The fight for Southern Africa in the late-1700s, and the 18th, the 19th and early-20th centuries, centred on the theft of land, the kidnapping of children, accusations and counter accusations of cattle-theft, colonialist demands for cheap labour, and mass murder.
It was a relentless battle to subjugate black inhabitants of the region – with crude Boer colonialists and slightly more sophisticated, but equally ruthless, Britons uniting occasionally to take on, and ultimately defeat, poorly armed indigenous inhabitants.
The story had a familiar ring: Systematic land grabs. Land invasions. Accusations and counter accusations of cattle theft.
This led to war. War led to killings in which those with guns inevitably won.
And in what was to play out time after time, the victors set new borders.
The first of the wars during this period – the so-called Frontier Wars – broke out in the Eastern Cape in 1779. The last one – the ninth – started in 1877 and ended a few months later in 1878.
The most vicious was the fourth, in which black and white forces under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Graham marched into the Zuurveld region, where the Xhosa chiefs, Chungwa and Ndlambe, were hiding, on Christmas Day, 1811, with orders ‘to attack the savages in a way in which … will leave a lasting impression on their memories.’
Five-hundred men entered he woods and were told ‘to stay there as long as a kaffir remains alive’.
Describing the short, brutal war afterwards, Graham’s aide, Robert Hart, wrote that many Xhosa men and women were indiscriminately shot wherever they were found – and whether or not they offered any resistance.
A delighted Cape Colony Governor, Sir John Cradock named the headquarters of the Cape Regiment, ‘Graham’s Town’.
In the centre of Southern Africa indigenous inhabitants were also involved in life and death struggles….
Trekker society either hunted or raided.
Hunting involved elephants; Raiding involved African communities. Sometimes both activities were carried out simultaneously,
‘Raiding’ caused panic among African communities.
Deliberate acts of killing and looting were carried out with one thing in mind: to acquire land and labour,
When the Boers arrived in the then Transvaal and helped themselves to land, they did not work their own fields. Instead, they used members of Pedi communities who sold their labour – to buy guns.
In the Eastern Transvaal, the Boers kidnapped thousands of children to be used as inboekselings (apprentices).
It was just another word for slaves.
Women were bound to Boer masters until the age of 21. Men were kept until 25. In many cases, they were held for much longer.
In the northern Transvaal, the trade in children was even more prevalent, and at one point, when the large elephant population was wiped out by hunters in search of ‘white gold’ (ivory), they switched to black gold (children).
In the Transvaal, land was communally owned. The concept of individual ownership did not exist, and often, chiefs who were coerced into ‘signing’ off land to Boers, had no right to do so.
It didn’t belong to them.
Large tracts were ‘purchased’ by Boers for next to nothing. For example, the northern half of a vast area known as Transorangia – about 60,000 square kilometres – was ‘purchased’ by Boer leader, Andries Potgieter, for a few cattle.
In fact, his ‘purchase’ was a bargain: one cow for every 2,000 square kilometres.
Land hunger was also a cause of killings and heightened tensions in Natal, with the murder in 1838 of Piet Retief and a Boer entourage on the orders of the Zulu king, Dingane, best remembered.
It led to the trekkers exacting a terrible revenge in a battle at a place called Blood River, where the Boer chaplain, Sarel Cilliers, said afterwards: ‘The kaffirs lay on the ground like pumpkins on a rich soil that has borne a large crop.’
In the 1870s, in an area around Weenen, the Hlubi, led by a chief named Langalilabalele, enraged white farmers.
It was a familiar story: whites were too lazy to till their own fields; by contrast, African farmers, helped by their families, were more than happy to do their own farming on land hired from white absentee farmers.
The white community did everything to force the Hlubi into wage labour, including accusing them of planning rape and plunder when a Hlubi man was arrested for being in Estcourt without permission.
They also complained that the Hlubi were hoarding firearms.
They found a willing listener in the town’s magistrate, John MacFarlane.
Langalilabalele skillfully avoided attempts to order him around, and when troops were sent to arrest him, he fled with a large number of cattle to Basutoland (present day Lesotho), his men killing three white troopers and two ‘Native Levies’ along the way.
He eventually surrendered in Basutoland and after being returned to Natal, was tried for high treason.
This caused an uproar in England and authorities in the Cape Colony were ordered to release him immediately, which they did – several years later.
Natal’s, or more accurately, Zululand’s reputation as a region of tensions continued in 1879 with the Battle of Isandlwana. The Illustrated History of South Africa – the Real Story, which I edited, outlined the reasons best.
‘The Zulu attacked the red-coated British because they feared for their land and their independence. The British soldiers drawn from the … poorest … of the working classes, fought back because they had been lured, like Private Moss from Wales, to ‘take the Queen’s shilling.’
‘On a windswept hillside near a towering fortress of rock known to the Zulu as Isandlwana, a proletariat army from the world’s foremost capitalist nation was defeated by a parttime force of peasant farmers in a short, bloody and eventually inconclusive battle that rocked the British Empire to its core.
But it was a short-lived triumph.
Shortly afterwards they attacked British soldiers at Rorke’s Drift mission station – and in 12 hours of bitter fighting, lost 500 men to the 17 redcoats who died.
After much fighting, the Zulu lost their independence, their lands becoming part of a Confederation of Natal.
Still in Natal, but almost 30 years later, in 1906, a chief named Bambatha fought a ‘war of liberation’ against colonial authorities from Nkandla Forest.
His rebellion was sparked by a new poll tax on African males, on top of existing hut and dog taxes.
The three taxes were an ill-disguised attempt to force peasants into wage labour.
Many refused to pay, and when reports of ‘black insolence’ began coming in from all around the country – and when Bambatha took his men into the thickly wooded forest, the authorities put a hardline soldier named Duncan McKenzie in command of a force to hunt down the rebels.
Within six weeks, he found Bambatha’s hideout, attacked him, killed him, and put his head on a stick as a warning to others.
This was the last time African communities were coerced into paying taxes to force them off their land.
By 1913, white authorities had become much more sophisticated, promulgating the Native’s Land Act, in which they set aside 87 percent of the new Union of South Africa for the exclusive use of white South Africans.
Blacks got 13 percent.