The History of South Africa

The Battle Field.

South Africa's history dates back to over 3, 000, 000 years ago; the discovery of the oldest complete fossilised hominid or human-like skeleton proved this. The history of South Africa is a colourful and diverse one, with stories of struggle for land, the movement of people, and the cultures of all the different tribes and nationalities.

Modern humans have lived in South Africa for over 100 000 years. Roughly 20 000 years ago, South Africa, still in the hold of the world's last Ice Age, was occupied by people now known as the San. More recent evidence of early man is seen in the many rock paintings, which were created by these Stone Age hunter-gatherers.

Some 2 000 years ago, the Khoikhoi (the Hottentots) were pastoralists who had settled mostly along the coast, while the San (the Bushmen) were hunter-gatherers spread across the region. Both were resident on the southern tip of the continent for thousands of years before its written history began with the arrival of European seamen and the BaNtu speaking agro-pastoralists.

BaNtu speaking agro-pastoralists began arriving in southern Africa approximately 2 000 years ago, from west and central Africa, spreading from the eastern lowlands to the Highveld of what is now South Africa. At several archaeological sites, there is evidence of political and material cultures.

The Thulamela site in the northern Kruger National Park, for example, is estimated to have been occupied in the 13th century. The ruins of Mapungubwe (in the Northern Province) contain artefacts from as far away as China, which are the remains of a large trading settlement thought to stretch back to the 12th century. These agro-pastoralists brought with them the Iron Age.

Various diseases such as smallpox were brought into the country by the Europeans and slaves, and along with straightforward extermination, the Khoekhoe are no longer an identifiable group.

In 1652 Jan van Riebeeck, along with 90 men docked at the Cape of Good Hope, under instructions by the Dutch East India Company to build a fort and develop a vegetable garden for the benefit of ships on the Eastern trade route.

There was a lot of bartering between the Dutch and the Khoekhoe, but as time progressed a mutual animosity grew over various issues. The Khoekhoe felt more threatened with Dutch workers being released from their contracts and given land of their own to farm. At the same time, the first slaves were brought to the developing colony.

The descendants of the Khoisan, the slaves from other areas of Africa and the East, and the white colonists formed the basis of the mixed-race group now known as 'coloured'. The slaves from the east brought with them the religion of Islam and the beautiful spices.

The 1700s were a time of growth, strife and modern development. A number of great leaders were born. There were 3 outbreaks of smallpox which killed hundreds of people and largely decimated the Khoekhoe population.

Throughout the early and mid 1700s there was conflict between the Boer, Khoekhoe and San over land and cattle. Each was trying to gain some sort of control. In the late 1700s there was more territorial and cattle skirmishes, this time between the Dutch and Xhosa. In the later part of the 1700s, a lot of Christian missionaries also arrived in the Cape Colony to bring Christianity to the Khoekhoe. A number of Khoekhoe people were baptised, which resulted in strife as this would mean that they would get the same rights as the white people.

In the late 1700s and early to mid 1800s the Boer people moved around a lot, gaining land and setting up homes for themselves. When the Voortrekkers moved into Zululand, they tried to make negotiations with the Zulu people, who were suspicious and murdered the Voortrekker leader - Piet Retief.

In 1838 the infamous Battle of Blood River took place. The battle served the purpose of avenging Piet Retief's murder. The Zulu army lost up to 3000 troops. The river turned red from all the blood, hence the Battle of Blood River. After the battle, the Voortrekkers distributed thousands of Zulu cattle amongst themselves.

First Anglo-Boer War

The First Anglo-Boer War started with a very long time of Boer and English animosity, which turned into a full-scale rebellion in the Transvaal (under British control from 1877), and the first war, known to Afrikaners as the 'War of Independence', broke out in 1880. It ended almost as soon as it began with the Boer gaining victory at the Battle of Majuba Hill (27 February 1881). The republic maintained its independence as the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek ('South African Republic'), or ZAR.

Paul Kruger, one of the leaders of the rebellion, became President of the ZAR in 1883. At the same time, the British, moved forward with their plans to federate the Southern African colonies and republics. This was the best way for them to promote their larger strategic interests in the area and maintain some sort of control.

Between the First and Second Anglo-Boer Wars

Between the First and Second Anglo-Boer War, The British gained control of Zululand and an Australian prospector discovered gold in the Witwatersrand. Johannesburg experienced a population explosion in the mid-1890s, and the ZAR suddenly found itself hosting thousands of outsiders, with the Boers pushed to the side. With the inflow of Black work labour, the Boers were concerned as the situation created economic hardship.

The enormous wealth of the mines, mainly controlled by Europeans, soon became irresistible for British beaurocrats. This was followed by the Jameson Raid in 1895, when Captain Leander Starr Jameson tried to start a riot on the Witwatersrand to install a British administration. To protect his republic, Paul Kruger formed an alliance with the Orange Free State.

Second Anglo-Boer War

The situation got worse in 1899, when the British wanted voting rights for the 60,000 foreign white people on the Witwatersrand. Paul Kruger did not approve the voting rights for the white foreigners and demanded the British to remove their troops from ZAR borders.

The British refused to move their troops, and subsequently Paul Kruger declared war. The Second Anglo-Boer War lasted longer, and the British were well prepared since the last war. By June 1900, Pretoria, the last of the major ZAR towns, had surrendered to the British. Yet resistance by Boer people who could not accept the defeat lasted for over two years with guerrilla-style assaults.

By 1902 26,000 Boer people had died of disease and neglect in concentration camps. On 31 May 1902 an "apparent" peace came with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging. Under the terms of the treaty, the Boer republics had to acknowledge the British sovereignty, while the British promised to rebuild the areas under their control.

Apartheid Era

General Louis Botha headed the first government of the new Union, with General Jan Smuts as his deputy. Their South African National Party, later known as the South African Party or SAP, followed a generally pro-British, white-unity line. The more radical Boer people went under the leadership of General Barry Hertzog, forming the National Party (NP) in 1914. The NP supported Afrikaner interests, pushing for separate development of the two white groups and independence from Britain.

The new formation had no place for Black people, despite the fact that over 75 percent of the population is made up of Black people. The Act of Union denied them voting-rights in the Transvaal and Orange Free State areas, and in Cape Province Blacks gained the vote only if they met a property-ownership qualification.

Before long, a variety of suppressive laws were made up, such as making it illegal for black workers to strike, providing skilled jobs for whites only, separating black people from white people, not allowing black people to buy or rent land in "white areas", stopping black people from joining the military service and setting-up restrictive pass laws.

Black and Coloured opposition united, and many leading figures laid the foundations for non-tribal black political groups. Various representatives of the African tribes were asked to form a unified national organisation to represent the black people, so that their voice could be heard. With this the ANC (African National Congress) was born in 1923.

In 1924 the NP, under Hertzog, came to power in a coalition government with the Labour Party, and Afrikaner nationalism gained greater hold. Afrikaans replaced Dutch as the official language of the Union, and the so-called swart gevaar (black threat) became the main issue of the 1929 elections. Sometime in the mid-1930s, Hertzog joined the NP to form the United Party; but the unity fell apart with the start of World War II and South Africa went to war supporting the Allies.

With the increasing wartime economy, black labour became more and more necessary to the mining and manufacturing industries. Large townships emerged outside Johannesburg and the other major cities. Even though the townships were experiencing poverty, wartime surveys found that up to 40 percent of white schoolchildren suffered from malnutrition.

From 1948 a number of National Party administrations moulded the existing system of segregation and denial of rights into the legal system, which lasted until the early 1990s. From 1910 until 1948 only whites and Cape Coloureds (people of mixed race) were allowed to vote. With the ascent of the Nationalist Party in 1948, the Cape Coloureds were removed from the voting list and only eligible whites were allowed to vote. From 1994 all race denominations were allowed to vote.

The final years of the Apartheid Era

Towards the end of apartheid, the opposition and animosity grew. The forms of opposition included armed struggles, economic sanctions, pressure from the anti-apartheid movement, the white youth spoke out, and there was open rebellion in the ruling National Party. The President at the time - F.W. de Klerk announced the reinstitution of the African National Congress, the Pan African Congress and the release of Nelson Mandela on 2 February 1990. In the referendum held on 17 March 1992, a white electorate voted 68% in favour of the end of apartheid.

After years of negotiations, a draft constitution appeared on 26 July 1993, allowing equal rights to all and voting rights to all. As of 26 to 29 April 1994, the South African population voted in the first all races presidential elections.

The ANC (African National Congress) won the election. This would be their very first time to govern. Nelson Mandela was elected as President on 9 May 1994. On 10 May Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's new President in Pretoria and Thabo Mbeki and FW De Klerk as his vice-presidents.

After the elections a new democratic culture had to be formed to recognise all human rights. Parliament then instituted the new Constitution and Bill of Rights as legislation in 1996. After the institution of the constitution, attention was put onto the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1995 to expose crimes of the apartheid era.


The State President of South Africa today is Thabo Mbeki. In 1997 Mandela handed over leadership of the ANC to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki. In 1999 the ANC was voted in again, which made Thabo Mbeki the new State President.

Since 1999 the crime levels in South Africa increased drastically and while efforts have been to curb the crime, it has still been worrisome. According to The Economist, an estimated 250,000+ white South Africans have emigrated since 1994.

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