South Africa’s history extends back to around 40,000 BC when the San people first settled Southern Africa. By AD 500, Bantu-speaking peoples had arrived from West Africa’s Niger Delta. Competing colonial European powers began settling here in small numbers from the 17th century, mostly in the Cape. Widespread colonial settlement of South Africa began in the 19th century.
From 1836, groups of Boers dissatisfied with British rule in the Cape Colony trekked off into the interior in search of freedom. In a decade of migration known as the Great Trek, increasing numbers of Voortrekkers (Fore-trekkers – pioneers) abandoned their farms and crossed the Senqu (Orange) River. Reports from early missions told of vast, uninhabited – or at least poorly defended – grazing lands.
Tensions between the Boers and the government had been building for some time, but the reason given by many trekkers for leaving was the 1833 act banning slavery.
The Great Trek coincided with the difaqane (forced migration) and the Boers mistakenly believed that what they found – deserted pasture lands, disorganised bands of refugees and tales of brutality – was the normal state of affairs. This gave rise to the Afrikaner myths that the Voortrekkers moved into unoccupied territory or arrived at much the same time as black Africans.
The Great Trek’s first halt was at Thaba ‘Nchu, near present-day Bloemfontein, where a republic was established. Following disagreements among their leadership, the various Voortrekker groups split, with most crossing the Drakensberg into Natal to try and establish a republic there. As this was Zulu territory, the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief paid a visit to King Dingaan, and was promptly massacred by the suspicious Zulu. This massacre triggered others, as well as a revenge attack by the Boers. The culmination came at the Battle of Blood River (1838) in Natal. While the Boers sustained some injuries, more than 3000 Zulu were killed, reportedly causing the Ncome River to run red.
After this victory (the result of vastly superior weapons), the Boers felt their expansion really did have that long-suspected stamp of divine approval. The 16 December victory was celebrated as the Day of the Vow until 1994, when it was renamed the Day of Reconciliation.
Several short-lived Boer republics sprang up but soon the only serious contenders were the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The republics’ financial position was always precarious and their economies depended entirely on cattle. Most trade was by barter. Just when it seemed that the republics, with their thinly spread population of fiercely independent Boers, were beginning to settle into stable states, diamonds were discovered near Kimberley in 1869. Britain stepped in quickly and annexed the area.
The Boers were disturbed by the foreigners, both black and white, who poured in following the discovery and were angry that their impoverished republics were missing out on the money the mines brought in.
Long-standing Boer resentment became a full-blown rebellion in the Transvaal and the first Anglo-Boer War, known by Afrikaners as the War of Independence, broke out. It was over almost as soon as it began, with a crushing Boer victory at the Battle of Majuba Hill in 1881, and the republic regained its independence as the ZAR (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek – South African Republic).
With the discovery of a huge reef of gold in the Witwatersrand (the area around Johannesburg) in 1886 and the ensuing explosive growth of Johannesburg (Jo’burg) itself, the ZAR was suddenly host to thousands of uitlanders (foreigners), black and white.
This only intensified the Boers’ grievances that had begun during the earlier diamond rush. In 1899 the British demanded that voting rights be given to the 60,000 foreign whites on the Witwatersrand. Paul Kruger (ZAR president 1883–1900) refused, and demanded that British troops be withdrawn from the republic’s borders, leading to the second Anglo-Boer War.
The conflict was more protracted than its predecessor, as the British were better prepared. By mid-1900, Pretoria, the last of the major Boer towns, had surrendered. Yet resistance by Boer bittereinders (bitter enders) continued for two more years with guerrilla-style battles, which in turn were met by scorched-earth tactics by the British. In May 1902, the Treaty of Vereeniging brought a superficial peace. Under its terms, the Boer republics acknowledged British sovereignty.
The British response after their victory was a mixture of appeasement and insensitive imperialism. It was essential for the Boers and British to work together. The nonwhites were scarcely considered, other than as potential labour, despite the fact that they constituted more than 75% of the combined population of the provinces.
Political awareness was growing, however. Mohandas (later Mahatma) Gandhi was working with the Indian populations of the Natal and Transvaal, and men like John Jabavu, Walter Rubusana and Abdullah Abdurahman laid the foundations for new nontribal, black political groups.
Afrikaners found themselves in the position of being poor farmers in a country where big mining ventures and foreign capital rendered them irrelevant. As a backlash, Afrikaans came to be seen as the volkstaal (people’s language) and a symbol of Afrikaner nationhood.
The former Boer republics were given representative government in 1906–07, and moves towards union began almost immediately.
The Union of South Africa was established in 1910. The British High Commission Territories of Basotholand (now Lesotho), Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Swaziland and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) continued to be ruled directly by Britain.
English and Dutch became the official languages – Afrikaans was not recognised as an official language until 1925.
The first government of the new Union was the South African National Party (later known as the South African Party, or SAP). A diverse coalition of Boer groups under General Louis Botha, with General Jan Smuts as his deputy, the party followed a generally pro-British, white-unity line.
General Barry Hertzog raised divisive issues, championing Afrikaner interests, advocating separate development for the two white groups and independence from Britain. He and his supporters formed the National Party (NP).
Soon after the union was established a barrage of repressive legislation was passed. It became illegal for black workers to strike; skilled jobs were reserved for whites; blacks were barred from military service; and pass laws, restricting black freedom of movement, were tightened.
In 1912, Pixley ka Isaka Seme formed a national democratic organisation to represent blacks. It was initially called the South African Native Congress, but from 1923 it was known as the African National Congress (ANC).
In 1913 the Natives Land Act set aside 8% of South Africa’s land for black occupancy. Blacks were not allowed to buy, rent or even become sharecroppers outside their designated areas. Thousands of squatters were evicted from farms and forced into increasingly overcrowded reserves, or into the cities.
In 1914 South Africa, as a part of the British Empire, was drawn into war with Germany and saddled with the responsibility of dealing with German South West Africa (now Namibia). After the war, South West Africa became part of South Africa under ‘mandate’ from the League of Nations.
In 1924 Hertzog and the NP came to power in a coalition government, and Afrikaner nationalism gained a greater hold. The dominant issue of the 1929 election was the swaart gevaar (black threat).
Hertzog joined briefly in a coalition with the more moderate Jan Smuts in the mid-1930s, after which Smuts took the reins. However, any hopes of turning the tide of Afrikaner nationalism were dashed by the rise of DF Malan and the Purified National Party, which quickly became the dominant force in Afrikaner political life. The Afrikaner Broederbond, a secret ultranationalistic Afrikaner brotherhood, became an extraordinarily influential force behind the NP.
Due to the booming WWII economy, black labour became increasingly important to the mining and manufacturing industries, and the black urban population nearly doubled. Enormous squatter camps grew up on the outskirts of Johannesburg and, to a lesser extent, the other major cities.
The NP, led by DF Malan in a coalition with the Afrikaner Party (AP), won the 1948 election on a platform of establishing apartheid (literally, the state of being apart). With the help of creative electoral boundaries the NP held power right up to the first democratic election in 1994.
Mixed marriages were prohibited and interracial sex was made illegal. Every individual was classified by race. The Group Areas Act enforcing the physical separation of residential areas was promulgated. The Separate Amenities Act created separate public facilities – separate beaches, separate buses, separate toilets, separate schools and separate park benches. The pass laws were further strengthened and blacks were compelled to carry identity documents at all times and were prohibited from remaining in towns, or even visiting them, without specific permission.
In 1949 the ANC for the first time advocated open resistance in the form of strikes, acts of public disobedience and protest marches. These continued intermittently throughout the 1950s, with occasional violent clashes.
In June 1955, at a congress held at Kliptown near Johannesburg, a number of organisations, including the Indian Congress and the ANC, adopted a Freedom Charter setting out a vision of a nonracial democratic state.
In 1960 the Pan African Congress (PAC), a breakaway group from the ANC, called for nationwide protests against the hated pass laws. When demonstrators surrounded a police station in Sharpeville police opened fire, killing at least 67 people and wounding 186. To onlookers in South Africa and the rest of the world, the struggle had now crossed a crucial line – there could no longer be any doubts about the nature of the white regime.
Soon after, the PAC and ANC were banned and the security forces were given the right to detain people indefinitely without trial. Prime Minister Verwoerd announced a referendum on whether the country should become a republic. A slim majority of white voters gave their approval to the change and in May 1961 the Republic of South Africa came into existence.
Nelson Mandela became the leader of the underground ANC and Oliver Tambo went abroad to establish the organisation in exile. As more black activists were arrested, the ANC and PAC began a campaign of sabotage through the armed wings of their organisations, respectively Umkonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation; usually known as MK) and Poqo (Pure). In 1963 Nelson Mandela, along with a number of other ANC and communist leaders, was arrested, charged with fomenting violent revolution and later sentenced to life imprisonment.
Verwoerd was assassinated in parliament in 1966 (there was apparently no political motive) and was succeeded by BJ Vorster, who was followed in 1978 by PW Botha. Both men continued to pursue the dream of separate black Homelands and a white South Africa.
The plan was to restrict blacks to Homelands that were, according to the propaganda, to become self-sufficient, self-governing states on the traditional lands of particular tribal groups. In reality, they had little infrastructure and no industry and were therefore incapable of producing sufficient food for the burgeoning black population. Under the plan, 14% of the country’s total land area was to be the home to some 80% of the population.
Intense and widespread suffering was the result as blacks could not even leave their Homeland without a pass and permission. The situation was further worsened by internal political strife. In an effort to garner more power for themselves, some homeland leaders became collaborators with the government, accepting ‘independence’ while crushing all resistance to their rule and to the South African government.
As international opinion turned decisively against the white regime, the government (and most of the white population) increasingly saw the country as a bastion besieged by communism, atheism and black anarchy. Considerable effort was put into circumventing international sanctions, and the government even developed nuclear weapons (since destroyed).
On 16 June 1976 the Soweto Students’ Representative Council protested against the use of Afrikaans (considered the language of the oppressor) in black schools. Police opened fire on a student march, sparking nationwide demonstrations, strikes, mass arrests and riots that, over the following 12 months, took more than 1000 lives.
Steve Biko, the charismatic leader of the Black Consciousness movement, which stressed the need for psychological liberation and black pride, was killed in 1977. The security police beat him until he lapsed into a coma – he went without medical treatment for three days and finally died in Pretoria. At the subsequent inquest, the magistrate found that no one was to blame.
South Africa was never the same again – a generation of young blacks committed themselves to a revolutionary struggle against apartheid and black communities were politicised.
President PW Botha, telling white South Africans to ‘adapt or die’, instituted numerous reforms, including repeal of the pass laws. But he stopped well short of full reform, and many blacks (as well as the international community) felt the changes were only cosmetic. International pressures increased as economic sanctions began to dig in harder, and the value of the rand collapsed. In 1985, the government declared a state of emergency that was to stay in force for the next five years. The media were strictly censored and, by 1988, 30,000 people had been detained without trial. Thousands were tortured.
In late 1989, FW de Klerk succeeded a physically ailing Botha. At his opening address to the parliament in February 1990 De Klerk announced that he would repeal discriminatory laws and legalise the ANC, PAC and Communist Party. Media restrictions were lifted, and political prisoners not guilty of common-law crimes were released. On 11 February, Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in jail. During 1990 and 1991 virtually all the old apartheid regulations were repealed.
In December 1991 the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) began negotiations on the formation of a multiracial transitional government and a new constitution extending political rights to all groups.
Months of wrangling produced a compromise and an election date, although at considerable human cost. Political violence exploded across the country during this time, particularly in the wake of the assassination of Chris Hani, the popular leader of the South African Communist Party.
Finally, at midnight on 26–27 April 1994, the old national anthem ‘Die Stem’ (The Call) was sung across the country and the old flag was lowered. Then the new rainbow flag was raised and the new anthem, ‘Nkosi Sikelele Afrika’ (God Bless Africa), was sung.
In the country’s first democratic elections, the ANC won 62.7% of the vote, less than the 66.7% which would have enabled it to rewrite the interim constitution. As well as deciding the national government, the election decided the provincial governments, and the ANC won in all but two of the provinces. The NP captured most of the white and coloured vote and became the official opposition party.
After the elections, focus turned to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (1994–99), which worked to expose crimes of the apartheid era under the dictum of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘Without forgiveness there is no future, but without confession there can be no forgiveness’. Many stories of horrific brutality and injustice were heard by the commission, offering some catharsis to people and communities shattered by their past.
The commission operated by allowing victims to tell their stories and perpetrators to confess their guilt, with amnesty on offer to those who made a clean breast of it. Those who chose not to appear before the commission would face criminal prosecution if their guilt could be proven. Yet, while some soldiers, police and ‘ordinary’ citizens confessed their crimes, many of the human-rights criminals who gave the orders and dictated the policies failed to present themselves (PW Botha is one famous no-show).
In 1999, South Africa held its second democratic elections. In 1997 Mandela had handed over ANC leadership to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, and there was speculation that the ANC vote might therefore drop. In fact, it increased to put the party within one seat of the two-thirds majority that would allow it to alter the constitution.
The NP, restyled as the New National Party (NNP), lost two-thirds of its seats, as well as official opposition status to the Democratic Party (DP) – traditionally a stronghold of liberal whites, with new support from conservatives disenchanted with the NP, and from some middle-class blacks. Coming in just behind the DP was the KwaZulu-Natal–based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), historically the voice of Zulu nationalism.
While Mbeki was viewed with far less affection by the ANC grassroots than the beloved ‘Madiba’ (Mandela), he proved himself a shrewd politician, maintaining his political pre-eminence by isolating or coopting opposition parties. He led the ANC to victory in the 2004 national elections, the black middle class significantly expanded under his tenure, and he promoted the country’s regional engagement as part of his vision of an ‘African renaissance’.
Yet it was not all clear sailing. In the early days of his presidency, Mbeki’s effective denial of the HIV/Aids crisis invited global criticism, and his conspicuous failure to condemn the forced reclamation of white-owned farms in neighbouring Zimbabwe unnerved both South African landowners and foreign investors.
Mbeki resigned as president after almost 10 years in 2008, and Kgalema Motlanthe stepped in as ‘caretaker president’ until the April 2009 elections. Mbeki had lost his party’s support after a power struggle with his former deputy Jacob Zuma, a fellow one-time ANC exile whose theme song is ‘Bring Me My Machine Gun’.
As the political dramas were playing out, long-simmering social discontent boiled over in rioting in May 2008 in a Johannesburg township. The violence – which reflected competition for scarce jobs and housing – was targeted primarily at immigrants from Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other neighbouring nations, and soon spread to other parts of the country, resulting in several dozen deaths and the displacement of thousands of immigrants. Army forces were deployed on the streets in affected areas of Gauteng and calm was restored, but many commentators argue that the riots’ causes have not been properly addressed and similar incidents could happen again.
A controversial figure, Jacob Zuma (also known as JZ) was assured of victory in the 2009 elections when charges against him, relating to a US$4.8 billion arms deal, were dropped just weeks before the polls opened. The reasons for dropping the charges involved the alleged compromising of the evidence by those opposed to him. Zuma initially had a strong following, with people seeing the Zulu polygamist as more of a common man’s champion than academic Mbeki. He promised in his first state-of-the-nation speech to create 500,000 new jobs by the end of 2009, although the Sowetan, newspaper responded with a mocking headline: ‘2380 jobs a day for the rest of the year!’ In July, rubber bullets flew as union strikes sparked violent expressions of general discontent with continuing deprivation in the townships.
Although the 2010 World Cup is set to lessen the blow of South Africa’s first recession in 17 years, the ANC still faces major challenges in areas such as crime, economic inequality, education and, especially, HIV/Aids. An estimated 5.7 million South Africans are affected – more than in any other country in the world.
In recent years, efforts by AIDS activists and NGOs have focused on urging the government to make anti-retroviral drugs available for treatment for all Aids sufferers, and on reducing the major social stigma associated with infection. While huge strides have been made – many provinces now provide widespread access to treatment – there is still a long way to go.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is without doubt one of the global leaders of the millennium. Once vilified by South Africa’s ruling whites and sentenced to life imprisonment, he emerged from 27 years of incarceration calling for reconciliation and forgiveness, and was able to rally together all South Africans at the most crucial of times.
Mandela, son of a Xhosa chief, was born on 18 July 1918 in the village of Mveso on the Mbashe River. When he was young the family moved to Qunu, south of Mthata in what is now Eastern Cape. He grew up living a typical rural life, while being groomed for a future position in the tribal leadership. After attending the University College of Fort Hare, Mandela headed to Jo’burg, where he soon became immersed in politics. He finished his law degree and, together with Oliver Tambo, opened South Africa’s first black law firm.
Meanwhile, in 1944, together with Tambo and Walter Sisulu, Mandela formed the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC), which worked to turn the ANC into a nationwide grassroots movement. During the 1950s, Mandela was at the forefront of the ANC’s civil disobedience campaigns. Various arrests and detention followed.
After the ANC was banned in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre, Mandela advocated establishing its underground military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. In 1964, he stood trial for sabotage and fomenting revolution in the widely publicised Rivonia Trial. After brilliantly arguing his own defence, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, and spent the next 18 years in the infamous Robben Island prison, before moving to jails on the mainland.
Throughout his incarceration, Mandela repeatedly refused to compromise his political beliefs in exchange for freedom, saying that only free men can negotiate. He rejected offers of release in exchange for recognising the independence of the Transkei (and thereby giving tacit approval of the legitimacy of the apartheid regime).
On 18 February 1990, Mandela was released and in 1991 he was elected president of the ANC. From this position, he continued the negotiations (which had started secretly while he was in prison) to demolish apartheid and bring an end to minority rule. In 1993, Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize with FW de Klerk and, in the country’s first democratic elections the following year, was elected president of South Africa. In his much-quoted speech, ‘Free at Last!’, made after winning the 1994 elections, he focused the nation’s attention on the future, declaring, ‘This is the time to heal the old wounds and build a new South Africa’.
Now in his early 90s, Mandela – or Madiba, his traditional Xhosa name – stepped down as ANC president in 1997, although he continues to be revered as an elder statesman.