The Frontier in History: North America and Southern Africa Compared
The Shaping of South African Society, 1652-1820
Economy and Society in Pre-Industrial South Africa
The frontier experience still looms large in popular descriptions and explanations of the “American character.” Pioneers hewing new communities out of the wilderness are revered as the archetypal American democrats and individualists, a notion that received historical respectability in the writings of Frederick Jackson Turner and his disciples. Other nations have also had frontiers and frontier interpretations of their history, and one of the most conspicuous is the Republic of South Africa. Afrikaner nationalism—the ideology of the dominant segment of the ruling white minority—draws strength and determination from a romanticized image of the Great Trek, a mass migration of Dutch-speaking stock farmers into the interior of South Africa during the 1830s and 1840s.
For Afrikaners the Great Trek combines elements of our revolution and the westward movement; for the migrants known as Voortrekkers were not merely seeking new pastures for their cattle and sheep but were also making a conscious effort to escape from the mildly autocratic rule that the British had established over the Cape of Good Hope earlier in the century. The republics they founded in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal did not survive the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, but Afrikaner nationalists regard them as prototypes for the modern South African state.
The American and South African frontier myths differ somewhat in the kind of nationalism they project. According to Turner, the West was a great melting pot for various white ethnic and sectional groups—out of the mixture came a common American nationality. The Voortrekker experience, on the other hand, is the exclusive property of only one of the two major white ethnic groups in South Africa. English speakers—about 40 percent of the present-day white population—have inherited some of the stigma attached to their ancestors for opposing Afrikaner independence.
But in another respect the two mythologies are quite similar: both necessarily deny the right of indigenous populations to the land that people of European origins settled in the course of frontier expansion. They do this in part by making it appear that native peoples were very thin on the ground in all or most of the territory now occupied by whites. Turner and his followers virtually ignored the American Indian and generally referred to the areas settled by pioneers as “free land.” Low estimates of Indian population at the time of Columbus—now believed to be a small fraction of the actual numbers—reinforced the myth that America was scarcely peopled at all before the white man came.
Popular Afrikaner historiography makes the similarly misleading claim that Europeans occupied most of South Africa before Bantu-speaking Africans, migrating from the north, had arrived. The fact is that Bantu-speakers were thickly settled almost everywhere except in the present-day Cape Province before the first white settlement in 1652, and other indigenous peoples occupied the Cape itself. Because of the historical accident that many of the Voortrekkers migrated into areas recently depopulated by wars among Africans, even the great interior plain known as highveld is portrayed as a kind of demographic…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.