British immigrants seized most of the new opportunities that became available in South Africa. In the towns and cities they became the tradesmen and artisans. Along with Jews from Europe, they took over trading with farmers in the interior and with Xhosa peasant farmers on the frontier. It was the British who first engaged in large-scale land speculation. During the 1830s they were prominent among those who started wool farming in the eastern part of the Cape Colony, and they founded export-import firms in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. In the rural towns across South Africa English speakers occupied all the prominent positions. They were engineers of the roads, bridges and railways and deep-level mining shafts, and they were the entrepreneurs who founded sophisticated industrial and financial companies.
Jewish South Africans were prominent in expanding trade across South Africa. Adolph Mosenthal arrived in 1846 from Germany and founded a family trading firm that became one of the largest investors in the diamond industry. In the ZAR Sammy Marks established a special relationship with Kruger’s government.
Agriculture provided a livelihood for the overwhelming majority of Afrikaners. Since the final decades of the nineteenth century there had been a steady increase in the demand for wheat and dairy products in the western Cape, with fruit exports becoming a promising option. Wine farming, hit hard by phylloxera disease in the 1880s and stagnating until 1910, started to pick up in the first two decades after Union. In the eastern Cape and Karoo midlands the more successful Afrikaner and English wool farmers shared in the steady expansion of wool exports, up from £4 million in 1904 to £20 million in 1919.
But less than a fifth of South Africa consists of arable land fit to plant crops. Large parts are semi-desert with frequent droughts, and other parts get enough rain but have extremely rugged terrain. Stock farming developed as a way of life and means of subsistence and only in the twentieth century as a commercial enterprise. A wasteful exploitation of agricultural resources contributed to a crisis in pastoral farming. Overstocking, together with grass burning, destroyed the natural vegetation, and thunderstorms swept the topsoil away. Farmers had been accustomed to move on to new grass and fresh land when pastures were exhausted, but by the 1880s the frontier of expansion had closed.
As cultivators, black peasant farmers, using family as a labour force, were well ahead of the republican burghers, who were mostly stock farmers. In 1904 a well-informed observer wrote that in the eastern half of the country, blacks were ‘the best all-round cultivators of South Africa so far’.