display | more...

Here follows a brief history of South Africa. I have tried to present a balanced account, however I don’t think I can truly escape the slant with which it was taught to me. I have documented from before colonisation, through Dutch occupation, British rule, the Anglo-Boer war, the dark years of Apartheid to democracy.

I should clarify that when I say “African”, I do not mean “black”. People from all ethnic backgrounds fought in the struggle. People of all ethnic backgrounds suffered under Apartheid, though certainly some suffered more than others.

Before the whiteman

The San were the first people to live in southern Africa. Evidence shows that they have been there for nearly 100,000 years. They were primarily hunter-gatherers, latterly living in the harshest, most parched section of the mostly arid sub-continent. The Khoi were pasturalists who displaced the San in the south west about 2000 years ago. The Bantu people arrived in southern Africa by the 13th Century. The Nguni (Xhosa and Zulu) lived in small villages where they cultivated fields and raised cattle on communal grazing land. The Sotho-Tswana lived in larger communities. Drought was a constant threat, with the intense rain that often followed dry spells equally devastating to their crops.

When Bartholomew Diaz, Vasco da Gama and Jan van Riebeek set foot on African soils, the Khoi lived in the Cape, the San lived in the north west, the Nguni were on the south east coast, with the Tsonga further north. The Sotho-Tswana occupied the northwestern Highveld, with the Venda further north.

Cattle were first domesticated approximately 1,000 years ago. Henceforth they have been a symbol of wealth, as well as an important source of meat for special occasions like weddings. Tradition dictated that each member of the extended family would get a particular piece of the beast to eat, depending on their position in the family structure.

During difficult times, rival (Bantu) tribes - both within and across language groups - would steal stock or war over grazing land. The Zulu were a particularly successful nation of warriors whose attacking strategy under Shaka and Dingaan often outsmarted the English and Boers and their more sophisticated weapons.


With Arabia dangerous and difficult to traverse, the Europeans sought a safer sea borne route to the spices of the East. The Portuguese Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama were the first Europeans to travel to South African shores, but it was nearly two centuries later, in 1652, that Jan van Riebeek was commissioned by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to colonise the Cape.

The resident Khoi were no match for the Dutch numbers, organisation and firepower, however they did put up a brave fight. In 1657, a group of Khoi who lived in Oudekraal, on the west of the Peninsula. stole seven head of cattle from Hendrik Boom, the company gardener. Soldiers were sent to recover the cattle. They were unsuccessful, but managed to kill one of the Khoi in the scuffle and arrest four more, including Gherrie, the Khoi chief.

Van Riebeek refused to release the prisoners until all the cattle had been returned, and the run-away slaves returned to their masters. In order to prevent further incidents, Van Riebeek planted a Bitter Almond hedge from Table Bay to the slopes of Wynberg. All (unenslaved) Khoi were driven out of the area south of the hedge and the hedge - the border of the colony - was patrolled on horseback. Thus began the system of Apartheid (pronounced, ironically, Apart-hate.)

Though one of the world's most beautiful cities today, even into the 1800's Cape Town was described as an infernal boggy mire, inhabited by deadly snakes. Cape Town served all the needs of the VOC as a port for restocking with fresh water and vegetables and carrying out repairs. The Dutch did not venture far and did not try to conquer the encircling, towering mountain ranges. Cape Town, Simon's Town and Stellenbosch were the three main towns.

The first vines were planted by the Dutch in Wynberg, translated Wine-Mountain. The French Huguenot settlers brought their superior knowledge of wine making and settled in the fertile Franschoek valley, translated French-Corner. As the colony grew, eventually the Hottentotsholland Mountains to the east of the Cape Flats were conquered and the town of Swellendam, 200km hence, became important too.

Over to the British

The opening up of Arabia to land borne trade, combined with the declining value of the spice trade, meant that the financially ailing VOC could no longer maintain their interest in the Cape. The Dutch ceded the Cape to the British in the early 1800, with the British moving in with gusto. The British Governor took over the Cape and the 1820 Settlers tried their luck on the Natal coast.

The descendents of the mostly illiterate lower class Dutch colonialists were unimpressed by the change in government. They felt marginalised by the Rooinekke (red necks) who were dictating to them in a strange language and would not compromise. They refused to stick around and cast their lot to what lay beyond the mountains.

The unforgiving plains of the Karoo that they encountered became drier and drier the further they trekked, but they persevered. Eventually they reached a large perennial river, which they named after the Prince of Orange. Beyond the river, the land became more arable and so they continued, to another large river, christened the Vaal. The land to the south of the Vaal they named the Oranje Vrystaat (Orange Free State), the land to the north, the Transvaal (Across the Vaal).

As the Boere (farmers) continued to follow the improving farming land, they began to encounter the locals. At the same time, the British settlers to the east in Natal were eventually beginning to contain the Xhosa and Zulu after decades of bloody clashes. On February 6th, 1838, Voortrekker Piet Retief and 69 others were murdered while feasting with some Zulus having signed a treaty over some land. On December 16th of the same year, the Voortrekkers sought revenge. They lured a 12,500 strong impi of Dingaan's Zulus into a trap. When all was said and done, 3,000 Zulus lay slain around the Voortrekker Laager, the river was coloured red with blood and only three Voortrekkers were injured. Following the Battle of Blood River, it was downhill for the African people.

Wealth = Oppression

In January 1852, the Transvaal Republic, under Andries Pretorius, was proclaimed at the Sand River Convention. In 1855-6, the new republic drew up its own constitution, but there were civil disturbances in 1861-4, The British annexed the Transvaal Republic in 1877, leading to Afrikaner passive resistance, under Oom Paul Kruger and the first Anglo-Boer War (1881).

In the mid-1800’s, the British settlers in Natal began planting sugar cane. They shipped slaves over from India to work the plantations, with the first boatload arriving in 1860. In the late 1800's diamonds were discovered by the British (Cecil John Rhodes) at Kimberley. Soon after, in 1886, gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand and the British questioned the wisdom of granting the Afrikaners a form of independence.

The (second) Anglo-Boer War was fought between the organised British colonists with motherland support, and the disorganised, isolated Boers. Africans were roped into the conflict and fought on both sides. (Rather the devil you know…) Initially, the Brits stuck to their bog-standard European rules of warfare, while the Boers executed guerilla tactics and were more successful. The British eventually changed their code. The Scorched Earth Policy meant that they would descend upon a farm thought to be harboring Boer soldiers, take the women and children into their prisoner-of-war Concentration Camps and burn down the farms. The British got on top of the Boers by April 1902, leading to the treaty at Vereeniging in May of that year.

Victory in the Anglo-Boer War was not enough to hold onto the colony. The four states were joined in 1910 to form the Union of South Africa. Integration of the Dutch states with the British states meant that the country could focus on its mineral wealth. African men were recruited as laborers for the mines. The multi-language and illiteracy problems were overcome with the birth of Fanagalo, a mixture of all languages. Fanagalo is still used in the mines today.

Amid this integration of African men, a group of leaders began to stand out. Leaders who were free thinkers who could see the exploitation for what it was. They did not mind the empowerment that the people could achieve through sharing the mineral wealth, but were unsurprisingly unimpressed with the way government seemed willing to share it out. Political organisations began to emerge, with the African National Congress (ANC) forming officially on January 9th, 1912.

Leading up to the start of the Second World War, leaders of the opposition National Party were vocal in their support for Adolf Hitler. Still smarting from the Anglo-Boer War, the Afrikaners did not want to fight “England’s war”. However, under pressure from the British government (the country was still part of the Commonwealth), South Africa eventually joined the Allies, gaining the German territory of South West Africa (Namibia) as spoils. In the May 26th, 1948 elections, the National Party came to power under Dr Daniel F Malan. Hendrik Verwoerd took control of the party in 1958.

The Struggle

The notorious Mixed Marriages Act (1949), Group Areas Act (1950), Population Registrations Act (1950) and Separate Amenities Act (1953) enforced the government's distorted Calvinist belief that people should be kept separate. The Bantu Education Act sought to maintain an uneducated workforce. The Pass Laws (1952) were instituted to keep the Africans' movements under control. As a law unto itself, with continuing support at every election, the National Party continued to enforce its harsh laws upon the African people.

All political associations were banned. Consequently, the African people became more organised, which was greeted by increased cruelty and lawmaking by the government. The ANC and other political organisations agreed upon a combined effort to fight for equality. They published the Freedom Charter on June 26, 1955. In 1960, Chief Mvumbi (continuous rain) Albert John Lutuli, the president of the ANC, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He spent many years banned from leaving his home town, but the ban was lifted for 10 days to allow him to receive his award in Oslo.

The ANC was not the only active anti-Apartheid group, though they were the largest. The following is lifted from the ANC's website.

Yet in spite of the fact that the white local authority in Vereeniging was one of the first municipalities in South Africa to provide better housing for Africans, it was the events at Sharpeville on March 21, 1960, which shocked the world and which are still remembered with shame by civilised men everywhere. Early that morning a crowd of Africans estimated at between 5,000 and 7,000 marched through Sharpeville to the municipal offices at the entrance to the township. It appears that much earlier that day members of the Pan Africanist Congress had gone around Sharpeville waking up people and urging them to take part in this demonstration. Other members of the PAC prevented the bus drivers going on duty with the result that there were no buses to take the people to work in Vereeniging. Many of them set out on bicycles or on foot to their places of work, but some were met by Pan Africanists who threatened to burn their passes or "lay hands on them" if they did not turn back. However, many Africans joined the procession to the municipal offices quite willingly. Eventually this demonstration was dispersed by the police, using tear gas bombs and then a baton charge, some sixty police following them into the side streets. Stones were flung and one policeman was slightly injured. It was alleged that several shots were fired by Africans and that only then some policemen opened fire without an order from their officer to do so. Fortunately nobody was hurt.
The crowd did not disperse, however, and began to gather outside the police station. Tension began to mount and there is confusion over how the police came to open fire on the crowd. By the end of the day...
Sixty-nine people were killed, including eight women and ten children, and of the 180 people who were wounded, thirty-one were women and nineteen were children. According to the evidence of medical practitioners it is clear that the police continued firing after the people began to flee: for, while thirty shots had entered the wounded or killed from the front of their bodies no less than 155 bullets had entered the bodies of the injured and killed from their backs. All this happened in forty seconds, during which time 705 rounds were fired from revolvers and sten guns.
The Brits were becoming suitably embarrassed by the South African government and the country became a Republic on the May 31st, 1961. That same year, the country was expelled from the Commonwealth. In 1962, the first of the Bantustans was declared. Eventually, the government created the four TBVC States: Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and the Ciskei. Even my Apartheid-era Geography teacher had trouble keeping a straight face when teaching us that they were separate countries. We were also supposed to believe that Lebowa, Kangwane, Gazankulu, Qwaqwa, KwaZulu, and KwaNdebele were self-governing. The Bantustans covered 13% of the land area, but were supposed to house the majority of the population, nicely compartmentalised according to their mother tongue.

When the government began trying members of political parties for treason - with the threat of the death penalty if convicted - many prominent leaders were forced into exile. A select group of African youths who showed potential were smuggled overseas and educated with ANC money from sympathising foreign investors. Current President, Thabo Mbeki, son of Robben Island imprisoned Govan Mbeki, was one of these elect. In 1963 Nelson Mandela was amongst a large group of activists tried for “sabotage and trying to overthrow the government”. Many were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour, on June 12th, 1964 and sent to Robben Island.

During the 70's, the last remnants of slavery had been eradicated from the USA and the situation in Rhodesia had descended into brutal civil war. The international eye was focussed closely on South Africa and her mineral wealth. The National Party government still appeared to be on top of the African situation, however the ANC and other underground organisations had now resorted to sabotage. Trade Unions were emerging and strike action was becoming regular. On June 16th, 1976 a group schoolchildren and other young Africans rallied in protest of being forced to learn in Afrikaans. The police responded with tear gas and live ammunition, murdering scores of protesters. Sanctions were instituted on South Africa in an attempt to force the South African government to solve her problems more sustainably.

Into the 80's, the government began to lose its grip. In the early 80's, sanctions had not yet begun to hurt economically. However, the African people were proving a little more troublesome, so the army was sent into the townships to do a little hell-raising to nip organisation in the bud and quell uprisings. The city fringing shanty townships were already a fire hazard. During the 80's there were many devastating fires that destroyed the homes and took the lives of thousands of African people. It is hard to imagine that the unsanitary impoverished conditions could become worse, but they did.

Cracks on the face of Apartheid

Into the late 80's, the government finally began to realise that it could not go on. On June 12th, 1986, a national State of Emergency was imposed. This allowed the police to detain suspects indefinitely without trial. A few days later, on July 1st, the Pass Laws were repealed. Still, all the efforts of the government were insufficient. The threat of violence began to be felt by the white people, who despite heavy censorship and decades of indoctrination, were waking up to the fact that something was not quite right with the situation. A simple trip to the supermarket meant passing through at least two metal detectors and having your handbag searched at least once. Police patrolling with AK47 machine guns or R4 rifles were so common that they blended into the surroundings.

In 1989, the people of South Africa were kept in the dark of the negotiations taking place between PW Botha and Nelson Mandela, now moved from Robben Island to (isolation in) Pollsmoor and ultimately to Paarl, where he was given a small house rather than a 2m2 cell. When F.W. de Klerk released Madiba from prison on February 11th, 1990, I was not the only South African wondering what all the fuss was about. Who was this Nelson Mandela person? What were those organisations that had been unbanned a few days ago (Feb 2nd, 1990)? What did it all mean?

In 1991, the education system was revolutionised. The Model C school began its short life. Under the Model C system, parents had more power in decision making and children of all colours and creeds were permitted to attend. I was in my second last year of school. The Standard 6 (first high school year) year received a healthy spectrum of multi-racial students.

Only two non-white girls joined my year, one of whom had attended a multi-racial private junior school but her parents could not afford to send her to a private senior school. Perhaps this made her first day easier? I don't know, but she was very brave. I remember her first day clearly: she sat in the second row quietly reading her book before myself and my two friends introduced ourselves to her. She soon fit into a different circle of friends in our class. The other girl was an extrovert and towards the end of the year became a prefect.

In mid-1991, the Lands Acts (1913, 1936), Group Areas Act and Population Registration Acts were repealed. The US, the last to impose sanctions in 1986, was the first to lift them. On March 17th, 1992, the country held a referendum. White people were asked to vote yes or no to the question: "Do you support the continuation of the reform process, which the state president began on the second of February 1990, and which is aimed at a new constitution through negotiation?" The National Party was fairly shocked when 85% of the electorate voted, with 68.7% saying yes. Things moved far more swiftly after the referendum, with international mediation at the negotiations for the first democratic elections, to be held in 1994.

Democracy isn’t easy

The lead-up to the elections was far more violent than the 80's. The police and army were losing their might as the government began to wash the blood off its hands. Much of the violence was politically motivated, as the various opposition groups fought for a stake in the electorate. Attacks on the Heidelberg Tavern (a multiracial pub in a mostly student suburb of Cape Town that members of the PAC saw fit to attack with automatic machine guns) and the St James Church (a multiracial church that was attacked with hand grenades and automatic weapons during a service) are still unfathomable.

Following the elections (see South Africa), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to try to solve some of the mysteries of the Apartheid years. Witnesses were granted amnesty for their actions, provided that they told the whole truth and showed remorse. Some of the more brutal implementers of Apartheid were not granted amnesty, and others who committed violent acts after the amnesty cut-off date were also denied amnesty for those actions. The TRC was criticised, but nobody can deny that it has played a vital role in ensuring peace in the country following the elections.

The country hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The event was a celebration from the opening ceremony, when Cape Town experienced rush-hour traffic at lunch time as people raced home to their TVs or to Newlands itself. As the national team continued to advance through the competition, and Chester Williams scored his four tries in the quarter final, the nation sang Shosholoza and Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika with one voice, in support of the national team. The spirit in the country when Joel Stransky kicked the AmaBokkeBokke to victory was electric.

Hold onto your hats, folks, it’s a rollercoaster ride, and it sure is fun!

During the 80’s, the annual budget announcement always concluded with the revelation of a budget deficit, to be filled by international loans. (Isn’t it ironic that countries imposing economic sanctions had no conscience about lending money at high interest rates?) The democratic government inherited these crippling loans and has begun paying them off. The country is praised for its sound economic principles, but the emerging economy is still fragile. The currency fluctuates dramatically with every flutter on the global market.

Parallel to the economic problem is the AIDS epidemic. President Thabo Mbeki has been outspoken with his AIDS stance and it has been badly distorted by the media. Mbeki’s point is that the appropriate channels for documenting a new disease have been bypassed in the case of AIDS. He has tried to draw attention to the fact that small impoverished communities crippled by AIDS make dramatic returns to health when provided with clean water and sanitation. He is saying that AIDS cannot be fought only with medication. We need to continue to invest in basic services for the community: houses, sanitation, education, healthcare. I wonder why all this criticism is coming from the countries that manufacture the drugs they say Mbeki should be buying by the truckload?see footnote

I would like to close with the Statement Of The National Executive Committee Of The African National Congress On The Occasion Of Year 90 Of The ANC. The statement is dated January 8th, 2002, but was read at the January 6th celebration Rally.

”We have used the short years of our emancipation to reposition our country within our Continent and in the rest of the world. Today, South Africa stands out among the front ranks of those who strive for peace, for democracy, for social progress and an end to poverty, for friendship among the front ranks of those who strive for peace, for democracy, for social progress and an end to poverty, friendship among the peoples and mutually beneficial co-operation, for the building of a humane and people-centred society.”

The AIDS debate continues to rage, and will do while people suffer and die from this horrific disease, particularly where much could be done in mitigation and prevention.
My personal feeling is that Government policy and hands-on implementation should not be confused. Look at our Constitution - much of that is not presently achievable, yet it does not alter that we can conceive it and strive to achieve it.
However, I would be doing the people of my country a disservice if I did not draw your attention to some of the horrific AIDS related crimes that occur far too regularly in South Africa.
Today (January 14, 2002), you can see an article Government blocks AZT for raped babies on http://www.mg.co.za/mg/za/news.html. http://www.news24.com/ will document similar atrocities.


  1. http://www.anc.org.za
  2. http://africanhistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa060501a.htm
  3. http://www-tech.mit.edu/U12/N8/south-africa.08w.html
  4. http://www.facts.com/cd/o94317.htm
  5. http://www.safari.nl/Paulkruger.htm
  6. http://www.bowlerhat.com.au/sawvl/history.html
  7. http://www.encounter.co.za/html/blood.html
  8. http://www.unet.univie.ac.at/~a9504596/safrica/RSA.html
  9. http://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1960/lutuli-bio.html
  10. http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/history/A0856654.html
  11. http://www.virusmyth.net/aids/data/nhconspiracy.htm
  12. http://people.bu.edu/palegi/imidlalo.html
  13. http://www.facts.com/cd/c01001.htm
  14. http://www.innotts.co.uk/~shaka/sahis.htm
  15. http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/africa/namibia/history.htm
  16. Oudekraal, off Nine’s Entropy
  17. Indian Resistance in South Africa
  18. The roots of apartheid
  19. The Apartheid Government’s High School History Curriculum
  20. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which I read many years ago
I have made every effort to check my facts. Please /msg me if you think I’ve got some facts wrong. I would dearly like to make this as accurate as possible and Abu Dhabi is not the best place to research this!

Many thanks to Gritchka, DejaMorgana, StrawberryFrog and Professor Pi for their help =)

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.