It is a pleasure to talk about South African history in a country with such a long and distinguished history – and at a school whose alumni have contributed so greatly to Britain and to the world.
It is, of course, impossible to understand the past 40 years in South Africa without understanding the preceding 400 years. Britain played a major role in the evolution of that history – as it did in the histories of so many countries throughout the world.
The British first occupied the Cape in 1795 and then annexed it in 1806.
Our history in the 19th century was dominated by the British conquest of the three most prominent peoples of the subcontinent – first – between 1779 and 1878 – the Xhosa – Nelson Mandela’s people – in the Eastern Cape; then, in 1879, the Zulu people under King Cetswayo; and then finally, between 1899 and 1902, my people the Afrikaners.
After the Anglo-Boer war, Britain decided to establish a federation of its principal colonies in southern Africa along the lines of the successful federations that it had set up in Australia and Canada. The crucial difference was that in the other dominions the white populations greatly outnumbered the indigenous peoples – while in South Africa they comprised – at that time – less than 25% of the total population.
Nevertheless, in keeping with the colonial approach of the times, Britain gave white South Africans a monopoly of power in the newly established Union.
For the next 40 years South Africa developed along the lines of the other Commonwealth dominions. Until the mid-50s, in a continent that was still dominated by European powers, white minority rule in South Africa seemed unexceptional. In a world in which racial discrimination was still shockingly the rule, South Africa’s segregation policies elicited little criticism.
This is the world into which I was born in 1936 and in which I grew up as a young man. My first memory is of sitting on my father’s shoulders at the laying of the foundation stone of the Voortrekker Monument to commemorate the centennial of the Great Trek. Our main concern was the re-establishment of an Afrikaner Republic and our principal opponents were – not black South Africans – but Afrikaans and English-speaking South Africans who favored closer ties with Britain.
However, the world and Africa were changing.