Given all the unconditional praise from the British establishment to the late Nelson Mandela one could be forgiven for not acknowledging the part Britain played in creating and supporting apartheid South Africa.
Most know about the British government’s resistance to sanctions against the apartheid South African Government in the 1970s and 1980s and also how British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher described Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist”. Today’s British Prime Minister David Cameron even accepted an all-expenses paid trip to apartheid South Africa while Nelson Mandela was still in prison.
However, few will be aware of the role nineteenth century British rule played in creating the apartheid state of South Africa.
Britain has a bloody colonial history in South Africa. The British arrived in the Cape a hundred and fifty years after the Dutch in 1650. The native Africans suffered first at the hands of the Dutch and then the British. The rich wealth of the diamond and gold mines lay behind oppressive colonial intentions of both the Dutch ‘settlers’ (Boers) and the British Empire and this led to the Boer wars between the British and Dutch ‘settlers’.
The Boers initially gained control over Transvaal but were forced to recognise British sovereignty in 1902. The British encouraged and used black Africans to gain victory over the Boers and in 1910 created the Union of South Africa. The British allowed the Boers or Afrikaners self-government and most crucially did not allow black Africans to have a say in elections of a national parliament. Winston Churchill, then Under-Secretary for the Colonies, argued that the Afrikaners should be allowed self-rule, a self-rule which he admitted would mean that black Africans would be excluded from the vote.
The new Afrikaner parliament in South Africa reporting to the Colonial Office in London then went about passing laws of segregation. In actual fact many of these were a formalization and extension of existing British pass laws and land acts that kept blacks from traveling freely, obtaining employment, and owning land. Thus the foundations of apartheid were already in place when the Afrikaner National Party won the 1948 election on the platform of apartheid. While the white minority ruled; blacks, Coloureds, and Indians lived in a fierce police state that suppressed all opposition to the ugly apartheid system. Blacks suffered the greatest discrimination and lived in mounting misery and social isolation.
The rank hypocrisy of the British political class is shocking though unsurprising. Rather than exploiting the death of Nelson Mandela for opportunistic political gains, the British political establishment needs to recognise its role in the origins of apartheid under British rule in South Africa and show humility for the misery it has caused over the generations.