South Africa first entered into the American national consciousness this past summer when the sprawling, million person ghetto of Soweto rose up in protests that the police and army quickly turned into bloody riot. As in any confrontation where rocks and bottles are met with automatic rifles, and shotguns, the casualties were one-sided and heavy. The initial deaths galvanized the emotions, and protests, counter-violence and killing spread until every major city was involved and the rest of the world at last was made aware of the horror of being black in a nation of slavers.
In the ensuing violence the cause of the original demonstrations have been forgotten — perhaps because even at the time the reason seemed so minor, a venial sin in a land where mortal transgressions are commonplace. Soweto first rose in protest over a governmental decision that made the use of the Afrikaans language compulsory in the teaching of certain subjects. The ruling class within the white minority speak Afrikaans while English remains the more popular language among the rest of the whites and most of the blacks. Any attempt to understand the mentality of a nation based on apartheid, or apartness, must at first come to terms with the Afrikaner.
The divisions within South Africa do not end with color. Tribal influence among blacks remains strong even in the face of an oppression that once grouped them together as “natives” and then “Bantu” when the whites realized the former term gave the lie to their claim of having settled the nation first. This fragmentation is only slightly less obvious among those whites who speak English and those who use Afrikaans. Such is the zenophobia among Afrikaners that twice during this century ethnic purity and separation of whites along language lines have been major campaign issues. Afrikaners taking a moderate position towards the English-speaker were finally removed from power and, until recently, the two groups have shared the prerogatives of white skin, but practiced voluntary apartheid from one another.
The ruling Nationalist Party first came to power in 1948. That election marked both the beginning of Afrikaner power and the beginning of the end of English domination. Until that time, and extending back to 1806 when the Cape became an English colony, the Afrikaner, of Dutch, French Huguenot and German Protestant ancestry, had felt his nation to be occupied and himself a prisoner, a second-class citizen at best.
South Africa was first settled in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company. The purpose of the encampment at Cape Town was to provide food and water for the company’s ships; a rest-over on the long trade journey to Asia. America was a more attractive beacon to emigrants and the settlement grew slowly. There were only 20,000 white inhabitants when it became a Crown colony.
Throughout the 1800’s the population continued to increase slowly. The Great Trek of 1836, the South African equivalent of our own western expansion and a response to the English abolishment of slavery, resulted in a full quarter of the colony migrating into the heartland. Ten thousand people. Until the colony became the Republic of South Africa in 1961, English control, primarily of the economy, was regarded as a conspiracy to keep the Afrikaner in a subservient position.
In truth, British control of the economy was as much fact as folklore, perhaps beginning with the discoveries of great mineral wealth — diamonds and gold initially — in 1867. Thousands of immigrants rushed into the Kimberly fields to work the mines. English financiers were able to raise the foreign capital needed to invest in heavy mining equipment.
Of more importance to the Boers was the influx of 100,000 blacks who worked the mines. Within a few years the area was the world’s largest producer of gold, while the Boers, primarily farmers, were left far behind in a rapidly expanding economy. As production and English fortunes rose, so did the fortunes of the Afrikaner fall. Chafing under this domination, distrust and suspicion exploded into skirmishes that finally led, in 1899, to the Boer War.
The destructiveness of this conflict — the English used concentration camps and a scorched earth policy to finally subdue the smaller Boer Army — radicalized the citizens of Great Britain. Having won an unpopular war at a terrible price, the English moved towards reconciliation.
By the early 1900’s, the Boers had been given virtual self-government and this led to the Union of South Africa in 1908. Under the Union they controlled the local government. It is from this period that the fate of present day black South Africans was sealed, as the more liberal English racial policy gave way to the vindictive measures of the Afrikaner. Their first step up on the economic, industrial ladder came at the expense of blacks who were competing for jobs.
The Mines and Works Act of 1911 severely restricted the employment of blacks. It excluded them from the skilled positions within the mines and fixed a black to white ratio on hiring.
The Natives Land Act of 1913 established legally the division of territory, allocating 93% of the country to the whites. The move, basically a response to blacks using their industry-earned wages to buy up small farms, cut off, almost before it began, the normal assimilation process by which the poor are able to move to modest, middle-class status.
The Land Act, revised in 1936 as the Native Land Act, increased the black share to 13.7%. This was the basis of the present “territorial homelands” concept and the beginning of the official program of apartheid.
The most important single factor to remember about this policy is that blacks living outside of the designated “homelands” do so at the whim of the whites. Thus sprang into existence the contract labor agreements permitting blacks to live for 12 to 18-month-periods in slums like Soweto, while working at jobs for one tenth the wage received by whites for similar work. They could work quietly or return to “homelands” most had never seen and where jobs were, for all practical purposes, nonexistent.
This revolving-door policy has kept the population from gathering roots and developing a sense of community. The industrial economy of South Africa cannot exist without huge numbers of poorly paid black laborers and this alone clearly points out the lie of “separate development.”
The history of the Afrikaner of the 20th Century is one of economic prosperity through the enslavement and exploitation of labor. The society functions, not separately from blacks, but because it has successfully built a social and legal system that divides the majority into dependent, manageable fragments.
It has taken the Afrikaner seventy years to consolidate control; at this point it is complete and absolute. It is difficult to imagine anything short of overwhelming military power being able to relax the stringent controls or to make the Afrikaner peacefully give up his position of absolute power.
The American foreign policy of working for a gradual lessening of the slave state can be seen, at best, as naive, and, at worst, a base attempt to protect the two billion dollar investment our private industries have in the country. In either case, it is a policy that seems doomed to failure. Prime Minister John Vorster is an Afrikaner and his inflexible opposition to change and total dedication to vested interest and privileged class portends a gloomy immediate future for the twenty million blacks, and an even more somber long-range fate for his sub-nation of arch-slavers.