Above: South Africa in 1939
The debate about the statues of figures from South Africa’s past rumbles on in advance of the commencement of the new term at Oriel College, Oxford, where the memorial erected to Cecil Rhodes in 1911 is under threat from a group of students calling themselves “Rhodes Must Fall” after the group which succeeded in having his statue removed from the campus of Capetown University.
What continues to amaze me as a historian is that, however Rhodes’s role in the development of Southern Africa is assessed according to the historical record, these campaigners continue to repeat the banal distortion of this record in linking his name to the Apartheid state established by the National Party in 1948, forty-six years after his death. He was certainly an imperialist, and within that context a racist, but the idea that he was ‘an architect of apartheid’ is arrant and puerile anti-historical nonsense. Indeed, the Chancellor of Oxford University, Chris Patten, the last Governor of post-Imperial Hong Kong, has recently responded to the anti-Rhodes campaigners by accusing them of re-writing history, and has asserted that, therefore, the statues and plaques commemorating the ‘great’ man will not be coming down.
Imperial ‘Heroes’ and South African Exiles:
Almost thirty years ago, in 1987, I was asked to take part in a Theatre-in-Education Project in Birmingham, working with the Development Education Centre in the Selly Oak Colleges, which explored themes in the History of South Africa from the time of the Boer War to the 1980s, when we were campaigning for the release of Nelson Mandela and against the appeasers of the apartheid regime in Britain, including Mrs Thatcher. Certainly, Birmingham ‘hero’ Joseph Chamberlain featured in the play scripted by ‘the Big Brum Company’, and there may have been a passing reference to Cecil Rhodes, but the main focus was the treatment of black Africans by the Afrikaner supremacists from 1837 to the 1987. My role was to support the performance with preparatory materials in secondary schools throughout Birmingham. As an Anti-Apartheid campaigner for more than a decade, working with Peter Hain and Donald Woods, among many other South African exiles of all colours, I was keen to get involved in this project.
A pack was developed with the DEC in response to the needs of teachers of the 14-16 age range who wanted material which would help them to cover areas of history, geography, social studies and integrated humanities syllabuses relating to South Africa. The materials had previously been pioneered by teachers in West Yorkshire in the early eighties, who felt that this need could best be met by examining how the situation in South Africa had evolved by then to a point at which a clear, more dispassionate background was needed to the political, economic and social circumstances prevailing in the country at that time. They, and we, aimed to challenge the common misconceptions surrounding apartheid, while also stimulating pupils by providing possibilities for studies in depth on particular issues.
Broadly, the aims of the project were:
To encourage pupils to examine their attitudes to South Africa, not as somewhere ‘out there’ but in terms of a place which is very closely linked with their own experience of Britain.
To present information about South Africa which would allow pupils to decide for themselves what they feel about some of the issues relating to apartheid.
To challenge the many misconceptions regarding apartheid which we are presented with by the media, South African government etc.
To help pupils to understand what apartheid means to the people involved.
It was very important to these aims that pupils were encouraged to discuss how they felt about the issues being raised and that they are encouraged to develop a critical approach to the information which they received. We felt that the use of ‘evidence’ in this context was very helpful, as it allowed pupils to examine an issue from many different perspectives and also to realise that much of the information which they commonly encountered was heavily weighted according to the purpose for which it was designed.
White and Black Perspectives:
The history of South Africa had always been presented as a white person’s history up to this point, recorded by white people for white people, so that it gave a very one-sided view of events. It was our intention to present this view, alongside the other view, that of black people’s history, in an attempt to allow pupils to reach ‘informed’ conclusions. Unfortunately, because black history had not often been recorded, we had to reconstruct events through the eyes of fictitious characters and in the emotions portrayed by actors. These perspectives were, however, based on extensive and meticulous research. It also remained important to examine the attitudes of Afrikaners and other white groups in historical and contemporary contexts, in order that pupils might recognise the part which these groups had played in determining where South Africa was in the 1980s and how these were linked to many of the attitudes held by some white people in Britain at that time. Although the pack itself did not explore these links in detail, we found that pupils in multi-ethnic schools drew these links for themselves, while those in all-white schools needed support to tackle these issues, as indicated in the Swann Committee Report (1985). Above all, we guarded against labelling all white South Africans as bad and all black South Africans as good by focussing on the spectrum of opinions of all people as individuals rather than purely in terms of whether they were black and white. The pack began…
…in 1837, twenty-three years after the British took control of the Cape of South Africa, in order to hinder the French fleet in the area and to protect their own shipping routes to India and the Pacific. Dutch people had occupied the Cape from 1652 and now called themselves ‘Boers’. In 1833, the British had passed laws to end slavery throughout the British Empire, including South Africa. Some of the Boers, known as ‘Voortrekkers’ did not want to obey these laws, so they began a northward migration – ‘the Great Trek’ – to avoid them.
The trekkers attacked the southern tribes, killing many of them and taking their children as slaves. They also took cattle and built homesteads on the land. One of the leaders of the trekkers, Piet Retief, came into Natal to ask the Zulu chief, Dingaan for land, having already tricked Sekonyela out of his guns and horses. He moved his party of trekkers onto Dingaan’s land before he had agreed to lease it. Dingaan fought the trekkers, killing Retief and driving the trekkers away.
The Voortrekkers decided to take revenge against Dingaan. On 16 December 1837, a commando of five hundred of them set up an ambush for the Zulus on the banks of a river. They were led by Andries Pretorius, who gave his name to the later capital of South Africa, Pretoria. He was an experienced leader who had recently arrived in Natal from Cape Colony.
They grouped their wagons into a circle, known as a ‘laager’, surrounding their cattle and themselves. This provided them with protection so that they could fire their weapons from the spaces between the wagons. The Zulus were armed with short spears called ‘assegai’ and had only their shields to protect them.
The Voortrekkers were victorious, with only three of them wounded. Three thousand Zulus were killed. The Battle of Blood River, as it became known, was commemorated by the Boers in an annual service of thanksgiving known as the Day of the Covenant.
From this perspective, we can see that the first massacres of the indigenous black peoples of South Africa were not the work of the British, but of the Afrikaners. When the Great Trek finished, the Boers who had settled in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were given some independence by the British. In the 1860s sugar cane plantations were set up in Natal and Indians were treated in the same way as the blacks, working for low wages in poor conditions. Since the Boers had been involved in a lot of hardship on the Great Trek and had worked hard to make a living in their new areas, they had developed a strong sense of togetherness. Due to their religious beliefs, which were Dutch Calvinist in origin, they thought that black people could never be Christian and so could never be regarded as equals. On the other hand, British missionaries taught that those black people who converted to Christianity deserved to be treated fairly, if not equally before God, and should certainly not be enslaved. The Afrikaners, however, saw themselves as a race apart and were starting to develop their own language, Afrikaans.
The Development of Afrikanerdom, 1868-1948:
For these reasons, when in 1868, gold and diamonds were found in the Transvaal and Orange Free State by black people, the Afrikaners tried to stop the British taking over these areas again. They fought the British in the Boer War of 1899-1902, which the British eventually won, though the Afrikaners retained a large amount of self-government. They made the blacks pay taxes and rents so that they would have to work for white bosses in order to earn money. Many went to work in the new gold and diamond mines. White landowners began to evict the blacks who rented ‘their’ land, thinking that they could make more money by farming it for themselves. In 1909 the Afrikaner government passed the Squatter Act, which meant that the blacks who rented land were forced to become labourers or leave. Those evicted were forced to live on reserves where poor land and diseases made it difficult to make a living.
In 1910 the British government brought the four states together in the Union of South Africa, but black people still had no say, so in 1912 they set up their own African National Congress (ANC) to fight for their rights. Despite this, the Land Act was passed in 1913, giving blacks the worst 7% of the land, even though they were three times the size of the white population. The black areas were called ‘Bantu’ areas and became even more overcrowded than before. There was little land for planting crops or grazing livestock, so it was impossible to make a living. As there was no work in the Bantu areas, the men had to travel hundreds of miles to work in the mines and factories, leaving their families on the reserves.
In 1918 black mine-workers went on strike for better pay, but the white mine owners called in the police to force them back to work. Meanwhile, Afrikaner workers had become worried that more jobs and better pay for the blacks would mean fewer jobs for them. They formed trade unions to prevent this. In 1927 the Black Administration Act was passed, providing for a separate system of administration for the black areas from the white areas. Blacks were not allowed to vote or join trade unions, and the men had to carry passes saying where they could and could not live and work. In compensation, the black areas were increased in proportion from 7% to 13%.
This was how South Africa continued to be run until 1939, as a country run by whites for whites. Both the Afrikaners and the British agreed that black people were there to work for them and were not to be involved in any decisions. So when Great Britain asked its ‘Dominions’, including South Africa, to help out in the Second World War, the blacks had no say in this. The United Party was split, with Prime Minister Hertzog arguing against becoming involved in the war against fascism. However, he was outvoted and forced to resign. The ANC gave its full support to Jan Smuts, the new Prime Minister, in his determination to involve South Africa in the war. For the time being, at least, the Afrikaner Nationalists had lost.
Both before and during the war, many blacks moved into the cities to find work, as it was impossible to make a living in the Bantu areas. The whites living in the cities didn’t want the blacks there, so they strengthened the pass laws. As a result of the poor wages and conditions which the blacks were forced to accept, there were numerous strikes in the 1940s. In 1946, fifty thousand black mine-workers were went on strike for better pay, but many were killed and injured when police came and used violence to break up the strike.
Then, in 1948, the Afrikaner National Party were voted into power, led by Dr Daniel Malan, with their policy of ‘apartheid’, a new word, but an old idea for Afrikaners. This meant separate development for blacks and whites. Only white people could vote in the election. The National Party did not want black people to enjoy the wealth of the country or have a part in its political life. Many whites supported this because they wanted to keep all the jobs, lands and wealth for themselves.
The National Apartheid State, 1948-61:
Almost immediately, the National Party set about building up apartheid by introducing strict laws. There were laws to separate white and black people in all areas of life: schools, work, hospitals, housing areas, and even marriage. From 1948, ‘Whites Only’ signs began to appear in many places: taxis, ambulances, buses, restaurants, hotels, parks and even beaches. In sport as well, white and black people could not play together. In 1950, the government classified everyone as ‘Black’, ‘Coloured’, ‘Asian’ or ‘White’ and restricted all black people to the small Bantu areas. Any black person who owned land in a white area could be forced off it and moved to a Bantu area. The government wanted to make sure that they had control over these remote areas, so they appointed ‘chiefs’ by offering high wages in return for making sure that people did not attempt to oppose apartheid.
However, whites still needed blacks to work for them in the cities, even though they didn’t want them to live there, so two years later they passed a law to set up ‘townships’ near cities where black people who worked in the cities had to live. These were run by white administration boards who had control over all the facilities and services in the townships.
Sophiatown was a pre-existing township only six kilometres west of the centre of Johannesburg. It was one of the few places where Africans had been able to buy homes and many had lived there for more than fifty years by 1953. Because it was close to the centre of the city, several families lived in each home, with as many as forty people getting their water from a single tap. It was surrounded by towns where white workers lived, and the government wanted to move these workers into Sophiatown. So, in 1953, the government started to force Africans out of their homes in Sophiatown to a new township twenty kilometres away, as part of their plan to control where Africans could live and work.
The ANC organised meetings in the town over many months, trying to prevent its destruction. Among those who spoke at these meetings was a young Nelson Mandela, until he was banned in September 1953 under one of the laws introduced in 1950. This law allowed any person from going to meetings, leaving town, belonging to political organisations, or meeting friends. Although Mandela was not accused of any crime, for two years he was forbidden to go to meetings or to leave Johannesburg. He was even prevented from going to his son’s birthday party. He was also forced to leave the ANC. He was therefore unable to go to the national meeting of the ANC in September 1953, so that another ANC member read his words for him. He told them:
There is no easy walk to freedom. Many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain tops of our desires.
The pass laws were made even stricter so that women had to carry passes as well. A few years later, they passed laws which gave separate and unequal facilities to whites and blacks. Blacks were given the worst of everything in education, housing, health, jobs, transport etc. In 1953, the government had passed a law which separated the African school system from the white system in order to force African children to go to poorer schools.
Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, Minister of Native Affairs, said that the only place for Africans in South Africa was in some types of work. By this, he meant that Africans would only do mundane, badly paid work, so that they did not need to be educated in expensive schools. In 1954, Verwoerd made a speech in which he promised that:
When I have control of Native Education I will reform it so that the Natives will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them… People who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for Natives… When my department controls Native education it will know for what class of higher education a Native is fitted, and whether he will have a chance in life to use his knowledge… What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice. That is quite absurd.
In the 1950s, the government spent 44 pounds every year for each white student, 19 pounds for every Coloured and Asian student, and less than eight pounds for each African student.
At the beginning of 1955, four thousand police and soldiers arrived at Sophiatown and began to move people out and to destroy their homes. The ANC had failed to save the town, and it became obvious that the Afrikaner government would not be moved by the ANC’s non-violent protests. In 1956 twenty thousand women held a peaceful protest against the pass laws, but once again the police used violence to break up the demonstration. In 1958, Verwoerd became Prime Minister. He wanted greater racial segregation than ever before, and one of the first things he declared as Prime Minister was that all black Africans would be known as ‘Bantus’. In 1959, the Bantu areas were divided into ten groups called the ‘Bantustans’ or ‘Homelands’. People were told that they were citizens of a ‘homeland’ which often they had never seen before and which might be hundreds of miles from their real home. Millions of people were moved by force to these remote areas where they had no jobs, houses or land. There they had to live with their appointed ‘chiefs’. Using the passes, the government now had complete control over where every black person lived and worked.
In 1960, there was another peaceful protest against the pass laws, this time at Sharpeville, a small townships, about 55 kilometres south of Johannesburg. The Pan-African Congress (PAC), a new African organisation, had organised the protest. As part of this, a crowd of several thousand marched to the police station in Sharpeville, without their passes. The crowd waited quietly, but as the crowd grew larger, the police became more worried. Suddenly, they began to shoot at the crowd. People turned and tried to run away, but the police continued to shoot, killing 69 people and injuring many more. Protests came from all over the world, including the United Nations, the first time the UN had spoken out about what was happening in South Africa. The government declared a state of emergency and arrested 22,000 people. They banned the African National Congress (ANC) and several other anti-apartheid organisations. Mandela was taken to Pretoria Prison, with the other thirty already accused in the ‘Treason Trial’. At the trial, Mandela told the court that the ANC would continue to organise protests until the government said, “Let’s talk”. Then they would agree to talk. In March 1961, more than four years after the first arrests, the trial ended. ‘You are found not guilty,’ said the judge, ‘you may go.’ Outside the court the crowd danced and sang the national song of the ANC, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, ‘God bless Africa’, composed in 1897 in Xhosa, by a teacher in Johannesburg.
Education remained at the forefront of the fight against apartheid, and in 1976 another protest erupted in another township, Soweto, when a government circular sent to black schools sought to change the medium of instruction from English to Afrikaans for all subjects except General Science and practical subjects such as woodwork, needlework and art. The attack by the Afrikaner apartheid state on the English language turned the ‘imperial’ language into the symbolic language of liberation and equality. What followed also served as proof to the world of the immorality of the apartheid state, though it took another fifteen years for it to be brought to an end by a combination of internal and external pressure. Just three years later, we were stood on a picket line outside the headquarters of the Welsh Rugby Union in Cardiff, protesting against the visit of the so-called ‘multi-racial’ South African Barbarians. It was difficult to believe that two years after the beating to death of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko (Donald Woods had just published his smuggled biography), there was this widespread pretence that it was possible to play normal sporting matches with a country whose whole society was abnormal. If south Wales could welcome such a flagrant flouting of UN sanctions, Mrs Thatcher would have no difficulty in propping up the apartheid regime. Neither did she.
In Conclusion: Imperialism and Apartheid
Whatever our view of British imperialism in southern Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and although it was far from innocent in its treatment of the Africans and Afrikaners under its rule, there is clearly only a very tangential ideological link, if any, to the state which was brought into being in 1948. Though the descendants of British settlers may have acquiesced in the creation of a racist state for their own selfish reasons, it is also impossible to ignore the role of British missionaries, over generations, in helping to establish schools for native Africans and providing the English language education which eventually enabled them to find their voices as well as their feet. Throughout the period from 1837 to 1960, it was the determination of the Afrikaners to assert their racial predominance, supported by a heretical version of Calvinism, which established the ideology of apartheid at the centre of South African government, and kept it as the controlling concept of that state for over four decades.
Margaret Holmes (1986), A History of South Africa. Leeds: Development Education Centre.
Rowena Akinyemi (2008), Nelson Mandela. Oxford English: Oxford University Press. Read the rest of this entry »