South Africa has been notorious for the racial segregation and ‘apartheid’ (or ‘apartness’) that dominated her twentieth-century history. The country was so much a special focus of international opprobrium that it is sometimes hard to recall how commonplace racial oppression has been in other societies. It has also proved very difficult for even the wealthiest societies to dismantle the mechanisms that perpetuate institutionalised racism. Other colonial settler societies were characterised by racial segregation. South Africa was merely one of many examples of violent European conquest in Africa. Doctrines that embodied assumptions of White supremacy, and mechanisms of residential and workplace segregation, were the norm in the era of imperial consolidation in Africa. The exclusion of Africans from commercial farming, controls on African land ownership outside native reserves, and the ruthless protection of White interests were also scarcely abnormal. South Africa nevertheless exhibited certain unusual features. The country went through massive social upheavals after the discovery of diamonds and gold towards the end of the nineteenth century, and it underwent urbanisation and economic development unprecedented on the continent. Rapid development intensified the system of cyclical African migrant labour that provided cheap workers for the mines, factories, and commercial farms. The conflict between settlers of Dutch descent and the British Empire, culminating in the Boer War or South African War at the end of the nineteenth century, pitted two organised settler communities against one another. But the exclusion of almost all Blacks from the formal political institutions of the Union of South Africa created in 1910 reflected wider assumptions about racial hierarchy that were prevalent across the major European Empires.
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