.

The Balance Today

Apartheid In 1948 discriminatory legislation finally became a co-ordinated ideological tool. Verwoerd made separate development -the apartheid dream - a reality. Blacks belonged to the homelands and could only venture onto white land to work for white men. In 1966 the first of the homelands - Transkei - became 'independent'. The Nationalists looked invincible until the Information Scandal (Muldergate) caused Vorster - Verwoerd's successor-to resign in 1978. The threat of increased black militancy is now forcing Prime Minister P.W. Botha to introduce new reforms. This may cause a split between the 'enlightened' (verligte) and extreme right (verkrampte) factions of the Party.

Resistance began when newly freed Hottentot slaves joined their families in raids on expanding white Farms. After early skirmishes with the Boers and a series of small 'Kaffir Wars' the Bantu-speaking peoples were finally overwhelmed by the guns and horses of the British Army in the Zulu War of 1879. Meanwhile but taxes and other restrictive legislation was forcing vanquished blacks to work for the whites.

Strikes began in 1877 when miners protested against anal body searches. Later,increased demand for their labour helped black strikers to win concessions over pay and conditions. But this incurred the wrath of the militant white 'labour aristocracy' and brought the job colour bar and stricter pass laws.

Growing frustration swelled the ranks of black trade unions alongside the more political African National Congress (ANC). In 1920 40,000 black miners went on strike, and in 1946 troops forced an even large number back down the mines.

A peaceful 'Defiance Campaign' was organised by the ANC in 1952. 8,500 people were arrested for technical offences against 'petty apartheid'. A second campaign ended in the 1960 Sharpeville massacre when police opened fire on an unarmed crowd killing 67.

1973 saw a resurgence of black opposition when 60,000 Durban factory workers went on strike.

Township disruption escalated until, in June 1976, more than 400 school children protesting at being taught in Afrikaans were killed by police in Soweto.

Click to enlarge...


How much land for 1000 people? 247 sq km 8 sq km


Since 1963 fifty-three political detainees have died while in police custody. During 1977 261 people were known to be in detention without trial. A further 146 people were subject to banning orders.

287,374 blacks were convicted for pass law offences. 257 people were found guilty of having sexual intercourse with someone of another colour.


New Internationalist issue 087 magazine cover This article is from the May 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop