Visit South Africa and you'll see reminders of its past at every turn. The country’s human drama is reflected in the faces and body language of its citizens. It’s on display in centuries-old rock art and modern-day urban graffiti, in isolated battlefields and sober apartheid-era memorials. It permeates every corner with its pain and injustice but also with its hope. Be prepared to immerse yourself in one of the most anguished yet most inspiring stories to be found anywhere.
Life at the southern tip of Africa began inauspiciously enough. A scattered collection of striking rock art provides evidence that as early as 25,000 years ago, and possibly as early as 40,000 years ago, nomadic San hunter-gatherers were living in the area that is now South Africa. Small numbers of San still live in South Africa today, making theirs one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures.
Before this, the picture is murkier, but a wealth of fossil finds at Sterkfontein near Johannesburg show that the Gauteng area may have been almost as much of a population centre in prehistoric times as it is today, with human-like creatures (hominids) roaming across the highveld at least three million years ago. By about one million years ago, these creatures had come to closely resemble modern humans, and ranged well beyond Africa, including in Europe and Asia. Somewhere around 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens (modern humans) came onto the scene. Although it’s still a topic of debate, fossils found near the mouth of the Klasies River in the Eastern Cape indicate that our Homo sapiens ancestors may have been travelling around South Africa as early as 90,000 years ago.
Around 2500 years ago the shaping of modern-day South Africa took a dramatic turn, with descendants of the early San hunter-gatherer groups acquiring livestock and becoming pastoralists. This introduced concepts of personal wealth and property ownership. The pastoralist San – who became known as Khoekhoen (‘men of men’) – began to build more established communities and develop chieftaincies. They also began to move from their traditional inland areas south towards the coast, while smaller groups of more traditionalist hunter-gatherer San continued to inhabit the interior.
Around AD 500, a new group of peoples – Bantu speakers originally from the Niger Delta in West Africa – began settling in what is now South Africa. Their arrival marked the end of a long migration that had begun about 1000 BC, culminating when the first groups reached present-day KwaZulu-Natal.
The contrasts between the Bantu speakers and the early San hunter-gatherers couldn’t have been greater. The Bantu speakers lived in settled villages where they tended their livestock. They were also skilled iron workers and farmers, growing maize and other crops.
While it’s certain that Bantu speakers mixed with the Khoe-San, the type of contact isn’t known. Rock paintings show the groups interacting, several Bantu languages (notably Xhosa and Zulu) have incorporated Khoe-San clicks, and Khoe-San artefacts have been found at early Bantu settlements.
Before long, the Bantu speakers, from whom most modern-day South Africans are descended, had entrenched themselves. Some groups – the ancestors of today’s Nguni peoples (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele) – settled near the coast. Others, now known as the Sotho-Tswana peoples (Tswana, Pedi, Basotho), settled in the highveld, while the Venda, Lemba and Shangaan-Tsonga peoples made their home in what is now northeastern South Africa.
The hills and savannahs in South Africa’s northeastern corner are dotted with ruins and artefacts left by a series of highly organised and stratified Iron Age kingdoms that flourished between about AD 1200 and the mid-17th century.
The first major one, Mapungubwe, was in present-day Limpopo province at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers, where Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa meet. Although its residents – ancestors of today’s Shona people – were farmers, it was trade in gold and other goods that was the source of the kingdom’s power. Pottery pieces, beads, seashells and other artefacts have been found at the site, showing that Mapungubwe was one of the major inland trading hubs in the Southern Africa region from about 1220 until 1300. Its trading network extended eastwards to the coast, and from there to places as far afield as Egypt, India and China. Mapungubwe is also notable in that the kingdom’s inhabitants believed in a mystical relationship between their ruler and the land, similar to that which is part of Shona and Venda traditions today. In the 14th century, Mapungubwe declined. The reason is uncertain, with theories ranging from climate change to shifting trade routes.
Mapungubwe’s decline coincided with the rise nearby of a similarly structured but larger early Shona kingdom at Great Zimbabwe, over the border in present-day Zimbabwe, suggesting that the focus of trade shifted northwards.
With the abandonment of Great Zimbabwe in the mid-15th century, several of the early Shona groups made their way back to the area just south of the Limpopo River that is now part of northern Kruger National Park. There they established numerous settlements in the Pafuri region. These included the walled kingdom of Thulamela, the last of the great Iron Age kingdoms, which flourished between the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries. Like Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe, Thulamela – which means ‘place of giving birth’ in the local Venda language – owed its prominence to far-flung trading networks for gold and other goods. Shells, glass beads and Chinese porcelain fragments found at the site show that Thulamela was linked by these trade networks with the coast and beyond.
Thulamela is also significant because several of its artefacts, most notably an iron gong of the type also found in Ghana, show that its trading links stretched as far as West Africa.
Apart from Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Dias naming the Cabo da Boa Esperança (Cape of Good Hope) in 1487, the Portuguese showed little interest in South Africa – the Mozambican coast, further northeast, was more to their taste.
By the late 16th century, the Portuguese were being significantly challenged along their trade routes by the English and the Dutch.
In 1647 a Dutch vessel was wrecked in what is now Cape Town’s Table Bay. The marooned crew built a fort and stayed for a year until they were rescued, becoming the first Europeans to attempt settlement in the area. Shortly thereafter, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie; VOC), one of the major European trading houses sailing the spice route to the East, decided to establish a permanent settlement. A small VOC expedition, under the command of Jan van Riebeeck, was launched, reaching Table Bay in April 1652.
No sooner were they off their boats than the Dutch found themselves in the midst of the, by then, well-established Khoekhoen peoples. Yet while the new settlers traded with the Khoekhoen out of necessity, there were deliberate attempts on the part of the Dutch to restrict contact. To alleviate a labour shortage, the VOC released a small group of Dutch employees to establish their own farms, from which they would supply the VOC settlement. The arrangement proved highly successful.
While the majority of these free burghers (as these farmers were called) were of Dutch descent and members of the Calvinist Reformed Church of the Netherlands, there were also numerous Germans. In 1688 they were joined by French Huguenots, also Calvinists, who were fleeing religious persecution under Louis XIV.
Europeans Leave Their Mark
The VOC also began to import large numbers of enslaved people, primarily from Madagascar and Indonesia. With this additional labour, not only was South Africa’s population mix broadened but the areas occupied by the VOC were expanded further north and east, where clashes with the Khoekhoen were inevitable. The beleaguered Khoekhoen were driven from their traditional lands, decimated by introduced diseases and destroyed by superior weapons when they fought back – which they did in a number of major wars and with guerrilla resistance that continued into the 19th century. Most survivors were left with no option but to work for the Europeans in an arrangement that hardly differed from enslavement. Over time, the Khoe-San, their colonial European overseers and the imported enslaved people mixed, with the offspring of these unions forming the basis for modern South Africa’s mixed population.
As the burghers continued to expand into the rugged hinterlands of the north and east, many began to take up a semi-nomadic pastoralist lifestyle, in some ways not so far removed from that of the Khoekhoen whom they were displacing. In addition to their herds, a family might have had a wagon, a tent, a Bible and a couple of guns. As they became more settled, a mud-walled cottage would be built – frequently located, by choice, days of hard travel away from the nearest European. These were the first of the Trekboers (Wandering Farmers; later shortened to Boers) – completely independent of official control, extraordinarily self-sufficient and isolated. Their harsh lifestyle produced courageous individualists, but also a people with a narrow view of the world, whose only source of written knowledge was often the Bible.
Arrival of the British
As the 18th century drew to a close, Dutch power began to fade, and the British moved in to fill the vacuum. They seized the Cape to prevent it from falling into rival French hands, then briefly relinquished it to the Dutch, before finally garnering recognition of their sovereignty of the area in 1814.
Awaiting the British at the Cape was a colony with 25,000 enslaved people, 20,000 white colonists, 15,000 Khoe-San and 1000 freed black enslaved people. Power was restricted to a white elite in Cape Town, and differentiation on the basis of race was already deeply entrenched. Outside Cape Town and the immediate hinterland, the country was populated by isolated black and white pastoralists.
One of the first tasks for the British was trying to resolve a troublesome border dispute between the Boers and the Xhosa on the colony’s eastern frontier. In 1820 about 5000 middle-class British colonists – mostly traders and business people – were persuaded to leave England and settle on tracts of land between the feuding groups with the idea, at least officially, of providing a buffer zone (they were known as the 1820 Settlers). The plan was singularly unsuccessful. By 1823 almost half of the colonists had retreated to the towns – notably Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth – to pursue the jobs they had held in Britain.
While doing nothing to resolve the border dispute, this influx of settlers solidified the British presence in the area, igniting another flame under the now-simmering cauldron. Where the Boers and their ideas had once been largely unchallenged, there were now two language groups and two cultures. A pattern soon emerged whereby English speakers were highly urbanised and dominated politics, trade, finance, mining and manufacturing, while the largely uneducated Boers were relegated to their farms.
The gap between the British colonists and the Boers further widened with the abolition of slavery in 1833, a move that was generally regarded by Boers as being against the God-given ordering of the races. Meanwhile, British numbers rapidly increased in Cape Town, in the area east of the Cape Colony (present-day Eastern Cape), in Natal (present-day KwaZulu-Natal) and, after the discovery of gold and diamonds, in parts of the Transvaal (mainly around present-day Gauteng).
The first half of the 19th century was a time of immense upheaval and suffering among the African peoples of the region. This period is known as the difaqane (forced migration) in Sotho and as mfeqane (the crushing) in Zulu.
While the roots of the difaqane are disputed, certain events stand out. One of the most significant was the rise of the powerful Zulu kingdom. In the early 19th century, Nguni tribes in what is now KwaZulu-Natal began to shift from loosely organised collections of kingdoms into a centralised, militaristic state under Shaka, son of the chief of the small Zulu clan. After building large armies, Shaka sent them out on a massive program of conquest and terror. Those who stood in his way were enslaved or decimated.
Tribes in the path of Shaka’s armies fled, in turn becoming aggressors against their neighbours. This wave of disruption and terror spread throughout Southern Africa and beyond, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
In 1828 Shaka met his untimely end when he was killed by his half-brothers Dingaan and Umhlanga. The weaker and less-skilled Dingaan became king and attempted to establish relations with British traders on the Natal coast, but events were unfolding that were to see the demise of Zulu independence.
Great Trek & Battle of Blood River
The Boers were growing increasingly dissatisfied with British rule in the Cape Colony. The British proclamation of equality of the races was a particularly sharp thorn in their side. Beginning in 1836, several groups of Boers, together with large numbers of Khoekhoen and black servants, decided to trek off into the interior in search of greater independence. North and east of the Orange (Gariep) River (which formed the Cape Colony’s frontier), these Boers, or Voortrekkers (Pioneers), found vast tracts of apparently uninhabited grazing lands. They had entered, so it seemed, their promised land, with space enough for their cattle to graze and for their culture of anti-urban independence to flourish. Little did they know that what they found – deserted pasture lands, disorganised bands of refugees and tales of brutality – were not everyday life in the hinterland, but the result of the difaqane (forced migration).
With the exception of the relatively powerful Ndebele, the Voortrekkers encountered little resistance among the scattered peoples of the plains. Dispersed by the difaqane and lacking horses and firearms, the locals’ weakened condition also solidified the Boers’ colonial belief that European occupation heralded the coming of civilisation to a savage land.
However, the mountains (where King Moshoeshoe I was forging the Basotho nation, later to become Lesotho) and the wooded valleys of Zululand were a more difficult proposition. Resistance here was strong, and the Boer incursions set off a series of skirmishes, squabbles and flimsy treaties that were to punctuate the next 50 years of increasing white domination.
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 to establish a republic there. As this was Zulu territory, 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 on 16 December 1838 at the Ncome River in Natal. Several Boers were injured and several thousand Zulus were killed, reportedly causing the Ncome’s waters to run red.
After this victory (the result of superior weapons) in what came to be known as the Battle of Blood River, the Boers felt that their expansion really did have that long-suspected stamp of divine approval. Yet their hopes for establishing a Natal republic were short-lived. The British annexed the area in 1843 and founded their new Natal colony at present-day Durban. Most of the Boers headed north, with yet another grievance against the British.
The British set about establishing large sugar plantations in Natal, and looked to India to resolve their labour shortage. From 1860 into the early 20th century, more than 150,000 indentured Indians arrived, as well as numerous free ‘passenger Indians’.
Diamonds & Anglo-Boer Wars
The Boers meanwhile pressed on with their search for land and freedom, ultimately establishing themselves in the Transvaal (encompassing parts of present-day Gauteng, Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga provinces) and the Orange Free State. Then the Boers’ world was turned on its head in 1869 with the discovery of diamonds near Kimberley. The diamonds were found on land belonging to the Griqua – but to which both the Transvaal and Orange Free State laid claim. Among the best-known Khoekhoen groups, the Griqua had originally lived on the west coast between St Helena Bay and the Cederberg range. In the late 18th century, they managed to acquire guns and horses and began trekking northeastward. En route, they were joined by other groups of Khoe-San, coloured people and even white adventurers, and rapidly gained a reputation as a formidable military force.
Britain quickly stepped in and resolved the issue of who had rights to the diamonds by annexing the area for itself. The establishment of the Kimberley diamond mines prompted a flood of European and black labourers to the area. Towns sprang up in which the ‘proper’ separation of whites and blacks was ignored, and the Boers were angry that their impoverished republics were missing out on the economic benefits of the mines.
Long-standing Boer resentment became a full-blown rebellion in the Transvaal, and in 1880 the First Anglo-Boer War broke out. (Afrikaners, as the descendants of the early Boers became known, called it the War of Independence.) The war was over almost as soon as it began, with the Boers' crushing defeat of the British at the Battle of Majuba Hill in February 1881. The Transvaal Republic regained its independence as the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR; South African Republic). Paul Kruger, one of the leaders of the uprising, became president in 1883.
Despite setbacks, the British forged ahead with their desire to federate the Southern African colonies and republics. In 1879 Zululand came under British control. Then in 1886 gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand (the area around Johannesburg). This accelerated the federation process and dealt the Boers yet another blow. Johannesburg’s population exploded to about 100,000 by the mid-1890s, and the ZAR suddenly found itself hosting thousands of uitlanders (foreigners), both black and white, with the Boers squeezed to the sidelines. The influx of black labour was particularly disturbing for the Boers, many of whom were going through hard times and resented the black wage earners.
The situation peaked in 1899, when the British demanded voting rights for the 60,000 foreign whites on the Witwatersrand. (Until this point, Kruger’s government had excluded all foreigners from the franchise.) Kruger refused, calling for British troops to be withdrawn from the ZAR’s borders. When the British resisted, Kruger declared war. The Second Anglo-Boer War was more protracted and the British were better prepared than at Majuba Hill. 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 with 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.
A Fragile Peace
During the immediate postwar years, the British focused their attention on rebuilding the country, in particular the mining industry. By 1907 the mines of the Witwatersrand were producing almost one-third of the world’s gold. But the peace brought by the treaty was fragile, and challenged on all sides. The Afrikaners found themselves in the position of being poor farmers in a country where big mining ventures and foreign capital rendered them irrelevant. They were particularly incensed by Britain’s unsuccessful attempts to Anglicise them, and to impose English as the official language in schools and the workplace. Partly as a backlash to this, Afrikaans came to be seen as the volkstaal (people’s language) and a symbol of Afrikaner nationhood, and several nationalistic organisations sprang up.
All the building blocks for the modern South African pariah state of the mid-20th century were now in place. Black and coloured people were completely marginalised. Harsh taxes were imposed, wages were reduced and the British caretaker administrator encouraged the immigration of thousands of Chinese to undercut any resistance. Resentment was given full vent in the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906, in which 4000 Zulus lost their lives after protesting onerous tax legislation.
The British, meanwhile, moved ahead with their plans for union. After several years of negotiation, the 1910 Act of Union was signed, bringing the republics of Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal and Orange Free State together as the Union of South Africa. Under the provisions of the act, the Union was still a British territory, with home rule for Afrikaners. 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 were made the official languages. Despite a major campaign by blacks and coloureds, only whites could be elected to parliament.
The first government of the new Union was headed by General Louis Botha, with General Jan Smuts as his deputy. Their South African National Party (later known as the South African Party or SAP) followed a generally pro-British, white-unity line. More radical Boers split away under the leadership of General Barry Hertzog, forming the National Party (NP) in 1914. The NP championed Afrikaner interests, advocating separate development for the two white groups and independence from Britain.
Racism Entrenched & Birth of the ANC
There was no place in the new Union for black people, even though they constituted more than 75% of the population. Under the Act of Union, they were denied voting rights in the Transvaal and Orange Free State areas, and in the Cape Colony they were granted the vote only if they met a property-ownership qualification. Following British wartime propaganda promising freedom from ‘Boer slavery’, the failure to grant the franchise was regarded by blacks as a blatant betrayal. It wasn’t long before a barrage of oppressive legislation was passed, making it illegal for black workers to strike, reserving skilled jobs for whites, barring blacks from military service and instituting pass laws. Continued under apartheid, the pass laws restricted black people's movement, forcing them to carry a pass book – the forerunner of today's ID book – and only allowing them to enter certain areas for work.
In 1913 the Natives Land Act was enacted, setting aside 8% of South Africa’s land for black occupancy. Whites, who made up 20% of the population, were given more than 90% of the land. Black Africans were not allowed to buy, rent or even be sharecroppers outside their designated area. Thousands of squatters were evicted from farms and forced into increasingly overcrowded and impoverished reserves or into the cities. Those who remained were reduced to the status of landless labourers.
Against this turbulent background, black and coloured opposition began to coalesce, and leading figures such as John Jabavu, Walter Rubusana and Abdullah Abdurahman laid the foundations for new nontribal black political groups. Most significantly, a Columbia University–educated attorney, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, called together representatives of the various African tribes to form a unified national organisation to represent the interests of blacks and ensure they had an effective voice in the new Union. Thus was born the South African Native National Congress, known from 1923 onwards as the African National Congress (ANC).
Almost parallel to this, Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi had been working with the Indian populations of Natal and the Transvaal to fight against the ever-increasing encroachments on their rights.
Rise of Afrikaner Nationalism
In 1924 the NP, under Hertzog, came to power in a coalition government, and Afrikaner nationalism gained a greater hold. Dutch was replaced by Afrikaans (previously only regarded as a low-class dialect of Dutch) as an official language of the Union, and the so-called swart gevaar (black threat) was made the dominant issue of the 1929 election. 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 when Daniel François (DF) Malan led a radical breakaway movement, the Purified National Party, to the central position in Afrikaner political life. The Afrikaner Broederbond, a secret brotherhood that had been formed in 1918 to protect Afrikaner culture, soon became an extraordinarily influential force behind both the NP and other organisations designed to promote the volk (people, ie the Afrikaners).
Due to the booming wartime 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. Conditions in the townships were appalling, but poverty was not only suffered by blacks: wartime surveys found that 40% of white schoolchildren were malnourished.
Walls of Apartheid Go Up
In the months leading up to the 1948 elections, the NP campaigned on its policy of segregation, or ‘apartheid’ (an Afrikaans term for the state of being apart). The Nats, as the NP became known, defeated Smuts' United Party, in coalition with the Afrikaner Party (AP) and under the leadership of DF Malan.
Thus it was that apartheid, long a reality of life, became institutionalised under Malan. Within short order, legislation was passed prohibiting mixed marriages, making interracial sex illegal, classifying every individual by race and establishing a classification board to rule in questionable cases. The noxious Group Areas Act of 1950 set aside desirable city properties for whites and banished nonwhites into the townships. The Separate Amenities Act created, among other things, separate beaches, buses, hospitals, schools and even park benches.
The existing pass laws were further strengthened: black and coloured people were compelled to carry identity documents at all times, and prohibited from remaining in towns, or even visiting them, without specific permission.
In 1960 tensions came to a head: on 21 March, Robert Sobukwe, who had founded ANC splinter group the Pan African Congress (PAC), protested with thousands of followers against the hated pass laws at police stations in Gauteng and the Western Cape. Police opened fire on the demonstrators surrounding a police station in Sharpeville, a township near Vereeniging, Gauteng. In what became known as the Sharpeville massacre, at least 67 people were killed and 186 wounded; most were shot in the back.
Soon thereafter, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, credited with the unofficial title of ‘architect of apartheid’, announced a referendum on whether the country should become a republic. The change was passed by a slim majority of voters. Verwoerd withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth, and in May 1961 the Republic of South Africa came into existence.
ANC Begins the Long Walk
The further entrenchment of apartheid pushed the hitherto relatively conservative ANC into action. In 1949 it had developed an agenda that for the first time advocated open resistance in the form of strikes, acts of public disobedience and protest marches. Resistance continued throughout the 1950s and resulted in occasional violent clashes. In 1959 a group of disenchanted ANC members, seeking to sever all links with white politicians and activists, broke away to form the more militant PAC.
To many domestic and international onlookers, the struggle had crossed a crucial line at Sharpeville, and there could no longer be any lingering doubts about the nature of the white regime. In the wake of the shooting, a massive stay away from work was organised, and demonstrations continued. Prime Minister Verwoerd declared a state of emergency, giving security forces the right to detain people without trial. More than 18,000 demonstrators were arrested, including much of the ANC and PAC leadership, and both organisations were banned.
In response, the ANC and PAC began a campaign of sabotage through the armed wings of their organisations, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, MK) and Poqo (‘Pure’ or ‘Alone’), respectively. In July 1963, 17 members of the ANC underground movement were arrested and tried for treason at the widely publicised Rivonia Trial. Among them was Nelson Mandela, an ANC leader and founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe, who had already been arrested on other charges. In June 1964 Mandela and seven others were sentenced to life imprisonment. Oliver Tambo, another member of the ANC leadership, managed to escape South Africa and lead the ANC in exile. On 20 April 1964, during the Rivonia Trial, Nelson Mandela said, 'I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.'
Decades of Darkness
With the ANC banned, and Mandela and most of its leadership in jail or exile, South Africa moved into some of its darkest times. Apartheid legislation was enforced with increasing gusto, and the walls between the races were built ever higher. Most odious was the creation of separate ‘homelands’ for blacks. Ten homelands were created within South Africa's borders – black-only 'countries' that were meant to be autonomous from South Africa, though no one outside the country recognised them. Residents were stripped of their South African ciitizenship and left in a puppet state with no infrastructure and plenty of corruption.
During the 1970s, resistance again gained momentum, first channelled through trade unions and strikes, and then spearheaded by the South African Students’ Organisation under the leadership of the charismatic Steve Biko. Biko, a medical student, was the main force behind the growth of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement, which stressed the need for psychological liberation, black pride and nonviolent opposition to apartheid.
Things culminated in 1976, when the Soweto Students’ Representative Council organised protests against the use of Afrikaans (regarded as the language of the oppressor) in black schools. On 16 June, police opened fire on a student march led by Tsietsi Mashinini – a central figure in the book A Burning Hunger: One Family’s Struggle Against Apartheid and now immortalised by a large monument in Soweto. This began a round of nationwide demonstrations, strikes, mass arrests, riots and violence that, over the next 12 months, took more than 1000 lives.
In September 1977, Steve Biko was killed by security police. South Africa would never be the same. A generation of young blacks committed themselves to a revolutionary struggle against apartheid (‘Liberation before Education’ was the catch cry) and black communities were politicised.
South Africa Under Siege
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).
Negotiating majority rule with the ANC was not considered an option (publicly, at least), which left the government reverting to the use of sheer military might. A siege mentality developed among most whites, and although many realised that a civil war against the black majority could not be won, they preferred this to ‘giving in’ to political reform. To them, brutal police and military actions seemed entirely justifiable.
From 1978 to 1988 the South African Defence Force (SADF; now the South African National Defence Force, or SANDF) made a number of major attacks inside Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Lesotho. All white males were liable for national service, and thousands of them fled into exile to avoid conscription. Many more were scarred mentally and physically by the vicious struggles that ensued.
Paradoxically, the international sanctions that cut whites off from the rest of the world enabled black leaders to develop sophisticated political skills, as those in exile forged ties with regional and world leaders.
Winds of Change
In the early 1980s, a fresh wind began to blow across South Africa. Whites constituted only 16% of the total population, in comparison with 20% 50 years earlier, and the percentage was continuing to fall. Recognising the inevitability of change, President PW Botha told white South Africans to ‘adapt or die’. Numerous reforms were instituted, including the repeal of the pass laws. But Botha stopped well short of full reform, and many blacks (as well as the international community) felt the changes were only cosmetic. Protests and resistance continued at full force as South Africa became increasingly polarised and fragmented, and unrest was widespread. A white backlash gave rise to a number of neo-Nazi paramilitary groups, notably the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), led by Eugène Terre’Blanche. The opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) was also formed at this time. With a broad coalition of members, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Reverend Allan Boesak, it called for the government to abolish apartheid and eliminate the homelands.
International pressure also 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, which was to stay in effect for five years. The media was censored and by 1988, according to ANC estimates (and backed up by those of human-rights groups), 30,000 people had been detained without trial and thousands had been tortured.
Mandela Is Freed
In 1986 President Botha announced to parliament that South Africa had ‘outgrown’ apartheid. The government started making a series of minor reforms in the direction of racial equality, while maintaining an iron grip on the media and on all anti-apartheid demonstrations.
In late 1989, a physically ailing Botha was succeeded by FW de Klerk. At his opening address to parliament in February 1990, De Klerk announced that he would repeal discriminatory laws and legalise the ANC, the PAC and the Communist Party. Media restrictions were lifted, and De Klerk released political prisoners not guilty of common-law crimes. On 11 February 1990, 27 years after he had first been incarcerated, Nelson Mandela walked out of the grounds of Paarl's Victor Verster Prison a free man.
From 1990 to 1991 the legal apparatus of apartheid was abolished. A referendum – the last whites-only vote held in South Africa – overwhelmingly gave the government authority to negotiate a new constitution with the ANC and other groups.
The Rough Road to Democracy
Despite the fact that the state of emergency had been lifted and the military presence removed, the period between apartheid and democracy was in fact one of the most violent times in South African history. There were groups on both sides who resented their leaders entering into talks with the opposition and made every effort to end the peace talks – usually by violent means. Between 1990 and 1994 there were more than 12,000 political killings.
Although Mandela and De Klerk initially enjoyed mutual respect, Mandela soon became suspicious of De Klerk’s loyalty to democracy following a record number of deaths, many seemingly carried out by the police. He believed these murders and disappearances had ultimately been ordered by the government – and that meant by De Klerk. Mandela referred to the authority ordering the deaths as the Third Force. There were also many everyday South Africans opposed to the talks who likewise perpetuated violent attacks. Chaos reigned in the townships, where rival factions fought – when the police stepped in, the violence escalated further. Many ANC members had trained for guerrilla warfare and clung hopelessly to the idea that they could overthrow the government using violence and without having to accommodate white demands. In July 1991 Nelson Mandela was officially elected president of the ANC, despite an increasing distrust for a man in secret negotiations with the oppressive government.
Throughout the negotiation process huge problems were caused by the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), both in its own province and in townships around the country where Zulus lived and clashed with other groups. Throughout apartheid KwaZulu had enjoyed special status, with leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi sitting on a fence somewhere between African rights and white capitalism. As violence reached a new high, ANC followers demanded that the armed struggle recommence and with the country verging on anarchy, all talks collapsed. The world looked on in despair.
Slowly the government gave in to each of Mandela’s demands and in doing so gradually lost control of the negotiations process. Suddenly Mandela had the upper hand. His former comrade in MK, Joe Slovo, drafted a constitution that appeased the National Party. Slovo included what he called ‘sunset clauses’, which allowed current public servants to continue their term, working alongside ANC members in a power-sharing plan that would ensure a smooth government changeover.
Elections & South Africa's Constitution
In 1993 an interim constitution was finalised, guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion, access to adequate housing and numerous other benefits, and explicitly prohibiting discrimination on almost any grounds. Finally, at midnight on 26/27 April 1994, the old national anthem ‘Die Stem’ (The Call) was sung and the old flag was lowered, followed by the raising of the new rainbow flag and the singing of the new anthem ‘Nkosi Sikelel i Afrika’ (God Bless Africa). The election went off fairly peacefully, amid a palpable feeling of goodwill throughout the country. Due to their efforts in bringing reconciliation to South Africa, Mandela and De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
The ANC won 62.7% of the vote, less than the 66.7% that would have enabled it to rewrite the constitution. As well as deciding the national government, the election decided the provincial governments, and the ANC won in all but two provinces. The NP captured most of the white and coloured vote and became the official opposition party.
In 1996, after much negotiation and debate, South Africa’s parliament approved a revised version of the 1993 constitution that established the structure of the country’s new, democratic government. The national government consists of a 400-member National Assembly, a 90-member National Council of Provinces and a head of state (the president), who is elected by the National Assembly.
A South African president has more in common with a Westminster-style prime minister than a US president, although as head of state the South African president has some executive powers denied to most prime ministers. The constitution is most notable for its expansive Bill of Rights.
In 1999 South Africa held its second democratic elections. Two years previously Mandela had handed over ANC leadership to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, and the ANC’s share of the vote increased to put the party within one seat of the two-thirds majority that would allow it to alter the constitution.
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 and coloureds, won official opposition status.
By any account, Mbeki had huge shoes to fill as president – how close he came is the subject of sharply divided debate – and his years in office can only be characterised as a roller-coaster ride. 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 and to speak out publicly against his long-time comrade, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, unnerved both South African landowners and foreign investors.
Truth & Reconciliation
Following the first elections, focus turned to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1995–98), which worked to expose crimes of the apartheid era. The dictum of its chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was: ‘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 who gave the orders and dictated the policies failed to present themselves (PW Botha was one famous no-show).
The Zuma Era
In 2005 Mbeki dismissed his deputy president, Zulu anti-apartheid struggle veteran Jacob Zuma, in the wake of corruption charges against him, setting off a ruthless internal ANC power struggle, which Zuma won. In September 2008, in an unprecedented move by the party, Mbeki was asked to step down as president.
The charges against Zuma were dropped and, as widely expected, the ANC won the 2009 election, with Zuma declared president. He initially managed to balance out considerable domestic and international criticism with his approachable personality and strong grassroots popularity. However, he was increasingly accused of demonstrating weak leadership and failing to fulfil promises to create jobs and alleviate poverty. The opposition also brought new charges of corruption against him.
In the 2014 elections, the country's media excitedly talked up the chances of the Democratic Alliance (DA), the official opposition that is an amalgamation of the old Democratic Party and numerous smaller parties. Disenchantment with crime and revelations of corruption, along with slow progress on providing critical services to poor communities, fed a growing desire for change. In the end, though, the ANC won comfortably, with 62.1% of the vote (down from 65.9% in 2009). The Democratic Alliance won 22.2%, highlighting the mammoth task it faces in wresting government from the ANC.
Perhaps the most surprising result was from the Economic Freedom Fighters, a new political party headed by the controversial firebrand Julius Malema. The former ANC Youth League leader had been expelled from the ANC for corruption and bringing the party into disrepute. The EFF garnered 6.4% of votes, finishing in third place. Once one of Zuma's greatest supporters, Malema railed against his former mentor and the corrupt practices that he accused the ANC of perpetrating. Though the Limpopo-born Malema enjoyed grassroots popularity for his Afro-socialist talk of economic equality and fighting poverty, his radical views against 'white monopoly power' and on the need for land redistribution and nationalising the mines worried many.
The ability of opposition parties to pressure the government to tackle the country’s problems continues to be an important test of South Africa’s political maturity. Corruption, crime, economic inequality, quality education and HIV/AIDS all loom as major challenges.
Given the country's turbulent recent history, ongoing crime problems and issues of corruption – the last two are always talking points among the populace – it's not surprising that there is a range of views among South Africans about the future of the ‘rainbow nation’. Most of them would agree, however, that the country today is more optimistic and relaxed than it was in 1990, despite the massive problems it still confronts.
In late 2017, as Cape Town's water crisis worsened and the city experienced harsh restrictions on water usage – hoping to stave off Day Zero, when its taps would run dry – there was some good news in the shape of Cyril Ramaphosa. Mandela's old comrade replaced Zuma as leader of the ANC, and as many hoped the increasingly scandal-mired Zulu resigned as president in February 2018. Zuma's second presidential term had been dominated by allegations of the questionable influence exerted on government by three powerful Indian brothers, the Guptas. While the ANC retained its huge following of older and rural black voters, it lost the municipalities of Tshwane (Pretoria), Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) to DA-led coalitions in the 2016 municipal elections, suggesting the ruling party had much work to do before the 2019 general elections.