Historical Development

South Africa Table of Contents

Before South Africa's vast mineral wealth was discovered in the late nineteenth century, there was a general belief that southern Africa was almost devoid of the riches that had drawn Europeans to the rest of the continent. South Africa had no known gold deposits such as those the Portuguese had sought in West Africa in the fifteenth century. The region did not attract many slave traders, in part because local populations were sparsely settled. Valuable crops such as palm oil, rubber, and cocoa, which were found elsewhere on the continent, were absent. Although the local economy was rich in some areas--based on mixed farming and herding--only ivory was traded to any extent. Most local products were not sought for large-scale consumption in Europe.

Instead, Europeans first settled southern Africa to resupply their trading expeditions bound for other parts of the world (see Origins of Settlement, ch. 1). In 1652 the Dutch East India Company settled a few employees at a small fort at present-day Cape Town and ordered them to provide fresh food for the company's ships that rounded the Cape on their way to East Africa and Asia. This nucleus of European settlement quickly spread outward from the fort, first to trade with the local Khoikhoi hunting populations and later to seize their land for European farmers. Smallpox epidemics swept the area in the late eighteenth century, and Europeans who had come to rely on Khoikhoi labor enslaved many of the survivors of the epidemics.

By the early nineteenth century, when the Cape settlement came under British rule, 26,000 Dutch farmers had settled the area from Stellenbosch to the Great Fish River (see fig. 7). In 1820 the British government sponsored 5,000 more settlers who also established large cattle ranches, relying on African labor. But the European immigrants, like earlier arrivals in the area, engaged primarily in subsistence farming and produced little for export.

The discovery of diamonds in 1869 and of gold in 1886 revolutionized the economy. European investment flowed in; by the end of the nineteenth century, it was equivalent to all European investment in the rest of Africa. International banks and private lenders increased cash and credit available to local farmers, miners, and prospectors, and they, in turn, placed growing demands for land and labor on the local African populations. The Europeans resorted to violence to defend their economic interests, sometimes clashing with those who refused to relinquish their freedom or their land. Eventually, as the best land became scarce, groups of settlers clashed with one another, and rival Dutch and British populations fought for control over the land (see Industrialization and Imperialism, 1870-1910, ch. 1).

South Africa was drawn into the international economy through its exports, primarily diamonds and gold, and through its own increasing demand for a variety of agricultural imports. The cycle of economic growth was stimulated by the continual expansion of the mining industry, and with newfound wealth, consumer demand fueled higher levels of trade.

In the first half of the twentieth century, government economic policies were designed to meet local consumer demand and to reduce the nation's reliance on its mining sector by providing incentives for farming and for establishing manufacturing enterprises. But the government also saw its role as helping to defend white farmers and businessmen from African competition. In 1913 the Natives Land Act reserved most of the land for white ownership, forcing many black farmers to work as wage laborers on land they had previously owned. When the act was amended in 1936, black land ownership was restricted to 13 percent of the country, much of it heavily eroded.

White farmers received other privileges, such as loans from a government Land Bank (created in 1912), labor law protection, and crop subsidies. Marketing boards, which were established to stabilize production of many crops, paid more for produce from white farmers than for produce from black farmers. All farm activity suffered from the cyclical droughts that swept the subcontinent, but white farmers received greater government protection against economic losses.

During the 1920s, to encourage the fledgling manufacturing industries, the government established state corporations to provide inexpensive electricity and steel for industrial use, and it imposed import tariffs to protect local manufacturers. Again black entrepreneurs were discouraged, and new laws limited the rights of black workers, creating a large pool of low-cost industrial labor. By the end of the 1930s, the growing number of state-owned enterprises dominated the manufacturing sector, and black entrepreneurs continued to be pressured to remain outside the formal economy.

Manufacturing experienced new growth during and after World War II. Many of the conditions necessary for economic expansion had been present before the war--cities were growing, agriculture was being consolidated into large farms with greater emphasis on commercial production, and mine owners and shareholders had begun to diversify their investments into other sectors. As the war ended, local consumer demand rose to new highs, and with strong government support--and international competitors at bay--local agriculture and manufacturing began to expand.

The government increased its role in the economy, especially in manufacturing, during the 1950s and the 1960s. It also initiated large-scale programs to promote the commercial cultivation of corn and wheat. Government investments through the state-owned Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) helped to establish local textile and pulp and paper industries, as well as state corporations to produce fertilizers, chemicals, oil, and armaments. Both manufacturing and agricultural production expanded rapidly, and by 1970 manufacturing output exceeded that of mining.

Despite the appearance of self-sustaining economic growth during the postwar period, the country's economy continued to be susceptible to its historical limitations: recurrent drought, overreliance on gold exports, and the costs and consequences of the use of disenfranchised labor. While commercial agriculture developed into an important source of export revenue, production plummeted during two major droughts, from 1960 to 1966 and from 1981 to 1985. Gold continued to be the most important export and revenue earner; yet, as the price of gold fluctuated, especially during the 1980s, South Africa's exchange rate and ability to import goods suffered.

Manufacturing, in particular, was seriously affected by downswings in the price of gold, in part because it relied on imported machinery and capital. Some capital-intensive industries were able to expand, but only with massive foreign loans. As a result, many industries were insulated from the rising labor militancy, especially among black workers, which sparked disputes and slowed productivity in the late 1980s. As black labor increasingly voiced its frustrations, and foreign banks cut short their loans because of mounting instability, even capital-intensive industries felt the impact of apartheid on profits.

The economy was in recession from March 1989 through most of 1993, largely in response to worldwide economic conditions and the long-term effects of apartheid. It registered only negligible, or negative, growth in most quarters. High inflation had become chronic, driving up costs in all sectors. Living standards of the majority of black citizens either fell or remained dangerously low, while those of many whites also began to decline. Economic growth continued to depend on decent world prices for gold and on the availability of foreign loans. Even as some sectors of the economy began to recover in late 1993, intense violence and political uncertainty in the face of reform slowed overall growth through 1994.

More about the Economy of South Africa.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress