Table of contents
1 Prehistory
2 Early Dutch Colonization
3 The Boer Wars
4 British Rule
5 Union of South Africa
6 Apartheid
7 Transition to Majority Rule
8 The Post-Apartheid Era


Extensive fossil records at the Sterkfontein, Kromdraai and Makapansgat caves indicate that various ape-men (australopithecines) evolved in South Africa from about 3 million years ago. Prominent South African human fossils include the Taung child, "Mrs Ples" and the newly discovered Little Foot skeleton. These ape-men were succeeded by various species of Homo, including Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens.

Iron-using peoples moved south of the Limpopo River, into modern-day South Africa, by the 4th or 5th Century at the latest, and were agriculturists and herdsmen. They slowly moved south, and the earliest ironworks in modern-day Kwazulu-Natal are believed to date from around 1050 A.D. The furthest south they reached was the Fish River, in todays Eastern Cape Province. These Iron-Age populations displaced earlier hunter-gatherer peoples as they moved south.

South Africa was inhabited by the Khoi, San, Xhosa, Zulu and various other native tribes, when the Dutch settlers arrived in 1652.

Early Dutch Colonization

The written history of South Africa starts on April 6, 1652, when a victualling station was established at the Cape of Good Hope by Jan van Riebeeck on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. For most of the 17th and 18th centuries, the slowly expanding settlement was a Dutch possession. The Cape Colony was settled by European Calvinists, primarily from the Netherlands, but also some from Germany, France, Scotland, and elsewhere. See also Afrikaner Calvinism for more about these settlers. The Dutch settlers largely exterminated the San, the original inhabitants of Southern Africa and imported slaves from Indonesia, Madagascar and India. The slaves became the Cape Coloureds, a small ethnic group in the Western Cape Province.

British Incursions

Great Britain seized the Cape of Good Hope area in 1797 during the Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch declared bankruptcy, and the British annexed the Cape Colony in 1805. A dispute arose over compensation after the British abolition of slavery in 1835, and many of the Afrikaner settlers, who were known as the Voortrekkers, travelled to the interior of the country to found their own republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. A Voortrekker incursion into the coastal area of Natal was repulsed by the Zulus under Dingane, brother, heir, and murderer of Shaka. The Zulu empire would later be conquered by the British.

The Boer Wars

The discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1886 spurred wealth and immigration and intensified the subjugation of the native inhabitants. The Boers successfully resisted British encroachments during the First Boer War in 1880-81. The Boers wore khaki clothing, which was the same color as the earth, whereas the British wore bright red uniforms, making them easy targets for Boer sharpshooters.

The British returned in greater numbers and without their bright red uniforms in the Second Boer War (1899-1902). British-Boer relations, already strained, were further stressed after the unsuccessful Jameson Raid, launched into the Transvaal by irregular forces aligned with rich diamond businessman Cecil Rhodes from neighboring Rhodesia. The Second Boer War was largely opposed by the Liberal Party in the British parliament as both uncalled for and expensive, but the huge gold and diamond veins present in the Boer republics drove the Tories to press the war onward. The Boer attempt to link up with German South West Africa provided the British with yet another reason to take control of the Boer Republics. The Boers resisted fiercely with guerrilla tactics, using their superior knowledge of the land to strike quickly and disappear, but the British eventually overwhelmed the Boer forces with far superior numbers and the availability of external supply chains.

The British rounded up civilian Afrikaners, along with their black workers, and placed them into separate concentration camps, where malnutrition and diseases were rampant. They burned the farmhouses and crops in an effort to deny food to the Boer guerrillas. As supplies became scarce, the guerrillas turned to raiding African towns for food, antagonizing the Africans and forcing the Boers to fight them as well as the British. Many Afrikaners, derisively called "joiners" or "hensoppers" (hands-uppers in Afrikaans) by the other Afrikaners (the "bittereinders", or bitter-enders), began to feel that the time had come to make peace with the British. After pressing onward with the resistance for another year, the bittereinders finally accepted that the Boer nation would be completely destroyed if they persisted, and signed a peace treaty with the British at Pretoria on May 31, 1902.

British Rule

This Treaty of Vereeniging specified full British sovereignty over the South African republics, and the British government agreed to assume the £3,000,000 war debt owed by the Afrikaner governments. Dutch was accorded special legal status. (Afrikaans was not yet recognized as a distinct language.) One of the main provisions of the treaty ending the war was that blacks would not be allowed to vote, except in the Cape Colony. The British administration briefly attempted "Anglicisation" of the Boer populace through mandatory education in English, but the plan backfired and only built Boer resentment, and the plan was abandoned when the Liberals came to power in Britain in 1906. It was around this time that the first formal recognition of Afrikaans as a language distinct from Dutch began, although it did not replace Dutch as an official language until 1926.

Union of South Africa

After four years of negotiations, the Union of South Africa was created from the republics of Cape Colony, Natal, Orange Free State, and Transvaal on May 31, 1910, exactly eight years after the end of the Second Boer War. The Union was a British Dominion, but only the white minority had political power. The United Party of Jan Smuts sought reconciliation between Afrikaners and English-speaking whites, and the Union entered the Second World War as an ally of the United Kingdom and the United States. The right-wing National Party, by contrast, sympathised with Nazi Germany, and sought greater racial segregation, or apartheid.


The National Party came to power in 1948, under D.F. Malan. Many policies of segregation were implemented under apartheid, and the disenfranchisement of the mixed race Coloureds, as well as the few black Africans in the Cape who had the vote. Mixed race marriages were banned, and special agricultural and trade schools were established as the only institutions that would accept black students. Stores would serve any white customers present before blacks. Blacks had to carry internal passports called pass books to travel into white areas, or risk arrest.

The African National Congress, a left wing political organization and the largest political organization including blacks, had socialist leanings, a convenient excuse for the Afrikaner government to ban it in the early Cold War hysteria. Both blacks and whites organised protests against apartheid, though protest or unrest was usually dealt with brutally by government security forces.

In 1960, the apartheid regime provoked international condemnation with the Sharpeville Massacre, in which 69 unarmed black protesters (including women and children) were shot dead, and more than 180 were injured. They were demonstrating against the 'pass laws', with many burning their passes (identity papers). On October 5 of that year, whites voted in a referendum, to sever South Africa's last links with the British monarchy and become a republic, a long cherished goal of Afrikaners.

On May 31, 1961, the Republic of South Africa came into being, with Queen Elizabeth II replaced by a State President of South Africa. It also withdrew from the Commonwealth in the face of hostility from its African and Asian members.

In the 1960s under Hendrik Verwoerd, 3.5 million blacks were forcibly evicted from their homes and resettled in designated native "homelandss" during an attempt to restructure apartheid as less overtly racist. A collection of black-ruled puppet states sprung up within South Africa, and blacks had the option of moving to the quasi-autonomous homeland created for the ethnic group to which they could trace their ancestry. The government justified this by claiming that black South Africans were citizens of these states rather than the Republic, closely tied to the migrant labour system.

Banned and with no legitimate outlet for political maneuvering, the ANC and a blacks-only splinter group called the Pan-Africanist Congress turned to violent actions. The ANC primarily limited their activities to strategic targets such as blowing up power stations (for which future president Nelson Mandela was jailed) and other infrastructure, while the Pan-Africanists engaged in more random and general acts of terror.

The Soweto Riots

In 1975, during a reorganization of the Bantu Education Department of the government, bureaucrats decided to start enforcing a long-forgotten law requiring that secondary education be conducted only in Afrikaans, rather than in English, or any native African languages. By 1976, several teachers were ignoring the directive and were fired, prompting other staff resignations. Tensions grew, and an Afrikaans language teacher was stabbed in May. Students refused to write papers in Afrikaans and were expelled. The students of one school after another went on strike, prompting the government to simply shut the schools down and expel the striking students.

A protest march was organized in the black Soweto district of Johannesburg on June 16, 1976. About 20,000 students arrived in groups, followed closely by the police. Despite appeals from organizers not to antagonize the police in any way, conflict began almost immediately, as police fired tear gas and then guns into the crowds. The heavily outnumbered police fled to regroup, and the enraged students set up barricades and began destroying property and employees of the government.

The Soweto riots were over within a few days as massive numbers of police were deployed to the area and many protesters were shot, but in the following weeks, violence spread across the country to other black townships.

During the riots, international news organizations broadcast footage of unarmed protesters being massacred by government security forces. One famous picture depicts a 13 year old, Hector Petersen, who was shot dead by police being carried away from the riots. However, white South Africans were oblivious, as there was little or no coverage in the media. The South African Broadcasting Corporation was tightly controlled by the apartheid regime. Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness movement, who was later tortured to death by the security forces, was declared a 'banned' person, who could not be quoted in the press.

Soon thereafter, most of the countries in the world -- with the notable exceptions of the United Kingdom and the United States -- imposed economic sanctions on South Africa as a response to apartheid in general and the government's handling of the Soweto riots in particular. The UK and the US did not impose sanctions due to South Africa's worldwide prominence as a supplier of diamonds, platinum, and gold.

Transition to Majority Rule

The 1990s brought an end to apartheid with the release of Nelson Mandela on February 11, 1990 by F.W. de Klerk. Then on November 18, 1993 21 political parties approved a new constitution for the nation. Majority rule was established with democratic elections held on April 27, 1994, first under Nelson Mandela and later under Thabo Mbeki. South Africa added 9 native African languages to Afrikaans and English as official languages, bringing the total to 11.

The Post-Apartheid Era

Shortly after the elections, the ANC government adopted a policy of reconstruction and development (RDP) aimed at rebuilding the economy. This policy was replaced by GEAR, a more conservative policy aimed at rebuilding the economy through growth and foreign investment. The change of focus has been controversial and the cause of much tension between the ANC and its alliance partners, the South African Communist Party and the trade union alliance, COSATU.

Despite these economic recovery efforts, South Africa's economy remains sluggish. In May 2003, inflation was at 11.2%, with the Rand falling to less than half of its value vs. the US dollar ten years ago. Foreign reserves remain low, though they have improved from coverage for 3 weeks worth of imports in 1994 to 18 weeks in 2003. The unemployment rate remains at nearly 30% of the able-bodied population [1]. Roughly 60% of the population lives below the poverty line, earning an income of 250 Rand (approximately $30 US as of February 2003) or less per month [1]. Economic disparity remains a problem; the poorest 50% of the overall population receive just 11% of South Africa's total annual income; whereas the richest 7% of the population receive over 40% of the country's income. [1]

With the decline of the iron-fisted Afrikaner government, crime in South Africa has skyrocketed. The leading cause of death for males aged 15 to 21 is homicide.

Unfortunately, some of the side effects of the post-apartheid changes in the economic situation in South Africa include the closures of many hospitals, artistic and scientific institutions. Those that remain exist on sharply curtailed budgets, and are otherwise maintained by public subscription.

There have been accusations of bribery of high governmental officials, the bribery scandal involving the minister of defence, Tony Yengeni, and Daimler-Chrysler Aerospace, being a recent example. Yengeni was convicted for failing to disclose an arms deal-related 47 percent discount (worth R167 387) on a Mercedes Benz 4x4 which he bought in 1998, and sentenced to four years in prison.

A number of small right wing terrorist organizations operate in South Africa. They are opposed to black majority rule, and seek a return to apartheid and the political dominance of Afrikaners. There were bombings in Soweto in 2002, for which several alleged members of one such group, the Boeremag, were arrested.

South Africa's current economic state seems to have stabilised within the last few years (1999-2003) , and it remains the single largest concentration of industrial power on the African continent. It also remains the only state in Africa with nuclear power of any form.

The AIDS Crisis

Like much of Africa, South Africa is in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. A 1999 survey indicated that 22.4% of women who attended public antenatal clinics were HIV-positive. Government response to the epidemic has been inconsistent, with president Thabo Mbeki and other prominent members of the ANC government denying any scientific basis for AIDS and actively fighting legal efforts to provide free antiretroviral medication to HIV-infected individuals. Mbeki has indicated that he believes that poverty, not HIV, is the cause of AIDS; that many people who supposedly die of the disease are actually being poisoned by their antiretroviral medication; and that such medication is created by scientists in the employ of pharmaceutical companies that wish to experiment on Africans. [1]. Without access to antiretovirals, and much of the population being in ignorance about the nature of the disease, the death rate has soared in recent years.

South Africa held a National AIDS Conference in Durban in August of 2003. Shortly before the conference, the ANC government announced that it was considering withdrawing legal approval for use of the anti-AIDS drug Nevirapine, widely accepted by the medical community as an effective means of greatly reducing mother-to-child HIV transmission rates. Anti-AIDS activists were outraged at this announcement, and following the massive public outcry, the government hastily announced that it will reverse its prior stance on antiretroviral medications and create a plan to provide them to infected individuals by September of 2003