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A brief history of South Africa

South Africa:
An overview

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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Recent archeological excavations in South Africa have revealed fossils of early man dating back 300,000 years and more. It would seem that the hunter-gatherer folk, who would eventually be known as the San or Bushmen, were their descendants.

By the time that the Portuguese eventually reached the shores of southern Africa during the late 15th century, they would find two groups of people in the area of the western Cape. The first were relatively short in stature and lived as hunter-gatherers; they would be called the Bushmen.

The second were taller and were pastoralists; they would be known as Hottentots. Modern anthropologists tend to refer to both groups under the generic name Khoisan.


During the mid-17th century, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) established a post at the foot of Table Mountain, which served to supply their sailors with fresh food and water on the long journey to and from the east. It also provided the men with much needed shore leave.

Although initially manned by VOC personnel, the company quickly realised that it would be better to farm out the work to private individuals. Thus, was born the Cape Colony.

Gradually the Colony would expand as White settlers moved further afield in search of more land, often displacing the indigenous population from both land and water-holes. Not being sufficiently strong to prevent this invasion, the Khoisan people gradually lost their independence and became labourers to the White pastoralists. Many were also absorbed into the White society through marriage and interbreeding.

At the same time, slaves were imported from such places as Madagascar and the Far East, and they too eventually became absorbed into the colonial population. The Dutch, Khoisan and slave people, together with French (Huguenot) and German immigrants, would eventually form the foundation of the South Africa's Coloured and Afrikaner population.

Migration of the Dutch colonists would initially progress naturally, following grazing and water supply. Once the trekboers (as they were known) were beyond the Hex River mountains, however, the Great Karoo would form a vast barrier to further expansion.

Pastoralists would therefore tend to follow the coastal route to the east, which would eventually bring them into the area known as the eastern Cape. Colonial boundaries would expand with them.

In the eastern Cape they would meet with the amaXhosa, a group of Nguni people who had migrated into the area many centuries earlier. (Indeed, there are indications that the amaXhosa were already settled in the eastern Cape as early as the 2nd century A.D.)

They were also a pastoral people but existed in greater numbers than the Khoisan. Their better martial skills also made them a more formidable opposition. Further expansion of the White frontiersmen therefore tended to swing in a northward direction, and across the Orange River.


In the meantime, the Cape Colony changed hands. In 1795 the British attacked and captured the Cape as part of its strategy against France and her allies during the Napoleonic wars. It was then restored for a brief period but captured again in 1806. The Congress of Vienna (1815) would eventually award the Cape to Britain as just reward for her role in a successful war against France.

The British set up government in Cape Town, but much attention had to be given to events on what was known as the eastern frontier, where friction between Dutch and Xhosa pastoralists occasionally flared up into outright war. There were several of these conflicts, during which the amaXhosa were able to use superior numbers to negate the dominant firepower of the Dutch and British forces.

Nevertheless, the British would attempt many tactics to resolve the incessant conflicts because each conflagration proved a drain on the Imperial Treasury. Each Governor had a plan of his own. Lord Charles Somerset experimented with the establishment of neutral zones and British immigration (the 1820 Settlers).

In 1834 Sir Benjamin D'Urban attempted the annexation of all the territory between the Keiskamma and Kei Rivers, which he called the Province of Queen Adelaide.

In 1847 Sir Harry Smith annexed the same territory and called it British Kaffraria. After 1854 Sir George Grey attempted to break the authority of the Chiefs in that region through acculturation and German immigration.

Ultimately, however, the amaXhosa can be said to have damaged their own power in 1857 through the destruction of their own cattle, which resulted in massive starvation and enabled Grey to fulfill his policies with little further resistance.

The expansion of the Cape Colony eventually led to the growth of two new ports in the eastern Cape. Port Elizabeth was founded in 1815, while East London was established in 1847 as a harbour for British Kaffraria.

Rivalry between the ports would then ensue, with Cape Town forever using her political leverage to maintain domination. When diamonds were eventually discovered in Griqualand West (1868), the construction of a railway from Cape Town to Kimberley would forever cement the mother-city's superiority.


In the meantime, British policy at the Cape antagonised groups of Dutch farmers to such an extent that many of them decided to emigrate beyond the borders of the Cape Colony so as to establish republics of their own (Voortrekkers).

An initial attempt to settle at Port Natal failed when Britain annexed the territory in 1843, to form the new Crown Colony of Natal. The Dutch thereupon established a succession of republics beyond the Orange and Vaal Rivers. Two of these, namely the South African Republic (commonly called the Transvaal Republic) and Orange Free State were recognised by Britain in 1852 and 1854 respectively.

While the republics relied purely on an agricultural economy, they were little danger to the dominance of the Cape Colony. When diamonds were discovered in an area of Griqualand West that lay within the Orange Free State, and gold was later found on the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal (1886), the danger of republican dominance on the subcontinent was clear.

During the final three decades of the 19th century, therefore, the British laboured consistently towards re-establishing hegemony in the region. First, the diamond fields were claimed. Then the Transvaal Republic was annexed, causing a war of independence which led Britain to restore suzerainty (1881).

The discovery of gold (1886) was the last straw. From that moment on, Britain consistently applied more and more pressure on the Transvaal, eventually precipitating the South African War (1899-1902).


During the second half of the 19th century, another issue was arising. The Cape's constitution was based upon the declaration of equality of all before the law, a principle arising out of the Romantic Age. Although this was never fully implemented, the exceptions could be described as neo-feudalism: that is, a division which was based on a master/servant relationship where the servant was almost always Black.

With the rise of the new towns in the eastern Cape, however, urban segregation became firmly established. All the towns had segregated locations, dating from as early as 1848. Following the East London example, passes began to be issued and without which Black people were forbidden access to the urban areas. By 1903, even Cape Town had moved in this direction.

After the South African War, what were now four British colonies decided to join forces to establish a united "native policy". The Lagden Commission (1903-5) set this in motion, even though Lagden's recommendations were not translated into action. When the Act of Union (1910) united the four colonies, however, this idea could be more speedily promoted.

The first action in this regard was the Native Land Act (1913) which demarcated South Africa into Black and White areas, with the latter gaining control of some 87 percent of the land. This was followed in 1923 with the Natives (Urban Areas) Act which enabled towns to become racially segregated, although some (like East London) were already segregated and were therefore hardly affected by the Act.


By 1934, with the uniting of the South African Party and the National Party (United Party), it was quite clear that White South Africa was forging a unity against the Black people. Already, in 1912, the South African Native National Congress (later to be known as the African National Congress) had been formed to fight for justice.

When the National Party won the 1948 elections, however, it quickly became apparent that legal segregation would become the national policy. From then on, resistence took on more violent overtones.

Under Dr Hendrik Verwoerd's direction, segregation was turned into social engineering. The term "apartheid" came into being, and South Africa was to be turned into Black and White domains, each evolving eventually into separate national states. In 1976, the Transkei became the first of the states to accept "independence", and soon several others had come into existence.

The growth of the apartheid structure naturally caused a reaction amongst opponents of the system. After the enactment of the Group Areas Act (1950), there was an escalation of confrontation between state and opposition, culminating in the Sharpville massacre of 1960.

The banning of the South African Communist Party, the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress meant the opposition was forced to go underground. Thus, was born the "armed struggle".


The concept of apartheid, however, was just too big and too expensive to operate. The breakdown soon began to be noticed within the cities, where influx control simply could not cope with the constant migration of people.

By 1984 the population of urban South Africa had already surpassed the critical 50 percent mark, and from then onwards apartheid could not be successfully policed without outrageous expenditure, or extreme barbarity.

The National Party attempted to modify the concept of apartheid by bringing Whites, Coloureds and Indians together into a Tricameral Parliament, but the writing was on the wall when the Black population was omitted.

Violent confrontation, together with labour unrest, escalated. By 1990, the expense of maintaining apartheid in the face of an increasingly hostile world proved impossible, and President FW de Klerk released the world's most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela. Thereafter, negotiations began towards a peaceful dismantling of the apartheid structure.

The General Elections of 1994 translated the agreements in action. A new multi-party government was installed, under the direction of President Mandela. The municipal elections of 1995 then took the action down to community level by unifying the various segregated urban authorities in single municipalities.


A history of a country that spans 300 years must leave out much if it intends to be concise. Not everything can be said. Many valid arguments have to be omitted. Today, South Africa stands on the threshold of what it hopes to be a dream, the beginning of an African Renaissance.

There are pointers to where it will all go. But then again, the future is a strange thing.

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