The colonial roots of racism

Colonial South Africa and the Origins of the Racial Order

April 17, 1998

Historians of South Africa have long been transfixed by the starkness of the racial divisions that emerged in the country. They have sought the origins of segregation in different phases of colonial history: in the 18th-century Dutch slave colony of the Western Cape; on the troubled frontiers where trek boers competed with Africans for pastures; in the fragile Natal state, threatened by the Zulu; and in the early 20th-century gold-mining industry, which sucked in hundreds of thousands of migrant African workers, and housed them in compounds while the state kept their families in reserves.

Timothy Keegan directs our attention elsewhere - to the Cape in the half-century after 1806, when it came firmly under British rule. This is an era generally considered among the most liberal in South African history, when slavery was abolished, controls over the Khoikhoi loosened, and a relatively colour-blind franchise introduced.

Keegan emphasises that the racial order in Cape society metamorphosed rather than dissolved as British rule released new economic forces. Freer markets in labour and the quickening pace of commerce gave scope for some individuals of all backgrounds to advance economically and even to create new identities for themselves. The personal and often brutal authority of slaveowners and trek boers was gradually subsumed into a system more thoroughly based on legality and bureaucracy. But British control, and especially the settler interests which coalesced under it, also systematised the racial division of labour and rapidly extended the colonial frontiers by conquering the Xhosa chiefdoms.

Keegan is strong on commercial networks in the colony, vividly illustrating the operations of the merchants, their political interests and allies. Yet his focus on ruling groups and on colonial society has disadvantages in respect of understanding the dynamic of South African history at the time, and also the legacy of the period. His sense of the racial order, and the debates around it, is sometimes abstracted from the complexity of everyday interactions. This is surprising, given his previous interest in the minutiae of agrarian society. The character of Cape society, the quality and language of racial interaction, remain largely hidden.

The book tends to shy away from the other side of the frontier, the African chiefdoms of the east coast and the high veld, which the colony was uneasily absorbing. Although the consequences of conquest are recited, little of the dynamic of those chiefdoms or mission communities is revealed. Yet from them came the majority of people in the colony, a demographic and social weight that also helped reshape colonial relationships. Keegan guides readers with skill through the activities of the key political factions in a fractured colonial society, constrained in their ambitions by their imperial context. This is an assured book by an expert synthesiser well tuned to strong recent traditions in South African historiography, but it does not take many risks in its subject matter.

William Beinart is director of African economics, University of Oxford.

Colonial South Africa and the Origins of the Racial Order

Author - Timothy Keegan
ISBN - 0 7185 0133 0 and 0134 9
Publisher - Leicester University Press
Price - £45 and £15.99
Pages - 368

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