Study Guide

A History of South Africa

by Leonard Thompson

A History of South Africa Summary

A History of South Africa (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Leonard Thompson defines his terms carefully. The Africans, Coloureds, and Indians of South Africa are known collectively as Blacks. The Afrikaners are the Dutch population established by 1800, called Boers by the British in the South African War of 1889-1902. South Africa is the political entity designated the Republic of South Africa, including the ten areas of the so- called “homelands.” Southern Africa encompasses the Republic, as well as Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. Thompson arranges his narrative in seven lucid chapters that bring South Africa’s complicated story into focus and order.

People in Southern Africa in the sixteenth century followed one of three ways of life. Some in the mountains and dry areas of the west still hunted animals and gathered plants, whereas those who lived on suitable pastureland herded sheep and cattle. In the eastern third of the region, where there was more rainfall, farmers grew crops and herded sheep and cattle. These eastern peoples, who lived in semipermanent settlements, spoke Bantu languages and were the ancestors of most of the people of present-day Southern Africa. Europeans came to call the hunter- gatherers Bushmen, the herdsmen Hottentots, and the farmers of the east Kaffirs. These derogatory terms have been replaced by the scholarly designations San for the hunter-gatherers, Khoikhoi for the pastoralists, and Africans for the Bantu-speaking farmers.

The iron and copper ores of Southern Africa enabled metallurgy to develop, and copper was highly prized for its ornamental value. The Bantu cultures were comparatively prosperous, healthy, and settled. The Bantus were organized politically in chiefdoms often named for a prominent ancestor, and they were open rather than tribal. Inevitably, the hunting-gathering San began to encroach on the livestock of the expanding farmers, but when white people arrived in the mid-seventeenth century, hunter- gatherers and pastoralists still occupied the western regions of Southern Africa and the farmers the eastern.

In the sixteenth century, Portuguese ships began navigating around the Cape of Good Rope to the Indian Ocean, followed soon after by the Dutch, British, French, and Scandinavians. In 1652 the Dutch East India Company established a base at Table Bay on the western part of the Cape and began a dominance that lasted a century and a half The Dutch presence, fortified by slave labor from Indonesia, India, and Ceylon, grew by 1793 to 13,830 free burghers who held 14,747 slaves. The Khoikhoi pastoralists were further devastated by smallpox in 1713.

In the pastoral northeast, the Dutch farmers, or trekboers, had occupied a great part of the Africans’ arable land. Their sparse numbers were spread out far from the Cape base, and they formed commando units for protection from roving hunter-gatherers. The trekboerz’ tense relations with their colonial government ended when the British wrested control from the Dutch in 1795.

The British transported 4,000 settlers to Southern Africa in 1820, and in 1838 freed the slaves. In 1853 a bicameral parliament was formed to create domestic policies. A census in 1865 counted 180,000 Whites, 200,000 Coloureds, and 100,000 Africans. The Dutch, or Afrikaners, lost their autonomy: English became the official language, and the Dutch Reformed Church came under British direction.

The Africans’ habit of warring among themselves gave the Whites an advantage in achieving control of Southern Africa. The Xhosa of the eastern region, for example, exhausted themselves in a series of battles between 1779 and 1818. By 1866 a sequence of catastrophes had reduced the Xhosa’s numbers and left them dependent on a White-operated economy.

The Xhosa’s neighbors to the north, the Zulus, prospered under their chief, Shaka, in the 1820’s, but the many people driven from their homes by the predatory Zulus unleashed a spell of violence known as the Mfecane in southeastern Africa. From this confusion emerged several new states, the most important being Lesotho. Out of all the turmoil among the Xhosa and the Zulus came two results: A flood of displaced Africans poured into the Cape Colony and provided cheap labor, and Whites were easily able to establish their hegemony in the eastern region of southern Africa.

Afrikaners of the Cape Colony, seething under British rule, embarked on the so-called Great Trek between 1836 and 1854. They spread north-northeast to the Limpopo River, clashing with Zulus and establishing settlements throughout the area. Eventually the emigrants achieved independence from Great Britain under the Sand River and Bloemfontein conventions of 1854.

The years 1849-1851 saw an influx of British settlers into Natal, followed between 1860 and 1866 by 6,000 Indians brought in as indentured laborers. By 1870 Southern Africa was under British rule and had been divided into four regions: the Cape Colony in the south, the Natal Republic up the coast to the east, the Orange Free State west of Natal, and the South African Republic (the Transvaal) to the north-northeast. A quarter of a million Whites dominated a dependent population of Africans and Asians.

The discovery of diamonds in the Orange Free State in 1867 spawned Kimberley, the diamond city, and in 1886 gold was discovered just south of Pretoria in the South African Republic. Cecil Rhodes’s skillful maneuvering on behalf of De Beers Consolidated Mines led to a monopoly of the industry and facilitated Rhodes’s rise to prime minister of the Cape...

(The entire section is 2286 words.)