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Expanding the Narrative of South African art
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From Union to Democracy


One hundred years ago, the various colonies and Republics were declared a single entity, the Union of South Africa. Until then, these political units were locked in a stiff competition for resources, for advantage and for wealth. Even the various Boer Republics were sometimes at odds with each other, and they were at odds with the British colonies most of the time.

In his State of the Nation speech earlier this year, President Jacob Zuma said: “During the course of this year, we will mark the centenary of the establishment of the Union of South Africa. This created a unitary state. Significantly, the exclusion of black people from this union was one of the chief reasons for the formation of the African National Congress in 1912. As we mark this centenary later in the year, we should reflect on how far we have travelled as a country.”

It is remarkable that this union has not become fragmented, despite various attempts throughout the 20th century to hive off certain regions. Apartheid planners hoped to create tiny, discontinuous homelands where sovereignty would be based on tribal belonging. Mangosuthu Buthelezi was in favour of a federal structure in the run-up to the 1994 election. Some Afrikaners continue to agitate for a separate Boer state.

Long before union, the British saw the existence of Boer Republics as a threat to imperial ambitions, and tried to forge a confederation. After the South African War, the second war waged by the British against the Afrikaners, the British finally held sway over the entire country.
The discovery of diamonds and then gold, and the emergence of powerful Capitalist blocs in mining and agriculture united the Brits and the Boers in their need to secure cheap labour. So despite their differences, the Brits and the Boers agreed on certain principles: that the country needed to put in place laws to limit black access to political power, and when Union came blacks were effectively kept off the voters’ rolls, despite the “colour-blind” franchise in the Cape. By 1936, even Cape Africans were stripped of the vote.

The African response to Union was the creation in 1912 of the South African Native National Congress, the first incarnation of the African National Congress. But the new state was on the offensive, and enacted the 1913 Natives’ Land Act to dispossess Blacks of land they owned in the “white areas”, and to limit their presence and influence in the Union. The offensive gathered steam and a slew of laws set the scene for segregation and apartheid, and the history of 20th century South Africa is the history of the conflict between whites and the various black groups that eventually culminated in the first non-racial democratic election in 1994.