History of South Africa

Nelson MandelaMarked by migrations, ethnic conflicts and the anti-Apartheid movement, South Africa’s history is indeed an interesting one.


Scholars agree that modern human have been living in this region for over 100,000 years. The Stone Age huntergatherers were the ancestors of the Khoekhoe and San of the Ancient times.

Ancient History

Khoekhoe (The Bushmen)

Around 2,500 years ago, Khoekhoe started acquiring livestock from further south. Gradually, hunting and gathering gave away to herding as the Khoekhoe started to have small herds of cattle and oxen. This introduced the concepts of wealth and property to the Khoekhoe and the community structures started to expend.

The pastoral Khoekhoe started to move further south reaching what now is known as Cape of Good Hope. Here they found the San population and after intermarried to the point when drawing a clear distinction line between the two populations was impossible. The Khoekhoe and the San became collectively known as Khoisan.


While the Khoisan continue to herd sheep and cattle between modern day Namibia and Easter Cape, Bantu-speaking agropastoralists started to expend in southern Africa, bringing the iron culture and crops.

After establishing on the eastern coast, they started expending towards the interior of the continent. Archeologists believe that Khoisan and Bantu lived peacefully together but because neither had any method or writing, the presumption is based on the artifacts found.

Eventually, Khoisan and Bantu mixed, but there isn’t an exact record of the time when that happened. At several archeological sites there is evident of sophisticated political and material cultures.

Colonization Period

Portuguese Expeditions

Although the Portuguese arrived at the Cape of Good Hope, they showed little interest in colonizing the area. The rocky shoreline at Cape posed a real threat for their ships, while the attempts to engage in trade with the local population ended in conflict. Instead, they found the Mozambican coast more attractive.

The Dutch

In late 16th century, the English and the Dutch started to challenge the Portuguese trade routes and the stops at the stops at Cape became frequent. In 1647 a Dutch ship was wrecked at present day Table Bay and the marooned crew, the first European settlers in the area, built a fort. It took a year until they were rescued.

Shortly after that Dutch East India Company –one of the major European trading houses- decided to establish a permanent settlement here but had no intention of colonizing the area.

Out of necessarily, the new settlement started trade relationships with the locals but it wasn’t exactly a friendly relationship. As a result, the camp was left without labor force and the company released a number of Dutch from contracts allowing them to establish farms in the area. The idea proved a very successful one and gradually the farmers started to expend further north and east into the locals’ territory.

In addition to this farming system –known as free burgher- the Dutch also brought slaves from Madagascar and Indonesia. They often married the Dutch settlers.




The newcomers drove the locals from their lands, decimated them with introduced diseases and destroyed them with superior weapons.

As they continued to expend in the continent, many settlers started to adopt a semi-nomadic life. Often they built mud-walled cottages, located several days away from the nearest European settlement. They formed the Trekboers, a population completely independent from the official controls, self-sufficient and isolated.

The British

At the end of the 18th century, the Dutch power started to fade and the British took their place. They seized the Cape preventing the French from establishing here.

The British soon established a colony in Cape Town comprising 15,000 Khoisan, 20,000 white colonists, 25,000 slaves and 1,000 freed black slaves. Power was in the hands of the white elite and the differentiation on the basis of race was deeply entrenched. Outside the colony, the country was populated by white and back pastoralists.

Initially, British didn’t have much interest in the area except a well positioned port. But the problems soon started the Boers and the Xhosa on the colony’s eastern frontier as the British try to solve the border dispute. In 1820, the British manage to persuade 5,000 middle class British immigrants to leave England and settle in the area, creating a “buffer zone”. But within three years almost half of the British immigrants retreated to towns –Port Elisabeth and Grahamstown –to pursue jobs they had in England.

Soon a pattern has emerged: the English-speaking population became highly urbanized and dominated the politics, trade, mining, finance and manufacturing, while the Boers were related to their farms.

The gap widened and nothing changed even with the abolition of slavery in 1833. Instead, the authorities passed a Masters and Servants Ordinance which perpetuated white control. Meanwhile, with the discovery of gold and diamonds in the area, more and more British settled.

Difaqane (Forced Migration)

In the early 19th century, the Zulu started its military expansion, killing or enslaving everyone in their pass who tried to resist. Everyone in their pass moved away, becoming, in the turn, the aggressors against their neighbors. This wave spread through South Africa, accelerating the creation of several states.

Great Trek

As the Boers started to be more dissatisfied with the British rule, together with a large number of Khoisan and black servants, they decided to trek off north in search of independence. North and East of the Orange River, the Boers found vast grazing lands but little did they know they have found deserted pasture lands and refugees resulted from the forced migration. The scattered people of the plains pose no resistance.

After some disagreements, the Boers split apart. Some went north and since that was Zulu territory, the battles soon followed. Boers killed several thousands Zulu in December 1838 but despite that, they didn’t manage to establish a republic as the area was soon taken over by British.

As the British started to establish Sugar plantation in the area they encountered resistance from the Zulu. One of the most humiliating defeats on the British army was in 1879 when more than 1400 British soldiers were killed.

The Anglo-Boer Wars

The long lasting Boer resentment of the British rule turned into a full-blown in the Transvaal –one of the Boer republics – and the First Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1880. The conflict ended soon, after a crushing Boer victory at Battle of Majuba Hill in February 1881. The republic regained its independence and was known as the South African Republic.

In 1879 Zululand fell into British hands. Then gold was found in the area and Johannesburg’s population exploded. An influx of black workers started to put pressure on the Boers who suffered economic hardship.

Obviously the British wanted a piece of the gold industry and the situation between the South African Republic and the British started to be critical. When they British demanded voting rights for the 60,000 foreign whites in the area and the president (Kruger) rejected the demand, asking British to withdraw their troops from republic’s border, the Second Anglo-Boer War broke. Unfortunately the Boers towns fell one by one and the Boers died of neglect and diseases in the concentration camps.

Union of South Africa

After unsuccessful attempts to anglicize the Afrikaners and impose English as official language, eventually the South Africa Act 1909 brought the colonies and regions – Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal and Orange Free State- together, forming the Union of South Africa. The Union was a British territory but with home-rule of Afrikaners.

English and Dutch became official languages while Afrikaans was recognized as an official language in 1925.

The Natives’ Land Act of 1913 was the first major act which remained a cornerstone of Apartheid until the 1990’s. Under the act, blacks were severely restricted to own land.

Word War I and II

As a British territory, the Union of South Africa joined Great Britain against Germany during both Wars.

Apartheid Era

The South African National Party, later known as the South African Party (SAP) followed a pro-British line, while the more radical Boers formed the National Party (NP), advocating independence from Britain and separate development for the two white groups.

The new Union however had no place for blacks, although they represented more than 75% of the country’s population. Based on the Act of Union, blacks didn’t have voting rights in the Transvaal and Orange Free State areas, while in Cape Province the voting rights were based on a property-ownership qualification.

Not long after, it was illegal for the black workers to strike while the skilled jobs were reserved to the whites. The blacks weren’t allowed in the military either.

Soon the Black and Colored opposition began to coalesce and their power increased. In 1924 the NP came to power in a coalition government with the Labor Party. Afrikaans became also an official language in the country.

Due to booming economy, the black labor became more important in the mining and manufacturing industries leading to the doubling of the black urban population.

With increased opposition to apartheid in the final decades of the XXth century and the release of Nelson Mandela on 2 February 1990, it was obvious that the country has begun its way to democracy. Having spent 27 years in prison because of being an anti-apartheid activist and leader of the African National Congress, Mandela was the first South African president elected in fully representative democratic elections.

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