February 19, 2018

South African Apartheid: a case study on the effects of European colonialism in Africa

The impact of European colonialism on the world is often described as being profoundly negative. The popular view is that Europeans came, stole resources, destroyed cultures, and committed mass murder all over the earth. By contrast, the prevailing view 100 years ago was that Europe was supplying the world with advanced institutions which they would not develop on their own and, in so doing, was civilizing the world.

Either of these theories might be true, and, to some extent, they both are. It is obviously correct that Europe took resources from places, killed some number of people, and ended various indigenous cultural practices. It is also obviously true that Europe set up various institutions, such as capitalism and democracy, in various parts of the world which had not developed these things on their own.

A broad look at the empirical evidence suggests that European colonization helped most people more than it hurt them. Research has shown that the longer, or more heavily, a place was colonized by Europeans the richer it ended up being today (Eaverly and Levine, 2012; Feyrer and Sacerdote, 2006). Moreover, in the 20th century Africa, which is the center of much of the colonization debate, saw tremendous net gains in both wealth and population size (Manning, 2013; Roser; 2016)

I find this broad view compelling, but discussions on colonialism are rarely about the broad view. Instead, people like to talk about the anecdotal experiences of particular countries at particular times, and no anecdote is more often talked about than South African apartheid.

In this article, I will examine the history of South Africa as a case study in European colonialism.

Black Origins

The earliest people known to have occupied South Africa were a type of African called  Khosians. Khosians are not the group of people most people think of when they think of Black South Africans. Those are Bantus. Bantu Africans and Khosians Africans look different, traditionally spoke different languages, and lived different sorts of lives. If we turned the clock back 4 thousand years, we would find that the southern  half of the African continent was almost entirely inhabited by Khosians.

Some time roughly 3,000 years ago, Bantu Africans began expanding out of eastern and central Africa. As they expanded, they displaced many of the African peoples who had previously lived there. The degree to which this expansion occurred via violence, disease, out breeding, or other means, is unknown.

By 1,000 AD,  the Bantu had reached most of South Africa. However, most of the people there were still Khosians. When the Portuguese arrived in South Africa in the 1400’s, they encountered very few Bantu.

As the Bantu expanded, they divided into tribes which then went to war with one another over land. In several African nations, a specific Bantu tribe came to dominate the others and then set up an empire. This occurred in South Africa as well. In the 1810’s and 1820’s, the Zulus conquered many neighboring African tribes and formed the Zulu empire. This empire went on to last almost until South Africa was entirely under White rule.

White Origins

The first White colony in the southern tip (cape) of South Africa was established in 1653 by the Dutch East India company and was intended to supply ships traveling by Africa with food and other supplies. As time went on, the Dutch needed ever more food and so expanded. This led to them warring with locals in 1659, 1673, and 1677, in what are known as the “Khoi-Dutch wars“.

In 1795, the cape was invaded and conquered by the British. Thousands of Dutch decided that they did not want to live under British rule and so made the “great trek” into the heart of South Africa and set up several independent nations. These Dutch nations were largely pre-industrial and so their inhabitants came to be known as “Boers”, the dutch word for farmer.

Wars for South Africa

In the late 19th century, there were wars in South Africa between the British and Bantu tribes, the Boers and Bantu Tribes, the British and the Boers, and Bantu tribes vs other Bantu Tribes.

Basically, a ton of people wanted land in South Africa and were willing to kill for it. In the end, the British won and united South Africa under their rule after defeating the Boers, and the Zulu, among other groups, and passing the South Africa act of 1909, which set up a single state to rule over the whole area. This lasted until 1948, when South Africa declared independence from Britain and “apartheid”, which means “separation”, formally began.

The Rise of apartheid

While the South African government did not obtain independence from Britain until 1948, the beginnings of Apartheid can be traced back to the land act of 1913. This law made it illegal for Whites to sell land to Blacks and vice versa. By this point, Whites had already conquered or purchased the vast majority of South African land and this law was designed to make sure that this would not change.

Between this time and the 1960’s, the Apartheid government passed many laws which further segregated the races. For instance, inter-racial marriage was banned.

The most often talked about policy of South Africa was the creation of the Bantustans. These were designated “homelands” for Black South Africans. The Apartheid government forcibly moved millions of Blacks from multi-racial areas of South Africa into these Bantustans.

As explained in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the people who established the Bantustans gave the following rational for their motives:

“NP politicians portrayed the homelands as a moral response to South Africa’s ‘multi-national’ reality. Apartheid theorists believed that South Africa was a country containing a number of nations, each developed to a greater or lesser degree. Freedom, they posited, could be realized only by providing the opportunity for each of these nations to exist and develop along its own lines.”

However, critics are quick to point out that the Bantustans consisted of less than a quarter of South Africa’s land even though Blacks made up an overwhelming majority of the nation’s population.


Bantustans also suffered from tremendous poverty. As the Encyclopedia of Britiannia explains:

“The Bantustans were rural, impoverished, underindustrialized, and reliant on subsidies from the South African government.

The original hope of the designers of the Bantustan system was that industries would be established along the Bantustan borders to utilize the cheap labour available nearby, but for the most part these hopes went unrealized. Other initiatives to create the illusion of viable economies for the Bantustans also broke down. To the end they were heavily dependent on financial aid supplied by the South African government. Poverty remained acute in the Bantustans, and child mortality rates were extremely high. Despite draconian control of where people were allowed to farm and the number of cattle they were permitted to have, Bantustan lands were oversettled, overgrazed, and hence afflicted with serious soil erosion.”

The Net Economic Impact of Bantustans

Such critics rarely mention the fact that as can be seen, in 1960, Black South Africans were exactly as poor as Sub-Saharan Africans generally were. By 1980 they were far richer (1).

Black GDP Per Capita.JPG

Given this, it does not seem fair to say, as some people do, that Bantustans caused Blacks to be poor. Prior to being forced into these areas, Black South Africans were just as poor as Sub-Saharan Africans generally were. Had Black South Africans been left totally alone, there is no reason to think that they would have become any richer than the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa let alone richer than they were under Apartheid. The land in Bantustans may have been bad. But this, evidently, was more than made up for by payments from the South African government.

The Fall of Apartheid

From the outset, Apartheid had a serious public relations problem owing to several violent clashes between people protesting Apartheid and the police. Consider, for instance, the “Sharpville massacre” which occurred in 1960 during a protest against a law requiring Blacks to carry “passbooks” (IDs):

On March 21, a group of between 5,000 and 10,000 people converged on the local police station in the township of Sharpeville, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their passbooks.The Sharpeville police were not completely unprepared for the demonstration, as they had already been forced to drive smaller groups of more militant activists away the previous night.

Many of the civilians present attended to support the protest, but there is evidence that the PAC also used intimidating means to draw the crowd there, including the cutting of telephone lines into Sharpeville, the distribution of pamphlets telling people not to go to work on the day, and coercion of bus drivers and commuters.

By 10:00, a large crowd had gathered, and the atmosphere was initially peaceful and festive. Fewer than 20 police officers were present in the station at the start of the protest. Later the crowd grew to about 20,000, and the mood was described as “ugly”,  prompting about 130 police reinforcements, supported by four Saracen armoured personnel carriers, to be rushed in. The police were armed with firearms, including Sten submachine guns and Lee–Enfield rifles. There was no evidence that anyone in the gathering was armed with anything other than rocks.

F-86 Sabre jets and Harvard Trainers approached to within a hundred feet of the ground, flying low over the crowd in an attempt to scatter it. The protestors responded by hurling stones (striking three policemen) and menacing the police barricades. Tear gas proved ineffectual, and policemen elected to repel these advances with their batons. At about 13:00 the police tried to arrest a protestor, resulting in a scuffle, and the crowd surged forward. The shooting began shortly thereafter.

The official figure is that 69 people were killed, including 8 women and 10 children, and 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children. Many were shot in the back as they turned to flee

Incidents like this led to the first major act of opposition against Apartheid by western governments, which came in 1964 when South Africa was excluded from the Olympics (BBC).The UN would go on to formally denounce Apartheid in 1973 (History.com).

These tensions were inflamed even further by the “Soweto uprising” of 1976. During this event, thousands of South African highschool students protested laws forcing them to learn non-African languages. Police attempted to disband these protests with tear gas, and this ultimately led to a confrontation that ended with hundreds of students dead.

Who started the violence is unclear. The Blacks involved are known to have stoned White civilians to death, and to have killed a police dog which was sent to disband them prior to the start of the shooting. However, the vast majority of the causalities were Black students.

Images of students shot by police were seen all over the world.


This led the UN to enact an arms embargo on South Africa in 1976. Though this embargo was mandatory, it is worth noting that a few nations, most famously Israel, continued to have a strong trade and military relationship with South Africa.

In 1985 the United States and the United Kingdom both imposed economic sanctions on South Africa.

In conjunction with these external pressures, domestic terrorism was rapidly rising in South Africa during this time period. Following the incident in Sharpville, members of the ANC, the leading Black political party in South Africa, formed a military wing called the MK. Among its founders was Nelson Mandela, who was famously thrown in prison in 1962 for committing various acts of terrorism against the South African government.

The most famous incident of said terrorism perpetrated by the MK was the Church Street Bombing of 1983. This attack consisted of a car bomb being set off in the middle of the day on a busy street. 19 people were killed and over 200 were wounded. CSB.jpg


This is but one example from a list of many similar terrorist attacks that occurred, mostly in the 1980’s. During this time, the MK also gained a reputation for torturing prisoners.

On top of all this, in 1989 the South African president suffered a stroke that caused him to resign from office. F.W. De Klerk took his place after being elected by congress and was then re-elected by the electoral college.

De Klerk eliminated as many of the Apartheid laws as he could and, after freeing Nelson Mandela, entered into negotiations to end Apartheid.

Following the announcement of these negotiations, De Klerk’s party, the National Party, lost a national election to the pro apartheid Conservative Party. This was taken to indicate that the (White) people of South Africa did not want Apartheid to end and so De Klerk decided to hold a national referendum on whether or not to continue his negotiations to end apartheid.

The referendum was conducted in 1992 and the public was taken to have voted to end Apartheid. However, the referendum has been heavily criticized on several grounds. First, the South African government owned the media and this meant that the public only got a biased presentation of one viewpoint (Schonteich et al., 2003). Secondly, western powers were expected to plunge South Africa into a recession if they voted no (Wren, 1993). Thirdly, serious accusations of voter fraud have been made. Regardless, the negotiations continued and in 1994 Apartheid was ended.

Some Whites tried to resist the vote by setting up smaller areas of White control, but such efforts largely subsided after several Whites were executed on live TV by Black police officers. As one author wrote:

“the sight of three wounded AWB men pleading for their lives on live television and then shot in cold blood [by black policemen] had a powerful impact on the country’s Whites.”

Following the end of Apartheid, Nelson Mandela was elected president of the new South African government.

National Success Since Apartheid

Unfortunately, since Apartheid ended South Africa has declined on many metrics of national health.

Under apartheid GDP per capita usually grew roughly in sync with the rest of the World. This trend began to collapse in the 1980’s following the introduction of sanctions against the country. After apartheid ended, GDP per capita not only stagnated but, in fact, fell such that South Africans were poorer in 2002 than they were in 1982.

GDP Per Capita, 1960-2016.JPG

World Bank

In 1980, South Africa has an unemployment rate of 9.8% (Murwirapachena et al., 2013). By 2002, that figure had risen to 30.4%, and in 2014 it was still nearly 3 times as high as it was in 1980 (Murwirapachena et al., 2013; World Bank) .

Under Apartheid, South Africa had a longer average life expectancy than Sub-Saharan Africa generally did. Since Apartheid ended, life expectancy has stagnated and fallen such that life expectancy was almost 10 years higher in 1992 than it was in 2002.

life exectancy

World Bank

Murder rates in South Africa began to rise in the 1970’s. Given the national turmoil of this time period, an increase in crime is unfortunate but not surprising. Perhaps less obvious, however, is the fact that murder rates exploded following the end of apartheid. As can be seen, this has disproportionately impacted Whites.

homicide rate.PNG

(Thompson, 2004)

These declines have not just impacted White South Africans. The wealth gap between Blacks and Whites in South Africa was slightly lower under Apartheid than it is today.

racial income inequality 1995 vs 2008.JPG(Leibbrandt et al., 2012)

This, taken in conjunction with the fact that GDP growth has slowed since Apartheid ended, implies that both Blacks and Whites in south Africa would likely be richer today if Apartheid were still in place.

Moreover, Black South Africans reported feeling less happy and less satisfied with their lives in 2008 than they did in the early 1980’s.

Happiness(Moller, 1998; Gaibie and Davids, 2009)

Life Satisfaction(Moller, 1998; Gaibie and Davids, 2009)

Thus, it seems that the economic, physical, and psychological health of South Africa has gotten worse since Apartheid ended.

Kill the Boers

Anti-White racism has also risen since Apartheid ended. Today, there is a wave of mass murder being waged against the descendants of the Boers.This is how the situation was described by the president of Genocide Watch:

“Afrikaner farm owners are being murdered at a rate four times the murder rate of other South Africans, including Black farm owners. Their families are also subjected to extremely high crime rates, including murder, rape, mutilation and torture of the victims. South African police fail to investigate or solve many of these murders, which are carried out by organized gangs, often armed with weapons that police have previously confiscated.  The racial character of the killing is covered up by a SA government order prohibiting police from reporting murders by race.  Instead the crisis is denied and the murders are dismissed as ordinary crime, ignoring the frequent mutilation of the victims’ bodies, a sure sign that these are hate crimes.

However, independent researchers have compiled accurate statistics demonstrating convincingly that murders among White farm owners occur at a rate of 97 per 100,000 per year, compared to 31 per 100,000 per year in the entire South African population, making the murder rate of White SA farmers one of the highest murder rates in the world.”  Leon Parkin & Gregory H. Stanton, President – Genocide Watch
14 August 2012

These murders are not only common place, they are also gruesome. Attie Potgieter was stabbed over 150 times while his wife and daughter, who were later executed, were made to watch.


Dr. Louis John Botha was thrown into a crocodile pit and eaten alive.


As a final example, consider the Viana family. The father and daughter were shot, the mother was raped and killed, and the son was drowned to death in a bath of boiling water.


These murders reflect a more general anti-White sentiment which is ubiquitous in South Africa. Even leaders of the ANC, the party now in charge of the South African government, literally sang songs about killing White people as recently as 2012.

“South Africa’s ruling party on Tuesday defended the singing of an apartheid-era song with the words “Kill the Boer” in a row that has raised fears of increasing racial polarisation.” – Govender (2010)

White South Africans are also discriminated against by various South African institutions in order to make up for the damage that Apartheid institutions are thought to have done to Blacks.

First, there is discrimination in University admissions. Consider, for instance, this report on the University of Cape Town:

“The way in which the university has achieved this diversity, however, is somewhat controversial. To be admitted, white students must score the equivalent of straight A’s. Meanwhile, black and mixed-race students can get in with plenty of B’s. The University of Cape Town doesn’t make this policy a secret — admission cutoffs are listed by race in the prospectus.” – Kelto (2011)

Employers are encourage by the state to discriminate against Whites as well. The Black Economic Empowerment law set up the following point system in the country:

“Points are based on the percentage of blacks and other non-white ethnic groups in the company’s ownership and the skills training it gives to people in these groups. For companies, having a good BEE scorecard is often essential for business. The higher the BEE score they have, the more access they get to public markets and contracts.” – Iob (2013)

Finally, in may of this year South Africa passed the “land expropriation bill” which allows the government to force White South Africans to sell their land to the government at a price that the government decides. The rational behind this law is that it can undue  the redistribution of land into the hands of whites which was solidified by the Land Act of 1913.

These factors have led White South Africans to abandon South Africa in large numbers. Since Apartheid ended, over half a million White South Africans have left the country. To put that in perspective, there are less than 5 million Whites in the whole country.

Some White South Africans are unable to emigrate on their own and are asking Western nations for Refugee status. The Canadian government has recently acquiesced to this request and allowed two White South Africans to come to Canada as refugees.

“31-year-old Brandon Huntley from Cape Town said he was constantly called a “white dog” and “settler” by Black South Africans back home. He was also robbed 7 times and stabbed three times by Black South Africans since his home country ended Apartheid in 1994. “

There’s a hatred of what we did to them and it’s all about the color of your skin,” Huntley told the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board.

The evidence Huntley provided showed “a picture of indifference and inability or unwillingness of the South African government to protect White South Africans from persecution by African South Africans,” Board Chairman William Davis said.” –

White South Africans are also asking for refugee status from the EU which, in recent years, has allowed tens of thousands of middle eastern and African refugees to cross its borders.

Land Ownership

At this point I want to consider a series of politically charged questions about Apartheid and South Africa. First of all, do the Bantu have a moral claim to the land of South Africa which would justify a statement like “Whites stole South Africa from the Bantu and so can be legitimately forced to give it back.”

A lot of clarity on this question comes from considering the basic moral issue of conquest: are a group of people who acquire land through conquest the rightful owners of that land?

If conquest is not a legitimate means to acquire land, the Zulu and similar Bantu tributes did not justly own South African land, nor did any other tribe of the last few hundred years. After all, this land was conquered from Khoisan and older Bantu tribes.

Moreover, if the Zulu did steal the land, it is not clear that Apartheid was in the wrong for taking it from them. Is it wrong to steal something which is stolen from the thief who stole it?

If, on the other hand, conquest is a valid way to acquire land, then White South Africans had a perfectly legitimate claim on it. This might be taken to imply that there is also nothing wrong with modern Black South Africans taking land from Whites. However, conquering land via war is not the same thing as using a false political narrative about the supposed negative effects of apartheid to take land. Moreover, forcing White people into a society that hates and mass murders them is not analogous to putting Blacks in bantustans which, as we have seen, were not as bad as they are often made out to be.

I consider the morality of conquest to be a difficult question and I won’t try to resolve it here. What I will say is that it is very hard to come up with any principled moral answer which would justify the totality of what is being done to White South Africans.

Political Violence

Another important question is whether or not the political violence initiated by the MK against White South Africans was justified.

Apartheid set up various laws, some of which I would consider unjust. Most importantly, Apartheid severely restricted the right of Blacks to protest. This was the justification that Mandela used for resorting to violence. He had no other choice.

This may be true, and if you think that apartheid’s policies were sufficiently horrible this may justify violence, but there is no way that the indiscriminate violence against innocent and random White south Africans that the MK engaged in can be justified. Their activities, especially in the 1980’s, were morally equivalent to any other act of mass murder.

Further more, as we have seen, Apartheid’s actions were not nearly as bad as they are often thought to have been.

Evaluating Apartheid

Even if Apartheid improved the material and psychological conditions of Black Africans, this does not necessarily imply that it was just. Would we feel that China ruling over a European population which objected to their rule was just so long as it improved the Europeans material and psychological condition?

At the very least, this state of affairs would make most people uncomfortable. Many would object on the grounds that European nations should be ruled by Europeans regardless of which ruler produced the highest GDP per capita and mean life satisfaction score.

On the other hand, the material benefit that Whites brought to South Africa, and Africa generally, was truly immense. Were it not for colonialism, most Africans alive today would have never even been born.

Fundamentally, the problem of African colonialism is the problem of multi-racialism. So long as Whites allowed Blacks to continue to live in Africa, which could have only been prevented with a massive and horrific genocide, Black Africans were going to resent them.

As Apartheid shows us, this is true even if the Whites improve the conditions of the Blacks. There will always been a feeling that Whites do not belong there and Blacks will always resent the invariably superior material conditions of Whites.

Colonialism of the United States only worked because there aren’t many Indians around anymore. The kind of colonialism practiced in Africa in which Whites would be permanent but ruling minorities in a majority Black nation was never sustainable without an uncomfortable measure of totalitarianism and even then ethnic conflict was still common place.

Setting up trading or mining posts is one thing, but “White nations” should have never been set up in Africa. There was never anyway that South Africa was going to end well for the Whites involved compared to what would have happened if they had just stayed in Europe.

Today, White South Africans should come back to White nations and try to put South Africa behind them.


South Africa show cases both sides of the colonialism debate. Whites in South Africa did kill Blacks. They did eliminate Black cultures. They did take local resources. They also vastly improved the physical and psychological condition of Blacks.

There are serious moral questions about African colonialism. However, colonialism can not plausibly be taken as the cause of violence and poverty in modern South Africa. This coheres well with the general picture that empirical evidence paints about the effects of colonialism.

The violence surrounding colonialism was rarely, if ever, one sided. Today, there is a massive level of systemic racism against White South Africans. The fact that this racism is not covered in Western media offers a stark contrast with how the media covered the sins of Apartheid.

Overall, the problems of South Africa, both in terms of Blacks resenting their White rulers under Apartheid and Whites experiencing racism today, come from the inherent difficulties of having a multi-racial society. In this sense, the story of South Africa contains lessons not only about colonialism but also about more general and pressing questions of immigration and diversity.





  1. All data on Sub-Sarahn Africa and data on total GDP and total population size for South Africa was taken from the Google Data Explorer. Data on the proportion of the population that was Black in South Africa and the proportion of GDP that was consumed by Blacks was taken from Terreblanche (2002). The GDP per Capita for Blacks was equal to the total south African GDP divided by the proportion of the GDP consumed by Africans divided by the number of total number Black South Africans, which was found by multiplying the total population size by the proportion of the population that was Black.
Facebook Comments
  • Gustav

    Good summary for the most part, however – whites never “eliminated black cultures.” On the contrary – the white NP government spent lavishly and had a lot of people working really hard to preserve black cultures. They funded African Languages departments at all the major universities and oversaw the production of numerous dictionaries. They actively encouraged the preservation of black cultures.

  • Jeff

    Another thing to consider with apartheid is that it had an immigration problem of too many black Africans wanting to live under white rule.

  • John W

    The populations of all the countries that were part of the British Empire rose very rapidly during the period of British rule.
    Countries that belonged to the British Empire are to this day better off than their neighbours. For example Hong Kong and Singapore better off than China. Kenya better off than Somalia. India better off than Afghanistan.

    • magicmanfire

      That’s due to western culture.

      Japanese adopted western culture, with out being under any western rule.

      And look the outcome in ww2, they nearly conquered most of Asia.

      So western culture and adapting to it, will have major effects

  • astrofrog

    So long as Whites allowed Blacks to continue to live in Africa, which could have only been prevented with a massive and horrific genocide….

    Eh. That’s more or less what happened in North America (and many parts of South America, Argentina comes to mind). The fun thing about genocide is that if it succeeds, after a very short historical time absolutely no one cares. Arguably it was our ancestors’ preference for merciful, Christian solutions that has today bedeviled us with so many problems. Given the South African experience, I should imagine that many Whites are now thinking that if they’re going to be cast of villains regardless of their actions, well then, they might as well earn it.

    • Sam Cru

      People like winners.

    • magicmanfire

      Well the thing about genocide and the aftermath of it, is that there’s nothing we could in. We couldn’t go back in time and save them. we can’t feel sad for them, because they don’t exist anymore and we don’t know about them personally.

      I mean people do care, but what can they do? Duh

  • Ramesh

    One of the reasons why interracial marriages were banned was that the mix race coloured populations faced a lot of discrimination and hatred from Blacks. Blacks in Africa in general in in Southern Africa including Rhodesia-Zimbabwe are very tribal and inter tribal hatred has always been very common. Since the coloureds did not have a traditional tribe of their own, they face a hard life in South Africa among blacks.

  • Ramesh

    One of the reasons why interracial marriages were banned was that the mix race coloured populations faced a lot of discrimination and hatred from Blacks. Blacks in Africa in general and Southern Africa in particular including Rhodesia-Zimbabwe are very tribal and inter tribal hatred has always been very common. Since the coloureds did not have a traditional tribe of their own, they face a hard life in South Africa among blacks.