Southern Africa, History

The arrival of Europeans in southern Africa in the 1600s set in motion a long period of upheaval that transformed the region. A series of violent conflicts pitted Dutch settlers against indigenous peoples, the Dutch against the British, the British against indigenous peoples, and various African groups against each other. After white settlers discovered gold and diamonds in the 1800s, they established a booming industry that relied on white control of black labor. This system set the stage for APARTHEID—the policy of racial segregation in SOUTH AFRICA.

The Period of Settlement

Around 1600, BANTU-speaking farmers known as the Nguni dominated the eastern part of southern Africa. The west was home to the San, a people who hunted and gathered food. Along the southwestern coast, the Khoi tended to herds of livestock. The borders between their lands were not rigid, and the groups apparently lived side by side without major conflicts.

In the early 1600s, British and Dutch ships bound for Asia were making regular stops at Table Bay, the future site of CAPE TOWN. There they took on fresh water and bartered with the Khoi for cattle. In 1652 the Dutch East India Company ordered Commander Jan VAN RIEBEECK to establish a permanent supply base at the cape. The company granted land and supplies to poor Dutch and French Protestant settlers, who spread into the countryside.

The Khoi and San resisted the European takeover, but bands of settlers attacked Africans and their livestock, and death and disease took their toll. By the late 1700s the Dutch settlers, known as Boers, had displaced or killed many of the Khoi and San and taken their lands. Those who survived were often forced to work on the settlers’ farms. Owning slaves became a measure of wealth for the Boers.

By 1780 the Dutch Cape Colony had grown to about 10,000 settlers. But the colonists’ expansion eastward was halted by the XHOSA, a farming people who fought fiercely for their land. For the next hundred years, the colony’s eastern frontier became a bloody battleground.

In 1795 Britain annexed the Cape Colony, returning it briefly in 1803 before taking control again three years later. British military forces defeated Xhosa armies and gave Xhosa land to white settlers. The
British brought in thousands of new settlers and created a strong central government in Cape Town, headed by a governor-general. The missionaries who came to convert Africans to Christianity brought more change, and some missionaries criticized the way Europeans treated Africans.

Southern Africa, History

The Mfecane and the Great Trek

During the early 1800s, as white settlers were fighting the Xhosa in the east, the NGUNI and other peoples of the region were building stronger states. In a competition for land and control of the IVORY TRADE, powerful chiefs led their warriors against other peoples, driving weaker groups north and west. The region’s upheavals—conquests and population shifts—were known as the Mfecane, or “the crushing.” Meanwhile, Britain’s Cape Colony demanded slave labor and other goods, intensifying the conflicts of the Mfecane.

The most famous figure of the Mfecane was SHAKA ZULU, who ruled a powerful ZULU kingdom from 1816 to 1828. Zulu attacks forced some African peoples to migrate, causing confrontations with others. The great leader MZILIKAZI took the NDEBELE people farther north. SOBHUZA led the Ngwane to form a new kingdom that became the basis for the modern state of SWAZILAND. MOSHOESHOE conducted the Sotho people to a mountainous region farther south, founding a nation that still exists today as LESOTHO.

News of the Mfecane reached the Cape Colony. Frustrated with British rule, many Boers decided to move northward and settle the lands Africans were fleeing. Between 1834 and 1845, several thousand Boers undertook this journey, later known as the “Great Trek,” which carried them beyond the boundaries of the British colony. The Boers also came to call themselves Afrikaners and their language Afrikaans.

Diamonds and Gold

The Afrikaners conquered the Africans who remained in the region known as the highveld, and they established several independent states. The Afrikaners and the British maintained an uneasy truce until diamonds were discovered in Boer territory in 1870. Britain tried to annex some of the diamond areas but was beaten back by Afrikaner forces. Around the same time the British succeeded in crushing the last traces of indigenous resistance, including a major conflict with the Zulu and their king CETSHWAYO.

In 1886 prospectors in Afrikaner territory discovered a huge area of gold-bearing rock, near what is now the city of JOHANNESBURG. But the gold was deep underground, and great quantities of rock had to be mined to produce small amounts of gold. Large companies began employing thousands of laborers and expensive equipment to recover the precious metal.

The companies created a racist system of mine labor that set a pattern for discrimination in all aspects of life in what later became South Africa. Some 90 percent of the mine workers were blacks, and they received one-ninth of the white workers’ salaries. The companies promoted white employees to skilled and supervisory positions, while keeping black workers in backbreaking, unskilled jobs. Many blacks were forced to live in compounds owned by the companies, where they paid high prices for rent, food, and other needs. Most workers were migrants who had traveled many miles from home and spent months separated from their families.

War and Union

As mining in Boer lands became a major industry, Britain feared that the Afrikaners would dominate the region. The British tried several schemes to create conflict with the Afrikaners and their leader, Paul KRUGER. One such scheme forced Cecil RHODES, the prime minister of the Cape Colony, to resign. In 1899 the two main AFRIKANER REPUBLICS, Transvaal and the Orange Free State, declared war on the British Cape Colony and Natal. Both sides used black Africans as workers and soldiers in the South African (or Boer) War. Although the British troops outnumbered the Afrikaners by about five to one, the Afrikaners won several early victories under capable leaders such as General Jan Christiaan SMUTS.

The British troops countered by destroying Boer farms and imprisoning civilians in concentration camps, where 20,000 Afrikaners and 13,000 Africans died. After three years of bitter fighting, the Afrikaners gave in. The two sides agreed to a union as a white minority in control of the black majority. In 1910 an all-male, all-white convention drew up a constitution for a new state called the Union of South Africa, a part of the British Empire. It became fully independent in 1961, but the black majority did not overthrow the white minority until 1994. (See also Colonialism in Africa, Khoisan, Nongqawuse.)