Union of South Africa

Union of South Africa
Union of South Africa

The southern regions of Africa were colonized by the Dutch (Boers), who moved inland after the British capture of the area around the Cape of Good Hope in 1806. The discoveries of diamonds and gold in the region during the late 19th century prompted a wave of European immigration, especially by the British, and led to increased oppression of the indigenous people.

The Boers resented the growing numbers of settlers and tried to drive them out. As a result, British troops were sent to fight the Boer War. In the end Britain gained control of several territories on the southern tip of Africa.

Eight years after the Boer War, four of Britain's territories became the Union of South Africa, uniting through a constitution that allowed each state to maintain its current franchise qualifications and issuing in the apartheid that was to continue until the 1990s. The union comprised Cape Colony, Natal, Orange River Colony, and Transvaal.

It had taken almost a decade to reach a compromise on the constitution. The Dutch Afrikaners were still a powerful force in the area; in fact, Louis Botha and Jan Christiaan Smuts, generals from Kruger's army, were influential in the design of the new government.

Each of the four territories wanted to maintain as much autonomy as possible, while Britain wanted a unified country that could be self-supporting and maintain its own defense. In addition, there were many, including a number of black and white liberal leaders, who felt that the racial separation embedded in the constitution was unacceptable.

The constitution that was approved legally recognized apartheid by allowing each of the four states to establish its own policy and required the approval of a two-thirds majority of parliament to effect changes. The constitution also established a British style of government and designated both English and Dutch as official languages.

Louis Botha
Louis Botha

Stipulations allowing for the future incorporation of other British territories into the union were also included. In 1915 South Africa captured Southwest Africa (Namibia) from the Germans. This territory was placed under union rule by the League of Nations after World War I.

In May 1910 Botha became the prime minister, and Smuts became his deputy. The racial mix of the population was approximately 68 percent African, 21 percent white, 8 percent colored, and 3 percent Indian. In spite of their minority in the general population, whites controlled the government and enacted a number of laws that further denied rights to the majority.

In 1911 three significant acts contributed to the legalization of racial discrimination. The Native Labour Regulation Act made it a criminal offense for an African, but not for a white, to break a labor contract. The Mines and Work Act legalized the practice of employing Africans in only semiskilled and unskilled jobs.

The Dutch Reformed Church Act of the same year prohibited Africans' becoming members, disallowing Africans full participation in the state-established church. The most devastating obstruction to racial equality, however, came in 1913 with the passage of the Natives Land Act.

This law, which designated the land areas that could be owned by separate races, gave over 92 percent of the land to the white population. In addition, the legislation made it illegal for blacks to live outside their own lands unless employed by whites as laborers.

Black South Africans had been organizing in opposition to discrimination and were not silent during these years. The African Political Organization was formed in 1902 in Cape Town, elected Abdullah Abdurahman its president in 1904, and had grown to 20,000 strong by 1910.

The years immediately before the ratification of the constitution were filled with protests and demonstrations, and in March 1909 a massive South African Native Convention charged those writing the constitution to give all races equal rights.

In 1912 educated leaders of the African population gathered in Bloemfontein to discuss means of protesting discrimination and establishing civil rights for all citizens. Many of these leaders had been educated in England and the United States and believed that the continent had benefited from Western influences, especially Christianity.

Although the congress did not call for an end to British authority, it was fully committed to bringing about an end to the systematic inequality in South Africa in a nonviolent manner. John Dube, the first president, believed that they could rely on the "sense of common justice" that was part of the British character. However, Britain was not willing to interfere. A delegation from the Native Congress traveled to England in 1914 to protest the Natives Land Act.

They were told by the colonial secretary that there was nothing he could do. In 1919 another group of representatives met in London with Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who said that this was a problem that would have to be dealt with in South Africa.

As the apartheid system continued, nonwhites received only the most basic education, could not socialize with whites, and had virtually no voice in government. In addition, they were required to carry "pass books" that contained records of their movements outside their designated areas.

In 1948 apartheid laws were enacted that created 10 "homelands," or Bantustans, where black ethnic groups could live under self-rule but were still under the authority of the central government.

The Population Registration Act of 1950 further tightened the bands of discrimination by requiring that every person in South Africa register as a member of one of three racial groups: white, black (African), or colored (of mixed descent). The government assigned blacks and coloreds to one of the homelands.

Political rights were restricted to the homeland. In this way the government of South Africa hoped to designate nonwhites as citizens of the homeland and not citizens of South Africa, keeping their control of the nation. In essence, nonwhites became aliens in their own country.

In 1931 the Union of South Africa was recognized as an independent nation within the commonwealth of nations, and in 1961 it gained full independence. In 1994 a black majority was finally elected to parliament, and apartheid was abolished.