The Circle in South Africa

“What did you expect?” he murmured. “Time passes.” 

“That’s how it goes,” Úrsula said, “but not so much.”

“Time was not passing…it was turning in a circle.”

The characters of 100 Years of Solitude are trapped in a repetitive circle of time of their own making. The Buendia family, who founded Macondo, inevitably repeat the mistakes and actions of their namesake ancestors and reap the consequences. 

In the process, the Buendias inevitably become fatalists, as if their life is preordained and inescapable. Their nostalgia leads them back to Macondo which has been ravaged by war, exotic visitors, and colonial exploitation. As they return to Macondo, history repeats itself until eventually Macondo disappears in a Tornado as sudden as the city’s founding. 

History does repeat itself, over and over, and this seems as pertinent now as ever given our growing access to an expanding library of history. However, when the phrase that history repeats itself is spoken, it seems to be in the fatalist fashion which cursed the Buendia family.  Nonetheless, it is possible to end the repetitive circle of time, and the many barbarisms of our past necessitate this. The first step is to understand why history repeats itself. To answer this central question, I will use the history of South Africa.

The Cape Colony was officially established by the Dutch and lost once more to the British in 1806 after the Battle of Blaauwberg. The capture was motivated by British fears that  the French allied Batavian Republic would undermine their access to India during the Napoleonic Wars. Official annexation occurred in 1814. Upon annexation, an influx of British colonizers began in the South-West, pushing towards the eastern borders of the colony. 

The mostly Dutch descendant white farmers of the colony, the Boers, felt that this influx of British culture, language, and administration under a Westminster-esque “responsible government system” focused on British parliamentary accountability, would undermine their distinct cultural identity. Hence, they began a trek eastward whilst fighting the native Africans, and formed the Boer states in Transvaal (Southern African Republic), the Orange, and Vaar rivers(Orange Free State), and in Natal. 

However, a sense of Christianity and Commerce, perpetuated both peacefully by anti-slavers like Livingston, and by imperial fanatics like Cecil-Rhodes, pushed the British Cape colony towards expansion. There was an aggressive sense of divine duty to preserve the integrity of, and enrich, the empire. First came the annexation and incorporation of Natal, opening a border with the Zulu Kingdom. Then, British troops gathered on the Zulu borders, and after a bloody war the kingdom also fell. 

Rough Map of Boer Republics

Then, eyes turned on Transvaal. The British Empire wanted to control the largest gold reserves in the World in Witwatersrand. Given the mineral’s importance for the British currency, coupled with the discovery of diamonds in the region, the Boer Republic’s control of this territory seemingly challenged British authority in Southern Africa. An attempted annexation of Transvaal led to a costly war which pushed the British out of the Boer states. The Southern African Republic, and Orange Free State, became recognized independent states, with British suzerainty, or foreign policy control. But the violent teeth of war were still visible.

Fear of an expanding British Empire led to restrictive domestic policies in the Southern African Republic. Uitlanders, or mostly British migrant workers, were not given voting rights as there was fear that they would use this power to undermine Boer autonomy. This tactic for oppression in the name of self-preservation would stamp itself on future South African Governance, and instigate the repetitive eruption of violence. It was under the pretext of this policy that the British Empire would justify a fresh conflict.

 The troops gathered on the borders as they did when preparing for an invasion of the Zulus, and after attempted conciliation by the president of the Southern African Republic, the empire marched in. Upon capturing Pretoria and Bloumfountain, it was thought the war would end, the Westminster government even calling a Khaki election on the high of its victories. But the Boer farmers retreated into the vast countryside and a guerilla war began, ingraining oppression into South Africa’s DNA.  

Boer commandos would attack railways, strike at British garrisons, hidden in their tan suits from bright red British troops. The British could not contain the Boer guerrillas, who knew the terrain, and given their farmer heritage were expert marksmen. So the war became more brutal. The new British military operation, led by Lord Kitchner, resorted to scorched earth tactics, burning and destroying the land, and setting up stone towers near railways which were interconnected by barbed wire. This barbed wire effectively partitioned the country into entrapped sections so as to restrict free movement. The blueprint for the divided country that exists today was set, and the circle of oppression was picking up speed. 

For the fleeing women and children, their lands, livelihoods, and the accounts of their cultures had been burned. The land they believed was given to them by God, was being taken from them by British fire. Then their souls were taken as they were dehumanized in the face of British expansion.

Boer Child in camp, Picture by Emily Hobhouse, public domain 

The British began to round up Boer civilians, which were overwhelmingly women and children, and send them to concentration camps which trapped them in isolation. As more land was destroyed, the camps began to get crowded as they swelled to over 100,000 people. Most were mismanaged, poorly rationed, unsanitary, without health policy, and with dirty water. Unfortunately, the complaints of women fell upon the deaf ears of Lord Kitchener, who was no friend either of women, or Boers. 

45 camps were constructed for Boer civilians and 66 for black Africans. The polluted water, hunger, infectious diseases, and exposure to the elements led to a horrifying death toll. Estimates of deaths in the camps are 28,000 Boers, and up to 20,000 black Africans. With numbers of child deaths rising to 80% of total deaths. These are horrific numbers when considering that around 6,000 Boer combatants died during this Second Boer War. So far from home, the colonists had unfettered power which instigated deranged crimes disregarding the humanity of their prisoners, and it was not until Emily Hobhouse traveled from London and exposed the British public to the horrific camps, that humanizing changes were made. 

The horror of the concentration camps was the eventual reason Boers surrendered in 1892. The Boer Republics were abolished to become the Colonies of Transvaal and the Orange River. The atrocity of the camps would embed a notion of Boer/Afrikaner nationalism in the face of British cultural might. This nationalism was a defiance of the atrocities the Boers suffered, a scepticism for anything alien to them, a hatred for difference, and a paranoia for the loss of the identity which they had suffered for. Ironically, it is this spiteful sentiment that would allow the inherent ideology of imperialism to persevere through those who had been conquered. The concentration camps that had been the weapon which dehumanized Boer civilians, would become the basis for Boer dehumanization of Africans under Apartheid. Apartheid was a continuation of the British concentration camp, of the Boer survivalist mentality, of angry nationalism, and of self-preservation by division.

The colonies were eventually incorporated into the Union of South Africa in 1910, and gradually grew more distant and independent from the crown. The moral high ground would be taken by the formerly oppressed Boers in this new state, and control would grow for the Afrikaners. The unification would not lead to changes in the enfranchisement laws. In the Cape Colony black Africans could vote if they passed certain literary and income brackets, though these brackets had been rising to the Africans’ disadvantage, next to laws which limited their ability to acquire land. However, in Transvaal and the Orange River, native Africans did not have enfranchisement. Likewise, laws in the colonies were limiting the rights of Indians which had come to Africa to bolster worker shortages caused by the abolition of slavery. In 1913, territorial segregation of black Africans to reserves was beginning.

Increasingly the white political establishment, headed by the conservative-nationalist voices of the Afrikaner descendants of the Boers, pushed to limit black Аfrican land ownership, and eventually completely removed African enfranchisement. As South Africa continued to gravitate towards full independence, the Afrikaner leadership began rejecting the Boer/British divide, and claimed that the real divide was between whites and the other races, and that there was a need to protect white jobs from an urbanizing community of black Africans. The Black Africans were being dehumanized by the Boers, as the Boers had been by the British Empire.

Laws were passed to divide the country upon ethnic lines. The Group Areas Act 1950 ended diverse settlements, and there was a prohibition on black and white Africans mixing. The Population Registration Act 1950 called for registering people upon ethnic lines, the Bantu Self Government Act 1959 confined black Africans to Bantu territories, and the Black Homeland Citizenship Act 1970 made it that black Africans were not citizens of South Africa but of ten autonomous territories. As Fuller would argue, the racial division was unjust in that it could not be objectively made, it was necessarily arbitrary and divided families upon blurry racial lines. However, through division, white authority over the majority of the country could be protected.

South Africa was partitioned in a manner which mirrored Lord Kichner’s barbed wire. Likewise, Bantu townships were left in languid conditions exposed to the elements, scarce resources, bad sanitation and health. This mirrored the concentration camps of the Boers, whilst the first world conditions in white centres, subsidized by a disproportionate concentration of South Africa’s riches, mirrored the glory of Imperial splendor. The cycle of dehumanization in the face of political domination, for preserving an empire, culture, and state, continued. 

The Afrikaners were doing what was done to them by the British towards the native Africans on an even more brutal scale. Why? It is too simple to label the actions of Apartheid simply as evil, and it is important to humanize the perpetrators of this unjust regime so as to understand what drives the repetition of brutality. Apartheid was a result of what Afrikaners knew to mean being in power, which arose from the brutality perpetrated against them. The Boer sense of nationalism was a defensive mechanism towards the humiliation of imperial subjugation. That is why there was such a clear divide between Liberal Brits and Conservative Boers. Nationalism not only kept the Afrikaners together in common culture which had been burned in the flames of British scorched-earth tactics, but also possessed them with Imperial culture. Imperial culture meant survival through power. Given the Boer experience, a sense of perpetual fear along with the innate human instinct for survival had mutated into a clouded justification for unjustifiable segregation. 

The Afrikaners looked at the labour policy of the British Empire which transferred Zulus to dangerous mining camps. They used Cecil Rhodes’ laws which limited the amount of land Africans could own to justify their measures of reserving 80% of South Africa’s land for the white minority. However, mostly they used their own oppression to justify their measures against Africans. The apartheid townships and segregation mirrored the camps they suffered. Not only did they use their history of brutality and identity to justify apartheid, but those measures were what the Afrikaners understood to be good governance for themselves, and right governance. 

The Afrikaners had developed imperial sentiments for the integrity of their kingdom and exploitation of South Africa’s abundant resources. It was a sense of protectionist segregation which was exacerbated after South Africa became a Republic. Afrikaners were not only more conservative, but were republican, and the British were both more liberal, and pro-monarchical. Hence, in South Africa republicanism became identifiable with ultra-conservatives or Afrikaner nationalism. As the British colonists perpetrated great segregationist evils once distant from the accountability of their homeland, so too did segregation escalate as the South African colonies grew in independence. The Afrikaners developed their own sense of safety by repeating the dehumanization and subsequent oppression, which had been perpetrated against them. South Africa had become a fatalist.

Likewise, in the way that the Boer President of the Southern African Republic limited the rights of Uitlander British out of fear of British expansion and a rejection of foreign pressure against Boer cultural survival, now there was a fear of Afrikaner white cultural heritage collapsing under growing rights for native Africans. 

Nelson Mandela, one of history’s great heroes which fought for black African rights, would attempt to break the circle. As Apartheid collapsed under political pressure, Mandela lifted the 1995 Rugby World cup dressed in the colours of the white oppressors, symbolizing the start of the Rainbow country and not the passing of the oppressive torch to new rulers. 

But it seems that South Africa could not escape the circle. Years of oppression in conditions of brutality which had transferred from the British, to the Boers had engrained a sense of brutality and disregard for human life in those who had been oppressed. Violence, self-preservation, a perpetual warring state, informs modern South Africa. Coupled with white Afrikaners clawing at their land which they fear would be snatched from them as the British had done, is an angry vengeful sentiment in many oppressed Africans, stirred by corrupt leaders.  

The ANC promise of liberation and an inclusive ideology of freedom which would destroy the oppressive segregation of the past has not materialized into a results based change. The circle of oppression and violence is evidenced by sustained inequality, unimaginable crime rates, frequent revolt, and greedy corrupt governance which since Mandela has devolved into mismanagement and thievery at the expense of a segregated community of lower classes, still mostly black. Reconciliation cannot happen when each side dehumanizes the other out of a fear for self preservation, and thus the violence becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. A fatalist cycle which can spin into a tornado

In conclusion, the cycle in South Africa is the result of unimaginable brutality inducing a sense of petrified fear for survival, which devolved into inhumane violence and hatred transferred from generation to generation and from leader to leader. To end the cycle, there must be a reconciliation with the past. That reconciliation would come with understanding where the cycle started, and asking whether we want it to continue. One’s fate may be set, but that does not mean one’s fate should not be different to what the past has made him expect.

For more information

Portillo’s Empire Journey, Season 1 Episode 3: South Africa, Released May 29, 2020. 

On the Second Boer War: 

On the Union of South Africa: On Emily Hobhouse:

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