The Making of Modern South Africa (2012) traces the history of South Africa from the colonial conquests of the eighteenth century to the birth of an inclusive democracy in 1994. Along the way, it unpacks how struggles over land, natural resources, and belonging shaped the country’s development.
History, Politics, Humanities, African History, South African History, Democracy, Cultural
Introduction: An exploration of South African history
The end of the Cold War witnessed the birth of dozens of new democracies. From Poland to Chile, old dictatorships were dismantled as countries embraced representative government.
In 1994, South Africa was added to that global trend. The past it was leaving behind, however, wasn’t shaped mainly by the struggle between communism and capitalism – it was a past defined by a state-mandated system of apartheid, which had been the hallmark of South African politics and society since 1948.
Apartheid, an enforced system of white minority rule over the country’s Black majority, was toppled by the democratic revolution of 1994. But in order to fully understand apartheid and its eventual demise, we need to go all the way back to an earlier chapter in modern South Africa’s history – the colonial period.
And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in this summary, as we explore how South Africa was made and remade over the centuries that passed since the first people settled in that region.Along the way, you’ll also learn:
- why Europeans decided to settle in South Africa;
- how the discovery of gold transformed the country; and
- how opponents of apartheid won their struggle for freedom.
Premodern South Africa was home to three distinctive indigenous groups who settled in the region
Fifteenth-century Africa was a well-connected place. North Africa’s ports linked local Muslim states to a Mediterranean market, which stretched from Spain to Syria. Then there was East Africa – a vital node in trade networks spanning the entire Indian Ocean.
West Africa’s powerful coastal kingdoms, meanwhile, looked both outward, across the Atlantic Ocean, and inward, into the continent’s vast interior.
There was one exception, though: Africa’s southern tip, a geographical region made up of the modern-day Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and South Africa. Though this area is one of the world’s oldest sites of continuous human habitation, it developed in relative isolation from the rest of the globe until the seventeenth century.
The area that encompasses modern-day South Africa had been inhabited by our prehuman ancestors for over 2.5 million years, with Homo sapiens first establishing settlements in the region around 125,000 years ago. The San and the Khoikhoi are, arguably, direct descendents of these earliest settlers to the region. And although they’re related, the two groups are distinguished by their pastoral structures: the San were traditionally hunter-gatherers, while the Khoi were herders. Around 500 AD, a third group – also herders – migrated into South Africa from as far north as central and east Africa. They were part of the Bantu-linguistic group – a family of languages distinct from those spoken by the San and Khoi peoples.
Over the centuries, and after settling in the fertile plateaus and in the more mediterranean climates of the coast, both the Khoi and Bantu-linguistic groups embraced agriculture. They formed powerful kingdoms, which controlled these settled regions.
Land was vital to both societies, but they didn’t regard it as private property that could be owned. The real source of wealth was cattle. The larger a ruler’s herd, the more power and prestige he enjoyed. The San, for their part, favored nomadic social structures and shared the understanding that land was not something that should be possessed or controlled by anyone. All three overarching societies respected and understood this view.
And so when European colonists arrived in South Africa in the seventeenth century, the first Africans they met lived in kingdoms built around common land ownership. The settlement of these European colonists would throw that system into crisis.
The Dutch presence in South Africa triggered a brutal conflict over land
In 1488, Portuguese sailors rounded a rocky headland near Africa’s southernmost tip. Once they had passed it, they realized that the prevailing winds were carrying them east, not south.
They’d accidentally just discovered a sea passage to Asia.
Portugal’s king called the headland the Cape of Good Hope – an optimistic name reflecting his belief that importing Asian luxury goods like spices and silk would make Portugal rich.
He was right – it did. But Portugal’s growing wealth soon made it a target. In the 1600s, a rising European power called the Netherlands outmuscled Portugal and claimed the Indian Ocean as its own.
The Dutch needed somewhere to resupply ships on their long voyage east, though. Situated roughly halfway between the Netherlands and the Asian continent, South Africa was ideally placed to meet that need.
In 1652, the Dutch created an outpost near the Cape of Good Hope – the site of today’s Cape Town. The idea was for a few Europeans to live there and buy food and other supplies from the Khoi.
But the Khoi weren’t interested in trade with the Dutch. They didn’t want to bake bread for the ships’ crews or make the wine needed to keep the sailors from getting scurvy, either. In time, the Dutch realized that they’d have to produce these goods themselves. So they offered poor farmers back home a new life, and shipped them over to raise animals and grow wheat and grapes.
As more settlers arrived, the outpost gradually grew into a colony. Growth meant jobs, and people from Europe, along with indentured laborers from Asia, flocked to the Cape to fill them. More people, however, meant more mouths to feed, and maintaining that required land. This was a recipe for conflict with the indigenous Africans.
The Khoi resisted the colony’s expansion and so became engaged in a guerilla war against the Dutch farmers trying to push them off their land. Many historians regard the colony’s response as an act of genocide – Dutch militias burned villages, slaughtered cattle, and massacred both Khoi fighters and civilians.
This cycle of violence went on for decades. Whenever the colony expanded its frontiers, more settlers arrived. And when they did, they also wanted land. That provoked new conflicts which lasted until the militias entered the fray and forcefully displaced African herders.
As a result, the colony swallowed more and more Khoi land. By the late 1700s, there was none left and the surviving Khoi people were forced to become the second-class servants of a European colony.
Mining kickstarted South Africa’s industrial revolution and urbanization
Europeans were interested in South Africa for strategic reasons – it was a place to resupply ships headed east. So the larger a European state’s footprint was in Asia, the greater its desire was to control South Africa.
In 1795, the British seized the Cape Colony from the Dutch. The British wanted to secure the passage to what was quickly becoming their empire’s most prized possession – India. That goal was best served by creating a South African colony with stable frontiers.They didn’t shy away from conflict, either. In the early years of their regime, they pushed the colony’s frontiers eastward. This provoked a series of brutal wars with the Xhosa, and eventually the Zulu, nations – both descendent groups of the early Bantu-linguistic people.
In addition, the Dutch settler-militia resisted British expansion, which meant that for much of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the region fluctuated between states of war or trade. Then, something happened that would forever change the trajectory of the region. One of the world’s largest deposits of gold was discovered in 1886 by the warring European settlers, and it was buried in the northeastern part of the country. Suddenly, concentrated capital and military attention were directed to this area.
Gold was easy to find in the early years – all you needed was a pickax and a shovel. But the area’s surface-level deposits were soon picked clean. There was still lots of gold left, though – it was just deep underground. Excavating it required heavy machinery, thousands of workers, and a large amount of capital.
Individual prospectors were replaced by industrial mining concerns. Once they began excavating South Africa’s gold, everything began to change. Up to this point, most settlers had been farmers – they worked the land or herded animals and produced their own food. Now, though, there was a new possibility: working for wages.
The money offered by mine owners was good enough to tempt thousands to flock to mining towns, which expanded into cities.
Other cities emerged around ports – the places where mining machinery entered the country and gold bullion was loaded onto ships leaving it. Railways were built to connect the coast to the hinterland.
Mining, in other words, set both industrialization and urbanization in motion. When people abandoned farms, large companies bought up the land and invested their capital to make agriculture more efficient. That boosted output, meaning there was more food to feed towns and cities. The wages in workers’ pockets, meanwhile, meant they could afford consumer goods. And so factories sprung up to meet this demand, creating new jobs and drawing even more people into urban areas.
Gold, war, and the Union of South Africa
Gold wasn’t just valuable in its own right – it also underpinned the global economy.
Back in the nineteenth century, the world’s currencies were based on the gold standard. This meant that banks and states could only issue money if they held the same amount in gold.
That arrangement helped stabilize economic life, but it also meant that growth was limited by the gold supply. When the supply slumped, as it did in the 1870s, the British empire experienced a recession.
And so when gold was found in South Africa, the British saw an opportunity to jumpstart their economy. But this northeastern part of the region had now been established as a republic called the Transvaal, which was governed by the Afrikaner people – descendents of the Dutch settlers who’d migrated there as a result of the earlier wars with British forces. With no love lost between the two groups of colonists, the stage was set for a showdown. With the support of international mining concerns, the British plotted to annex the Transvaal in the 1890s by staging a coup.
This endeavor failed, but it did spook the republic’s president, Paul Kruger. In response, he sought an alliance with the German empire, which had occupied neighboring Namibia. That spooked the British, who were terrified of a rival colonial power like Germany getting its hands on South Africa’s gold. War was now inevitable.
In 1899, the Transvaal republic struck a preemptive blow against Britain. For a while, it looked like victory was close. But the tide turned in 1900 when Britain sent reinforcements from overseas. It would be two more years before the Afrikaner republic surrendered to British sovereignty.
By the time the war ended in 1902, at least 46,000 people had lost their lives, and the surrounding indigenous nations and communities who were embroiled in the war were profoundly impacted. The British settlers immediately set about establishing the Union of South Africa – and with it, the crystallization of the racist ideologies that would shape modern-day South Africa.
The Union of South Africa, the roots of apartheid, and the birth of political resistance
On May 31, 1910, the British passed the Act of Union. It created a single state – the Union of South Africa – out of the lands occupied by the African monarchies, those of the former Cape Colony, and those that comprised the Afrikaner Republic.
On paper, the country was a democracy – for property-owning men, at any rate. What this meant was that, in reality, political power was concentrated in the hands of a small minority: white men. During the Union’s early years, they used their power to systematically keep Africans from owning property and, with it, their right to participate in political life.
After the first elections were held in 1910, the successful Afrikaner government set about creating a state which guaranteed white minority rule.
For example, in 1913, it divided the country into white farming areas and “African Reserves.” The former covered 87 percent of the country and included the most fertile regions, and the latter covered 13 percent. This was hugely unjust, given that white people in the Union amounted to about 20 percent of the total population of the country. Besides being forced into the newly demarcated areas, it was now illegal for Black people to own land or property in the white farming areas, and for land from either designation to be bought, sold, or exchanged. That made it all but impossible for Black people to own land – or vote.
Laws like this excluded Black South Africans from political life, and prevented them from farming the land their societies had shared for centuries. Now, the countryside offered little more than a life of poorly paid drudgery and exploitation, which drove many to the cities. The cities were booming. New factories were opening, and labor was in high demand. Black South Africans looking for a brighter future abandoned rural life and moved to urban areas. Life in South Africa’s cities wasn’t easy, however. Housing was in short supply; new arrivals were forced to live in overcrowded dwellings in specially demarcated suburbs, or to build their own on squatted land. These areas and makeshift settlements quickly grew – and within them, a unique culture developed. Here, churches provided education, and there were dance halls and informal bars run by women who sometimes brewed the beer they sold. Trade unions and local editorials and newspapers shared ideas that led to the fights for better working and living conditions. These informal settlements ultimately became the pillars of a new and distinctive urban culture of resistance to the white minority government. Strikes and boycotts followed, which were violently suppressed by the state.As industries boomed, white business owners needed Black workers. But it became clear to the Afrikaner ruling government that a large urban Black working class was a recipe for revolution. The question for the government and its supporters then was, How could the white minority continue to exploit Black labor while preventing resistance? By the election of 1948, they had found their answer: apartheid.
Apartheid and the new spirit of defiance
Apartheid was a system of laws, Acts, and policies that enforced the separation of South Africans based on perceived ethnicity. It was a system that ensured that political power and economic wealth would be concentrated on the white minority. It became the official policy of the ruling National Party in 1934 and was eventually the platform which won them the election in 1948. This election led to the formal establishment of a racial-segregated nation, with laws and Acts passed to enforce this ideology. The Black majority became second-class citizens who had to carry special passes to travel outside of their designated areas for work.
White voters supported these policies because they allowed the government to break Black political resistance, thus shoring up white minority rule.
More importantly, though, the beginning of apartheid coincided with a period of economic growth.
Well-paid, skilled jobs were reserved for white South Africans, which allowed poorer white voters to climb the social ladder. And because it was now illegal for Black trade unions to strike, Black workers couldn’t go on strike or vote; they had no way to fight for higher wages. That meant businesses had access to cheap labor, which in turn attracted foreign investment. The result was a golden age of opportunity and wealth for white South Africans. It wouldn’t last, however.
Opposition to the apartheid government was relatively peaceful: activists marched, boycotted segregated services, and petitioned the government. Emerging as leaders in these acts of resistance, the African National Congress – or the ANC – launched a mass campaign of nonviolent defiance. The ANC had been founded in 1912 to support the rights of South Africa’s non-white majority, and so were a familar and popular party. In late 1959, it announced a series of marches against laws requiring Black workers to carry signed passes.
In March 1960, protestors converged on a police station in a township called Sharpeville. Alarmed by the large numbers of marchers, police constables fired into the crowd. Sixty-nine people died, many shot in the back, and another 180 were injured. This violent act became known as the Sharpeville massacre, and it opened a new chapter in South Africa’s history.
Resistance to apartheid grew after the Sharpeville massacre, and a subsequent wave of strikes by Black laborors brought much of the country to a standstill. In response, the government clamped down. It declared a state of emergency and used the police to forcefully break strikes. Political leaders like the ANC’s Nelson Mandela were imprisoned, and their organizations were banned.
The massacre and violent suppression of strikes and marches undermined South Africa’s international standing, and governments around the world called for sanctions – a call which Britain and the United States didn’t support.
Revolt – and a call for reform
The protests and the draconian state retaliation grew year by year. The 1970s signaled the start of an especially brutal period of history.On June 16, 1976, around 20,000 children and parents marched through Soweto to protest the latest law, which declared that Afrikaans be the medium of instruction in Black schools. Once again, police opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds.
The country exploded into revolt, and throughout the year, there were running battles between protestors and security forces across the country. Meanwhile, the economy was disrupted by striking workers.By 1985, South Africa resembled a war zone. The state had deployed the army to townships and detained thousands of activists. There was fierce resistance, but stones and burning barricades were no match for the heavily armed military. With the help of sweeping emergency powers, the army and police ruthlessly crushed the rebellions once and for all.
An uneasy peace followed in 1987. The costs of suppressing opposition to apartheid were high. As the fighting went on, it became impossible for white South Africans to ignore it. Their taxes rose to finance the militarization of society, and their sons were conscripted into the army.
The economy also struggled. That was partly due to the huge military budget, but there was another cause. The more repressive the government became, the more other nations withdrew from economic relations with South Africa. Sanctions hit export industries, and boycotts plunged the country into international isolation.
Apartheid was popular among white voters as long as it delivered economic growth and the costs of maintaining white minority rule weren’t too painful. That calculus was now changing. By the late ’80s, the apartheid government was in serious trouble.
It wasn’t just the disenfranchised who rejected the government and its policies – business interests which had previously allied themselves with the state also became increasingly critical of it. That came down to South Africa’s precarious economic position. Militarism had helped drain the state budget, and international sanctions were starting to bite. By this point, even staunch allies like the United States and Britain were disinvesting from the South African economy.
Calls for reform grew louder and louder.
Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk’s compromise resulted in an inclusive republic
South Africa’s economic decline began in 1980. The first strike was delivered by foreign banks which had loaned the apartheid government money in the ’70s.
When those banks recalled their loans and refused to renew them, the rand – South Africa’s currency – collapsed. The shock was so severe that the Johannesburg Stock Exchange had to close temporarily.
One shock followed the other. When global gold prices plummeted, the government found it had nothing to sell or trade for hard currency, which meant it couldn’t afford to run a state – let alone service its debts. The government was forced to apply for loans from the International Monetary Fund, which imposed painful conditions like liberalizing state-owned industries. Unemployment soared. So did inflation. The living standards of all South Africans were now in freefall.
Something had to give.
Some members of the government wanted reforms, but the prime minister, Pieter Willem Botha, was a hardliner. It was only in 1989, when the situation had become intolerable, that Botha’s cabinet decided it had to do something. In August 1989, cabinet members deposed Botha and installed a caretaker government.
It was this last-ditch attempt to save apartheid that tipped the scales. White supremacy wouldn’t survive the next decade.
On August 15, 1989, Frederik Willem de Klerk succeeded Botha as head of the South African state.
Like Botha, he was a longtime supporter of apartheid. But he was also a pragmatist. He could see the writing was on the wall. South Africa would have to change.
In early 1990, he announced a series of reforms. The ANC and other banned parties were legalized, and political prisoners like the ANC’s Nelson Mandela were released.
By the end of the year, the government had entered formal negotiations with the ANC to create a new constitution – the founding document of a new South Africa.
By 1994, those negotiations were concluded, and in April that year, South Africans headed to the polls to vote in the nation’s first truly democratic election. Every citizen was allowed to vote – a first in the nation’s history. On polling day, the violence predicted by international media outlets failed to materialize. Over 20 million South Africans took part in the election.
On April 29, 1994, it was official: South Africa would have a new president, Nelson Mandela, who would become the beacon of hope for a new generation. In 1996, the new government approved a constitution with one of the world’s most liberal Bill of Rights, which guaranteed gender and individual human rights.
The new republic vowed to never repeat the mistakes of the old South Africa. As Mandela put it, South Africa now belonged to “all who are in it, Black or white.”
You’ve just finished our summary to The Making of Modern South Africa, by Nigel Worden.
Here’s the key takeaway:
Modern South African history has been shaped by a series of conflicts. The Portuguese and the Dutch traded blows over ports on the country’s coasts. Indigenous Africans and Europeans fought over land. Republics and empires fought for control over South Africa’s gold. But the conflict which underwrote all the others was over who should rule the country – the white minority or the Black majority. That question was only settled in 1994, the year South Africans decided that the country would belong to all who lived there, Black or white.
About the author
Nigel Worden is King George V Professor of History at the University of Cape Town. He was previously Research Fellow at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge and Lecturer in Commonwealth History at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of Slavery in Dutch South Africa (1985) and numerous books and articles on the history of early colonial South Africa. An edited collection, Between East and West: Social Identities in Eighteenth Century Cape Town is due for publication in 2012.