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A Brief History of Colonists in South Africa


Shortly after the establishment of the first European settlements in what would become South Africa, Africans and Boers began fighting over access to land. Over the years, Africans would be pushed off their land and their livestock confiscated leading to conflicts and full-scale wars. By the end of the 1800s, South Africa was carved into four White-controlled regions, colonies of the British and Boers.


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Early Contact

The Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Indigenous people had been living in the area that would come to be known as South Africa for many millennia before the arrival of Europeans. But in the 1400s, Portuguese explorers sailed by and later landed on South Africa’s coasts. Yet, it wasn’t until 1652 that a settlement was established by the Dutch East India Company to serve as a supply station where passing ships could replenish their provisions.

Likely unwilling to do the physical work themselves that would be required to establish a colony, the Dutch began importing slaves from other parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. Seeing an opportunity to serve a new and growing market, Dutch people immigrated to the colony where they set up farms. These Dutch immigrants would come to be known as “Boers” (the Dutch word for “farmer”) or “Afrikaners” and their resulting Dutch dialect, “Afrikaans”. (To avoid any confusion I’ll refer to the Dutch immigrants as Boers and indigenous Black people as Africans.)

As was the case with some of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, African interactions with European settlers were cordial at first. Local communities such as the Khoekhoe and San were not enslaved and initially traded with the Dutch. But as the European settlement grew, it demanded more livestock, produce, and vineyards which required more land. The once mutually beneficial trading relationship began to sour as the Boers consumed more goods and sought new grazing lands for their livestock.

The Fight For Land Begins

Civilian Africans (men, women, and children) during the Second Anglo-Boer War (South African War).
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

There was a drastic difference between the African and European concepts of land ownership. African farmers had built villages in the grasslands where they raised cattle, co-existed with smaller hunter-gatherer groups, and traded with neighboring artisan and manufacturing communities. But as the Boers moved inland to claim more land, they began to push the Africans off of fertile land and into less desirable areas.

The fight for resources resulted in conflicts that sparked wars between the colonists and local chiefdoms. But the Africans were overpowered by European weaponry and exposed to new illnesses such as smallpox which killed many people. The combination of these factors along with reduced access to fertile farming and hunting lands devastated African populations and communities. Having farming communities with established villages, some of the Khoekhoe who survived were forced to become tenant farmers on what was once their land and the colonists became their landlords. Pushed out of fertile hunting grounds, many surviving members of hunter-gatherer communities were killed outright or forced to become servants.

The Boers eventually expanded into the central Cape which was home to African farming communities that had been long-established along the Vaal, Orange, and Gamtoos Rivers. Once again, conflict arose as the Boers attempted to claim the land as Cape Colony and the African communities pushed back against their encroachment. Uniting to a degree, the Africans were able to resist the Boers for a time but were unable to achieve a decisive win.

Four Colonies

While other Europeans had sailed by or landed in South Africa, few aside from the Dutch maintained permanent settlements in the area. This began to change in 1795 when the British established a military base at the Cape Colony to fend off the French and preserve their trade routes to India. The colony was brought back under Dutch rule in 1803 but had become an important strategic location for the British as it offered natural resources and a growing trade market. Thus the colony was recaptured by the British in 1805 and they became the primary colonial power in that area of South Africa.

A map of Shaka Zulu’s empire.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Local African communities faced ongoing European land grabs as well as threats from ivory and slave trading from the Northeast and South. For protection, they began to restructure their communities, increasing their size, and enhancing their militaries. These changes would give rise to sister states such as the Swazi, Sotho, and Lesotho but the arguably most well-known would be the Zulus. Shaka kaSenzangakhona became king of the Zulus in 1816 and during his 12-year-reign organized a powerful military which helped to expand the empire across a large area of south-east Africa.

A map of the four White-ruled colonies of South Africa in the late 1800s.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1820, a large number of British immigrants arrived in South Africa seeking new opportunities and in need of land. The British established the Natal Colony at what is now Durban. Using military force, they pushed Africans (who they referred to as “Kaffirs”) off their land. Around this time they also formed a treaty with Shaka Zulu which granted them the use of land along the coast and 100 miles inland. Eventually the British abolished slavery in the region and extended civil rights to members of all races. In response, some of the Boers withdrew from the Cape and went on the “Great Trek” further into Africa’s interior where they would eventually establish the Transvaal and Orange Free State.

The 1838 Battle of Blood River between the Zulus and the Boers resulted in the Zulus withdrawing to the North and the victorious Boers establishing the Republic of Natal which the British reclaimed in 1843. The change in power resulted in some Boers moving north to the Transvaal and northwest to the Orange Free State. By 1860, the area that would become modern South Africa had solidified into four White-ruled republics. The Boers controlled the Transvaal (South African Republic) and Orange Free State in the north and central regions while the British controlled the Natal Colony and Cape Colony in the south and west.

Anglo-Zulu and First Anglo-Boer Wars

Men, horses, and wagons gathered at Kimberley during the gold rush.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

By this point in history, Africans had been trading with Europeans and Arabs for centuries. As European demand for ivory and slaves increased, African warlords focused on these taboo goods. They used their profits to purchase goods such as alcohol, tobacco, and firearms that were usually outdated. But with the discovery of gem-quality diamonds near Kimberley in 1867, gold in Transvaal in the 1880s, and minerals found elsewhere the scramble for control of land intensified. In the coming decades, there would be periods of war and peace as the British fought to bring Africans and the colonies under their rule for continued economic control and gain.

Zulu warriors in the Anglo-Zulu War.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Zulu kingdom had grown to be an independent and formidable entity that posed a threat to British control. Thus the British and the Zulus fought in the Anglo-Zulu Wars from 1879 to 1896. Though the Zulus fought valiantly, they faced the British with traditional weapons and outdated firearms with which they were untrained. When the war ended, the Zulu kingdom was divided and put under the rule of chiefs who were selected by the British and thus loyal to the colonial power.

British and Zulu fighters during the Anglo-Zulu War.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1870s, the Transvaal faced bankruptcy in part due to Boers not paying their taxes and a war with the Pedi tribe. The British took advantage of the weakened state’s financial issues and moved to take control of the region. At first, the Boers responded with passive resistance in the form of petitions and delegations. But the conflict turned violent in 1880 when Transvaal Boer soldiers aided by Boers from the Orange State faced off against the British in the First Anglo-Boer War. The Boers defeated the British and the Transvaal was granted its independence in 1884.

Glen Grey Act of 1894

African women and children during the Second Anglo-Boer War (South African War).
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Under the Glen Grey Act, the Cape Colony governor was vested with a great deal of power as a result of having authority over most land dealings. “Unclaimed” land would be surveyed and divided into parcels which had to be approved by the governor. Land in the Glen Grey region could not be mortgaged, subleased, or subdivided and all claims or transfers of land ownership had to be approved by the governor. Also, the land was to be passed down to the firstborn male child but could be repossessed due to the owner’s failure to pay fees or acts of rebellion.

In keeping with tradition, many Black people did not own land as individuals but rather as tribal or communal holdings. Glen Grey carved up the land and ownership of some plots were given to existing heads of Black families. Black people who did not receive land were expected to leave the area in search of work, which was mostly limited to White-owned farms. The “remaining” land was then offered for sale to the White population.

South Africa was predominately Black, with White people (the British and Boers) being a minority. The right to vote in the Cape Colony had been extended to Africans but eligibility was based in part on land ownership. With the implementation of the Glen Grey Act only individual ownership of land rather than traditional community ownership was recognized. This had a tremendous impact on voting rights as it drastically reduced the number of Black people who could be considered landowners and thus eligible voters. It also limited avenues for Black people to acquire land as there would be few opportunities for purchasing land and the governor and his selected board members would have authority over those exchanges.

South African War

African and White miners at the De Kaap Gold Fields.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following the discovery of gold in Transvaal in the 1880s, control of the region became especially financially lucrative and strategically important. Once again the British led a failed attempt to overthrow the Transvaal government. British aggression led to the Boers unifying to protect the Transvaal which the British viewed as a move to unify South Africa under Boer rule. The British sent troops to the Transvaal border and refused to comply with the Boers’ orders to disperse. This resulted in another round of fighting referred to as the Second Anglo-Boer War or more accurately the South African War as European and Black soldiers engaged in battle.

While the British and Boers fought for control over the Central and Northeastern regions of South Africa, Africans also participated in the war. Both sides initially enlisted Africans in non-combat roles but eventually the British allowed Africans to serve as spies, guides, and soldiers. Due to the Boers executing Africans that they captured who were fighting for the British, the British began to arm Africans so they could defend themselves. This meant that Boers who had pushed Africans off their land and fled the Cape a few generations before to avoid any sense of equality with Africans were now being pushed off that land by African fighters.

The Boers once again gave the British a fight, resulting in substantial casualties on all sides but ultimately they lost the war. The signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging officially ended the war and the Transvaal and Orange Free State were claimed as colonies of the British Empire but allowed to self-govern. In addition to losing tens of thousands of fighters, the war also ravaged Boer society leading to economic instability.

After several years of fighting Africans for their land and facing threats from Britain, the Boers had developed a strong sense of race-based nationalism. They chafed at being under British rule and coexisting with an African majority. Though the Africans helped to push back the Boers, promises made by the British of rights to the land they reclaimed were not recognized. The combination of these factors would play a major role in the future development of apartheid.

South Africa’s coat of arms.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

As the colonial states recovered from the war, efforts were made to improve the function and efficiency of the local governments. Upon completion of this reconstruction in 1910, the four colonial states were unified into a new country: The Union of South Africa. The newly created nation solidified into a White-run society where its politicians helped mining tycoons dominate the gold extraction industry. The policing and taxation of Black communities increased while their civil rights were curtailed making it difficult to fight against unfavorable political changes despite being the majority. In response, the Native National Congress (renamed the African National Congress [ANC]) was founded in 1912 to represent and advocate for the interests of Black South Africans.

More Acts and Commissions

African workers during the Second Anglo-Boer War (South African War).
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following the Glen Grey Act, other pieces of legislation were passed and commissions were created to lay the groundwork for taking even more land from Africans. Further changes to the laws that restricted Africans’ ability to acquire land or changed land ownership requirements would also affect Black voter eligibility. As the regions of South Africa unified, a decision had to be made on whether Black voting rights would be revoked or extended across the new nation.

A commission in the Natal region presented the recommendation that White people be given 40% of the most fertile land. The recommendation was adopted and Black tenant farmers were relocated from White-owned farms to land that had been set aside as African ancestral lands which were referred to as reserves. These plots of land came to be known as “native reserves” and they were created under the guise of allowing the European administrators to more easily rule over the area and its inhabitants.

Another commission recommended that land be used to raise crops rather than livestock. And yet another commission recommended that inspectors be appointed to oversee efforts to increase the population density and farming methods on reserves. I would assume at least in part that these various machinations were developed to discourage shepherding livestock between locations for grazing. And more tightly packing black people onto native reserves would help to free up land for purchase by White residents.

Natives Land Act of 1913

A map of the reserves for Africans that were defined by the Natives Land Act of 1913.
Image Source: Image Source: Human Awareness Programme, 1989, D5

The first thing to note is that previous laws and commissions had referred to Black people in South Africa as “natives”. But, the Natives Land Act specifically defined it as an entity that is majority-owned by or a person of either gender who is a member of any indigenous African race or tribe. This was an important distinction because it did not merely draw the line at them not being White but specifically their African ancestry. Thus making it possible to later differentiate and discriminate between Native (Black African), Coloured, and Indian.

The Land Act defined reserves across the northern border and southeastern coast. “Natives” would only be allowed to purchase land in these areas. Thus despite Black people being the majority of the population, they were limited to owning only 7% of the land while 93% was made available for White people. Similar laws were already on the books in the Orange Free State and the Cape chose not to make changes to avoid further conflict with its voter eligibility criteria. As a result, the Natives Land Act primarily affected those who lived in the Natal and Transvaal regions.

Some Black people did not personally own land but instead worked as tenant farmers on White-owned farms. They leased the land from its owner and paid for their rent in either cash or crops. But unlike sharecroppers or farmhands, they had some autonomy with regards to what they chose to grow and the sale of what they produced. The Land Act regarded Black people who were tenant farmers as squatters and outlawed the practice.

Most Black people were forced to live in reserves due to limited land being available for purchase and none for lease. This meant that there were a lot of people packed into these relatively small areas. And the land typically had poor quality soil and/or drainage issues. As a result, the reserves were densely populated but lacking adequate fertile land for the population to independently sustain itself.

Black people could only live outside of reserves if they had proof of employment. But Black individuals and Black-owned companies could no longer own land or property outside of reserves. Thus Black people would have to live in reserves and/or seek work on White-owned farms or other types of businesses.

The law was developed at the behest of White landowners who wanted more land but also benefited, White farmers and business owners who wanted more workers, and White non-landowners who benefitted from less competition for jobs in cities. The South African government provided additional assistance to White farmers in the form of low-interest loans which they used to improve the efficiency of their farm operations. No such loans were made available to Black farmers giving White farmers an additional competitive advantage.


  1. “Anglo-Zulu Wars 1879-1896.” South African History Online. Accessed September 18, 2020.
  2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Natal.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., December 12, 2007.
  3. “History.” South African Government. Government of South Africa. Accessed September 18, 2020.
  4. Lowe, Christopher C., David Frank Gordon, Martin Hall, Colin J. Bundy, Leonard Monteath Thompson, Andries Nel, Julian R.D. Cobbing, Alan S. Mabin, and Randolph Vigne. “South Africa.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., September 13, 2020.
  5. “The Native Land Act Is Passed.” South African History Online. Accessed September 18, 2020.
  6. “The Natives Land Act of 1913.” South African History Online. Accessed September 18, 2020.
  7. Pretorius, Fransjohan. “History – The Boer Wars.” BBC. BBC, March 29, 2011.
  8. “South Africa Profile – Timeline.” BBC News. BBC, April 4, 2018.

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One Comment

  1. Ahlume said:

    Hey can i interview you about First European settlement in Southern Africa

    September 9, 2021

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