South Africa Afrikaners

Boer guerrillas during the Second Boer War
Boer guerrillas during the Second Boer War

The first half of the 20th century represented a consolidation of white-dominated rule in South Africa. Yet the century began with a conflict between the British colony and the Afrikaner, or Boer, republics.

Afrikaners, who claimed their lineage from the original Dutch settlers of the Cape colony, had developed an increasingly distinct national identity in conflict with the British and the African peoples of South Africa. Despite British victory in the brutal South African War, the increasingly segregated and racialized system in a united South African state pinnacled with the birth of apartheid in 1948.

What the British called the Second Anglo-Boer War the Afrikaners called the Second War of Freedom. Historians have called it the South African War (1899–1902) to reflect that the war was not merely an imperial war between the British and the Boers, but a civil war that involved the entire population of South Africa.

The British claimed that the war was about the rights of foreigners—Uitlanders—in the Boer republic called the Transvaal; Paul Kruger, the president of the Boer republic, understood the conflict to be about something more—British desire to control the Cape and the mineral wealth of Transvaal. After the early success of the Afrikaner war effort, the British drew on the resources of the empire to meet a significant challenge to their imperial dominance.

The Boers, led by generals including Jan Christiaan Smuts and Louis Botha, turned increasingly to guerrilla tactics. In turn the British commander, Horatio, Lord Kitchener, responded by burning Boer farms and imprisoning enemy civilians, including Africans, at concentration camps, where thousands died of disease.

Africans generally did not fight in the war, but they did provide logistical support and supplies. In Britain, opposition to the war on both financial and humanitarian grounds grew. Finally, the last holdouts surrendered in 1902. The Treaty of Vereeniging treated the Boers relatively mildly and even granted them political and cultural autonomy.

Paul Kruger, the president of the Boer republic
Paul Kruger, the president of the Boer republic

The specter of African rebellion against growing repression in the white-dominated state quickly healed the wounds of the South African War. The Native Affairs Commission (1903–05), appointed by High Commissioner Sir Alfred Milner, suggested a policy of territorial segregation between whites and blacks, making Africans the true victims of the war.

In 1910, the British parliament created the self-governing Union of South Africa. It became a Commonwealth nation under the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The Cape government enfranchised adult blacks, but only whites could stand for election in the new Union parliament.

The Afrikaner nationalist Louis Botha, on the ticket of the South Africa Party, was elected as the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa in May 1910. Blacks were denied political or economic power within the official structure of the state and society.

Some individuals within the Afrikaner political elite, like J. B. M. Hertzog, remained intensely hostile to the British. During both world wars, South Africans served the empire on the battlefields of Europe, though African troops were relegated to noncombat roles. Military alliance with Britain during both wars revived old debates about white South Africa's relationship with its "mother country."

Boer women and children in British concentration camps
Boer women and children in British concentration camps

Afrikaner nationalists revolted in 1914 after Botha allied South Africa with Britain and even agreed to invade German SouthWest Africa (now Namibia). During World War II, a coalition between Jan Smuts (Botha's predecessor) and Hertzog, called the United Party, broke apart over the same issue.

Groups like the African Brotherhood and the Purified National Party, a political party that developed after Hertzog allied with Smuts, built a mythology of Afrikaner nationalism centered on the Great Trek. The most radical Afrikaner nationalists went as far as to openly sympathize with the Nazi Party during World War II.

The beginnings of apartheid can be found in the increasing segregation of and discrimination against black South Africans. The Natives' Land Act (1913) and the Natives' Trust and Land Act (1936) designated a small percentage of South Africa's total land area to (segregated) black reserves.

The 1923 Natives (Urban Areas) Act limited blacks' access to white urban areas. While black South Africans were indispensable to whites as laborers, their overwhelming number in relation to the white population was perceived as a threat to the white-dominated state.

In 1912, a group of Western-educated Africans formed the South African Native National Congress (later known as the African National Congress, ANC). While African leaders like Pixley Seme and John Dube petitioned brilliantly against the color bar of the white-dominated society, their pleas were generally ignored by both the British and white South African governments.

Some Africans sought to challenge their social and economic oppression through labor unions and even revolutionary groups like the Communist Party of South Africa. The period after 1945 witnessed revived rhetoric of human rights and self-determination in the birth of the United Nations (ironically, Jan Smuts was recruited to help draft the preamble of the United Nations Charter).

In 1944, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu founded a Youth League in the African National Congress. While they shared the ANC's goal of a democratic, racially egalitarian society, they advocated more militant tactics.

In the 1948 campaign the National Party, led by D. F. Malan, centered on their message of racial purity and white domination. In particular, their agenda was based on a systematic exclusion of and separation from Africans. With victory the National Party instituted what would become the bane of humanitarian society for the next four decades—apartheid.