The colonisation of South Africa contributed to abhorrent ethnic division, racism and rigid inequality at its inception, with its legacy having engendered significant social conflict affecting citizens today. This essay will discuss the immediate social implications of European colonisation, and how slavery, segregation and poor resource distribution unsettled ethnic relations amongst locals. Furthermore, this essay shall criticise the European’s colonial impact by exposing the detrimental long-term implications for South Africa, including Apartheid and black disenfranchisement (Worden, 1996). Finally, this essay will delve into the legacy of South Africa’s colonial past, and how it has corrupted efforts towards social growth in the present era.
South Africa was initially colonised by the Dutch East India Company in 1652 and later by the British in 1806 (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009). During these colonial periods, social order was disrupted by ethnic divides forced upon by the new European colonial ruling, resulting in indelible social turmoil for South Africa. The Dutch established their control over Cape Town to utilise the region’s major ports for vessels and stockpile resources that would later fuel their journey towards trade routes in Asia (Keegan, 1997). In order to obtain the resources they desired, the Dutch conquered local Indigenous groups, such as the Khoisan peoples, subduing them with their advanced weaponry. Not long after the Dutch settled, Indigenous South African peoples were reduced to slaves, subject to brutal mistreatment and forced labour, entirely disrupting the local way of life. Worden (1996) describes how the Dutch East India Company “regarded slavery as necessary” in order to facilitate capital accumulation via agriculture and pastoral farming. Indigenous peoples were stripped of basic necessities and were reduced to mere labourers, working in extremely poor condition. They also lacked access to sufficient amounts of food as any crops they cultivated were immediately transferred towards the colonisers and sent off for trading towards Asia (Worden, 1985). As the colonisers expanded their search for privately owned slaves throughout rural regions, “the figure recorded [for privately owned slaves] …was 16,839” by the end of Dutch colonial ruling in 1795 (Worden, 1996). This callous restructuring of the social order and maltreatment of Indigenous South Africans via slavery not only induced traumatic living circumstances and unjust distribution of resources, but led to major ethnic divisions that contrived a culture of racism still evident in post-colonial South Africa.
With tensions rising over trade routes between Asia, Africa and Europe, the British launched an invasion against the Dutch, annexing the Dutch East India Company from The Cape and their stronghold over the region and its resources in 1795 (Lester, 2005). The new British order brought with it new social impacts for the people of South Africa, some positive and others detrimental for decades to follow. One positive influence that the British had following the previous Dutch colonial rule, was the abolition of slavery in 1838 (Lester, 2005). Whilst it may have initially been an attempt empowering the native South African people out of slavery, the British took little attempts to reconcile the destructive rule of the Dutch, if anything, things became worse for the Indigenous population. With desire for greater resource accumulation, the British East India Company expanded their control over land in South Africa at the major expense of the Khoikhoi and San peoples (Harries, 1988). The Khoikhoi and San populations were pushed out of their homelands due to the advanced military weaponry accessible to the British, leaving them unable to withstand the force of the new colonial power. As a result of having lost control over their land, many of the Khoikhoi fled the region or were forced to join other ethnic groups, of whom later became known as the Xhosa and Zulu people (Harries, 1988). Not only did the British East India Company perpetuate the social turmoil derived from the Dutch Company by forcibly removing Indigenous peoples from their homelands, the British facilitated greater strife between ethnic groups by poorly distributing resources (Keegan, 1997). This resulted in significant conflict and violence between ethnic groups and colonisers, leading to the dissolution of many Indigenous groups, further emphasising the disastrous influence colonisation has had on the ethnic relations of South Africa.
European conquest in South Africa not only resulted in significant structural damage to society at its height during the 17th and 18th centuries (Worden, 1985, Brittanica, 2009), but resulted in long term social implications that spawned extensive conflict and deeply entrenched racial divides for centuries to follow. Racial stratification stemming from slavery implemented by Dutch colonial rule, further perpetuated by British expansion into ethnic homelands, provided the framework from which Apartheid was fabricated. Between 1948 and 1994, Apartheid comprised a social and political system of institutionalised racial segregation between the leading white minority, and the black South Africans, Indians and mixed race South Africans (Appelgryn and Nieuwoudt, 1988). This period in South Africa ensued detrimental impacts on ethnic relations, bringing rise to violent conflicts, separatism, black disenfranchisement and a culture of racism that still sets citizens apart today. Legacies of South Africa’s colonial past and methods of segregation were evident during Apartheid, when black and mixed race South Africans along with Indians were forced to resettle into “group areas” between the 1960s and 1980s (Appelgryn and Nieuwoudt, 1988) to maintain racial segregation. Different groups were provided with different resources and opportunities, with the majority of the best food resources and access to healthcare, education and justice going towards the white minority (also known as Afrikaners) (Worden, 1996, Appelgryn and Nieuwoudt, 1988) in a similar vein to the British and Dutch’s unfair distribution of resources in the 17th and 18th centuries. One specific group who suffered considerably from the legacies of colonialism and Apartheid were Indigenous South African women. During this period not only did they suffer from racial discrimination, but also gender discrimination, impeding considerably on their capacity to obtain an education, a job or overall decent living standard (Worden, 1996). Those who suffered under racial disenfranchisement, and the arbitrarily racist systems through Apartheid that stemmed from colonisation ultimately remain affected by past, with its legacies still tainting social order in South Africa.
Despite colonisation having ended within South Africa, its legacies continue to impact the social conditions of the state, ultimately obstructing growth and recovery from the past. Racial divides amongst white, black, mixed-race South Africans and Indians continue to reflect South Africa’s colonial past and Apartheid to this day, with racism and rigid inequality prevalent in society. According to OECD’s How’s Life? 2017 Report, the “employment rate in South Africa…currently stands at 43%” , with additionally only 43% of adults having maintained an upper secondary education in 2015. These statistics demonstrate a lack of social growth amongst the South African population in the post-colonial era, despite the now lack of slavery and empirical British ruling. This begs to question, had the Dutch and the British not restricted South African peoples to mere slavery and forced labour, would the state be in such social disarray that it is today? The colonial conquests of Europeans that were achieved through violence, racial divisions, white superiority and forced labour have left a deeply ingrained culture of inequality. Disruption of ethnic relations in South Africa has been an issue perpetuated over centuries, ultimately stemming back to the methods used to gain social control by the state’s first European settlers. Such disruption has left Indigenous minority groups such as the Khoisan people (Keegan, 1997) the most vulnerable to exploitation, impoverishment and racial vilification. With such a culture of racial segregation having occurred over centuries, and even up to the last 25 years, the legacies of South African colonialism are likely to impact the lives of its citizens for many years to come, as social order, equality and a state free of entrenched racism are yet to be achieved.
In essence, South Africa continues to grapple with the legacies of its colonial past. In particular, the state’s deeply entrenched culture of racism, segregation and inequality continue to impact its people today. These issues can largely be attributed to the frameworks of slavery, forced labour and racial segregation applied by European colonisers in the 17th and 18th centuries as efforts to gather fiscal benefits. Furthermore, underlying the oppressive system of Apartheid and its institutionalised racial divisions are the cruel legacies of South Africa’s colonial history. Despite having come a long way from the era of colonisation and Apartheid, complete recovery from the state’s colonial past is far-fetched, with racism, inequality and poverty still contributing to considerable social turmoil to this current day.