History of South Africa
For ease of reference, the history of South Africa can be divided into three parts – the pre-colonial era, the colonial era, and democracy.
The pre-colonial era
Ancient remains of human civilisation have been found in South Africa, dating back millions of years.
By far the oldest grouping in South Africa is the so-called San population. Similar to the aborigines in Australia, they used to live by hunting and foraging. Their cave art dates back roughly 30 000 years. However, today their lifestyle has been irreparably
disrupted and they are no longer as numerous as they once were. They were persecuted both by the indigenous African tribes and by the European settlers, because they were seen as stock thieves, as they had no stock of their own, and they suffered as a result.
Roughly 400 years ago, no European person had settled in South Africa, and the indigenous African tribes were the only occupants of the land. They did not occupy the entire country, but were based along the east coast and in the north of the country. Various inter-tribal wars took place, which caused a general southward movement of tribes, along the east coast. The dominant tribe was the Zulu tribe, who went on a territory-seeking war campaign that put many of the other tribes to flight.
The colonial era
The first official European settlement in South Africa was established in 1652, when the Dutch East India Company, represented by Jan van Riebeeck, founded a refreshment station in the vicinity of present-day Cape Town. Initial relations with the indigenous occupants (the San and the Khoikhoi) were relatively good.
However, as the young colony expanded, tensions began to simmer. With the British invasion of the colony in the early 1800s, many of the colonial residents felt that they would rather live elsewhere, and began to move into the interior of the country, and also along the east coast, in a northward direction. This is why they encountered the southward-moving tribes in the area of the present-day Eastern Cape, and elsewhere in the interior. These encounters tended not to be peaceful, and there were several so-called “frontier” wars between the various factions. The ultimate outcome of these wars, particularly after British involvement commenced, was that the indigenous tribes were suppressed and defeated, with the exception of the Basotho mountain-based tribe, who to this day still have their own kingdom, namely Lesotho, which is entirely independent of South Africa, even though it is entirely surrounded by South Africa.
The group of people who decided to leave the Cape colony were known as the “trekboere” (migrating farmers). They established their own republics in the interior and north of the country, namely the Transvaal (present-day Gauteng and Mpumalanga), the Orange Free State (present-day Free State) and Natal (present-day KwaZulu-Natal). For some time, these republics functioned in a state of virtual bankruptcy and were not seen as important by the outside world. Their main concern was subsistence agriculture.
However, things changed dramatically with the discovery of gold in the Transvaal and diamonds in Kimberley. The discovery of these minerals led to a sudden British interest in the respective territories, and British invasion soon followed. The most important conflict of that time was the Anglo-Boer War, which lasted from 1899 to 1902. British occupation soon turned into British government, and the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, as a part of the British empire. The discovery of mineral wealth in South Africa was perhaps the most important economic event in the country’s history, since to this day the economy remains heavily based on mineral commodities.
South Africa’s status as a British protectorate came under threat in 1948, when an Afrikaner nationalist government came into power. The infamous apartheid system was implemented by this government, and in 1961 South Africa was declared a republic, which is why the country is known officially as the Republic of South Africa. Some people in South Africa regard apartheid as a continuation of colonial rule. However, this is a vexed issue, so it is important to be aware that you may evoke a negative response if you make indiscreet remarks on this topic.
Under the apartheid system, the country’s population was formally classified into “races”, and different laws applied to the different “races”. People were excluded from educational and employment opportunities on the basis of skin colour, and were also not allowed to reside in certain areas. The essential result of this system was the economic and political degradation of so-called “black” people, and the destruction of their family and cultural lifestyle. Needless to say, the system had many opponents, both locally and abroad, and there was much resistance to the system, mainly from the African National Congress (ANC) and its military wing Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation).
Rising tension in the 1970s and 1980s was followed by a period of transition in the early 1990s. Economically and socially, apartheid was not a viable policy, as it led to international sanctions and poor domestic relations, and an ailing domestic economy. Although there was limited violence, the end of apartheid did not see a civil war or large-scale fighting. The central moment in the process of transition came in 1990, when Nelson Mandela and the leadership of the ANC were released from prison, where they had been serving life sentences passed under the apartheid regime. Mandela’s release preceded an intense process of negotiations between the various political factions in South Africa, which eventually led to a new government. The first fully inclusive democratic election in the country’s history was held in 1994, and the ANC won a large majority.
The ANC has won a large majority in every election since then, and remains the dominant force in parliament. Since the advent of democracy in South Africa, it has always been the case that the leader of the ANC is also the nation’s president. Nelson Mandela was followed by Thabo Mbeki, who served two terms as president, and who was succeeded by Jacob Zuma, who is the current head of state.