A Short History of South Africa and Cape Town

Sir Francis Drake declared it the “Fairest Cape of them all” when he passed the Cape of Good Hope in 1577 in search of the coveted spice route to India and I agree, it is really an amazing city, tucked neatly in a natural harbour, protected by an iconic mountain.

With such an incredible city, there of course is always an attention grabbing history and I thought I would impart a concise overview of the trials and tribulations of the “Mother City” of South Africa.

Although many sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, it wasn’t until 1652 when the Dutch man Jan Van Riebeeck, a member of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) arrived in the Cape and settled down to set up a service station to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to all the passing ships that the European / colonial development really began in South Africa.

Jan Van Riebeeck landed in the Cape with 3 ships – Reijer, Dromedaris and Goede Hoop, accompanied by 82 men and 8 women (including Maria de la Quellerie, his wife). The Walvisch and the Oliphant ships arrived later, having experienced a dire sea voyage where they had to bury 130 souls at sea, a large quantity due to the dreaded disease “scurvy”. Until their arrival the land had mainly been dominated by the Hottentots and Khoi San, local hunter gather tribes.

With the arrival of the new settlers, a whole new society was created in this new and exciting “De Kaap”. A truly eclectic mix of cultures, races and religions.

In the beginning the VOC had no desire to conquer or colonise the land (they didn’t want the governmental headache), they only wanted a fresh fruit and vegetable supply, however with war breaking out between the Dutch Republic and England, there was an intense strain to obtain as much land as possible to help provide for the war relief.

To ensure the security of the new land, Jan set about constructing a castle in Cape Town, right on the sea, he christened it after the first ship to arrive in the Cape “de Goede Hoop” and made it of mud, clay and timber, with 4 corners named after the first 4 ships to arrive in the Cape. (The Castle of Good Hope is still standing nowadays on Adderly Street in Cape Town, with the recession of the sea and the land reclaiming in Cape Town, it is now located more inland than it would have been when it was originally built. It is the best surviving example of VOC architecture and the oldest building in Cape Town)

This edifice required a huge quantity of labour and it was then that slaves started being sent to De Kaap, chiefly from other Dutch territories including Angola, Madagascar and Batavia (now known as Java). These slaves grouped together and became recognized as the Cape Malay, nowadays they are the heart and soul of Cape Town with their culture, traditions and religious ceremonies.

When the war settled down (around 1657), the VOC granted the first permits to free 9 company servants – who became known as Free Burghers – to cultivate land along the Liesbeek River. This was the start of permanent settlement in the Cape.

Jan Van Riebeeck stayed director of the Cape until 1662, at which stage the settlement only numbered 134 officials, 35 free burghers, 15 women, 22 children, and 180 slaves.

Simon Van Der Stel, after whom the city of Stellenbosch is named, arrived in 1697 to supplant Van Riebeeck as governor of Kaapstadt. Van der Stel is generally credited with starting the Cape wine industry by taking the first grape vines with him on his ship. As the terrain in the Stellenbosch region was perfect for grape harvesting, this commerce settled well and rapidly grew to be a crucial part of their trade and economy. Wines from the Cape were prized and were soon imported back to the Dutch Republic. Simon Van Der Stel also supported territorial expansion in the Colony.

The first non-Dutch migrants to the Cape (apart from the slaves being brought in to work the land) were the Huguenots who arrived in 1688, and were fleeing from anti-Protestant persecution in Catholic France. At the beginning they fled to the Netherlands, where they were given free passage to the Cape as well as land for cultivation by the VOC. This was an inherent move by the VOC to enhance the wine production in the Cape. The Huguenots who knew a lot about wine making made their home in an area they called “Franschhoek” (French Corner) and immediately set about making it home; including celebrating all their French Traditions. (Today, they still celebrate Bastille Day in Franschhoek.)

The settlement in the Cape grew quickly over the next few years and by 1754, the population of the settlement on the Cape had reached 5,510 Europeans and 6,729 slaves.

However, as usual, war had a great bearing on the fledgling Cape Colony and when in 1780, France and Britain went to war against each other, The Netherlands entered the war on the French side, and thus a small battalion of French troops were sent to the Cape to defend it against the British. They didn’t stay long in the Cape and were soon transported back to France in 1784. As usually happens, old allies soon became adversaries and when in 1795 France invaded the Netherlands, the Prince of Orange was forced to flee to their old enemy England for safety.

As news took so long to travel to the Cape, and the Governor of the Cape only knew of this new agreement when the English arrive in Cape Town bearing a letter from the Prince of Orange stating that they be allowed to protect Cape Town from the French.

Sadly, the reaction from the commissioner was mixed and the English had to fight their way into the Cape in the Battle of Muizenberg. Typically, a period of backwards and forward began with the Cape being surrendered back to the Dutch in the treaty of 1803 and then returned to the English in 1806.

However, from 1806, once the English were decisively in, they took control of the town and set about making it a more advanced city to live in. They sent home for colonists and soon in 1820 the English began to arrive in their multitudes. With more people arriving each day, this initiated the expansionism (mainly by the original Dutch, now known as Afrikaner or Boer (farmer) settlers) into the inland of the country and soon colonies were set up in the Transvaal and Orange Free State.

Soon, conflicts between the Boer republics in the interior and the British colonial government in Cape Town ended in the Second Boer War of 1899-1901 being fought. Britain with its stronger military strength and man power eventually won the war, however, not without some considerable effort fighting against the Boer guerrilla warfare tactics.

In 1910, Britain established the Union of South Africa, which unified the Cape Colony with the two defeated Boer Republics and the newly recognized British Colony of Port Natal. Cape Town became the legislative capital of the Union, and later of the Republic of South Africa.

Over the next few years, both English and Afrikaans people resided in comparative harmony in this new union and many beliefs and values become common among the people in the Union of South Africa.

In the 1948 national elections, the National Party won an amazing amount of support based on their policy of Apartheid (racial segregation). They succeeded this under the slogan of “Swart Gevaar” (in English this means Black Threat). They taught people to beware of the Black people and wanted them to see them as a danger to their lives and their jobs. This soon lead to strategies such as the Group Areas Act being put in place, which meant that all people who lived in South Africa were classified according to their race and skin colour. Many severe tests were put into place to establish people were either black, coloured or white; one of the most ridiculous ones being the pencil test, where a pencil was inserted into a person of suspicious colours hair, and if the pencil stuck in the persons hair, it meant they were black as these people were more likely to have more woolly hair. This is quite logical of course!? And meant that same families were split amongst themselves being classified as both black and white in the same family which of course caused immense hardship and suffering to the whole family.

With the race classification, soon came the living segregation where people of colour and non colour were not authorized to inhabit the same areas. Formerly multi racial environs of Cape Town were purged of people of colour and their homes were demolished. One of the most infamous examples of this is “District Six” where in 1965 it was decreed a white’s only area and more than 60,000 people were compulsorily removed and their homes destroyed. Nothing further was done with this land; it was just a declaration of segregation! Many of these residents were moved to areas such as the Cape Flats and Lavander Hill.

Under the Apartheid rule, Cape Town was considered a “Coloured Labour preference area” meaning that you could provide work for a coloured person, but you could not employ a “Bantu” black person. Whites obviously had first preference, but in serious need you could employ a coloured person.

As you can visualize, with this many rules, acts and forms of segregation, life for many people was truly tyrannical. However, not all white and coloured people supported the Apartheid regime and there were many, especially in the Cape Town area that started and joined the Anti Apartheid struggle.

Sadly, it took a long time and a lot of heartache and suffering before things began to make progress.

Robben Island, a former [penitentiary|prison] island 10 kilometres from the city, was [famous|well known|renowned] for its many political prisoners, some of whom were held for years. The most famous [inmate|prisoner|convict] was Nelson Mandela who was incarcerated for 27 years, yet in all that time, he never gave up [hope|faith|belief] that a “New” South Africa could be [achieved|created|established].

The end of the apartheid era was firmly symbolised, when Nelson Mandela made his first public speech in decades on 11 February 1990 from the [balcony|gallery] of Cape Town City Hall, just hours after being [released|set free] from Robben Island. His emotive speech, filled with passion and joy [heralded|announced|indicated] the beginning of a new era for the country.

The first democratic election in South Africa was held four years later, on 27 April 1994.

This was the beginning of the new Rainbow Nation, the land for everyone.

To me, South Africa really does symbolize the best of human spirit, the triumph of good over evil and the power of people and persistence. If you have faith in something hard enough and work at it, ultimately it will come to pass.

From 1994, with the new South Africa firmly in place, the people could concentrate on show casing their amazing city to the rest of the world. And amazing it is.

There is so much to see and do in Cape Town that you need a minimum of 4 or 5 days to explore this fantastic region. From the City itself, to Cape Point, to the winelands, to township tours, whale watching, sky diving, deep sea fishing, Harley Davidson riding, mountain biking, horse back riding, hot air balloon safaris, fine dining, museums, great shopping to just relaxing at the Victoria and Alfred waterfront and taking it all in.

Source by Simone Truter

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