There is more than 100,000 years of history still being discovered in South Africa with archaeologists constantly uncovering new finds.
The early tribes, Bushmen and Hottentots, of whom we are aware, lived in the rich green southern areas of what is modern day South Africa. From hunter gatherers to pastoral peoples the country supported a stable community.
When the first Europeans arrived they brought disease which led to the demise of the peoples who were collectively known as the Khoekhoe. The first Europeans came originally to set up a staging post for ships travelling further east. Jan Van Riebeeck arrived in 1652 at the Cape of Good Hope on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. His job was to provide a fort and feeding centre for passing ships. But by the time he left in 1662 the first signs of a colony were being developed.
Rich land and lots of it was the big pull for those who settled into the new country, slowly pushing eastwards and northwards. These farmers or trekboers resorted to using slaves from the early 1700s onwards and mixed with the indigenous people to create the mixed-race now known as ‘coloured’ in South Africa.
By the second half of the 18th Century the settlers had little in common with their original homeland back in Europe and increasingly they became known as Afrikaners. But shocks would overcome the new nation that was emerging. As they settled further inland the Cape was taken over by the British in 1795 and, although it was taken back by the Dutch in 1802 it was finally returned to British hands in 1806.
The British had a somewhat different and more equitable attitude to their relationships with the Khoi people and soon came into conflict with the Afrikaners. Meanwhile the British were also expanding and came into conflict with the Xhosa people who lived in the Eastern Cape of modern South Africa (there are more than 5 million Xhosa living in South Africa today and their most famous sons are Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Thabo Mbeki). Between 1779 and 1879 the Xhosa fought to keep their lands in what were known as the Cape frontier wars or Xhosa wars but eventually they were defeated and incorporated into the British Empire.
By 1828 the British had proclaimed Ordinance 50 which gave equal rights to all free persons of colour. This was not to the Boers (as the Trekboers became known) liking and large numbers moved further into the interior to establish a new nation. The Great Trek, as it became known, led them to vast areas of unspoilt land and the establishment of a number of Boer Republics including the Orange Free State and Transvaal.
Another republic, Natalia (today it is known as KwaZulu-Natal), led the Boers under the leadership of Piet Retief to come into direct conflict with the Zulus. Retief and a group of followers were murdered and what followed was a violent war which came to a head on 16th December 1838 when an estimated 30,000 Zulus attacked a smaller group of Boers. By the end of the day the Zulus were defeated with 3,000 dead and the Ncome river running red with the blood spilt – the battle became known as the Battle of Blood River.
The Natalia republic didn’t last long, it was annexed by the British in 1843 and most Boers moved to the more northerly republics to start afresh. Meanwhile diamonds had been discovered near Kimberley by the Orange River. It was too much for the British to ignore and they quickly stepped in and annexed the region.
By the late 1800s the Cape Colony was pretty much established and in 1854 it was granted its own local legislature followed by a parliament in 1872. In 1890 Cecil John Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Rhodes not only pulled away from the multi-racial franchise but he also had expansionist ideas. The ill-fated Jameson Raid led to many Afrikaners backing the State President of the South African Republic (Transvaal) Paul Kruger in his anti-British stance and ultimately the Anglo-Boer Wars.
The First Boer War or Transvaal War was fought between December 1880 and March 1881; the British suffered large casualties and were eventually forced into a peace treaty with the Boers.
The Second Boer War which involved the Transvaal once more as well as the Orange Free State lasted much longer, from October 1899 until May 1902. It pitted some half a million British and Colonial forces against about 80,000 Boers. The war was infamous for the concentration camps established by the British which resulted in the deaths of around 28,000 civilians, the British use of a ‘scorched earth’ policy and of the term guerrilla tactics which had been applied by the Boers. This was also the war which a young Winston Churchill covered as a war correspondent and became a hero for his escape from Pretoria after being captured. The war ended in defeat for the Boers on 31st May 1902 with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging; the Transvaal and Orange Free State came under the sovereignty of the British Crown.
The black population of South Africa had hoped the victory by the British would lead to greater equality for them; they were badly disappointed when the Union of South Africa came into being on 31st May 1910 and blacks were barred from the bicameral parliament which consisted of a House of Assembly and a Senate. The Union was to remain in force until a new constitution was introduced on 31st May 1961 which created the Republic of South Africa.
Meanwhile, the Masters and Servants Act, Native poll Tax and 1913 Land Act all did their bit towards inculcating the idea of white power and control. The most famous party of the 20th Century in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) was founded around this time, on 8th January 1912, to fight injustice against black South Africans.
South Africa’s involvement on behalf of the British in the First World War split the Afrikaans people, although the ANC supported involvement. At the end of the war around one million black mine workers went on strike for better pay and in 1920 they achieved some success. Strikes were to become commonplace in the 1920s and the election of J.B.M. Hertzog as Prime Minister did little to help as he took a pro-Afrikaner and anti-British line as well as supporting greater job reservation for white workers.
At first there had been limited enfranchisement for black South Africans from 1910 in Cape Province and Natal, but by 1948 all voting rights had been removed with the abolition of the Black Voters roll. Some coloureds were still allowed to vote but by 1958 only whites were allowed to vote.
It was, however, the 1948 general election which saw the rise of the National Party (NP) and the era of apartheid (political and social separation of the races). The National Party was to remain the dominant force in South African politics until 1989. It won every election with large majorities; in 1953 it took 94 of the 156 seats in the House of Assembly, the only time it took less than 100 seats until the end of apartheid. Its zenith was in 1977 when it won 134 of 165 seats and 1981 when it took 143 of 178 seats.
Meanwhile the pettiness of apartheid grew with ever greater controls and laws such as the Group Areas Act of 1950 and the Separate Amenities Act of 1953. By 1952 the inevitable reaction came in the form of mass mobilization under the Defiance Campaign. In 1955 the ANC campaigned under the Freedom Charter leading to the arrest and charge of high treason of 156 of its leaders.
The defiance continued when, on 21st March 1960 a Pan-African Congress (PAC) demonstration at Sharpeville resulted in the deaths of 69 protesters after the police had fired into the crowds; it became known as the Sharpeville Massacre. A State of Emergency was declared and the ANC and PAC were declared illegal; it simply moved the resistance underground.
In 1961 a referendum was held which resulted in South Africa becoming a Republic and Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd took the country out of the Commonwealth. Up to now the resistance to apartheid had been non-violent, but as international pressure grew on the South African government to change, some in the freedom movement resorted to acts of sabotage. It was also at this time that economic sanctions against South Africa were applied under the United Nations mandate.
Nelson Mandela started his activism around this time and in 1964, along with Walter Sisulu and a number of other senior ANC figures he was arrested and charged with sabotage in what became known as the Rivonia Trial. All were sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island.
In September 1966 Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated by a mixed-race man and B.J. Vorster became the new Prime Minister. As a result segregation was more strictly applied. The bloodshed continued when, on 16th June 1976 up to 20,000 students protested in Soweto over the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools. The ensuing violence resulted in up to 700 people being killed.
Elsewhere in 1977 Steve Biko, the leader of a group called Black Consciousness, was detained, beaten and tortured by police and eventually died of his injuries.
P.W. Botha, who came to power in 1978, tried a different tack; in 1983 the government held a referendum which led to the establishment of a tricameral parliament. There remained the all influential whites only House of Assembly, along with this was the 80 seat House of Representatives for coloureds and the 40 seat House of Delegates for Asians, but nothing for the majority black population.
The violence increase and another state of emergency was invoked. Sanctions increased and strikes were a part of national life.
In 1989 a breakthrough came with the election of F.W. de Klerk as the new State President (the post of Prime Minister was abolished in 1983). In 1990 the government lifted restrictions on 33 opposition parties including the ANC and PAC. The government had been negotiating for some considerable time with Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders and on 2nd February 1990 Mandela was released after 27 years in prison.
From there the legislation which had built apartheid was repealed bit by bit and in 1993 an agreement was reached on a Government of National Unity. By the end of 1993 an interim constitution was agreed by 21 political parties and in April 1994 South Africa held its first democratic election.
Inevitably the African National Congress won the election, taking 62.65% of the vote and 252 of the 400 seats in the new National Assembly. The National Party came second with 82 seats but from thereon went into decline. In 1999 it had changed its name to the New National Party (NNP) and won 28 seats and then seven seats in 2004 before dissolving in 2005.
Meanwhile the Democratic Alliance (DA) (formerly Democratic Party – DP) has become the official opposition to the ANC which has won every election since 1994 with around 65% of the vote.
With the ending of apartheid the new President, Nelson Mandela, instigated a new constitution and set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the wrongdoings of apartheid. Mandela, unlike so many African leaders, stuck to his promise and only stood for one term as President. He brought a kinder and gentler face to South Africa along with reconciliation without malice.
In 1993 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.”
Nelson Mandela was followed by Thabo Mbeki who served two terms before being ousted by Jacob Zuma. Nelson Mandela died on 5th December 2013 aged 95.
In more recent times the ANC has been losing some of its lustre as a result of corruption and a failure to solve working conditions problems, especially in mining areas, as well as unemployment. Although it is assured enough of a vote to see it through the 2014 elections, there is widespread disappointment in President Jacob Zuma. It could be that a multi-party era is about to emerge after nearly a century of control of South Africa by just two parties.
The President is elected by the National Assembly for a five year term and is eligible to stand for a second term.
The bicameral parliament consists of the National Council of Provinces which has 90 seats with 10 members elected by each of the nine provincial legislatures for five-year terms. The National Assembly has 400 members elected to serve five-year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places South Africa at joint 64th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 45 (where 100 is least corrupt).