The Union of South Africa was launched on 31 May 1910 with much good will and with the hope that the Boers and the British might find a way of resolving their differences and merge into a single South African nation. Outwardly there seemed a reasonable prospect of success. South Africa was by far the richest state in Africa, providing one third of the world’s gold supply and 98 per cent of the world’s diamond production. The new government, led by Louis Botha as prime minister, consisted of prominent figures from both communities committed to a policy of reconciliation. They included two other Boer generals, Jan Smuts and Barry Hertzog, as well as a large contingent of English-speaking South Africans. An election in 1910 showed that an overwhelming number of Afrikaners supported pleas for reconciliation.
Yet fear and resentment of British domination ran deep. Many Afrikaners never accepted the idea of being part of the British empire and mourned the loss of their own republics. Everywhere they were reminded of the presence of British authority. ‘God Save the King’ became the official anthem. The national flag was a British Red Ensign, with the Union Coat of Arms in a lower corner. The Privy Council in London, rather than the Supreme Court, was the final arbiter in the administration of justice. Moreover, on questions of war and peace, South Africa, under the 1910 constitution, was not a sovereign independent state, but bound by decisions of the British government. Most civil servants were English-speaking; even on the platteland English civil servants and teachers played a prominent role. The towns too were British. The British dominated industry, commerce and the mines and controlled the banks and finance houses. They also held an almost complete monopoly of industrial skills and training.
Fearing that the sheer weight of British influence would eventually engulf the Afrikaner people and turn South Africa into a mere appendage of the British empire, a group of Afrikaner leaders began openly to repudiate the policies of reconciliation that Botha and Smuts supported. Among them was Barry Hertzog. Hertzog had accepted the imperial connection only because it served to allay the fears of the English-speaking minority and thereby promoted good relations between the two groups. But he was determined that South Africa should develop a separate and independent identity within the empire, embracing both English and Afrikaners on a basis of complete equality. ‘I am not one of those who always have their mouths full of conciliation and loyalty,’ he said in 1912, ‘for those are idle words which deceive no one.’ And in a clear reference to a recent meeting of the Imperial Conference in London that General Botha had attended, he added: ‘I would rather live with my own people on a dunghill than stay in the palaces of the British Empire.’ Dropped from the cabinet in 1913, Hertzog travelled from village to village in the Orange Free State promoting the Afrikaner cause and leaving in his wake a host of Afrikaner vigilance committees. The following year, with a handful of parliamentary colleagues, he formed a new National Party, demanding that ‘the interests of the Union come before those of any country’.
When Botha and Smuts took South Africa into the First World War, at Britain’s behest, Hertzog stood against them. ‘This is a war between England and Germany,’ he said. ‘It is not a South African war.’ Several of his old Boer war colleagues, including Christiaan de Wet and Koos de la Rey, thought the time was ripe for rebellion and issued a call to arms. In sporadic encounters lasting three months, Afrikaner rebels fought government troops. It was an episode that left yet more bitter memories. In the general election in 1915, the National Party won sixteen of the seventeen Free State seats, as well as seven seats in the Cape and four seats in the Transvaal.
Adding to the anguish of Afrikaner nationalists was an immense social upheaval afflicting the Afrikaner community. Economic change in rural areas, caused in part by the war, in part by the growth of modern agriculture, pitched hundreds of thousands of Afrikaners into an abyss of poverty, precipitating a mass exodus to the towns - die trek na die stad. Yet, as Afrikaners found them, the towns were an alien and often hostile world. The language of industry, commerce and the civil service was overwhelmingly English; their own language, derided as a ‘kitchen language’, was treated with contempt. Lacking skills, education and capital, many were forced to seek work in competition with cheap black labour and to live cheek by jowl in slums on the ragged edges of towns. Urban poverty became as common as rural poverty.
The ‘poor white problem’, as it was called, was frequently blamed on the evil designs of ‘British imperialism’ and ‘Anglo-Jewish capitalism’. Afrikaner leaders responded by establishing their own social organisations to try to hold the volk together through the maelstrom of depression and to preserve their own traditions. One such organisation, launched in 1918, was the Afrikaner Broederbond. It began as a small, select society interested principally in the promotion of Afrikaner culture and language. But it was to grow into one of the most formidable organisations in South African history and to become a major factor in determining its fate.
The black population, meanwhile, was subjected to a barrage of legislation designed to relegate it to a strictly subordinate role and to exploit its labour potential. In 1911, the Mines and Works Act barred blacks from skilled industrial jobs. In 1913 the Natives’ Land Act laid down the principle of territorial segregation along lines similar to those advocated by the Lagden Commission. Africans were prohibited from purchasing or leasing land in white areas; the only areas where they could lawfully acquire land henceforth were in native reserves which then amounted to about 8 per cent of the country. Africans in the Cape were excluded from the legislation since African land rights there affected voting rights.
The effect of the Natives’ Land Act was to uproot thousands of black tenants renting white-owned land - ‘squatters’ as they were commonly known. Some sought refuge in the reserves, though overcrowding there was already becoming a noticeable feature. Others were forced, after selling their livestock and implements, to work as labourers for white farmers. A whole class of prosperous peasant farmers was eventually destroyed. The impact was particularly severe in the Orange Free State where many white farmers lost no time in evicting squatters in compliance with the law. The plight of these destitute families driven off the land was described by the African writer Sol Plaatje in his account of Native Life in South Africa. ‘Awakening on Friday morning, 20 June 1913,’ he wrote, ‘the South African Native found himself not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.’ Plaatje recorded how travelling through the Orange Free State in the winter of 1913, he found bands of African peasants trudging from one place to the next in search of a farmer who might give them shelter, their women and children shivering with cold in the winter nights, their livestock emaciated and starving. ‘It looks as if these people were so many fugitives escaping from a war.’
Although the amount of land reserved for Africans was increased in 1936 from 8 per cent to 13 per cent of the total area of the country, overcrowding caused ruinous conditions. Official reports continually warned of land degradation, soil erosion, poor farming practices, disease and malnutrition. Unable to support their families in the reserves and needing money to pay taxes, more and more men headed for towns in search of work.
The same process of segregation was applied to towns. The Natives Urban Areas Act of 1923 established the principle that the towns were white areas in which Africans were permitted to reside in segregated ‘locations’ only as long as they served white needs. The Act provided for ‘influx controls’ regulating the entry of Africans into urban areas through greater use of the pass system. Pass laws, commonly employed since the nineteenth century for a variety of purposes, became an integral part of Native policy. African men were required to carry passes recording permission to work and live in a particular white area. They needed passes for travel, for taxes, for curfews, always liable for inspection by police. Africans deemed to be ‘surplus’ to labour requirements faced deportation to the reserves.
In 1936, African voters were struck from the common roll in the Cape Province, losing a right they had held for more than eighty years. The practical effect of the legislation - the Representation of Natives Act - was limited. African voters at the time numbered only some 10,000, amounting to no more than 2.5 per cent of the provincial electorate and 1 per cent of the Union’s electorate. But the political significance was crucial. As the historian Cornelis de Kiewiet noted: ‘To destroy the Cape native franchise was to destroy the most important bridge between the world of two races.’
By the 1930s, the Broederbond had developed into a tightly disciplined, highly secretive group with an elite membership bound together by oath. Its reach extended throughout the country. It had penetrated the civil service and the teaching profession and begun to infiltrate members into ‘key positions’ in all leading institutions. Its ultimate goal was to establish Afrikaner domination in South Africa - ‘baasskap’.
With the help of Afrikaner academics, it fashioned a new, hardened version of Afrikaner ideology. Christian-Nationalism, as it was called, was essentially a blend of the Old Testament and modern politics, influenced in part by the rise of European fascism. At its core was the notion once expounded by Paul Kruger that Afrikaners were members of an exclusive volk created by the hand of God to fulfil a special mission in South Africa. Their history, their language, their culture, being divinely ordained, were unique. They were an organic unity from which ‘foreign elements’ like English-speakers were excluded.
Afrikaner history was portrayed as an epic struggle against two powerful enemies, the British and the blacks, both intent on their annihilation and only prevented from succeeding by divine intervention. ‘The last hundred years,’ asserted the former predikant Dr Daniel Malan, ‘have witnessed a miracle behind which must lie a divine plan.’
In the context of the 1930s, the greatest threat to Afrikanerdom was seen to come from British imperialism and its allies in the English-speaking population. In the 1940s, however, nationalist intellectuals became increasingly obsessed with the swart gevaar - the black threat to Afrikanerbaasskap - and turned their political machine to confront this new menace.
An economic boom during the Second World War drew massive numbers of Africans into industrial centres on the Witwatersrand and other urban areas. By 1946 there were almost as many Africans living in urban areas as whites, most of them crammed into slums and shantytowns. Census figures in 1946 reminded whites that they were a declining proportion of the population. Since 1910 the white population had increased by little more than a million to 2.4 million, whereas the non-white population had expanded by nearly 4.5 million to 9 million. The mood of the African population, moreover, was becoming ever more militant.
As prime minister, Jan Smuts struggled to find an effective policy for dealing with the swart gevaar. The impression he gave to an increasingly worried white electorate was that his government was beginning to lose control of the black population and, what was worse, lacked the will to restore control.
Malan’s National Party, meanwhile, put forward a plan which it claimed provided a permanent solution to the problem: apartheid. Only total racial separation, it argued, would ensure white survival. In the 1948 election, the National Party won a narrow victory. ‘For the first time since Union,’ declared Malan on taking office as prime minister, ‘South Africa is our own, and may God grant that it will always remain so.’>
At the time, South Africa’s racial policies differed in detail rather than in essence from the discriminatory practices employed elsewhere in Africa under European rule. But once in power, Afrikaner nationalists proceeded to construct the most elaborate racial edifice the world has ever seen - a vast apparatus of laws and controls to enforce white supremacy. Under the apartheid system, every facet of African life - residence, employment, education, public amenities and politics - was regulated to ensure their subordination.
In their quest for political rights, the black opposition tried public protests, petitions, passive resistance, boycotts and eventually sabotage, guerrilla warfare and urban insurrection. Their struggle lasted for much of the twentieth century. It was not until 1994, after years of internal strife, that South Africa’s first democratic elections were held and Nelson Mandela became president of a democratic government.