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Proto-Apartheid at an Eastern Cape town

10. Conclusion

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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From about the mid-1970s, as the liberation struggle heated up in South Africa, radical and revisionist historians became intensely interested in defining the origins of apartheid. It was a search with a purpose because, if they could clearly link the rise of apartheid with the evolution of industrial capitalism, they could then argue that both monsters needed to be overthrown during the forthcoming revolution. They therefore explored the beginnings of mining and industrial capitalism in South Africa and came to a dramatic conclusion: there was very definite evidence of growing segregation in the two mining towns of Kimberley and Johannesburg.

This evidence was subsequently questioned, first by Bill Swanson and later by the historians at the University of Cape Town. Their conclusion was that there were other circumstances which led to the rise of segregation and not simply capitalist exploitation. Swanson put it down to White attitudes to health, what he termed the "sanitation syndrome", which led to segregation at Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Christopher Saunders and Vivian Bickford-Smith went further and pointed not only to the fact that the desire for segregation in pre-industrial Cape Town was rooted as early as the 1880s, but also that the example had already been set in some of the Eastern Cape towns.

The radicals were nevertheless undoubtedly right, at least to a point. The origin of apartheid does appear to lie in South Africa's cities although not necessarily the mining and industrial ones. The separation of the races within the agricultural arena can be explained in terms of neo-feudalism: the Whites tended to be the land-owners while the Blacks were generally the peasants who worked for them. In the urban areas, however, the Whites followed clearly defined segregationist tendencies when circumstances and the law allowed it.

One of the biggest hurdles facing historians, however, is what to make of "traditional liberalism". The Cape's constitutions of 1853 and 1872, they argue, did not allow for discrimination on the grounds of class or colour - a "colour-blind" constitution, as it has so often been called. Yet when one compares two cities at opposite ends of the Colony, namely Cape Town and East London, one is forced to arrive at markedly different conclusions. In Cape Town, legal discrimination did not happen until the creation of the Ndabeni Location in 1901, whereas at East London segregation already existed in 1848, and it was certainly written into the town's municipal regulations as early as 1883.

Historians have had a tendency to portray the more liberal philosophy of Cape Town as being representative of the Colony as a whole. They are wrong. The capital, as seat of government and gateway to the world, naturally tended to reflect an elitist ideology that was to a large extent a mirrored image, even if somewhat frosted, of the changing thought patterns from overseas. While Europe therefore emerged during the course of the 19th century from the romanticism of the Enlightenment to a growing spirit of nationalism, Realpolitik and what would later be termed Social Darwinism, so would Cape Town evolve by 1901 from traditional liberalism to segregation and racism.

Towns like East London, on the other hand, were less influenced by Europe. On the contrary, they reflected attitudes that were native to the colony itself. While many a resident in Cape Town would perhaps have wished to see a more segregationist policy introduced into the city at a much earlier date, they nevertheless found it difficult to voice this in the face of an image of liberalism which had been fostered over the decades.

The towns of the Eastern Cape did not find this to be a problem. In the first place, they did not have the cosmopolitan population of Cape Town, many of whom were already "passing for White", but rather found themselves with two distinct societies that were readily identifiable in terms of culture, ethnicity, language and colour. It was easy therefore to create and maintain racial separation, which they did as early as the 1840s, and their actions were accepted by the supposedly liberal government officers.

All the towns of the Eastern Cape had segregated townships in one way or another. For most, like Port Elizabeth, these "locations" would at first be more in the nature of lower class Black ghettos situated close to the urban area. They would be moved further from the town only after 1901 when the outbreak of the bubonic plague pandemic caused Whites to panic over contamination. In this Port Elizabeth was similar to Cape Town. Only East London created radically distinct locations almost from the town's inception and then maintained these as segregated townships that were situated far from the White urban area. It was this example which Cape Town admired so much at a time when traditional liberalism was giving way to a spirit of Social Darwinism towards the end of the 19th century.

Because the East London system was well established and its Location Superintendent so experienced in controlling segregated townships, it was this model that was essentially offered to South Africa by the Lagden Commission. This in turn became the blue-print for the new urban locations that were established near towns like Bloemfontein. While it was possible that the latter location inspired certain measures contained in the Natives (Urban Areas) Act of 1923, it is probable nevertheless that the East London model was indeed the remote cause. Unfortunately for East London's place in the book of records, however, its municipality had allowed the East Bank Location to become so run-down by 1920 that it could no longer inspire anything, let alone an Act of Parliament.

It would, of course, be foolish to claim that East London invented segregation. If, however, one takes the argument proposed by the radical historians of the 1970s just one step further, one can conclude with some justification that segregation, and therefore apartheid, evolved particularly as an urban phenomenon. If, on the other hand, one desires to understand the contemporary urban philosophy of the Cape Colony, the East London model was much closer to the mould than was Cape Town. The latter, as seat of government and gateway to Europe, naturally had one foot in each world, whereas East London was always purely colonial.

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