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South African History

  • 2013-05-15

Early South African history

Modern humans have lived in what is today South Africa for over 100 000 years, and their ancestors for some 3,3 million years.

Some 2 000 years ago, the Khoekhoen (the Hottentots of early European terminology) were pastoralists who had settled mostly along the coast, while the San (the Bushmen) were hunter-gatherers spread across the region.

At this time, Bantu-speaking agro-pastoralists began arriving in southern Africa, spreading from the eastern lowlands to the Highveld. At several archaeological sites there is evidence of sophis­ticated political and material cultures.

European contact

The first European settlement in southern Africa was established by the Dutch East India Company in Table Bay (Cape Town) in 1652. Created to supply passing ships, the colony grew quickly as Dutch farmers settled to grow produce. Shortly after the establishment of the colony, slaves were imported from East Africa, Madagascar and the East Indies.


From the 1770s, colonists came into contact and inevitable conflict with Bantu-speaking chiefdoms some 800 km east of Cape Town. A century of intermittent warfare ensued during which the colonists gained ascendancy over the isiXhosa-speaking chiefdoms.

In the 1820s, the celebrated Zulu leader, Shaka, established sway over a vast area of south-east Africa. As splinter groups from Shaka’s Zulu nation conquered and absorbed communities in their path, the region experienced a fundamental disruption. Substantial states, such as Moshoe­shoe’s Lesotho and other Sotho-Tswana chiefdoms were established, partly for reasons of defence.

This temporary disruption of life on the Highveld served to facilitate the expansion northwards of the original Dutch settlers’ descendants, the Boer Voortrekkers from the 1830s.


In 1806, Britain reoccupied the Cape. As the colony prospered, the political rights of the various races were guaranteed, with slavery being abolished in 1838.

Throughout the 1800s, the boundaries of European influence spread eastwards. From the port of Durban, Natal settlers pushed northwards, further and further into the land of the Zulu.
From the mid-1800s, the Voortrekkers coalesced in two land-locked white-ruled republics, the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State.

The mineral revolution

The discovery of diamonds north of the Cape in the 1860s brought tens of thousands of people to the area around Kimberley. In 1871, Britain annexed the diamond fields. Independent African chiefdoms were subjugated and incorporated.


The discovery of the Witwatersrand goldfields in 1886 was a turning point in the history of South Africa. The demand for franchise rights for English-speaking immigrants working on the new goldfields was the pretext Britain used to go to war with the Transvaal and Orange Free State in 1899.

The Boers initially inflicted some heavy defeats on the British but eventually the might of imperial Britain proved too strong for the guerrilla bands and the war ended in 1902. Britain’s scorched-earth policy included farm burnings and the setting up of concentration camps for non-combatants in which some 26 000 Boer women and children died.

The incarceration of black (including coloured) people in racially segregated camps has only recently been acknowledged in historical accounts of the war.

Union and opposition

In 1910, the Union of South Africa was created out of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Free State. It was to be essentially a white union.

Black opposition was inevitable, and the African National Congress (ANC) was founded in 1912 to protest the exclusion of black people from power. In 1921, the Communist Party came into being at a time of heightened militancy.

More discriminatory legislation was enacted. Meanwhile, Afrikaner nationalism, fuelled by job losses arising from a worldwide recession, was on the march.

The rise of apartheid

In 1948, the pro-Afrikaner National Party (NP) came to power with the ideology of apartheid, an even more rigorous and authoritarian approach than the previous segregationist policies.

While white South Africa was cementing its power, black opposition politics were evolving. In 1943, a younger, more determined political grouping came to the fore with the launch of the ANC Youth League, a development which was to foster the leadership of figures such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu.


In 1961, the NP Government under Prime Minister HF Verwoerd declared South Africa a republic after winning a whites-only referendum.

A new concern with racial purity was apparent in legislation and residential segregation was enforced.

Separate development

At a time when much of Africa was on the verge of independence, the South African government was devising its policy of separate development, dividing the African population into artificial ethnic “nations”, each with its own “homeland” and the prospect of “independence”.

Forced removals from “white” areas affected some 3,5 million people, and vast rural slums were created in the homelands.

In 1949, the ANC adopted its Programme of Action, expressing the renewed militancy of the 1940s. The programme embodied a rejection of white domination and a call for action in the form of protests, strikes and demonstrations.


The Defiance Campaign of the early 1950s carried mass mobilisation to new heights under the banner of non-violent resistance to the pass laws.

In 1955, the Freedom Charter was drawn up at the Congress of the People in Soweto. The charter enunciated the principles of the struggle, binding the movement to a culture of human rights and non-racialism.

Soon the mass-based organisations, including the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), were banned.  Matters came to a head at Sharpeville in March 1960 when 69 PAC anti-pass demonstrators were killed. A state of emergency was imposed, and detention without trial was introduced.

Struggle days

Leaders of the black political organisations at this time either went into exile or were arrested. In this climate, the ANC and PAC abandoned their long-standing commitment to non-violent resistance and turned to armed struggle.

Top leaders still inside the country, including members of the ANC’s newly formed military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), were arrested in 1963. At the Rivonia Trial, eight ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, convicted of sabotage (instead of treason, the original charge), were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The resurgence of resistance politics in the early 1970s was dramatic. The year 1976 marked the beginning of a sustained anti-apartheid revolt. In June, school pupils in Soweto rose up against apartheid education, followed by youth uprisings all around the country. Strong, legal vehicles for the democratic forces tested the state, whose response until then had been invariably heavy-handed repression.


Shaken by the scale of protest and opposition, the government embarked on a series of limited reforms in the early 1980s. In 1983, the Constitution was reformed to allow the coloured and Indian minorities limited participation in separate and subordinate houses of parliament. In 1986, the pass laws were scrapped.

The international community strengthened its support for the anti-apartheid cause. Mass resistance increasingly challenged the apartheid state, which resorted to intensified repression accompanied by eventual recognition that apartheid could not be sustained.

Apartheid’s last days

In February 1990, President FW de Klerk announced the unbanning of the liberation movements and the release of political prisoners, notably Nelson Mandela.

Democracy at last

After a difficult negotiation process, South Africa held its first democratic election in April 1994 under an interim Constitution.

The ANC emerged with a 62% majority. South Africa was divided into nine new provinces in place of the four provinces and 10 homelands that existed previously. In terms of the interim Constitution, the NP and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) participated in a government of national unity under President Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

The ANC-led Government embarked on a programme to promote the reconstruction and development of the country and its institutions.

The second democratic election, in 1999, saw the ANC increasing its majority to a point just short of two-thirds of the total vote.
In the election in April 2004, the ANC won the national vote with 69,68%. 27 April 2004 saw the swearing in of President Thabo Mbeki and the celebration of 10 Years of Freedom attended by heads of state and government delegations from across the world.

In 2008, Kgalema Motlanthe became President following the recalling of President Mbeki.

South Africa held national and provincial elections on 22 April 2009. About 76% of registered voters took part in the election. The results for the top five parties were as follows: the ANC achieved 65,9%; the Democratic Alliance 16,6%, the newly-formed Congress of the People 7,4%; the IFP 4,5%; and the Independent Democrats 0,9% of the votes cast. Jacob Zuma was inaugurated as President of South Africa on 9 May 2009.

A significant milestone was the hosting of the 2010 FIFA Football World CupTM. The event will leave a lasting legacy, not just for South Africa but for Africa as a whole. The Government spent about R40 billion on infrastructure projects, and billions more on upgrading roads and airports. Improvements in public transport, security, investment and tourism have already been shown to benefit the people of our country. The hosting of the tournament also resulted in job creation.

South Africans demonstrated an explosion of national pride and embraced one another , making the tournament a powerful nation-building tool.

Source: Pocket Guide to South Africa 2010/11

For more information on South Africa’s history refer to the South Africa Yearbook 2010/11.