During the 1850s, ‘South Africa’ was a mere territorial expression devoid of real unity. Towards the eastern and the northern parts of the region whites controlled large parts only precariously. Some white politicians argued against further expansion. The society that took shape between 1850 and 1910 was unique in the world of European colonisation. It was neither a self-sufficient, essentially white society like Australia, nor was it an India, where Europeans played a limited role as rulers, traders and missionaries. South Africa was something in between: whites steadily achieved dominance but remained dependent on blacks as labourers or sharecroppers.
South Africa was unique in another way as well. It was one of the very few European colonial settlements where the dominant racial minority was ethnically divided. The division was between the Dutch and English ‘races’, as the communities were called at the time. They were prepared to suspend their political rivalry only where it jeopardised white supremacy itself. This was particularly the case in the Cape Colony, where Afrikaners had a majority of almost three to one over the English.
The incorporation of large groups of blacks took place in a piecemeal way. In the Zuid- Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) the burghers had effective control over only the southern half until the 1880s. In Natal the settlers formed a small minority among the great majority of blacks. White control over all of Natal was only established towards the end of the nineteenth century. It incorporated Zululand in 1897.
The Cape Colony incorporated British Kaffraria (the future Ciskei) in 1865 and in 1879 annexed Fingoland and Griqualand East, which formed approximately two-thirds of the territory between the Cape and Natal. It incorporated Gcalekaland and Thembuland in 1885 and Mpondoland in 1894. The 181 000 white population of 1865 had doubled to 376 000 by 1891, while blacks within the colonial boundaries had increased fivefold from 314 000 to 1 480 000.
In the making of the policy later known as segregation, the reserves carved out by Theophilus Shepstone in Natal were influential. So were the precedents established in the mining town of Kimberley that sprung up in the late 1860s. The Cape abandoned the idea of Sir George Grey during the 1850s of assimilating the blacks into European culture and institutions. The conviction grew that subject peoples had to be ruled through their own customs rather than be assimilated into Western culture. In 1887 and 1892 the liberal constitution was dealt a major blow by legislation that excluded traditional Africans from the vote and raised the property qualification.
Cecil John Rhodes, who became prime minister in 1890, dreamed of a South African state under the British flag. Since blacks might then outnumber whites by six to one or even more he looked for a racial policy that would ensure whites could stay the dominant race. After consultation with J.H. Hofmeyr, leader of the Afrikaner Bond, he worked for what he would later call a ‘Natives’ Bill for Africa’, with principles that could be applied throughout South Africa and the rest of the subcontinent. This was the background to the Glen Grey Act of 1894 (see The Glen Grey-experiment).
By the end of the century a much greater number of black migrants began to move between the reserves, but there were also growing numbers living on a permanent basis on the edges of towns and cities. In 1899 W.P. Schreiner, prime minister of the Cape, said that it would be best to get such clusters of blacks ‘compounded’. At the end of their period of service they had to ‘go back to the place whence they came – to the native territories, where they should really make their home’. Officials seized on an outbreak of bubonic plague in the largest cities as an excuse to house blacks some distance away in locations.
The idea of sealing off the white city from the black locations had begun to take root. Between 1902 and 1904 cities across South Africa passed legislation compelling blacks to live in such segregated locations. The Cape’s liberal tradition, though weakened, still retained the right of all people regardless of colour to own property. The vote was essentially reserved for westernised people. During the 1890s the number of coloured voters on the electoral roll went up from approximately 5 000 to 13 900. Parties competed actively for their vote. Coloured people took the opportunities offered to them for education and industrial training and by the end of the century dominated at least half of the trades in Cape Town and the major western Cape towns.
Yet as prominent liberal Cape politician J.W. Sauer remarked, ‘political equality is by no means social equality’. Even in Cape Town – racially the most fluid of all South African towns and cities – integration was, as Vivian Bickford-Smith observed, a lower-class phenomenon. Even if socially respectable coloured people could pass for white, ‘whiteness was inextricably linked with social and political supremacy’.
The Dutch Reformed, Methodist and Wesleyan churches and non-denominational government schools were de facto segregated. First-class railway carriages, bathing houses, hotel tables and reserved seats in theatres were effectively kept for whites alone. Sport was largely segregated. A reporter from the Scottish Dundee Advertiser wrote in 1894 that although coloureds were equal in the eyes of the law there was a ‘line’ between them and whites that was ‘almost as rigidly drawn as if they were a lower range of beings’.
The English colony of Natal claimed it had a non-racial franchise, but the Legislative Council in 1864 and 1865 effectively removed the black vote. In 1904 only two blacks out of a population of a million blacks qualified for the vote. In Pietermaritzburg the most heated speeches were made in denunciation of Shepstone’s location system. The voters wanted legislation that, as Alan Hattersley phrased it, aimed to ‘raise its barbarous subjects from idle, insolent and uncontrollable savage habits to those of a steady, industrious, humble and moral demeanour’.
In the two Boer republics, the franchise for any people who were not white was ruled out from the outset. Within the Orange Free State’s borders the republic carved out three tiny, isolated reserves for blacks, a total of 74 000 morgen, less than 1% of the land. It made no allowance for African customs and refused to recognise African tribal law or traditional marriages. All civil and criminal disputes were under the jurisdiction of Roman-Dutch law, whatever the race or status of the litigants themselves. But the Free State authorities also introduced black ‘block men’ to help administer the Waaihoek township of Bloemfontein. John Tengo Jabavu wrote approvingly of the system, noting that Waaihoek had its own ‘town hall and a council of its own composed of Natives, which is presided over by a Mayor’. In 1896 black residents petitioned the Bloemfontein municipality to apply the pass laws less stringently and complained about overbearing police attitudes.
The ZAR appointed the president as paramount chief over all the native communities. He was to uphold African traditional law in all the African areas but appoint white officials as Native Commissioners in each. The London Convention of 1884 required the ZAR to introduce a ‘Locations Commission’ to demarcate reserves for each ethnic group. But little additional land for locations was set aside and for some groups no provision
was made at all.
Rank and file ZAR burghers strongly opposed reserves, or locations as they were called there, but Paul Kruger argued in 1893 that small African groups especially needed some land to be set aside for them so that they did not feel oppressed. He asked: ‘Is it fair or Christian to drive them off the land?’ Against this stood the insatiable demand for land among his voters. By 1900 it was estimated that between a fifth and a quarter of blacks in the ZAR lived in locations in the rural areas. Blacks could buy land elsewhere but only through third parties, such as missionaries, who registered the land for them in a trust that they administered.