In 1652, the Dutch East India Company set up a supply post near the Cape of Good Hope to supply the crews of its ships with fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables to reduce the amount of illness on shipboard, particularly scurvy. The supply post, which was located on the site of present-day Cape Town, was not meant as a settlement, but the men posted there built homes, started the cultivation of crops, and made themselves as comfortable as possible.
This way of life brought them immediately into conflict with the native tribes in the area, the Hottentots, who resented their cattle-grazing lands being taken over by the foreigners. The East India Company attempted to keep the conflict to a minimum and put tight restrictions on the amount of land the settlers could use and on the crops they could grow. All the food grown by the settlers had to be sold to the Company at low prices set by the Company.
The settlers of the seventeenth century reacted in several ways: they engaged heavily in smuggling and illegal trade with the sailors of non-company ships, and they organized themselves into their own variation of the sheriff's posse of the American West, called commandos. These commandos could be called together almost at a moment's notice to attack any native who might raid settlers' farms for cattle, either their own that the settlers had stolen from them, or cattle belonging legally to the farmers.
Then, during the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch settlers changed masters when Britain took over the Cape settlement to use it as a naval and military station. If the Dutch settlers had been unhappy with the Dutch East India Company rule, they were even more unhappy living under British rule, for a variety of reasons. Their new rulers had a different language, a different religion, and different ideas about the treatment of the native population. The settlers were Dutch Calvinists, members of the Dutch Reformed Church, to whom the Church of England was an enemy. They believed that the natives were creatures to be subjugated or killed, the Biblical "sons of Ham" who were cursed by God to be "drawers of water and hewers of wood" — in other words, servants and slaves. Besides, like the North American frontiersmen, they were resentful of any government restrictions and new ideas that might interfere with their independent way of life.
As British rule spread over the territories of the Cape, some of the most independent of the Dutch determined to escape from government control and sold their farms, packed their belongings into ox-drawn wagons, and headed northeast, in what came to be called the Great Trek. Their reasons for the move and the conditions they faced were very much like those of North American settlers during the same years, the middle of the nineteenth century. Both wanted more land and more independence, and both faced hostile natives who feared and hated white men taking over the lands that had been theirs for generations. In South Africa, the fiercest opponents were the Zulus, who were more advanced militarily than any tribes the Dutch had seen thus far. Many of the trackers were ambushed and slaughtered or forced to fight their way through enemy armies.
The Boers (which means "farmers") established two independent republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal South African Republic, surrounded on the south, west, and north by British territories. These two nations were agricultural, conservative, and anti-British as well as anti-native, and fiercely independent. However, independence did not last long.
When diamonds and gold were found in the Transvaal, there was a great influx of people in the 1870s and 1880s from all over the world, but the greatest number came from the British territories immediately south and east. The Boers disliked and feared this invasion, and there was much ill-feeling between the Boers and the newcomers. The British diamond millionaire, Cecil Rhodes, determined he would see the two Boer republics taken under the British flag as part of his dream of a British African empire stretching from Egypt in the north down to Cape Colony in the south. He and his men organized a series of incidents to provoke British intervention against the two republics, including the famous Jameson Raid, in which Rhode's colleague, Dr. L. S. Jameson, led a volunteer force against Johannesburg to "rescue" oppressed Britons from the Boers. Finally in 1899, war broke out between Britain and the Boers.
The Boers won the first victories of the war, using their old commando style of warfare, armed and mounted farmers under elected officers. The British, with far more men, were badly led and managed to win only by sheer weight of numbers.
Because of the guerrilla nature of the war, British forces conducted a "scorched earth" campaign, burning farmhouses and barns and crops to prevent their use by the enemy, and sending captured Boer women and children to camps, where many died. In fact, more people died in the camps than died, both British and Boer, in battle. This "scorched earth" campaign and the horror of the concentration camps embittered the Boers terribly; although they surrendered to the British in 1902, they have never forgotten or forgiven. However, the Boers themselves were barbaric, for they executed all captured natives who had worked for the British armies.
While Britain's policy during the Boer War was full of blunders and brutality, its policy after the war was very liberal and conciliatory. Increasing freedom was given to the newly-captured territories, and in 1910, they were united with other British South African territories in the Union of South Africa, with the former Boer general Louis Botha as prime minister. Botha and his deputy, Jan Christian Smuts, also one of the defeated Boer generals, were in favor of healing the wounds of the war and cooperating with the English-speaking population of the new country. A third Boer general, J. B. M. Hertzog, was not so eager to forget the unreconciled Boers, or Afrikaners, as they now preferred to be called.
The unreconciled Afrikaners eventually found their political home in the National party of General Hertzog and Daniel Malan, a Dutch Reformed Church clergyman. The liberal-minded Afrikaners and the English-speaking South Africans largely belonged to the United party of Generals Botha and Smuts. Except for one brief period of Nationalist coalition government in the 1930s, it was the Botha and Smuts party that ruled the Union until 1948.
World War I split the country, and there was actually some armed rebellion against the Botha government, which joined in the war against Germany, Austria, and Turkey. Then during the 1930s, the Nationalist party and other Afrikaner elements turned toward Hitler in Germany. They added a hatred of Jews to their hatred of the English-speaking South Africans, the native colored, and the Indian population. Further, they advocated a one-party dictatorship in which the English-speaking population would have some of their rights taken from them, and the Indian, native, and black populations would have almost no legal rights at all.
When Germany attacked Poland, and France and Britain then declared war, the question of whether or not South Africa would enter the war on Britain's side was doubtful, but the Smuts government won and Parliament passed a declaration of war by a slim majority.
The postwar years brought a great deal of upheaval to South Africa. The United party and more liberal parties were anxious to further industrialize the country, to bring in immigrants, to promote a policy of gradual or partial equalization of the various races — in other words, to bring South Africa more and more into line with twentieth-century ways and beliefs. The Nationalist party wanted to control immigration and keep the various non-European peoples "in their place." The Nationalists managed to win a very narrow majority in Parliament in the 1948 elections.
They began a program of apartheid ("apartness," or complete segregation) for the three main non-European groups: the largest group, the Indian population (many of whom were merchants and store-owners), the natives (known as Bantus by the government), and the coloreds (of mixed European and native blood). These groups were to lose parliamentary representation so they would have no political rights and no means of protesting government policy. The next step was to eliminate racially integrated universities, schools, labor unions, and any other organizations where races might meet, mix, discuss, and learn to understand each other. The final step was to segregate the whole nation into white and black areas, with native reserves set up where the natives could be kept in strict control. This policy of apartheid was called "separate development" by the government.
Such moderate non-white groups as the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, and the African People's Organizahon were banned or limited, and their leaders (including Nobel Prize-winner Albert Luthule) were banished to native reserves, placed under house arrest, imprisoned, or executed. The Anglican and Roman Catholic churches had many of their leaders imprisoned or exiled, including the Anglican bishop of Cape Town.
Newspapers, magazines, and motion pictures were under strict censorship, and many foreign publications and authors were barred from entering South Africa. Authors, journalists, painters, sculptors, and other people in creative work were placed under strict control.
For the natives, things were even worse. Half of their children died before they were a year old. The most widely publicized example of police action against them was the Sharpville Massacre of 1960, when a non-violent protest against government policies was broken up by police, who killed 69 natives and wounded 180.
This is the background of Paton's novel, although it was published in 1948, when conditions were relatively good in South Africa, before the Nationalists came into power.