Cape Town snuggles up to 3500-foot-high Table Mountain. When the clouds drop down to drape the mountain’s top, Cape Towners say the Table Cloth has been laid over it.
South Africa is a land of enchanting beauty, spread across 471, 445 square miles, almost twice the size of Texas. Its borders run
a thousand miles east to west, 875 miles north to south, with 1650 miles of coastline. It’s the world’s largest supplier of gold, chrome and platinum, second in manganese, third uranium, fifth in diamonds. In 1993, gold export revenues reached six billion dollars U.S. Almost two million of the 30 million blacks works as migrant labor digging gold on 9-12 month contracts. The largest seam, the Witwaterstrand, is 300 miles long, beneath the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Of South Africa’s 42 44 million population, four million are coloreds (mixed blood), Asians more than one million, whites seven to eight million, and various minority groups of one million.
But South Africa’s beauty belies a turbulent past. Those Bantus we met in Zimbabwe continued to push east and south, and by about 700 A.D, had absorbed or conquered all they met. By about 700 A.D., African mined copper, iron and gold. Another eight centuries would pass, in 1488, before the San and Khoi Khoi would be surprised by the arrival of men in ships with skin white as sand, the Portuguese. A century later, on 18 June 1580, the Englishman Sir
Francis Drake, awed by the windswept beauty he found at the tip of the continent, would note in his log. “This cape is the most stately thing and the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.” The scene was being set for a disruptive conflict over two hundred years in the future.
Cape Town served originally as a makeshift post office for sailors facing voyages of several years. That changed in 1652, when the Dutch East India Company, controlling the rich tea and spice trade, sent three Dutch vessels under the command of Jan van Riebeek to the Cape. That April, some 80 men and a few women and children left the ships in small boats and rowed to the beach. According to present-day Afrikaaner thinking, this day was the beginning of South African history. Dutch plans for a supply and trade station went awry when slaves were brought in from Java and Madagascar, a restless Dutch drifted outside stockade walls to establish their own farms. They became South Africa’s first “Boers”, the Dutch word for farmers. Conflicts with the Khoi Khoi were settled by the whites’ superior weapons and organization. In 1702, by the fiftieth anniversary, the white population had swelled to 1,500 people.
Enter the English. The British, to foil French plans, in 1795 captured Cape Town, returned it to the Dutch in 1803, reoccupied it three years later, and in 1814 the Netherlands gave the Cape Colony to Britain. When the British and the Dutch clashed, the Boers set out to carve a new state in this vast, open land. The Great Trek, from 1836 to 1838, is the storied era in South Arikaan’s history. They formed small bands of wagons that trailed cattle, children and dogs. On 16 December 1838, the
Trekboers faced 10, 000 massed, fierce Zulu warriors. Drawing their wagons into a tight circle, the Dutch laager, they prayed to God to give them a covenant. They defeated the Zulus, and 16 December 1838 became the Day of the Covenant.
Using his wealth, Cecil Rhodes in 1890 became prime minister of Cape Colony. The Boers had moved 400 miles north, but continued clashes with the British resulted in the first Anglo- Boer War of 1880-81, which the Boers won. But then in 1886, a huge gold seam was discovered at Witwaterstrand in Afrikaaner Transvaal. In less than a decade, some 80, 000 foreigners jammed the mining sites at Johannesburg, outnumbering the Boers two to one. The eventual friction produced the Second Boer War of 1899-1902, won by the British Generous in victory, Britain granted full political rights to Afrikaaners. Britain had defeated the Boers and the Zulus in 1879 and was not undisputed master. In 1910, Britain and the Afrikaaners joined to form the Union of South Africa. This lasted until 1931 when Britain granted independence to South Africa.
In elections in the ensuing years, the Boers took over the government,
and in 1948 passed a notorious serious of apartheid (“apartness”) laws, codifying what had been customs. During the next 50 years, blacks were moved to distant townships. Where they could work and what they could do were strictly enforced with passbooks. Violations meant jail, beating, and murder. Black were offered “independence” in new homeland, often the most barren of the country’s territory. To combat this, despite certain torture, black leaders emerged, and foremost of these was Nelson Mandela. He entered prison in 1963, and didn’t emerge until 1990. In 1990, the South Africans dismantled the apartheid system. With blacks voting for the first time, in 1994 Nelson Mandela was elected president. Though many problems lay ahead, the long nights of misery and torture were over.