For thousands of years, black tribes in South Africa farmed the land and lived peacefully—they did not war with each other and had little conflict with other nations. For centuries, the region of South Africa was a wholly black region. Throughout the region, black South African tribes coexisted, living simple, peaceful, rural lives. No whites settled in the country until the 1600s, long after white cultures had "conquered" other African nations. The land was wild, beautiful and untouched—both the English and Dutch wanted to control it. So began three centuries of conflict that culminated in Apartheid in the mid-1940s. As the Europeans fought each other on South African soil, black South Africans were slowly marginalized, their tribal culture disbanded, their freedoms diminished.
South Africa in 1948
The year Cry, the Beloved Country was published, South Africa's population was eleven million. Of those, two and a half million were white Afrikaans (Dutch descent), and three-quarters of a million were white English-speaking. The rest, except for one million blacks of mixed descent, were the black people of the African tribes. Well over half the population consisted of tribal people and "colored" South Africans of mixed descent. Blacks far outnumbered whites, yet whites controlled the country's wealth, resources and politics.
Apartheid was a program designed by the government to maintain white power. Developed by the Afrikaner National Party (made up of descendants of the white Dutch settlers), Apartheid laws drastically changed the way of life for black South Africans. Basic freedoms were lost. Black South Africans did not have the right to vote, they had no representation in government, they were banned from the freedom of choice in marriage (interracial marriage was outlawed) and certain lucrative and important jobs became "white-only." All races were segregated and thousands and thousands of blacks were relocated to crowded communities without any government support. Tribal families lost land and were driven from homes that had belonged to them for generations. Tribal customs were thwarted, identities and ties were lost—centuries of native tradition and spirit were sacrificed.
Under the new laws, protest was prohibited and the penalties, even for nonviolent action, were extremely severe. Many leaders who spoke out against Apartheid, like the future president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, were punished with life imprisonment or death. The struggle for freedom in South Africa was like the struggle in many countries. The same struggles go on around the world even today.