Craig White's Literature Courses

Historical Backgrounds

South Africa:

Colonization & Independence

Republic of South Africa location
(dark blue at bottom)

Compared to Americans' general ignorance about African nations, in the late 20th century many American civil rights and human rights activists became aware of South Africa. This awareness was heightened by several points of identification between the USA and South Africa. However, the histories and ethnic dynamics of the two nations also differ in many respects.

Similarity: Both nations have or had a dominant white settler-colonialist culture and a native black minority or repressed culture.

Difference: Different white-black ratios: African Americans constitute app. 12% of USA population; black Africans app. 80% or more of South African population.

Similarity: In history of European colonialism, the USA and South Africa are both "settler colonies." In contrast to most colonization, where an outside nation controls a a nation's government and finances (e.g. India or Hong Kong), settlers displace native peoples, taking possession of land and resources more or less permanently.

Difference: After contact with European explorers, colonists, and settlers, Native American Indian populations declined catastrophically, from 20 million to one million by some estimates. European warfare and political-economic destabilization caused many deaths, but the overwhelming cause of aboriginal mortality was European diseases to which Native Americans had little resistance.

African populations also suffered greatly from European warfare, the slave trade, economic destabilization, and other forms of stress and exploitation, but African peoples had more resistance to European diseases, so native African populations more rarely reached a point of no return.

Similarity: Both settler-nations maintained dominant-culture status through legal segregation. The USA's system was variously called Jim Crow, racial segregation or discrimination, or "separate but equal." The South African system was apartheid, an Afrikaans word for "separateness." (Afrikaans language is descended from Dutch, where "apartheid" = "apart-hood.")

Difference: Jim Crow laws were established in the late 1800s, especially in the post-Reconstruction Southern USA, and ended as a legal institution with U.S. Supreme Court decisions and Congressional Civil Rights Laws of the 1950s and 1960s. Apartheid was instituted in the 1920s, intensified in 1948, and continued until 1994.


Similarity: Both countries ended legal segregation—1960s for USA, 1990s for South Africa.

Difference: In some regards segregation in the USA has increased since the 1960s, especially in schools, mostly through geographical and economic separation ("white flight") and establishment of segregationist Bible Academies or home schooling. African Americans enjoy increasing visibility in media and positions of power, and direct verbal expressions of racial discrimination are repressed, but poverty and unemployment rates remain higher for African Americans than for White and Asian Americans.

White South Africans remain wealthier than black South Africans, but standards of living have fallen for many white and black South Africans. South Africa partly resembles black-majority island nations in the Caribbean where some white families have accumulated wealth for generations, but now black Africans control the government. Post-Apartheid South Africa has struggled to maintain a growing economy while redistributing wealth. High rates of HIV-AIDS also affect economic performance.

South Africa, now officially the Republic of South Africa

Unique historical background and contemporary multi-cultural experiment

11 languages recognized in Constitution

Most common languages: Zulu and Xhosa. (Nelson Mandela's first language was Xhosa.)

#3rd most common language: Afrikaans < 17c Dutch

#5 South African English


Population: 2016 census total: 55 million people.

Among five population groups identified by the South African censue, app. 80% African, 9% White, 9% Colored (mixed), 2-3% Asian, 0.5% Other.

Dominant among Asians are people of Asian-Indian descent who were brought or recruited by the British as indentured laborers for sugar plantations. Chinese immigration has increased recently.


South Africa source of many hominid fossil sites

Modern humans inhabiting area for 170,000 years

Xhosa in area for 1000 years before Euro contact

Late 1400s: Portuguese explore passage around Cape of Good Hope

1652 Dutch colonization begins; slaves imported from Indonesia, Madagascar, India.

(Dutch Boers strongly resemble American rural people: slaveholding pasts, affection for firearms, heroic individualism, reactionary politics, even physical resemblances like fair hair and pink complexions.)

19c discovery of diamonds > Anglo-Boer Wars

Anglo-Boer Wars (1880-81 & 1899-1902) (Boers = descendents of Dutch settlers)


Port Elizabeth (setting of Master Harold) founded 1820 b/w Cape Colony and Xhosa

Xhosa people and language of Southeast South Africa, one of Bantu languages w/ Zulu

Famous Xhosa people: Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Desmond Tutu, b. 1931

First South African Anglican Archbishop

Nobel Peace Prize 1983

Xhosa-speakers absorbed into wage economy > union development & political organizations

1652 Cape Colony & Capetown founded by Dutch East India Company > "Boers" [Dutch / Afrikaans word for "farmers"]

1910 Cape Colony, Natal, Orange Free State, Transvaal > Union of South Africa 1910; dominion of British Empire

Late 1800s > early 1900s: restrictions on native land ownership, native movement

Jan Smuts, 1870-1950
South African Prime Minister 1919-24, 1939-48

F. W. de Klerk (b. 1936) & Nelson Mandela;

de Klerk was last prime minister of apartheid South Africa,

shared 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela

1930s apartheid institutionalized: white, colored, black w/ special rights & restrictions

1948 Apartheid strengthened; wide disparities b/w white and black standards of living; South Africa leaves British Commonwealth

("Master Harold" . . . and the Boys is set in 1950, during the height of Apartheid's political power.)

1960 March 21, Sharpeville Massacre: South African police kill 69 at mass protest, leading to international condemnation; date remembered in national and international human rights observances

1960s-70s etc boycotts

1974, 1993 agreements to transfer power

1993 F W de Klerk & Nelson Mandela (b. 1918; President 1994-99; 27 years in prison, released 1990)

1994 elections, African National Congress > Commonwealth

Post-Apartheid: general economic decline, AIDS, drugs & gangs, out-migration of whites but many remain. Blacks control politics, Whites dominate economy.


map of Boer Wars, late 19c


South African literature

Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm (1883)

Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)

Nadine Gordimer (1991 Nobel), July's People (1981)

Athol Fugard, "Master Harold" . . . and the Boys (1982)

J. M. Coetzee (2003 Nobel Prize for Literature)


Rhodesia / Zimbabwe literature

Doris Lessing (2007 Nobel Prize for Literature)

B. 1919 Persia / Iran 

1924-42 family to Rhodesia, farming

1942- London (metropole)

The Grass is Singing (1950)

5-novel The Children of Violence sequence on coming of age in British colonial Africa, marrying and bearing children there and moving to London: Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple From the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965) and The Four-Gated City (1969)

African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (1992)

The Golden Notebook (1962)

The Good Terrorist (1985)

5-novel "space fiction" sequence: Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979-83)