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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/South Africans/Clifford J. Jansen

South Africans living in Canada come from a country whose diverse population of 36.6 million inhabitants (1989) are not classified by ethnic, national, or linguistic distinctions but rather according to racial categories listed as White, Black, Asian, and Coloured. White includes all people of European origin, for the most part British, Dutch, German, French, and Portuguese. Black refers to all Black Africans, generally referred to as Bantus, and includes a wide variety of distinct tribal and cultural identities, the largest of which are the Zulus, Xhosa, Tswana, and Sotho. The Asians are primarily from India. The Coloureds are those who do not fit into the preceding categories. In South Africa, the Blacks comprise 75 percent of the population, Whites 13 percent, Coloured 9 percent, and Asians 3 percent. Among South African immigrants in Canada, however, the proportions are reversed, with the Whites representing 73 percent of the group, followed by Asians (18 percent), Coloureds (6 percent), and Blacks (3 percent).

Aside from the official racial categories, South Africa is characterized by linguistic complexity. Blacks speak one of several Bantu languages and many speak as well either English or Afrikaans, a distinct language derived from Dutch. The Whites are more or less evenly divided between the Afrikaners (descendants of Dutch, French Huguenot, and German settlers), who speak Afrikaans, and English-speakers, whose ancestors came primarily from the British Isles. Most Coloureds in rural areas speak Afrikaans, while those in urban centres are predominantly English-speaking. Many of the Asians speak their original East Indian languages as well as English.

Strategically located at the southern tip of Africa, the lands that later became the country of South Africa were originally inhabited by black peoples referred to as Hottentots and Bushmen. Since about 1500 C.E., the country has attracted settlers both from within the continent and from abroad. These have included the Bantu tribes from central and east Africa, and later, Europeans, led primarily by Dutch, French Huguenot, and British settlers. Portuguese sailors were the first Europeans to reach the southern tip of Africa at the end of the fifteenth century; they used the Cape as a stopping point on their journeys to the East Indies. It was the Dutch, however, who in 1652 formed the first permanent colony. It came to be known as the Cape of Good Hope. French Huguenots and German settlers also came to the colony, and, together with the Dutch, they formed a people that came to be known as the Boers or Afrikaners. As the settlers expanded, they drove out or eliminated the Black Hottentots and Bushmen. Intermixture between the Europeans, Hottentots, and slaves brought in from other parts of Africa led to the creation of people later classified as Coloureds.

During the Napoleonic era, the Cape Colony was annexed by the British (1795), retaken for a few years by the Dutch (1803), and then formally granted to Great Britain at the Congress of Vienna (1815). Discontented with British rule, the Boers moved farther into the interior (the “Great Trek” of the late 1830s), where they established two republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic. The discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886) in those republics prompted the British to expand their political influence inland, a move that, in turn, was opposed by the Dutch. Increasing political rivalry and armed conflict between the two groups culminated in the Boer War (1899–1902).

Although the Britsh were victorious, their brutal military campaigns were widely criticized in international circles. The need to find a political solution eventually resulted in an agreement whereby the two British (Cape Town and Natal) and Dutch (Orange Free State and Transvaal) territories were joined together to create in 1910 the Union of South Africa.

Since that time, South African history has been dominated by two main themes: the struggle between the British and Afrikaners for political control of the state; and the efforts of both the British and Afrikaners to keep the other peoples – Blacks, Coloureds, and Asians – in political and socio-economic subordination. These themes remained dominant both before and after 1961, when the British-controlled Union of South Africa became the independent Republic of South Africa.

In 1948 Afrikaner Nationalists came to power and two years later implemented apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “apartness.” This was a policy in which the government enforced segregation and discrimination based on the White, Black, and Coloured racial categories (the Asian category was subsequently added). Apartheid also included territorial segregation, leading to the creation for Blacks of ten African “homelands,” that is, pseudo-states based on tribal organizations within South Africa and with varying degrees of self-government. Most of these homelands were not economically viable, however, so that in contrast to the White population the Blacks remained politically disenfranchised, socially marginalized, and economically impoverished. Similarly, the Group Areas Act determined where Asians and Coloureds were allowed to live.

Beginning in the 1960s, Black discontent erupted into an increasing number of riots and other forms of protest that were coordinated by political organizations like the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan-African Congress. The South African government responded with harsh measures that led to the long-term imprisonment or death of activists like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, whose fate brought upon South Africa the condemnation of large segments of the international community. Change finally came with the election of President Frederik W. de Klerk, who by the late 1980s had initiated a reform program aimed at dismantling apartheid. Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and four years later he was elected president of South Africa after successfully winning in the country’s first fully democratic elections. Since that time, the Black-dominated government has tried to establish a society in which all citizens are treated equally, regardless of race or ethnic heritage.