View Full Version : Resisting Colonialism and Racism in South Africa

lord patch
05-06-2008, 05:36 PM
Resisting Colonialism and Racism in South Africa
Nasser Mashadi - 21/04/2007 - 20:09 | Hits: 1218


You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire

Alia Youseff s’ statement in the first article of this series (1) “Resistance movements arise within a country in response to a government’s violation of its citizens' most fundamental rights, such as the right to dignity, to life and to freedom ” summarises much of the struggle for basic human rights by the mass of people in South Africa.

From the moment Dutch settlers started to settle in the Cape in 1652, local native Khoi-Khoi and San people [known collectively as Khoisan] were treated as inferior even non-human. Deliberate genocide, slavery and death due to displacement or disease meant neither of these groups has survived in substantial numbers in the modern South Africa. Although many of the mixed race people known as Cape Coloureds have Khoisan blood. The Cape Colony became the womb for a new African nation, the Afrikaners. These were people descended from settlers of German, French as well as Dutch origin, who spoke a local dialect of Dutch called Afrikaans (2).

As the rate of European settlement subsided, the refusal of the nomadic Khoisan to work for the Dutch in their gardens and vineyards saw a labour shortage. The importation of prisoners from other Dutch colonies, including from what is now Indonesia, to work as slaves offered a solution. Many of these prisoners were veterans of Islamic resistance to colonialism (3). The Cape slaves sometimes rebelled on board Dutch ships while still in transit to South Africa; others like the farm workers of Bokkeveld in 1825 rose up because a their employers refusal to implement emancipation. For most physical rebellion was impossible, maintaining, or for some non-Muslim slaves adopting, Islam was an act of defiance. Some of the enslaved Khoisan reverted to Islam through contact with Muslim slaves.

When the world superpower of the time the British Empire, took over the Cape Colony in 1806, the British were interested in only depriving the French of a strategic base. The logic of empire is often hegemony, regardless of utility. More and more Afrikaners started to move from the Cape, at first to escape from the rules of the Dutch South Africa Company, and later to in greater numbers to stay free of the British Empire.

These great treks into the interior saw the expansion of Afrikaner people across southern Africa. Many of them were farmers, the Afrikaans word for farmer “Boer”, became synonymous with Afrikaner. Their noble vision of living free on South African grasslands or veld, as farmers, herdsmen and hunters, was grossly distorted by their contempt for the other human beings they met. This racist attitude was underpinned by an interpretation of the Bible, which saw themselves as the descendants the prophet Noah’s [peace be upon him] blessed son, and the Blacks as descendants of his cursed son Ham. Thus the children were to be punished for the supposed faults of their forefathers. Khoisan people’s resistance to Boers in the form of wars of dispossession was finally overcome, but as the Boers trekked north and east they came up against other indigenous nations.

Over the previous centuries there had been a mass migration of African peoples speaking Bantu languages, moving from Central and East Africa south and west into what is now South Africa. These people started to clash with the white traders moving east in the early 1700’s (4).The Bantus agrarian culture sustained much greater concentrations of people. The agricultural surpluses allowed the Bantu rulers to have armies of professional warriors, to war on their enemies. The wars between Boer and Bantu, and amongst the various Bantu nations, led to the creation of two Boer Republics in an unstable equilibrium with various Bantu kingdoms, the most dominant being the Zulus.

The famous Boer leader Piet Retief published a declaration (5) stating why he and his fellow Boers wanted to leave the British ruled Cape Colony. Retief declared their rejection of slavery, and the desire to settle in eastern lands and live peacefully with the native tribes. His sincerity was never truly tested, as he died a prisoner of the ruthless Zulu King Dinaan. The Boer Republics set up by his successors certainly saw no need to allow non-whites rights in their communities.

The great imperial power Britain kept a wary eye on developments. The Natal republic declared by the Boers in 1839 was annexed by Britain in 1843. Britain’s rulers were anxious to control all territories bordering the sea-lanes to the imperial outposts. While the Boers were land locked, the British were happy leave them to fight it out with the Bantu nations for control of the land and water, in a scenic wilderness of no economic significance. The discovery of Diamonds in a Boer Republic the Orange Free State in 1869; followed by the Gold Rush in the Rand area of the other surviving Boer Republic of the Transvaal twenty years later, changed all that. The South African Veld was now a crust of diamonds with a mountain of Gold at Johannesburg.

The British annexation of Natal brought them into conflict with the most war like of the Bantu nations, the Zulus. Despite their heroism and rigid discipline, after some initial success the Zulus were defeated. Spears were no match for guns, particularly the new Gatling gun (6). The British Empire now threatened the Boer Republics on three sides. The puritanical Boers were being inundated with hard drinking miners, shifty diamond merchants, and other hangers on all lusting for a slice of the mineral wealth. Within a few years this get rich quick atmosphere, had produced fabulously wealthy mining magnates. The epitome of these was Cecil Rhodes, whose dark shadow still hangs over oppressed people across the world. Rhodes used his fortune in diamonds and then gold to build a business empire and a political movement, to enhance his personal fortune and promote the British Empire. In his last will and testament, Rhodes said of the British (7), "I contend that we are the first race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race." Rhodes meglamaniac vison of a world dominated by an Anglo-Saxon master race led to the founding of scholarships and institutes, which still today promote the US/UK axis of empire.

The Boers attempts to restrict the political power of the mining community, led to the Jameson Raid, planned by Rhodes to “rescue” Johannesburg from the oppressive Boers, This was a typical imperialist deceit reminiscent of the Gulf of Tonkin incident during the Vietnam War . Although the Boers outwitted Rhodes and his blundering ally Dr. Jameson, they now found themselves up against the equally ruthless British Governor of the Cape Colony Alfred Milner. Milner on the instructions of another arch imperialist the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain (8), started a war with Boer Republics. This bitter conflict saw the British struggling to suppress the Boer guerilla fighters. They finally triumphed after herding the Boer’s women and children into the first “concentration camps” .

Britian and more particularly the London based financiers and mining magnates were now in control of the mineral wealth.They needed labour to get these riches to surface. Bantu farmers were subjected to appropriation and taxes, to force them from the land into wage labour at the mines. To keep them in subjugation and on subsistence wages, a system of passes for Black workers was developed. These allowed Blacks to pass into “White areas” purely to work for white bosses. Unlimited leave to reside, was restricted to native reserves. These were usually the least valuable pieces of land.

Independence for South Africa within the British Empire meant the Union of South Africa [formed in 1910] with a white and small mixed race electorate, the great Black majority being disenfranchised.Despite being the overwhelming majority The Native Land Act 1913 awarded the Blacks 13% of the land (9) as reserves, where they had the right to live and own land.

British backed big business had triumphed over two groups, the Afrikaners and the Blacks. Both oppressed nations responded by organising. The Afrikaners determined to preserve their culture and their political and economic power ,whether threatened by the Blacks from below, or the mostly English speaking middle and upper classes from above, formed a secret society the Broederbond [ founded in 1918]. The Broederbond provided the back bone of the triumphant Nationalist Party which ruled continuously from 1948 until 1994.

The majority Black population led a life of rural poverty in reserves or migrated to “white areas” to suffer super exploitation as wage labourers, living in shanty towns like Soweto, with no right of residence.Struggles against the Pass Laws and strikes for better wages broke out at the end of World War 1 as revolution swept the world (10). From the beginning strikes and protests were broken up at bayonnet point. Decades of non-violent struggle by the Blacks saw only violent repression. The African National Congress [ ANC], founded in 1912 became the principal organisation of the Black opposition, eventually attracting support from democrats of all origins.

The Nationalists winning the majority of the white votes in 1948 saw emergence of “apartheid” , or separateness, as an official philosphy strengthening and extending exisiting racist legislation. With the accelerating development of apartheid, the ANC call its supporters to a Congress of the People, which endorsed the Freedom Charter in 1955 (11). This document promising not only votes for all but a share in South Africa’s wealth, was a challenge to the rulers of South Africa and their big business allies in London and beyond.

Attempts by the Apartheid regime to develop the native reserves into Bantu homelands attracted some of the Bantu Chiefs, with the promise of enhanced powers, and some limited independence for their people within the straightjacket of apartheid. One young Xhosa Chief who rejected this as a false solution was Nelson Mandela. He was already a youth leader with the ANC.

The 1960 massacre of peaceful protestors against the Pass Laws at Sharpeville, was a watershed for the anti-apartheid opposition. The ANC and its Africanist rival the Pan-Africanist Congress [PAC] were both declared illegal, and both decided to go underground and develop military strategies. These mostly consisted of acts of sabotage, and were met with more severe repression.This included the long imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and others leading the ANC military wing.A flavour of these times can be appreciated reading the mujahid Ahmed Cassiem’s biographical notes (12). As the insurgency increased the regime promoted death squads, and later tribal based militias to undermine the mass movements.

No amount of repression could stop the spontaneous rising of students and workers, against the inferior education and working conditions imposed on Blacks. The gunning down of student protestors only caused the escalation of militancy, and new leaders like Steve Biko of the Black Consciouness Movement coming to the fore. Biko’s murder in a police cell in 1977 further strengthened the anti-apartheid resistance, seizing the imagination of activists across the world. Peter Gabriel’s song "Biko" (13) emphasises that killing Biko would not destroy the power of his incendiary ideas.

You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher

The Biko phrase most often quoted is "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed" (14) This insight should be a weapon in the arsenal of every resistance movement.

As school students rejected apartheid education, so workers developed organisational muscle. The Congress of South African Trades Unions [COSATU] created in 1986 indicated growing influence of organised Black labour. Although representatives of international big business like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, called the ANC " a typical terrorist organisation", and some of her more oafish supporters called for Mandela to be hung, big business interests in South Africa itself were increasingly concerned that the Blacks had become ungovernable, apartheid had to go if their power was to be preserved.

The insurrections in the Black townships were undermining the apartheid regime’s local government schemes. The ANC was openly organising under the umbrella of the United Democratic Front [UDF]. The pressure on the Nationalist government was irresistable. The un-banning of the ANC in 1990 and the release of Mandela, meant negiotiations could begin between the chief protagonists. Slowly but inevitably South Africa moved towards a non-racial democracy. Mandela was elected as the first President of a democratic South Africa in 1994.

The gaining of political rights was a massive step forward. However the social and economic aspects of the ANC Freedom Charter were shelved, and neo-liberal free market policies implemented instead. The result is that while there is now a Black elite and Black middle class, along side their White counterparts, the mass of South Africans are still poor.

A South African commentator (15) describes the situation thus :-

By 2002 over 6 million South Africans were HIV positive and without any access to the lifesaving medication that, even a not completely rabid neo-liberal budget, could safely satisfy. People were aghast at a comment made by the President’s spokesperson that medicines that prevented mother-to-child transmission of the virus were undesirable because of the healthy orphans it left the state to deal with. The majority of the population is living on less than R140 (about $15) per month. One in four Black children does not have enough to eat everyday. Only 3% of arable land had been redistributed and much of that had been given to Black commercial farmers and not to landless peasants. Over a million people had been disconnected from water because they couldn’t pay; 40, 000 children were dying from diarrhea caused by dirty water each year. Cholera returned with a vengeance, infecting over a 100, 000 people in Kwa-Zulu Natal alone. People starved in rural areas, throngs of street-kids descended on every town to beg and prostitute themselves, petty crime soared, and the jails reached 170 percent capacity.*

Inevitably the people of South Africa will struggle for their economic and social rights as they did for their political rights. Whether this will be through existing mass organisations like the ANC, or the union federation COSATU only time can tell. The downfall of apartheid will continue to inspire and inform those struggling against oppression, and underline the need for radical economic as well as political change.


Bibliography: -

- The Randlords; The Men who made South Africa by Geoffrey Wheatcroft Weidenfield & Nicholson 1993.

- Unfinished Business: By Terry Bell, with Dumisa Buhle Ntsebeza Verso 2003


(1) The Right to Resist Under International Law Alia Youssef - 15/02/2007http://english.wa3ad.org/index.php?show=news&action=article&id=1035

(2) Ironically there has been a Malay influence on Afrikaans, because of a common culture that developed between Dutch masters and their slaves.

(3) “The slaves and political exiles were already a cultural force in the world. They had resisted European colonialism with armed force”. Ahmed Cassiem: Muslim Struggle Against Apartheid http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&cid=1156077808800&pagename=Zone-English-Muslim_Affairs%2FMAELayout

(4) “ a band of white traders clashed with the Xhosa, the southernmost tribe, in 1702” Peter Hain: Don’t play with Apartheid.

(5) Piet Retief’s Manifesto 22 January 1837,

(6) The Naval Brigades serving during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 used Gatling guns in several battles http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gatling_gun

(7) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecil_Rhodes#_ref-thomas_7

(8) It is no coincidence that the troika of arch-imperialists Milner, Chamberlain and Rhodes were also supporters of Zionism.

(9) Alex Callinicos; South Africa between Reform and Revolution Bookmarks 1988.

(10) MILESTONES IN ANC HISTORY: 1918 – 1948 http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/miles.html

(11) The Freedom Charter (http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/charter.html). Adopted at the Congress of the People, Kliptown, on 26 June 1955.

(12) Imam Achmad Cassiem VETERAN OF THE STRUGGLE AGAINST APARTHEID CHAIRPERSON OF ISLAMIC UNITY CONVENTION http://www.inminds.co.uk/qa-imam-achmad-cassiem.html

(13) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLg-8Jxi5aE

(14) http://africanhistory.about.com/od/bikosteve/p/qts_biko.htm

(15) Post-Apartheid South Africa From Heroic Struggle to Struggle Imraan Buccas - University of Durban - South Africa http://www.islamonline.net/English/Views/2002/08/article05.shtml