75 South Africa

Imperialism in South Africa

Much of South Africa’s history, particularly of the colonial and post-colonial eras, is characterized by clashes of culture, violent territorial disputes between European settlers and indigenous people, dispossession and repression, and other racial and political tensions.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the social consequences of imperialism in South Africa

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 1652, a century and a half after the discovery of the Cape sea route, Jan van Riebeeck established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope at what would become Cape Town, on behalf of the Dutch East India Company.
  • The Dutch transported slaves from Indonesia, Madagascar, and India as labor for the colonists in Cape Town.
  • The British annexed the Cape Colony in 1806 and continued the frontier wars.
  • Conflicts arose among the Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, and Boer groups who competed to expand their territories.
  • The Anglo-Zulu War was fought in 1879 between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom, ending in a Zulu defeat.
  • After winning the First Boer War, the Boers were ultimately defeated in the Second Boer War by 1902.
  • Within the country, anti-British policies among white South Africans focused on independence.

Key Terms

  • Dutch East India Company: A chartered company primarily in the spice trade founded in 1602. It was the first multinational corporation in the world and the first company to issue stock. The largest and most valuable corporation in history, it possessed quasi-governmental powers including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, strike its own coins, and establish colonies.
  • Afrikaans: A West Germanic language spoken in South Africa, Namibia, and to a lesser extent, Botswana and Zimbabwe. It evolved from the Dutch vernacular of South Holland (Hollandic dialect) spoken by the mainly Dutch settlers of what is now South Africa, where it gradually began to develop distinguishing characteristics in the course of the 18th century.
  • Boers: The Dutch and Afrikaans word for “farmer.” As used in South Africa, it was used to denote the descendants of the Dutch-speaking settlers of the eastern Cape frontier in Southern Africa during the 18th century.
  • Khoikhoi: A group of people native to southwestern Africa. Unlike the neighboring hunter-gatherer San people, they traditionally practiced nomadic pastoral agriculture.

Dutch Settlement in South Africa

Portuguese mariner Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to explore the coastline of South Africa in 1488 while attempting to discover a trade route to the Far East via the southernmost cape of South Africa, which he named Cabo das Tormentas, meaning Cape of Storms.

In 1647, a Dutch vessel, the Haarlem, was wrecked in the present-day Table Bay. After being rescued, the marooned crew recommended that a permanent station be established in the bay. The Dutch East India Company (in the Dutch of the day: Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC), one of the major European trading houses sailing the spice route to the East, had no intention of colonizing the area, wanting only to establish a secure base camp where passing ships could shelter and here hungry sailors could stock up on fresh supplies of meat, fruit, and vegetables.

While the new settlement traded out of necessity with the neighboring Khoikhoi, one could hardly describe the relationship as friendly, and the authorities made deliberate attempts to restrict contact. Partly as a consequence, VOC employees found themselves faced with a labor shortage. To remedy this, they released a small number of Dutch from their contracts and permitted them to establish farms, with which they would supply the great VOC settlement from their harvests. This arrangement proved highly successful, producing abundant supplies of fruit, vegetables, wheat, and wine; they later raised livestock. The small initial group of free burghers, as these farmers were known, steadily increased and began to expand their farms further north and east into the territory of the Khoikhoi.

In addition to establishing the free burgher system, van Riebeeck and the VOC made indentured servants out of the Khoikhoi and the San and began to import large numbers of slaves, primarily from Madagascar and Indonesia. These slaves often married Dutch settlers, and their descendants became known as the Cape Coloureds and the Cape Malays. A significant number of the offspring from the white and slave unions were absorbed into the local proto-Afrikaans speaking white population. The racially mixed genealogical origins of many so-called “white” South Africans have been traced to interracial unions at the Cape between the European-occupying population and imported Asian and African slaves, the indigenous Khoi and San, and their offspring.

With this additional labor, the areas occupied by the VOC expanded further to the north and east, with inevitable clashes with the Khoikhoi. The newcomers drove the beleaguered Khoikhoi from their traditional lands and destroyed them with superior weapons when they fought back, which they did in a number of major wars and with guerrilla resistance movements that continued into the 19th century. Europeans also brought diseases that had devastating effects against people whose immune system was not adapted to them. Most survivors were left with no option but to work for the Europeans in an exploitative arrangement that differed little from slavery.

As the burghers, too, continued to expand into the rugged hinterlands of the north and east, many began a semi-nomadic pastoralist lifestyle, in some ways not far removed from that of the Khoikhoi they displaced. In addition to its herds, a family might have a wagon, a tent, a Bible, and a few guns. As they became more settled, they would build a mud-walled cottage, frequently located by choice days of travel from the nearest European. These were the first of the Trekboere (Wandering Farmers, later shortened to Boers), completely independent of official controls, extraordinarily self-sufficient, and isolated. Their harsh lifestyle produced individualists who were well-acquainted with the land. Like many pioneers with Christian backgrounds, the burghers attempted to live their lives based on teachings from the Bible.

Painting of several Dutch explorers carrying the Dutch flag approaching native Africans. A large mountain looms in the background.
Dutch Settlement in South Africa: Painting of an account of the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, by Charles Bell.

English Annexation

During the Napoleonic Wars, the Cape Colony was annexed by the British and officially became their colony in 1815. Britain encouraged settlers to the Cape, and in particular, sponsored the 1820 settlers to farm in the disputed area between the colony and the Xhosa in what is now the Eastern Cape. The changing image of the Cape from Dutch to British excluded the Dutch farmers in the area, the Boers who in the 1820s started their Great Trek to the northern areas of modern South Africa. This period also marked the rise in power of the Zulu under their king Shaka Zulu. Subsequently several conflicts arose between the British, Boers, and Zulus.

The discoveries of diamonds and gold in the 19th century had a profound effect on the fortunes of the region, propelling it onto the world stage and introducing a shift away from an exclusively agrarian-based economy towards industrialization and the development of urban infrastructure.

The Anglo-Zulu War was fought in 1879 between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. Following Lord Carnarvon’s successful introduction of federation in Canada, it was thought that similar political effort coupled with military campaigns might succeed with the African kingdoms, tribal areas, and Boer republics in South Africa. In 1874, Sir Henry Bartle Frere was sent to South Africa as High Commissioner for the British Empire to bring such plans into being. Among the obstacles were the presence of the independent states of the South African Republic and the Kingdom of Zululand and its army. The Zulu nation spectacularly defeated the British at the Battle of Isandlwana. Eventually, though, the war was lost, resulting in the end of the Zulu nation’s independence.

The Boer Republics successfully resisted British encroachments during the First Boer War (1880–1881) using guerrilla warfare tactics that were well-suited to local conditions. The British returned with greater numbers, more experience, and new strategy in the Second Boer War (1899–1902) but suffered heavy casualties through attrition. By 1902, 26,000 Boers (mainly women and children) had died of disease, hunger, and neglect in concentration camps. On May 31, 1902, a superficial peace came with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging. Under its terms, the Boer republics acknowledged British sovereignty, while the British committed themselves to reconstruction of the areas under their control.

Within the country, anti-British policies among white South Africans focused on independence. During the Dutch and British colonial years, racial segregation was mostly informal, though some legislation was enacted to control the settlement and movement of native people, including the Native Location Act of 1879 and the system of pass laws. Power was held by the ethnic European colonists.

Photo of a few dozen Boer women and children in a concentration camp.
Boer Wars: Boer women and children in a concentration camp. The discoveries of diamonds and gold led to new conflicts culminating in open warfare between the Boer settlers and imperial Britain, who fought essentially for control over the nascent South African mining industry.

The Union of South Africa

Following the defeat of the Boers in the Second Boer War (1899–1902), the Union of South Africa was created as a dominion of the British Empire, which unified into one entity the four previously separate British colonies: Cape Colony, Natal Colony, Transvaal Colony, and Orange River Colony.

Learning Objectives

Describe the structure of the Union of South Africa

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • During the years immediately following the Anglo- Boer wars, Britain set about unifying the four colonies, including the former Boer republics, into one self-governed country named the Union of South Africa.
  • This vision came into being on May 31, 1910, with the unification of four previously separate British colonies: Cape Colony, Natal Colony, Transvaal Colony, and Orange River Colony.
  • Among other harsh segregationist laws, including denial of voting rights to black people, the Union parliament enacted the 1913 Natives’ Land Act, which earmarked only eight percent of South Africa’s available land for black occupancy.
  • Dissatisfaction with British influence in the Union’s affairs reached a climax in September 1914, when impoverished Boers, anti-British Boers, and bitter-enders launched a rebellion that was quickly squashed.
  • In 1931 the union was fully sovereign from the United Kingdom with the passage of the Statute of Westminster, which abolished the last powers of the British Government on the country.

Key Terms

  • Afrikaner: A Southern African ethnic group descended from predominantly Dutch settlers who first arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  • South Africa Act 1909: An Act of the British Parliament which created the Union of South Africa from the British colonies of the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, Orange River Colony, and Transvaal.

Roots of the Union

During the immediate post-war years, the British focused their attention on rebuilding the country, in particular the mining industry. By 1907 the mines of the Witwatersrand produced almost one-third of the world’s annual gold production. But the peace brought by the treaty remained fragile and challenged on all sides. The Afrikaners found themselves in the difficult position of poor farmers in a country where big mining ventures and foreign capital rendered them irrelevant. Britain’s unsuccessful attempts to anglicize them and impose English as the official language in schools and the workplace particularly incensed them. Partly as a backlash, the Boers came to see Afrikaans as the volkstaal (“people’s language”) and a symbol of Afrikaner nationhood. Several nationalist organisations sprang up.

Blacks remained marginalized in society. The British High Commissioner Lord Alfred Milner introduced “segregation,” later known as apartheid. The authorities imposed harsh taxes and reduced wages while the British caretaker administrator encouraged the immigration of thousands of Chinese to undercut any resistance. Resentment exploded in the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906, in which 4,000 Zulus lost their lives after rebelling due to onerous tax legislation.

Union of South Africa

The British moved ahead with their plans for union. After several years of negotiations, the South Africa Act 1909 brought the colonies and republics – Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal, and Orange Free State – together as the Union of South Africa. Under the provisions of the act, the Union remained British territory, but with home-rule for Afrikaners. The British High Commission territories of Basutoland (now Lesotho), Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Swaziland, and Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) continued under direct rule from Britain.

English and Dutch became the official languages. Afrikaans did not gain recognition as an official language until 1925. Despite a major campaign by Blacks and Coloureds, the voter franchise remained as in the pre-Union republics and colonies, and only whites could gain election to Parliament.

Among other harsh segregationist laws, including denial of voting rights to blacks, the Union parliament enacted the 1913 Natives’ Land Act, which earmarked only eight percent of South Africa’s available land for black occupancy. White people, who constituted 20 percent of the population, held 90 percent of the land. The Land Act would form a cornerstone of legalized racial discrimination for the next nine decades.

General Louis Botha headed the first government of the new Union with General Jan Smuts as his deputy. Their South African National Party, later known as the South African Party or SAP, followed a generally pro-British, white-unity line. The more radical Boers split away under the leadership of General Barry Hertzog, forming the National Party (NP) in 1914. The NP championed Afrikaner interests, advocating separate development for the two white groups and independence from Britain.

Photo of the first Cabinet of the Union of South Africa, 11 white men.
The First Union Cabinet: General Louis Botha headed the first government of the new Union and followed a generally pro-British, white-unity line.

Dissatisfaction with British influence in the Union’s affairs reached a climax in September 1914, when impoverished Boers, anti-British Boers, and bitter-enders launched a rebellion. The rebellion was quashed and at least one officer was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad.

In 1924 the Afrikaner-dominated National Party came to power in a coalition government with the Labour Party. Afrikaans, previously regarded as a low-level Dutch patois, replaced Dutch as an official language of the Union. English and Dutch became the official languages in 1925.

The Union of South Africa came to an end after a referendum on October 5, 1960, in which a majority of white South Africans voted in favor of unilateral withdrawal from the British Commonwealth and the establishment of a Republic of South Africa.


The National Party in South Africa imposed apartheid in 1948, which institutionalized racial segregation through a series of legislation that established strict racial classification, forced relocation of nonwhites to “tribal homelands,” and segregated public facilities and institutions.

Learning Objectives

Explain what aspects of South African policy comprise the movement referred to as “apartheid”

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Racist legislation during the apartheid era was a continuation and extension of discriminatory and segregationist laws that began in 1856 under Dutch rule in the Cape and continued throughout the country under British colonialism.
  • Beginning in 1948, successive National Party administrations formalized and extended the existing system of racial discrimination and denial of human rights into the legal system of apartheid, which lasted until 1991.
  • While whites enjoyed the highest standard of living in Africa, comparable to that of Western nations, the black majority remained disadvantaged by almost every standard, including income, education, housing, and life expectancy.
  • The first grand apartheid law was the Population Registration Act of 1950, which formalized racial classification and introduced an identity card specifying racial group for everyone older than age 18.
  • The second pillar of grand apartheid was the Group Areas Act of 1950, which put an end to diverse areas and determined where one lived according to race; each race was allotted its own area, which was used in later years as a basis of forced removal to “tribal homelands” known as bantustans.
  • The National Part passed a string of legislation that became known as petty apartheid aimed as segregating South Africa’s social institutions, the first of which was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act 55 of 1949, prohibiting marriage between whites and people of other races.
  • After a long and sometimes violent struggle by the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid activists both inside and outside the country, discriminatory laws began to be repealed or abolished in 1990.

Key Terms

  • petty apartheid: Apartheid laws that segregated public facilities and social events.
  • grand apartheid: Apartheid laws that dictated housing and employment opportunities by race.
  • National Party: A political party in South Africa founded in 1915 that first became the governing party of the country in 1924. The policies of the party included apartheid, the establishment of a republic, and the promotion of Afrikaner culture.
  • bantustans: Also known as “homeland,” a territory set aside for black inhabitants of South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia) as part of the policy of apartheid.
  • Nelson Mandela: A South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the country’s first black head of state and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalized racism and fostering racial reconciliation.


Apartheid was a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa between 1948 and 1991. Broadly speaking, apartheid was delineated into petty apartheid, which entailed the segregation of public facilities and social events, and grand apartheid, which dictated housing and employment opportunities by race. Prior to the 1940s, some vestiges of apartheid had already emerged in the form of minority rule by white South Africans and the socially enforced separation of black South Africans from other races, which later extended to pass laws and land apportionment. Racist legislation during the apartheid era was a continuation and extension of discriminatory and segregationist laws forming a continuum that commenced in 1856 under Dutch rule in the Cape and continued throughout the country under British colonialism. Apartheid as a policy was embraced by the South African government shortly after the ascension of the National Party (NP) during the country’s 1948 general elections.

Apartheid Legislation

The first piece of apartheid legislation was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act in 1949, which was followed closely by the Immorality Act of 1950, making it illegal for South African citizens to marry or pursue sexual relationships across racial lines. The Population Registration Act, 1950, classified all South Africans into one of four racial groups based on appearance, known ancestry, socioeconomic status, and cultural lifestyle. NP leaders argued that South Africa did not comprise a single nation, but was made up of four distinct racial groups: White, Black, Coloured and Indian. The Coloured group included people regarded as of mixed descent, including of Bantu, Khoisan, European, and Malay ancestry. Such groups were split into 13 nations or racial federations. White people encompassed the English and Afrikaans language groups; the black populace was divided into ten such groups.

Places of residence were determined by racial classification under the Group Areas Act of 1950. From 1960 to 1983, 3.5 million nonwhite South Africans were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighborhoods in one of the largest mass removals in modern history. Most of these targeted removals were intended to restrict the black population to ten designated “tribal homelands,” also known as bantustans, four of which become nominally independent states. These removals included people relocated due to slum clearance programs, labor tenants on white-owned farms, the inhabitants of the so-called “black spots” (black-owned land surrounded by white farms), the families of workers living in townships close to the homelands, and “surplus people” from urban areas, including thousands of people from the Western Cape. The government announced that relocated persons would lose their South African citizenship as they were absorbed into the bantustans.

Map of South Africa showing the locations of bantustans.
Bantustans in South Africa: A key act of legislation during Apartheid was the Homeland Citizens Act of 1970. It authorized the forced removals of thousands of African people from urban centers in South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia) to what became described colloquially as “Bantustans” or the “original homes.” 

The NP also passed a string of legislation that became known as petty apartheid. Acts passed under petty apartheid were meant to separate nonwhites from daily life. Blacks were not allowed to run businesses or professional practices in areas designated as “white South Africa” unless they had a permit. Transport and civil facilities were segregated. Black buses stopped at black bus stops and white buses at white ones. Trains, hospitals, and ambulances were segregated. Because there were fewer white patients and white doctors preferred to work in white hospitals, conditions in white hospitals were much better than those in often overcrowded and understaffed black hospitals.

Photo of a sign on a Durban beach that reserves it "for the sole use of members of the white race group", in English, Afrikaans, and Zulu.
Petty Apartheid: Sign reserving a Natal beach “for the sole use of members of the white race group,” in English, Afrikaans, and Zulu. Acts passed under petty apartheid were meant to separate nonwhites from daily life.


A codified system of racial stratification began to take form in South Africa under the Dutch Empire in the late 18th century, although informal segregation was present much earlier due to social cleavages between Dutch colonists and a creolized, ethnically diverse slave population. With the rapid growth and industrialization of the British Cape Colony in the 19th century, racial policies and laws became increasingly rigid. Cape legislation that discriminated specifically against black Africans began appearing shortly before 1900. The policies of the Boer republics were also racially exclusive; for instance, the constitution of the Transvaal barred nonwhite participation in church and state.

The Franchise and Ballot Act of 1892 instituted limits based on financial means and education to the black franchise, and the Natal Legislative Assembly Bill of 1894 deprived Indians of the right to vote. The Glen Grey Act of 1894, instigated by the government of Prime Minister Cecil John Rhodes, limited the amount of land Africans could hold. In 1905, the General Pass Regulations Act denied blacks the vote, limited them to fixed areas, and inaugurated the infamous Pass System. The Asiatic Registration Act (1906) required all Indians to register and carry passes. In 1910 the Union of South Africa was created as a self-governing dominion, which continued the legislative program. The South Africa Act (1910) enfranchised whites, giving them complete political control over all other racial groups while removing the right of blacks to sit in parliament. The Native Land Act (1913) prevented blacks, except those in the Cape, from buying land outside “reserves.” The Natives in Urban Areas Bill (1918) was designed to force blacks into “locations.” The Urban Areas Act (1923) introduced residential segregation and provided cheap labor for industry led by white people. The Colour Bar Act (1926) prevented black mine workers from practicing skilled trades. The Native Administration Act (1927) made the British Crown the supreme head over all African affairs.

Opposition and Abolishment

Apartheid sparked significant international and domestic opposition, resulting in some of the most influential global social movements of the twentieth century. It was the target of frequent condemnation in the United Nations and brought about an extensive arms and trade embargo on South Africa. During the 1970s and 1980s, internal resistance to apartheid became increasingly militant, prompting brutal crackdowns by the National Party administration and protracted sectarian violence that left thousands dead or in detention. Some reforms of the apartheid system were undertaken, including allowing for Indian and Coloured political representation in parliament, but these measures failed to appease most activist groups.

Organized resistance to Afrikaner nationalism was not confined exclusively to activists of the oppressed, dark-skinned population. A movement known as the Torch Commando was formed in the 1950s, led by white war veterans who had fought fascism in Europe and North Africa during World War II only to find fascism on the rise in South Africa when they returned home. With 250,000 paid-up members at the height of its existence, it was the largest white protest movement in the country’s history. By 1952, the brief flame of mass-based white radicalism was extinguished when the Torch Commando disbanded due to government legislation under the Suppression of Communism Act, 1950. Some members of the Torch Commando subsequently became leading figures in the armed wing of the banned African National Congress.

Between 1987 and 1993, the National Party entered into bilateral negotiations with the African National Congress, the leading anti-apartheid political movement, to end segregation and introduce majority rule. In 1990, prominent ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela were released from detention. Apartheid legislation was abolished in mid-1991, pending multiracial elections set for April 1994.


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