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All About Jazz: South Africa

South African Jazz: Political History

By Published: April 19, 2004
This special section is devoted to South African jazz, which has prospered for several decades and developed a distinctive character all its own. AAJ: SA was created in 2002 and has since been updated with a continual stream of new material.

This is the Political History page. To visit the rest of this series, click on the links below.



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The history of what we now know as South Africa began long before its European colonization. Before anyone was drawing lines on a map, the region was home to about a dozen African groups. But by the end of the 15th century, however, European traders had begun to show increased interest. They carved out a piece of land and called it South Africa—so that's where this history will begin.

Two basic factors influenced the early colonial development of today's South Africa: geography and geology. As a strategic point for sea travel between Europe and Asia, the Cape of Good Hope became an early target for European control. And when diamonds and gold were discovered in the area, its economic importance exploded.

After initial contact between Portuguese sailors and Africans at the Cape of Good Hope in the late 1400s, some time passed before the area was settled. By the mid-17th century, the Dutch East India Company had established a post in Cape Town, ostensibly to serve the growing sea trade passing through the region. Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch, remains a uniquely South African language. The British declared military supremacy in Cape Town around 1800, forcing a large number of Dutch colonists to move northward over the next few decades.

European ambitions in South Africa brought about a number of wars with Africans. The British finally defeated the Xhosa in the late 1870's, essentially eliminating any resistance from inhabitants of the Cape Colony. Around this time, diamonds were discovered near Kimberley—-and it soon became clear that the new mines would require labor to develop. African men came to the area to work, despite the harsh conditions. By the time gold was discovered about 20 years later on the Rand, the demand for African labor was extreme. The torrential influx of African workers led to rapid urbanization of surrounding areas, along with its accompanying complications.

A number of new regulations were established at the end of the 19th century in order for European settlers to control African workers. Pass laws went into effect, restricting movement. Property ownership was essentially forbidden. And specific areas were set aside for black-only housing. Meanwhile, the riches of the mines meant that the area would continue to develop and expand. Johannesburg, with its central location, grew rapidly (and, much of the time, somewhat chaotically).

The Boer War between the British and Dutch from 1899-1902 ended with British victory and a political compromise. While the British retained ultimate control over the Union of South Africa, much of the political management was left in the hands of Afrikaners. Blacks were denied most fundamental civil rights; they assumed a status as second class citizens, essentially relegating them to their primary utility in manual labor and service work.

The Land Act of 1913 prohibited Africans from buying, renting, or using land outside official reserves (which accounted for about 13% of the country). They were also prohibited from commercial activity in Johannesburg around the same time. In protest of these and other restrictions on civil rights, the African National Congress (first known as the South African Native Congress) was founded in 1912 to reclaim freedom for Africans. A number of protests among mine workers and religious groups were quelled by swift and brutal police action. The Urban Areas Act of 1923 established permanent urban areas for black habitation and mandated their forced resettlement, although it took decades before enough room could be found to accomodate the large African population.

The difficult relationship between whites and blacks in South Africa continued for several decades. A major turning point occured in 1948, two years after 100,000 miners went on strike on the Rand. The Afrikaner-dominated National Party assumed control of the country on a foundation of Afrikaner superiority, formally instituted as apartheid. (The National Party would continue to rule South Africa until 1994.) Apartheid, which existed in a de facto sense prior to this point, was formalized through a series of laws designed to define ethnic groups and regulate their activities. (Whites retained freedoms, while blacks were increasingly stripped of them.) State media control, combined with strict censorship laws, was used to bolster the government's position.

After the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, the South African government instituted its first State of Emergency; hundreds of thousands of people were arrested in the coming years. This militant response drove the ANC to abandon nonviolent protest in favor of armed revolt. Nelson Mandela, who had been active in nonviolent protest up until this point, began to participate with the MK, the ANC's military wing. He was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. The next year, the South African police raided the MK's secret headquarters and Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served much of his term in Robben Island Prison.

A student revolt in 1976 (amplified by the death of activist Steve Biko in police custody) led to the second State of Emergency in South African history. Relations between blacks and the Afrikaner government reached a historical low point. And in 1985, township leaders staged a nonviolent protest. This led to a third State of Emergency, accompanied by constant violent skirmishes between police and black youths. The government declared a National Emergency, and its ruthless police response led to the arrest and detainment of hundreds of thousands of people.

By this point, international attention had begun to focus on apartheid in South Africa, resulting in severe economic and cultural boycotts. Apartheid was weakening. By 1990, Predident F.W. de Klerk un-banned political organizations and announced the release of political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela. Mandela would soon be elected President of the ANC, and he shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk.

Within four years, after negotiations with the ANC, free elections were held in South Africa. In 1994, Nelson Mandela became President, and the ANC won the majority of votes. The government drafted a new Constitution in late 1996. After a new round of elections in 1999, Thabo Mbeki was elected President.

The day free elections were held in South Africa (April 27, 1994) has been declared its national holiday: Freedom Day.

South African political history tells a unique story. European colonists recognized the strategic and economic importance of the region, assuming and enforcing control by legal and forceful means. After a century of formal repression, Africans (now called blacks) assumed peaceful control of the country (which is 75% black by population today). Today's South Africa remains a dynamic and turbulent place, but it's a quantum leap ahead of the dim dark days of apartheid: everyone has the right to vote.

And that's the meaning of Freedom Day.



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