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The Concept and Significance of the Frontier in the History of South Africa, 1652-1800

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The concept of the frontier in the history of South Africa was borne out of the insatiable desire of the Boers for various reasons – to trek from the Cape Colony established in 1652 and to secure their own settlements.

The Trek Boers

The frontier may, therefore, be described as the inland settlements of districts made by the Trek Boers to avoid the Cape government and this trekking and settlement continued in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

When we talk of the frontier, we should not go with the notion that there was a fixed boundary during the period under consideration. This was not because the government of the Dutch East India Company failed to fix one for the colony.

Indeed, Jan Van Riebeeck did fix one just behind Cape Town in 1660 and in 1778 and 1798, governor van Plettenberg and the British government, respectively fixed another at the Fish River.

The reason for the lack of a permanent boundary was that the frontier continued to expand as long the Boers continued to go into the interior of Africa and was pursued by the government at the Cape. By 1775, the Trek Boers were scattered along the Fish River and by 1800, they were almost nearing the upper Orange River.

Since there were African peoples in this region, the Bushmen, the Hottentots and the Bantu groups, the frontier expansion was bound to produce or help to produce political, economic, social and racial problems in South Africa. It is under these perspectives that one can, therefore, examine the significance of the frontier in the history of South Africa between 1652 and 1800.

Politically, frontier enabled the Boers (frontier farmers) to realize their self-esteem and build up self-reliance. Many of the Boers came from the interior provinces of the Netherlands and were accustomed to self-reliance. With the Boers’ self-reliance, there emerged on the frontier deepening antipathy towards official authority.

Few of the Boers understood or cared about the company’s complex mercantile operation. The frontier, therefore, enabled the Trek Boers to develop their own institutions of government quite different from the company’s machinery.

The Boers political system did not only undermine the authority of the Cape Colony, but it also gave the Boers the political authority which they cherished so much and even the Dutch East India Company gradually came to accept this system as it was economical.


The autonomy which the Trek Boers wished to secure and the undermining of the official authority at the Cape had adverse political consequences for the Cape Colony government.

The fact that the frontier Boers wanted to get away from any form of political control by the administration of the Cape Colony meant that the government had to be faced with big financial problems to administer a colony that was expanding without its blessing.

While the Dutch East India Company tried to discourage trekking and expansion, newcomers like the Huguenots and the German merchants did everything to encourage the Boers in their political isolationism.

The Huguenots, who had suffered religious persecution in France, saw comfort on the frontier and were prepared to put their political resources at the disposal of the Boers. In short, the Huguenot’s political acumen did in no small way helps to undermine the company’s authority on the frontier, and they strengthened the feeling of uniqueness that the Boers were already manifesting.

Republics of Graaff-Reinet and Swellendem

The declaration of the two independent republics of Graaff-Reinet and Swellendam in 1795 and 1796 was a part of this determination to undermine and flout the official authority of the Cape. But it was also evidence of the declining authority of the company, a decline which to a great extent was attributable to the uncooperative attitude of the frontier Boers. This attitude also facilitated the British take-over of the government at the Cape and the demise of the company.

The political authority of the Trek Boers did not affect the Cape alone. The fact that the Boers regarded themselves as ‘superior’ to the Khoisan and the Bantu peoples meant that they wanted to rule these peoples.

The socio-political systems of the Khoisan, simple as they were, were quickly destroyed by the advancing frontier Boers who were taking up the land of the Khoisan. The Hottentots, for instance, were either incorporated into the frontier political system or were killed or forced to move into another region.

According to Anene and Brown, “…….as the colonists (frontier Boers) advanced, the Hottentots parted with their lands with hardly a struggle and either entered the service of the settlers as farm labourers or retired farther into the interior”.


However, the meeting of the north-east descending Bantu groups in 1775, particularly the Xhosa was momentous because it brought the two powerful advancing frontiers into conflict with one another. The subsequent history of South Africa is dominated by the manner in which they reacted to and ultimately overlapped one another.

The Bantu were politically well-organized people as the Boers and the attempts by the Boers to dominate or subjugate the Bantu politically and militarily were stoutly and doggedly resisted. The conflicts between the two groups were referred to as the ‘Kaffir wars’ and there were three such wars during the period under consideration.

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The Frontiers War. Historywiz Photo

The command which the frontier Boers organized for themselves were not only designed to fight the Bantu, the Khoisan peoples over the question of cattle, but also were meant to conquer these Africans politically and with their military superiority, they succeeded to a large extent in establishing their political authority over districts which were formerly African.

Economically, the frontier helped to produce certain situations and these were tied to the tendency to confine land occupation and land ownership. The chief dominant themes under economics were land hunger and cattle. The frontier Boers believed that their occupation of any land meant their ownership of such land, but the Africans had a diametrically opposed view. They believed in communal ownership of all lands.

The frontier, therefore, afforded the Trek Boers the opportunity to acquire more land that was vacant and ‘unowned ‘than the normal 6,000 acres allowed each farmer by the Cape authority to support all the cattle and families, and this gave rise to the demand for more land, and the frontier provided this. However, more land which the frontier Boers regarded as their personal property meant conflict with the Bantu and the Khoisan peoples.

The frontier life also encouraged the importation of slaves from West Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar and Indonesia into South Africa. With the increase in demand for cattle at the Cape and the expansion on the frontier to accommodate large areas for ranching, there was more demand for slaves.

Slaves and Hottentots

Slaves and Hottentots were employed on the ranches, but the frontier Boers undertook to drive their cattle to Cape Town where necessary ammunition, coffee, clothes and other supplies could be obtained. The fact that the frontier Boers relied increasingly on the Hottentots for cattle ranching made the latter economically more dependent on the Europeans.

Social development was affected by the frontier. The isolation that shaped the self-sufficiency of the Boers also bred a smallness of their spirit. The religion of the frontier Boers was family centred. There were no trained clergymen in the frontier districts.


The popular view of the Christian doctrine became increasingly simple and dogmatic. In the 17th century Europe, the faith of any rural population was simple and rugged, but that of the Boers was usually rigid, even before they left the Netherlands.

They were Calvinists. They were, therefore, able to draw from their Calvinist faith a sense of individualism that bordered on anarchy. They saw themselves as the chosen people of the Old Testament wandering in the wilderness in search of the Promised Land.

The religious parochialism of the Boers helped to strain the social relationships between the Africans and the Boers, as the Boers saw no hope for the Khoisan peoples who according to the frontier Boers were destined to serve and remain under their political domination.

They also saw no hope for the Malay slaves from Indonesia who practised Islam, which the Boers considered an inferior faith suitable for inferior people. The religious attitude, therefore, aggravated racial tension in South Africa.

Rural Dutch Dialects

Another frontier development was the merging of rural Dutch dialects and the absorption of many new words from the Khoisan peoples and Malay slaves. The language which emerged, therefore, on the frontier was the Afrikaans. These two social phenomena, religion and language, stimulated the ultimate emergence of Afrikaner nationalism.

The Coloured People/Griquas

On the frontier (and at the Cape) in the 17th century, the Boers intermarried or had sexual contact with the Hottentots, the Negro and Malay slaves. The importance of this social contact was a considerable community of mixed blood that emerged, known as the Coloured people or as Griquas.

As mentioned earlier on, the frontier promoted racial discrimination. Both on the frontier and in the more established areas, the settlers came to characterize the Apartheid philosophy.


Initially, efforts were made to keep Hottentots and settlers apart, and there was no discrimination against children of a mixed union who were freed Negro slaves. However, the frontier Boers regarded the Hottentots as stupid and dishonest, and this attitude came to define unreliability on racial lines.

Written by Prof. V.O Edo and Dr S.A Ogunode

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