Watersheds in South African History - The development of Racism throughout centuries

Term Paper, 2003

21 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)


Table of Contents


The Pre-British Era

British Colonialism until 1948
British rule and Evangelist humanitarian movement
The discovery of Diamonds and Gold
Afrikaner Nationalism
Conflicts of the 1920s
The Great Depression and World War II
The Elections of 1948

First Years of Apartheid




Drop a frog into boiling or near boiling water. He jumps out. Then put one in cold water with a slow flame. He likes the warmth. He gets comfortable and sleepy. He eventually gets cooked.

History is often seen as pre-determined. Developments occur rather slowly so that, like a frog in warm water, it might not be possible to see what is happening in the long run.

The following text will deal with the question of possible turning points in South African racism history. It will try to figure out when things could have changed in another, possibly better way, and what events prevented that from happening.

It will therefore describe the colonisation by the mainly Dutch-speaking Boers in the 17th and 18th century and the early relations between colonialists and indigenous population with special reference to the creeping development of racist attitudes.

In the second part the systemic period of British colonialism will be investigated. The introduction of a capitalistic system and the influences of the Evangelist Humanitarian Movement will be described first. In the second part the impacts of British capitalism and the discovery of gold and diamonds will be major topics to be analyzed with respects to a development of a racist ideology.

Thirdly I will describe the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism mainly in the first five decades of the 20th century and what root causes underlie this development.

The main questions I will deal with are:

- Was the development of South African racism unavoidable?
- Why did racism develop?
- When had been crucial points in history that could made a different development possible?


As a simplification I will use Afrikaners and Boers synonymously in the following although it is not precisely correct. Whenever the term “Whites” is used I refer to either the British or Afrikaner populations. If not specialized the term “Blacks” refers to the indigenous population.

There are two definitions of Racism to be used in this article, first the older definition that defines racism as the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races, and secondly the newer and perhaps more appropiate definition that describes racism as discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race. I will refer mostly to the second definition as it is currently the more common one.

On the other hand class is to be defined as people having the same social or economic status.

The Pre-British Era

Started in 1652 the Dutch Colony was never an official colony but corporate property of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). In 1657 the first former employees were released as freeburghers so that they could begin their own farming in the Cape.

The economy of the white settlers in the Cape was dependent on farming. Starting from 1657 through 1703 the farming was mainly concentrated in the cape region under the authority of the VOC. From 1703 onwards Willem Adrian van der Steel permitted the pastoral farming, land-owning and free-trading with the KhoiKhoi in regions further inland as well.

Although this is not one of the major turning points in South African history it was nevertheless important for the further developments. If it not had been for van der Steel’s decision the Cape might have remained merely a trading post which would have severely affected the later history.

Since the beginning of the settlement there was a lack of labour force in the Cape. Because they could not (Dutch Law) and did not want to (the Khoisan were regarded as too wild for working in civilized ways) enslave the native Khoikhoi population, slaves were first imported from Angola in 1658. Another cheap labour force was provided by the import of mostly German “Knechts” after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Throughout the first 65 years of settlement slaves and Knechts were used as parallel labour forces (Terreblanche 2001, p. 156 f.). Normally the high prices of slaves could only be afforded by the VOC or the rich patriarchal farmers in the cape region. Slavery was direct forced labour abolished in 1838 by the British government.

In the first decades of farming the white farmers were dependent on the Khoikhoi and their farming knowledge. The second indigenous population at the Cape, the San, were regarded as “Wild Bushmen”. The growing population of farmers at the Cape caused increased struggle between the Dutch and the San at the end of the 17th century. On the other hand Khoikhoi and white settlers often lived together rather peacefully and economically dependent on each other.

Due to the steady lack of labour forces on the frontier and the high prices of slaves the system of inboekelinge was invented at the end of the 17th century. Through this new form of directly forced labour women and especially children of the defeated San (and also the non-cooperative Khoikhoi) were illegally bound into the household of the white settlers as de facto slaves (Ross 1999, p. 23). The practice to keep them after they grew up as de-facto slaves was justified with the costs of raising the children. Khoikhoi and San parents were often killed to get hold of the children (Ross 1999, p. 25; Terreblanche 2001, p. 163 ff.).

The system of (illegal) inboekelinge was very important for the economic development of the farms and for the wealth of the trekboere and lasted until the beginning of the 19th century.

Also very important for the development of economy and society was the establishment of the commando system in order to fight the “wild” Khoikhoi and the San. The “tame” Khoikhoi often served in the commando fighting their own people.

In the second half of the 18th century the trekboere did not need the Khoikhois’ farming knowledge anymore. On the contrary the Whites deprived them of more and more land and continued enserfing more and more Khoikhoi with the inboekelinge system. This led to tensions between the tame Khoikhoi and the settlers culminating in the Khoisan rebellion 1799 - 1803.

During this period of South African history one cannot speak of open racism within the Afrikaner society. However, a growing racist attitude towards the indigenous population and the slaves combined with the steady lack of cheap labour force can be described as the very first origins of the racism dominated Apartheid regime of the 20th century (Ross 1993, pp. 72 - 74).

British Colonialism until 1948

British rule and Evangelist humanitarian movement

Britain took over power at the Cape in 1795 with a short break of Batavian rule from 1803-1806. With the arrival of the British colonialists the former system of mercantilist feudalistic economy was deeply changed into a Smithian system of free trade and (colonial) capitalism, i.e. the incorporation of the Cape Colony into the dynamic system of British colonies. In fact, the arrival of the British stimulated the growth and diversification of the Cape economy.

One of the first important events during British rule was the “Hottentot Proclamation” in 1809 which officially allowed the inboekelinge of Khoikhoi women and children (The Library of Congress Country Studies 2001).

From 1814 to 1840 the British colony manifested its economical and especially military presence in the Cape colony. All British governors of this period had been former military officers. During the ongoing expansion of the colony into the territory of Xhosa people the only way for them to deal with the Xhosa was by military means. This led to the four bloody Xhosa wars from 1818-1852.

Another important development in labour patterns was the evangelical humanitarian movement which launched a campaign to abolish Khoisan serfdom which succeeded in 1828 and 1838 with the abolishment of serfdom and slavery. The main ideas of the movement at this time was that free labour markets would result in the moral and religious civilization of the native people, while decreasing the power of the slaveowners that was considered too much for a proper economical development of the colony (Terreblanche 2001, p. 203).

Until 1840 the evangelical humanitarian movement had done a lot to improve the conditions of the native people, then the movement’s attitude changed greatly. Probably because personal freedom and free trade did not bring the immediate “cultivation” of the indigenous peoples, as expected, the major idea of the movement was then that the Africans had to become civilized through direct British domination and by forcing them to perform useful and unfree labour.

Ironically, the abolition of slavery marked an economic boom that lasted until the 1860s and led to a growing demand for a cheap labour force. Through the “Masters and Servants Ordinance” of 1841 the white land-owning class managed to establish a new repressive labour system based on agricultural capitalism in which many former Khoisan serfs and defeated Xhosa were forced to work for the white land-owners. Although the ordinance was written in terms of class rather than of races it was obviously used to suppress the Khoisan and Xhosa people and to integrate them as cheap workers into the British free trade system.

The shift to this so-called utilitarianism can be regarded as another crucial event in South African History. If the humanitarian movement had maintained their former attitude a different development with less open racism would have been likely to occur in South Africa.

The discovery of Diamonds and Gold

The discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1886 led to a fundamental change in South Africa’s economic and political structure. To speak of this as the most important influence on South African development until today is no hyperbole.

South Africa entered the age of industrialism and capitalism. The economic focus shifted from pre-modern feudalistic and patriarchal Boer agriculture to a British dominated capitalistic mining industry.

Since exploiting the gold and the diamonds was very expensive it could only be done profitably by large companies with the use of cheap labour forces. Mainly unskilled African workers were used, living in strictly controlled compounds close to the mines. White skilled labour was used to supervise the Blacks. The main argument for the capitalist mine owners to only use cheap labourers was that they operated within particular constraints shaped by the fixed price of gold and the low grade of ore. Thus, the proletarianisation of South Africa’s black labour force was initiated (Webster 1978, pp. 9, 18).

These (external) constraints are crucial with regard to the economic reasons for the development of racism and Apartheid. If it had not been for the mere capitalist logic of the British system, perhaps development would have been different.

Because of the uprising German economy, the long lasting depression in Britain (1873 - 1892) and the state’s wealth dependence on gold markets the gold regions on the Witwatersrand, centred by the new fast growing city of Johannesburg, became very important to the British in 1890s (Ross 1999, p. 71). The growing conflicts between the two Boer Republics and the British imperialists (including the mining industry itself) led to the Anglo-Boer-War between 1899 - 1902. In 1902 the defeated Boers agreed to the Peace Agreement of Vereeniging mainly due to the great losses in their population and due to the breakdown of social order. Africans and Coloureds who were in favour of the British had taken over Boer farms and had deprived the Boer soldiers who now wanted to return to their homesteads of their land (Ross 1999, p. 73 f.). However, during the war the Africans were promised by the British that they would be granted equal rights.


Excerpt out of 21 pages


Watersheds in South African History - The development of Racism throughout centuries
Stellenbosch Universitiy  (History of Economic Thought)
Economic and Developmental Problems of South Africa and Africa
1,7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
538 KB
Watersheds, South, African, History, Racism, Economic, Developmental, Problems, South, Africa
Quote paper
Enno Dreier (Author), 2003, Watersheds in South African History - The development of Racism throughout centuries, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/21454


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