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Proto-Apartheid at an Eastern Cape town

1. Racism in the
Cape Colony

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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This cyber-book is the story of a community. In a sense it is the account of the people of East London, except that a quirk of fate created circumstances in which the history of the town is difficult to hold together in a single focus. Indeed, there have always been two communities at the port, a Black one and a White, even in the embryo years of 1847. It is easier therefore to concentrate on the one story and to pull in the other threads as they are necessary to enrich the historical tapestry.


There was a time when it was believed that urban segregation was simply a different side of the apartheid coin, minted by the post-1948 National Party government. Modern historians, however, have pushed back the edge of the segregation era much further. It has been pointed out, for example, that certain laws emanating from the 1910 Act of Union were inherently racist by nature. One need look no further than the Native Land Act of 1913 which divided rural South Africa into White and Black domains, or the Natives (Urban Areas) Act of 1923 which did the same for the cities by thrusting Black "locations" upon them. Separation appeared therefore to be very much a product of the Union government, which quickly became dominated by the former Transvaal and Orange Free State republics.

During the 1970s revisionist and neo-Marxist historians began to argue that segregation had nothing to do with the Union government per se but was directly linked with the rise of capitalism and the accumulation of wealth through an exploitation of the labour market. Capital accumulation, they argued, began in the late 19th century, originating in the mining towns of Kimberley (1870) and Johannesburg (1886). Thereafter, "apartheid" would spread throughout the country during the 20th century but always linked directly to the industrial and mineral revolution, and therefore to capitalist exploitation.

In 1977 an opposing argument was propounded. In that year, Bill Swanson produced his seminal paper which linked urban segregation to what he called the "sanitation syndrome", exploring the idea that separation happened at such pre-industrial towns as Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth at the turn of the century, almost a decade before the Act of Union and quite independently of capital. An assortment of papers then emanated from the University of Cape Town which further explored this theme.

Important among these scholars was Christopher Saunders who pointed out that, although Swanson was technically correct in his interpretation, nevertheless the idea of segregation happened a full decade earlier. The people of Cape Town, Saunders argued, were confronted with demographic change during the 1890s and faced a migration of African people from the eastern Cape and from Mozambique. The otherness of these people was so great that the residents of Cape Town believed that an eastern Cape policy of creating "locations" should be emulated.

Plans for this were already being drawn up when the plague pandemic hit South Africa in 1901. The "sanitation syndrome" thereupon galvanised both the Cape Town municipality and the colonial government to create the Ndabeni Location for the African residents, thereby ushering in an era of legal segregation. Research on Port Elizabeth by Gary Baines and on King William's Town by Sharon Caldwell have indicated an identical scenario in those two Eastern Cape towns.

More recently Vivian Bickford-Smith's monograph on "ethnic pride and racial prejudice" in Cape Town has pushed the frontier back a further two decades. Demographic growth after 1875, he says, led to a seizing of power by the urban elite, "White, bourgeois and mainly English" who based their philosophy upon such principles as the "moralising efficacy of hard-work and cleanliness". At the same time the growth in power of the Afrikaner Bond, founded in 1879, saw the ebbing of liberal attitudes within the colonial government itself.

Bickford-Smith concludes that the years between 1875 and 1902 saw a gradual evolution of racist attitudes amongst Cape Town's White and mainly English community towards both the "Malay" population and the recent African arrivals from the eastern Cape and Mozambique. Urban segregation was already being advocated in the 1880s, he argues, but it would be too costly and problematic to move the "Malay" community. During the prosperous 1890s, however, the African peoples were singled out as scapegoats for the spread of disease, especially smallpox. When the bubonic plague pandemic erupted in 1901, therefore, the municipal authorities joined forces with the government in the creation of the Ndabeni Location and the establishment of legal residential segregation for the Nguni people.

Saunders, however, had already pointed to the eastern Cape as the place where Capetonians sought their example for segregation. The question therefore must be asked as to whether legal segregation emanated from such towns as Port Elizabeth or Grahamstown. AJ Christopher upholds such an idea, showing in several articles that a separation of the races had already happened in Port Elizabeth by the mid-19th century. As early as 1847, he says, a Government Notice gave the Port Elizabeth municipality "greater control" over the indigenous population, encouraging the establishment of distinct "native locations" some distance from the town.


The Government Notice of 1847 is indeed interesting not so much in that it created urban segregation in Port Elizabeth, which it did not really do, but rather in its pointing to the fact that the Cape Colony's "traditional liberalism" was essentially a lie. Ever since Ordinance 50 brought freedom to the Khoisan (Hottentot) people in 1828 and the slave population began to be emancipated after 1834, the myth of "traditional liberalism" was promoted.

This concept meant in theory that no person could be discriminated against in terms of skin colour and class. The idea certainly appeared to be entrenched in the Cape's constitutions of 1853 and 1872. The reality, however, was markedly different. Discrimination could and did take place, and it was indeed enshrined in law.

By 1830 the Khoisan and slave populations had been sufficiently in contact with the Dutch population of the Cape to have absorbed the essence of Dutch culture. They had been fully incorporated into the western economic system, every vestige of tribal custom had long since vanished, they were (mostly) adherents of western religion (with the exception of the "Malay" sector in and around Cape Town which had adopted Islam) and many of them were whitening in terms of skin colour through intermarriage with the Dutch.

Even their original languages had long vanished so that they now spoke a dialect of Dutch that would in time be known as Afrikaans. In short, they had become what was known as "passing for White". Since the majority formed the labouring class, however, they were certainly no immediate threat to White mercantile and artisan interests. Moreover, legal discrimination was becoming increasingly difficult to apply and indeed no longer made much sense. Hence was born the idea of "traditional liberalism".

This policy, on the other hand, was not a reflection of colonial sentiment. During the British era, the Cape Colony was initially ruled in an autocratic fashion by a Governor who could consult with a Council of Advice but whose recommendations he was not legally or morally bound to follow. His orders in turn emanated from Britain, whose government was firmly entrapped by the social forces enveloping Europe as a consequence of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Romanticism was now in full flight and Socialism was rapidly gaining ground amongst the intellectuals within the industrializing European population.

The essentially agricultural majority at the Cape, on the other hand, saw themselves as victims to a dreaded "philanthropism" whose "trouble makers" like Dr John Phillip had the ready ear of the British government. The truth of the matter, however, was that the colonial officer-bearers ultimately took their orders from the British government which was battling against forces of change. If taken to excess, these forces could have precipitated the revolutionary overthrow of that very government.

Europe during the 1820s was a froth of discontent and 1830 saw revolution erupt almost everywhere. Britain was hardly likely to be exempt unless she moved with the times, which she did through the "Great" Reform Act of 1832 which saw a widening of the franchise. The Act nevertheless ultimately brought in sufficient change merely to hold the revolutionary animal at bay without unduly rocking the political boat. The Romantic Age would last until about 1850, when the failure of the next spate of revolutions would ring its death knell. In the meantime, the Colonial Office would be firmly in the hands of the "philanthropists", men like Lord Glenelg who would appear to take the side of the "noble savage" no matter how perverse that action appeared to the colonists.

The official British attitude from which "traditional liberalism" was conceived had little in common therefore with colonial thought or expectation. It was in truth something forced on the Colony from without. After all, the colonists had little say in the Council of Advice except through the minority voices of men like Thomas Greig, the English immigrant and liberal who lived in the cocoon-like isolation of Cape Town, far from the new forces that were emerging in the eastern Cape.

There on the frontier, new towns like Port Elizabeth (1815) and Grahamstown (1820) were being established, and even closer to the heart of the frontier came King William's Town (1835) and East London (1847). The White residents in these towns would represent more clearly the real colonial philosophy which was in opposition to "traditional liberalism" and would quickly find ways to defy the constitution by establishing their own forms of separation that was somehow winked at even by the Cape government itself.


The winds of change in Europe began blowing after 1850, when even the last vestige of the Romantic Age was fading. As is the way with political change, however, nothing new would come about for another decade, until Count Otto von Bismarck of Prussia announced the birth of a new philosophy when he trounced Denmark in the war of 1863 and then turned his dogs on Austria (1866) and France (1870).

The Germans would name the new ideology Realpolitik, a machiavellian belief that the end justifies the means. Realpolitik would soon sweep Europe, irrevocably transforming patterns of government so that, by the end of the century, the continent would be dramatically different from the 1820s when Romanticism and Socialism appeared to be entrenched as the politics of the future. Even in America, a similar pattern would emerge in the 1880s when the Reconstruction era of the post-civil war years began to be sidelined in favour of reaction and a growing racism.

It was in the ideological vacuum of the 1850s that a new Cape constitution was conceived. Two "frontier wars" in rapid succession, the War of the Axe (1846-7) and the Mlanjeni War (1851-3) cost the British Treasury a small fortune, sufficient to twist the arm of the Colonial Office into believing that the White people of the Colony needed to be more responsible for their actions, yet not enough to allow them to be fully responsible. The result was a form of interim constitution that was called "Representative Government" in which the colonists could debate although they could not participate directly in government itself.

The constitution of 1853 still played lip-service to the idea of "traditional liberalism" but by now issues on the frontier could no longer be ignored. In reality a sleeping giant had been awakened in the eastern Cape but the amaXhosa were everything that the "Malays" and "Coloureds" were not. While the latter were "passing for White", the former were "the other": tribally organised, linguistically and ethnically distinct, pagan, and adhering to a radically different economic system. Moreover, they were perceived as a military threat which, if left unchecked, would cause instability along and beyond the frontier. The new constitution therefore acknowledged their existence and allowed for legal discrimination against them.

In reality the Constitution of 1853 recognised two groups of people: the "civilized" who upheld the British social and economic philosophy; and the "uncivilized" Africans who were clearly distinguished by their "otherness". Furthermore, unlike the Malay and Coloured people whose skin colour often allowed them to be "passing for White", the African community was racially distinct and could be clearly recognised as such. The amaXhosa therefore became increasingly the subject of legislation which singled them out for separate treatment.

The first was a law which compelled them to carry "passes". This was a carry-over from the earlier days when any person who lived beyond the colonial borders had to be issued a pass if he or she wished to enter the Colony in search of work. Colonial farmers especially needed such labour and the pass was issued in terms of necessity, being valid only to enable the holder to engage in activities of labour, but to be revoked should that purpose no longer apply. The pass was therefore originally nothing more than a passport, but the system thereafter became a permanent feature in colonial law even after the amaXhosa themselves had become colonial citizens through expansion of the Colony's boundaries.

Other discriminatory laws then followed. When the Cattle Killing episode erupted in 1856, Sir George Grey made use of the opportunity to destroy the entire Xhosa power-base by imprisoning various Chiefs on Robben Island and moving their followers into villages which would henceforth be known as "locations" and "reserves" and would be under the supervision of government-appointed Headmen. The Western economic system then became obligatory through the collection of hut and animal taxes, to be paid in British currency. Christian missionaries would convert the people into Black Englishmen who would pray to an English God, would wear Victorian clothing and bow before a Calvinist work ethic.

None of these laws was applied to the White, Malay or Coloured peoples of the Cape Colony, and so two distinct legal systems came into operation which many historians have conveniently ignored in their pursuit of "traditional liberalism". It is true that lip-service was paid to the remnants of the now defunct Romantic Age in the form of a carrot: any person living under the draconian system of "Location Law" could become exempt from it if he could prove himself to be sufficiently "civilized", for which he would receive the franchise.

Since law needs some form of yardstick, the exemption was determined in terms of economic activity and economic means. André Odendaal explains that the 1853 constitution entitled "every male citizen" to the franchise provided he was over the age of 21, and either owned property to the value of £25, received a salary of £50 per annum, or received a salary of £25 but with free board and lodging. Economic activity and education were clearly linked, however, and the latter could only be attained by a thorough emersion in the doctrines propounded by the Christian mission schools which came to dot the frontier during the 1850s and 1860s.

It was in terms of these discriminatory laws that the Government Notice of 1847, allowing Port Elizabeth greater control over the indigenous population, must be seen. Even by then the notion of "traditional liberalism" was beginning to be transparent: it was meant to apply only to the people who accepted the general norms underlying Western philosophy and against whom it was increasingly difficult to discriminate. The same principle, however, would not be applied to the people whose "otherness" made it easy to keep them apart.


Yet the Cape's double-headed legal system held inherent contradictions which would quickly surface in such towns as Port Elizabeth and East London which did not have a citizenry like Cape Town's who were still intent on upholding the letter of the constitution. The townspeople of the eastern Cape were often hard-nosed mercantilists who were guided by the reality as they saw it, rather than by niceties of contradictory constitutional principles. They were aware that the government allowed de facto segregation in their towns and it was therefore a natural step for them to assume that de facto separation was the same as de jure segregation.

Because of this confusion, the various municipalities in the eastern Cape would issue regulations which discriminated against the amaXhosa. Each town had its curfew regulations, its bye-laws prohibiting the manufacture of traditional beer and the carrying of traditional fighting sticks or knob-kerries within municipal limits. In actual fact, these regulations were all illegal but this would only be challenged in the 1890s, by which stage the political philosophy of Realpolitik was gaining ground everywhere. It was coupled with a new social philosophy that would later be called Social Darwinism which allowed for the belief of dominant and inferior races, and for the suppression of the latter by the former.

The constitutional challenge to former philanthropic ideals would therefore happen when the philosophy of "traditional liberalism" was already dying even in its bastion, Cape Town. The Seven Circles Act (1877) brought the demise of the western Cape's political hegemony over the Colony. By 1879 Afrikaner nationalism was beginning to surface with the establishment of the Afrikaner Bond, a political party which quickly established itself as a major player in the Cape government. At the same time, Realpolitik and economic challenges in Europe and America were leading to jingoism, imperialism and a "scramble" for the uncolonised portions of the African continent.

The liberals within the Cape parliament needed an alliance with the Afrikaner Bond in order to cooperate with the British Empire in its expansion into Africa and to do that they were prepared to ditch even the last vestiges of "traditional liberalism". Segregationist policies which had dominated eastern Cape thought throughout the 19th century therefore surfaced even in Cape Town, with the creation of the Ndabeni Location for the African townspeople.


The reality of "traditional liberalism", therefore, was that discrimination against the Malay and Coloured peoples was no longer legally feasible after about 1830. The amaXhosa discovered, however, that this policy was not to be applied to them except in rare exceptions when a few individuals were able to cross the great divide into Western civilization. Moreover, as soon as the number of these individuals became great enough to start posing serious political threats, the great divide began to be widened through tinkering with the franchise. Eventually, in 1910, even the "great tradition" itself would be scuppered in favour of political necessity and the Act of Union.

East London was founded in 1847 in the midst of these changing philosophies and so the city's early history is a microcosm of the growing tide of reaction that was sweeping the Colony. By 1847 Romanticism was already a discredited ideology and within the following twenty years Realpolitik would be born. East London was also the closest colonial port to the frontier proper, causing "frontier" attitudes to be apparent from the start. In many ways, therefore, East London would reveal the opposite tendencies to Cape Town and the town's actions would reflect a reactionary urban philosophy which would quickly spread to other areas of the Colony, and ultimately even to Cape Town itself.

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