History of South Africa

A Very Brief History

The first modern humans are believed to have inhabited South Africa more than 100,000 years ago. South Africa’s prehistory has been divided into two phases based on broad patterns of technology namely the Stone Age and Iron Age. After the discovery of hominins at Taung and australopithecine fossils in limestone caves at Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, and Kromdraai these areas were collectively designated a World Heritage site. The first nations of South Africa are collectively referred to as the Khoisan, the Khoi Khoi and the San separately.

These groups were displaced or sometimes absorbed by migrating Africans (Bantus) during the Bantu expansion from Western and Central Africa. While some maintained separateness, others were grouped into a category known as “Coloureds.” This multiracial ethnic group includes people with shared ancestry from two or more: Khoisan, Bantu, English, Afrikaners, Austronesians, East Asians and South Asians.

The Dutch East India Company established a trading post
in Cape Town in 1652 under Jan van Riebeeck (above.)

European exploration of the African coast began in the 13th century when Portugal committed itself to discovering an alternative route to the silk road that would lead to China. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Portuguese explorers traveled down the west African Coast, detailing and mapping the coastline, and in 1488 they rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The Dutch East India Company established a trading post in Cape Town under the command of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652; European workers who settled at the Cape became known as the Free Burghers and gradually established farms in the Dutch Cape Colony.

European workers who settled at the Cape
became known as the Free Burghers 

Following the Invasion of the Cape Colony in 1795 and 1806, mass migrations collectively known as the Great Trek occurred, during which the Voortrekkers established several Boer settlements in the interior of South Africa. The discoveries of diamonds and gold in the nineteenth century profoundly affected the region’s fortunes, propelling it onto the world stage and introducing a shift away from an exclusively agrarian-based economy towards industrialization and the development of urban infrastructure. The discoveries also led to new conflicts culminating in open warfare between the Boer settlers and the British Empire, fought essentially for control over the nascent South African mining industry.

Following the defeat of the Boers in the Anglo–Boer or South African War (1899–1902), the Union of South Africa was created as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire in 1910 in terms of the South Africa Act 1909, which amalgamated the four previously separate British colonies: Cape Colony, Colony of Natal, Transvaal Colony, and Orange River Colony. The country became a fully sovereign nation-state within the British Empire in 1934. The monarchy ended in May 1961, replaced by a republic as the consequence of a 1960 referendum, which legitimized the country becoming the Republic of South Africa.

From 1948–1994, South African politics was dominated by Afrikaner nationalism. Racial segregation and white minority rule, known officially as apartheid, an Afrikaans word meaning “separateness,” was implemented in 1948. In 1994, after decades of passive resistance, armed struggle, terrorism, and international opposition to apartheid, the first black party African National Congress achieved victory in the country’s first democratic election. Since then, the African National Congress has governed South Africa in an alliance with the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918 – 2013) was a South African anti-apartheid activist and politician who served as the first president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the country’s first black head of state and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid by fostering racial reconciliation. Ideologically an African nationalist and socialist, he served as the  African National Congress (ANC) party president from 1991 to 1997.

That’s a very brief summary of the highly complex history of South Africa and its people. A history of wars and culture clashes, racism, racial segregation, and white minority rule. There’s no way for this brief history to begin to convey the anger and pain this country experienced. But, from my point of view, the country’s independence and the end of apartheid are how they should be.

I recommend James A. Michener’s novel The Covenant for a more interesting history of South Africa than I could ever hope to give.

Debora Ragland Buerk
The Write Stuff
Looking at life from a different POV.