South Africa Feature


South Africa's History

The First Known Inhabitants

Two-million-year-old hominid fossils of the earliest known prehuman ancestors were found in South Africa, at the Sterkfontein Caves, about an hour's drive from Johannesburg. This area is now known as the Cradle of Humankind.

The descendants of these prehistoric Africans, the San, were Stone Age hunter-gatherers. From AD 200 to 400, people speaking various Bantu languages moved into the area that is now South Africa's Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, bringing with them Iron Age culture. Between AD 500 and the 1300s, the Khoikhoi, nomadic cattle herders, moved south and interacted, as well as clashed, with the San, as did a later group of farmers from the north. As the population increased, powerful kingdoms developed.

European Colonization

The Portuguese were the first to land in the Cape—in 1487—when pioneering a sea route to India, but it was the Dutch who decided to set up a refreshment station in 1652, so that their ships could stock up on food and water en route to the East Indies. Station commander Jan van Riebeeck later established a permanent settlement and imported a large number of slaves, mostly from the East Indies. The Cape Colony started to expand outward and the Khoikhoi, who were living in the Cape, lost most of their livestock, grazing areas, and population; those who remained became marginalized servants. The Afrikaans language developed—a mix of mainly Dutch, as well as some words and sounds from the languages of other European settlers, slaves, and San and Khoikhoi servants.

Over the next 100 years, the Dutch pushed farther inland, sometimes clashing with indigenous inhabitants. Official control see-sawed between the Dutch and the British until the region was formally recognized by the 1815 Congress of Vienna as a British colony.

The Great Trek

The British government subsequently annexed the Cape Colony and outlawed slavery in 1834. The Boers, or Afrikaners, fled inland, setting up new communities and drawing up constitutions explicitly prohibiting racial equality in church and state.

Also known as the Voortrekkers (or pioneers), the Boers traveled into lands occupied by Bantu-speaking peoples, including the Zulu kingdom. Ruled by Shaka, the Zulus evolved during the 1820s into the most powerful black African kingdom in southern Africa and occupied most of what is now KwaZulu-Natal.

Between 1837 and 1838, Afrikaner farmer and businessman Piet Retief attempted to negotiate a land agreement with the Zulu king, Dingane. Instead, the Zulus killed Retief and more than 500 Voortrekkers.

In retaliation, a Boer raiding party defeated the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838 and set up the independent Republic of Natalia, now roughly the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Also around that time, two Boer republics were established: the South African Republic (now Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo provinces) and the Orange Free State (now Free State).

Prosperity and Conflict

The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 and then gold in 1886 outside Johannesburg changed South Africa's fortunes forever. The economic center moved from the British-controlled Cape to the Boer republics and transformed an agricultural society to an urbanized, industrial one.

Mining companies required a great deal of labor, supplied by black, male migrant workers, who were forced to live in single-sex hostels or compounds. Workers had to carry passes, and their movements were tightly controlled. The British had financial interest in the mines and wanted to control the entire country and thus its mineral wealth. To this end, they took over Natalia and invaded Zulu territory, successfully bringing it under imperial control. They next turned their attention to the two Boer republics.

To preempt an invasion by the British, the Boers declared war in 1899. The Anglo-Boer war (now called the South African War) lasted until 1902. A "scorched earth" policy by the British meant farms were burned and women and children were put into concentration camps. The Boers eventually surrendered, but bitterness toward the British remained. By 1910 the former British colonies were united as the Union of South Africa, and Afrikaners were appointed to government positions in an attempt to reconcile English and Afrikaans speakers.


In 1913, the first Union government established the Natives Land Act, which divided the country into black and white areas. Blacks were given less than 10% of land, thus forcing many to become migrant workers on white-owned farms and mines. Black political leaders established the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912, a forerunner to the African National Congress (ANC), to protest against such measures.

During World War I, South Africa, as part of the British Empire, was at war with Germany, and invaded German South West Africa (later Namibia). White Afrikaners tried to exploit this opportunity to win back their country but failed. Between the World Wars, the country was ruled by an Afrikaner-dominated government. The ANC continued to peacefully protest its plight, with little success.

Once World War II began, the Union voted to support the British by a small majority; many Afrikaners openly supported Nazi Germany. The National Party won the 1948 election on the platform of pro-apartheid policies, the cornerstone of which, the 1950 Population Registration Act, classified all South Africans according to race and established separate schools, universities, residential areas, and public facilities.

Opposition to Apartheid

The government in turn introduced severe penalties for opposition to apartheid and banned the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC)—a faction of the ANC, which went underground or into exile.

ANC leaders, Nelson Mandela among them, were arrested two years later, and, after a lengthy detention and trial, sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island in 1964. This further weakened the black protest.

By the mid-1970s the anti-apartheid struggle was revived, aided by condemnation from other countries, including South Africa's neighbors, who were no longer sympathetic to the white regime. In 1976 several thousand black African schoolchildren marched through the township of Soweto to protest Afrikaans becoming the language of instruction. During what became known as the Soweto Uprising, police opened fire on crowds, killing between 200 and 500 people and injuring thousands. After this, the government was increasingly forced to rely on the police force and army to crush resistance and impose order; it never fully regained control.

By the 1980s, international condemnation of, and reaction to, apartheid had reached a fever pitch: celebrities boycotted appearances in South Africa, sports teams were shunned abroad, and U.S. college students held rallies demanding their universities divest their assets from the country. Despite this, the government continued to arrest South African journalists, student leaders, and other opponents, detaining them without trial. Prominent apartheid opponents were killed in neighboring countries. However, sanctions, boycotts, strikes, and campaigns by the liberation organizations were damaging the economy, and business began to be badly affected.

The Dawn of Democracy

F. W. de Klerk became president of South Africa in December 1989 and in his first speech to Parliament two months after his election, he made the unexpected and astonishing announcement: Mandela and other political prisoners were to be released and the ANC and PAC were to be unbanned. Talks began between government and the liberation movements, although racial tensions remained. In 1994, South Africa had its first democratic election, which the ANC won by a large majority. It was a time of great joy and exultation for many. Mandela became president, and South Africa rejoined the rest of the world on the political stage, resuming full participation in the UN and the Commonwealth, and sending its first racially integrated team to the Olympics.

A government-appointed panel called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), headed by Desmond Tutu, an Anglican archbishop, began public hearings across the country to probe human-rights violations during the apartheid years. People could talk about their experiences, and the full extent of apartheid atrocities came to light; many considered this to be an important healing process.

Mandela was succeeded in 1999 by Thabo Mbeki, who continued to guide the transformation process from a white-dominated, apartheid government to a democratic one.

The Present

In 2008, Jacob Zuma became leader of the ANC and succeeded Mbeki as president in the 2009 elections. South Africans hope for continued progress toward a better future under Zuma and that his populist utterances will translate into action that will improve the lives of people, the majority of whom still live in poverty. Despite South Africa's modern economy, prosperous gold and diamond mines, and the export of raw materials, the country continues to face numerous problems, including an unskilled labor force, failing infrastructure, violent crime, chronic unemployment, and the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.

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