How do you react to injustice when dealing with your government or in the workplace? That was one of the questions I asked myself on my recent trip to visit my daughter and family in South Africa.
While there, we visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Before I went there I thought I had an understanding of why and how apartheid – segregation of the races in South Africa – began. My visit made me realize the reasons behind the creation of apartheid were more complex. The causes of apartheid are based upon history and demographics (more blacks than whites), but also economics. Apartheid became law in great part to protect the wealth of the South African mine owners from poor white and black workers who might unite against them to improve their working conditions.
Apartheid became the law of the land beginning officially in 1948 and lasting until Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994. Yet with colonialism and South Africa’s history of British rule, the precedent was well set many years before.
The journey to apartheid actually began in the 1600s when Dutch, German and French Protestants fled religious persecution in Europe and traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, to set up a colony. These Europeans enslaved the indigenous blacks to work the fields.
When the British government took over the Cape Colony from the Dutch after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, it wasn’t long before they outlawed slavery. This new law angered about 6,000 Boers (farmers who were descendants of the first settlers) who didn’t want the British to tell them to free their slaves. They left the Cape Colony with their wives, children and slaves and journeyed northeast by wagon train on what is now called the Great Trek. They formed two Boer Republics: Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
In 1886 gold was discovered around Johannesburg in the Transvaal. British greed led them to conquer and annex the two Boer Republics. The Boers resisted in what became known as the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) using guerrilla warfare . They were excellent horsemen and fighters and the British had great difficulty defeating them.
The British decided the only way to beat the Boers was to destroy the Boer farms and round up their women, children and old men and put them into concentration camps. Nearly 28,000 died from disease and starvation. This tactic cut off supplies to the Boer guerrillas, forcing them to surrender.
The husband of one of the families I stayed with while I was touring the northeastern part of the country told me his great-grandfather had his farm burned and was imprisoned in a British concentration camp where he died. Some Boers still remain bitter toward the British after the suffering and death that resulted from the concentration camps more than 100 years ago.
The Boers were impoverished until many moved into the cities along with blacks looking for jobs. The ruling white elite, fearful that the poor, white Boers might link up with the poor blacks against them, devised a clever plan: The mine owners and government officials cooperated to increase Boer fears and distrust of blacks to further divide the workers.
The business and political leaders in South Africa created this division by having two tiers of workers – whites, who got the better jobs and pay, while black workers got the dirtier, more dangerous jobs and poorer living conditions.
While the black men moved to the mines, their wives and families were not allowed to follow, staying behind in the tribal lands. This practice of separation has been proven to encourage sexual promiscuity and, eventually, with the coming of HIV, the AIDS epidemic that has devastated such a high percentage of the South African population.
The wealthy and powerful South African whites were not alone in using this tactic. History is full of examples where one group wants someone lower than them. A major example from our own history is when poor southern whites worked with southern aristocrats after the Civil War to create legalized segregation of the races in the South – Jim Crow. These discriminatory laws lasted until the Civil Rights Movement forced an end to them with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965.
Apartheid ended after years of black protest and violence in the black townships and international pressure through sanctions and boycotts. The white elites came to realize that a minority of white leaders cannot control a majority of the population without their consent. They released Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990. He and the African National Congress were swept into power through elections in 1994, bringing an end to white injustice in the government and in work.
The lesson I carried away from the Apartheid Museum that day is that fighting injustice is never easy and it often comes at a great cost to those who resist. A whole “lost generation” of South African blacks in the 1970s and 1980s lost an opportunity for a good education because they boycotted the schools and rioted in the townships. They are suffering from poverty and frustration today.
As the bumper stickers say, “Freedom isn’t free” for them or for us.