Understanding South Africa

To understand the South Africa of today I felt the need to delve into its past and attempt to summarise a very complicated history!

When the first Europeans arrived in South Africa, the Portuguese, they paid little interest in the Cape, although they can be credited with providing the name, Cape of Good Hope in 1487. In 1647 a Dutch vessel became marooned in the water near Cape Town. Retreating to land to build a fort for protection, they waited a full year for rescue, inadvertently becoming the first European settles. Soon after, the Dutch settled in the Cape, although even at this time they restricted contact with the local people. Instead the Dutch East India Company dispatched their own people to farm the land. Most of these people were of Dutch decent accompanied by some Germans and later by the French Huguenots (who fled persecution due to their protestant beliefs). When we visited Franschhoek (French corner) these French roots are widely celebrated, we even stayed within the Chamonix wine estate. Later generations of these Europeans became known as the Boers (wandering farmers).

What the Dutch did next had a huge impact on the future racial makeup on South Africa. They began importing slaves, mainly from Madagascar and Indonesia. Over time these slaves, the local indigenous people, and the Europeans began to mix. Their offspring form the basis of South Africa’s coloured population. It might be worth noting that coloured is a perfectly acceptable term in South Africa. In fact in Ghana people are also referenced by their skin colour, it’s no different from saying the blonde woman or the thin man.

When the British arrived to take the Cape from the failing Dutch in the late 18th century they also took along 5000 British settlers, adding another dynamic to the Cape’s white population. Later, between 1860 and the early 20th century, 150,000 Indians arrived, some as slaves and some by free passage. The white settlers saw themselves as superior and took land and jobs where they saw fit. The Boers became insular people, isolated farmers, believing it was their duty to the Lord to rule over the black South Africans. Much later decedents of the Boers became known as Afrikaans.

Moving forward to 1910 and Britain signed the Act of the Union, bringing together various areas to create the Union of South Africa, still ruling in favour of the white population. The Afrikaans found themselves as poor farmers and a nationalist movement began, rejecting English as an official language and campaigning for full independence from the British. With these ideals the National Party (NP) was born in 1914.

To consider the Act of the Union, in 2016, seems crazy. The white people of South Africa made up 20% of the population yet they were given 90% of the land and this was done by simply evicting people from the land on which they lived. Yet the black population could not vote unless they owned land, thus creating a Catch-22 situation.

The British had promised freedom from Boer slavery but it was pure propaganda. A raft of laws were passed preventing the black and coloured population from going on strike or taking skilled jobs. With growing suppression of anyone who wasn’t white the African National Congress was formed in 1923, their goal at this time – to represent the black population of South Africa.

It was in 1948 that the National Party won a coalition vote and Apartheid, meaning being apart, was born. An already prominent separation between the races was legislated. Interracial marriages became illegal, separate beaches, buses, hospitals, schools, even park benches were established. Blacks and coloureds were forced to carry identity documents at all times and were prevented entering certain areas without permits. They were also not allowed to vote.

Apartheid fired up the previously conservative ANC into action along with other similar bodies. By 1960 racial tensions had reached a head and at a protest in Sharpsville police opened fire on protesters, 67 people were killed and 186 wounded, many shot in the back. Many saw this as a turning point, a clear indication of the way South Africa was being ruled.

Growing tensions and protests from the ANC resulted in a raft of new laws which ultimately led to the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and seven others. The decades that followed, with the ANC underground and much of the movement in prison, are sometimes referred to as the decades of darkness. Apartheid only grew stronger, most notably with the development of the homeland areas. These areas were supposed to allow the black community to live together as self-sufficient, self-governing entities. The reality was many people crammed into a small area which could not supply enough food and with no infrastructure or industry, many fled to the city where the situation was only marginally better.

On the approach into Cape Town today shanty towns can be seen off the main road. Row upon row of small corrugated sheet metal houses are lined up terrace style. So small and fragile, you might wonder if they are temporary, but you will see electricity pylons line the area, and satellite dishes are dotted around. I wonder if this image might not be so far removed from the homelands of the 70s.

In the 80s, with the white population shrinking to around 16%, it was recognised that things would have to change. It wasn’t until 1990 however that Mandela and other political prisoners were freed, 27 years after his incarceration. By 1991 apartheid was officially abolished. In 1993/4 a new constitution was written with constitutional rights for all groups. The new ‘Rainbow’ flag of South Africa was raised and Nelson Mandela became the first black head of state and the first President elected by a fully represented democratic election.

The 20 years that have followed haven’t exactly been smooth. Issues of crime, corruption and racial tensions are still prevalent. People convicted of criminal acts in the fight for democracy remained imprisoned long after the political prisoners were freed. Let’s hope that the Rainbow nation can continue to move forward in a positive way and perhaps eventually tackle those issues that still remain.

Our trip to southern South Africa was wonderful. With stunning landscapes, wildlife in abundance, lovely people and excellent food and wine. I would love to see more and ultimately, understand more about this beautiful country.