South African History:
The Short Version

South African history is a story of deep cultural exchange and transition. The country itself, spread out over a million sq km on the southern part of the African continent, was home initially to its earliest indigenous peoples, the Khoisan, who were pastoralists and hunter-gatherers who lived toward the southwestern coasts. These peoples are largely famous today for their rock art and other visual artistic expression they left on cave walls and other dwellings.

South African History, Part I:  The Earliest Peoples and European and Asian Arrivals

About 1500 years ago, Bantu-speaking peoples, originating in central and western Africa, started to move south. They were primarily farmers and pastoralists who faced increasing ecological pressure from the southward expanding Sahara to find places for their cattle and other livestock. By the late sixteenth century, four major ethno-linguistic subgroups of Bantu speakers settled most of the present-day region: the Nguni (including the amaZulu, amaXhosa, amaSwati and amaNdebele) who settled on the eastern regions; the Sotho-Tswana (including BaSotho, BaPedi and BaTswana) who settled on the high inland plains; the Tsonga-Shangaan peoples, residing further north, and the VhaVenda who also live toward the north.

The rich tapestry of South African history and culture is demonstrated by the fact that it retains eleven official languages. While the markers of language remain, the cultural boundaries over the past few centuries have been in constant flux because of immigration from Europe and Asia, and the political ramifications of the interactions of peoples.

The European entry into South African history dated from the fifteenth century, when Portuguese mariner Bartholomeu Dias found Cape of Good Hope. The first European settlement began in 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck, working under orders of the Dutch East Indies Company (known by its Dutch acronym, the VOC), established a refreshing station for Dutch ships that passed by on the way to Asia.

The idea was to trade with the Khoisan for foodstuffs while harvesting timber and other supplies for VOC shipping. This initial plan of a small station became permanent when company employees fulfilled their contracts and found fertile land for agricultural pursuits and other enterprises. Soon, the settlement attracted greater numbers of people, including Huguenots from France and Germany seeking to escape persecution in Europe.

The relationship with the Khoisan, initially cordial, grew strained with the settlement’s expansion and appetite for land along counter accusations of cattle raiding. The expansion of agricultural economy also increased the need for labour that brought about critical developments that would shape the nature of relationships between Europeans and their African hosts, a turning point in South African history. First, European settlers increasingly disregarded the Khoisan as equal trading partners, and then tried to press them into the agricultural economy as labourers.

When the Khoisan resisted this arrangement, the settlement imported vast numbers of peoples from Dutch colonial holdings in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) and the eastern African slave market as slaves to work the plantations. These peoples, many of whom were Muslims, became a vast underclass in the growing Cape economy, and the settlement continued to expand into Khoisan territories. The inevitable series of conflicts, along with the spread of imported smallpox, ravaged Khoisan populations.

The eighteenth century saw the growth of tensions between the Europeans of the Cape Colony and the powerful Xhosa peoples in the east. While the VOC had little inclination to expand the size of the colony, many of the poorer members were becoming impatient with the leadership. They attempted to operate autonomously from the leadership by moving further eastward away from VOC influence, and also to organize farming communities in a search for arable land.

These peoples began to develop a sense of identity that was formed by a common European and religious history (particularly that of escaping religious persecution), along with a sense that Africa was home. Unlike elite leadership in the colony, they were now second and sometimes third generation residents of the settlement, and had no intentions of returning to Europe.  Their story was now South African history.

They called themselves Boers, and the Dutch they spoke (later to be called Afrikaans) was becoming a distinct dialect from the language spoken in the Netherlands. At the same time Xhosa farmers were expanding from the east, also in search of land for their cattle herds. Although they had been trading partners for years, the common need of land and water prompted an ongoing series of conflicts between the two groups that dominated the last years of the 18th century.

South African History, Part II: The British and the resulting struggle for space

Adding to these tensions was the arrival of the British at the end of the 18th century. Britain acquired control of the colony as a result of the Napoleonic conflicts in Europe. Despite apprehensions of the Dutch-speaking colonists, the British presence at first brought some advantages, as their military presence tipped the scales of conflict with the Xhosa in border conflicts. Annexation of Xhosa lands meant more space for white settlement.

However, British possession also meant a significant change in the social condition of the colony. Under Dutch rule, white males enjoyed full rights, at the expense of those from African, Asian or mixed descent. While the new colonizers had indifferent regard for social conditions when they first arrived, Britain’s influential anti-slavery movement (fuelled largely by missionaries in their African contexts) spurred changed in colonial policy that saw the abolition of slavery in its colonies in 1834 and the suppression of the slave trade wherever its navy could reach.

The emancipation of Cape slaves and the protections given to Khoisan labourers was a grave affront to the Dutch Boers. Increasingly frustrated with British rule, numbers of these Boer families, along with black servants and slaves, left the Cape Colony over a period of years and moved eastward toward the high plain, intent on establishing their own society apart from British rule. Known as the Great Trek, these emigrations, iconic in Afrikaner memory and South African history, became the basis for founding the autonomous Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Afrikaans acronym ZAR) in 19th century.

What the Afrikaners did not know was that the relative ease of their undertaking was possible because it coincided with a major disruption in the social fabric of the region. While they thought their arrival coincided with a n Afrikaner providential-based South African history, it was really the years of famine in the east with the resultant land presssures, along with the rise and rapid expansion of the Zulu nation that had reduced the population in the region so that Afrikaners believed they were entering unoccupied territory.

The Zulus were a relatively small clan of Nguni peoples in the preceding centuries. However, under the leadership of Shaka, they became a formidable warrior state. Implementing radical strategies of warfare, the Zulus pushed west and south, conquering and assimilating their neighbours to the point that they became the local power in the eastern part of the region. As their fearsome reputation spread, multiple indigenous African groups fled from the central high plains region to avoid the Zulu advance.

While writers of South African history often emphasize the political reasons for the displacement, equal consideration must be given to the massive drought that wiped out corn crops in the region.  The irony of this is that the corn had become the regional staple after being introduced by the Portuguese in the Mozambique area.  Though it has high yield, it requires much water, and was highly vulnerable to the ongoing drought conditions of the period.  Simply to survive, various peoples has to move further south, complicating land pressures and spurring the regional conflicts.  

The causes of this period of regional and social displacement, known as the mfecane (the Zulu word for “shattering”) was a pivotal event in South African history, and continues to be a subject of debate among South African historians.  The political and social ramifications of the matter, though, were straightforward. It enabled the Afrikaner groups advancing from the west to occupy the area with relatively little resistance. Not all of these efforts ended as easily, however. One group of Boers attempted to settle in the eastern coastal plain, which was under Zulu control. An attempt to obtain settlement rights ended disastrously as Zulu chief Dingane (Shaka’s successor) wiped out the Boer negotiating party in 1838.

The conflict that ensued was decided later that year at the Battle of Blood River where the Afrikaners overcame a numerically superior Zulu force, and set up a republic in Natal. Despite these developments, there remained formidable Nguni kingdoms in KwaZulu north of Natal and in Swaziland; King Moshoeshoe continued to hold out with Sothos and refugees from various wars in his mountainous Lesotho Kingdom; the Pedi continued to be a force in the northeast while the Xhosa remained the masters of the eastern Cape region. These presence of these entities sustained a period of relative stability in the middle of the 19th century.

This balance was short-lived, however, as British imperial interests again asserted itself. First, British fears of a Boer Republic with coastal access to world trade (and the probable economic competition) drove them to annex the Natal republic in 1843. The need for the new colony to be self-sustaining prompted the cultivation in sugar cane, which prompted the importations of Indians as indentured agricultural labourers—a critical event in South African history, as it was the origins of the Asian community in South Africa.

Second, persistent conflict with Xhosa farmers and pastoralists, largely from pressure to increase white settlement, resulted in a series on wars that wore down considerable Xhosa resistance. In one of more tragic events in South African history, the final blow was the prophecy of a young girl, Nongqawuse, which stipulated that the sacrifice of cattle and grain would bring the ancestors to their aid, and would drive the white people into the sea. Though some resisted the call, close to a half-million head of cattle were slaughtered. The resulting 40,000 deaths from starvation broke the back of Xhosa resistance, and forced many to seek meagre employment in the Cape colony itself.

The major impetus for British expansion was the discovery of diamonds and gold. The former was found on the outskirts of the Orange Free State in 1867; despite attempts of the Boer republics to seize control, the British moved in and quickly annexed it to the Cape Colony. Similarly, gold was discovered in the ZAR south of Pretoria in 1886. Here, the finds were clearly within ZAR domains, and provided much income for the cash-strapped republic.

The discovery of these commodities, a critical moment in South African history, disrupted the social balance of the region in two critical ways. The promise of riches attracted hordes of chiefly English men, adventurers hoping to make their fortune. Over time, the initial small claim holdings consolidated into large corporate entities that relied upon labour to extract the minerals from the ground. The new diamond and gold magnates began to exert considerable influence upon British colonial policy in the Cape. Mine owners desired cheap labor to extract the valuable minerals, and prevailed upon British authorities to invade and conquer independent Nguni states in order to force black Africans into the mining economy.

Despite superior British military technology, these kingdoms put up significant resistance. In 1879, in one of the more famous events of South African history, Zulu king Cetshwayo dealt a crushing defeat to British forces at Islandwana before he was forced to capitulate the following year.  The Sotho kingdom never really submitted, choosing instead to agree to a protectorate status that kept it separate from the rest of the British South African colonial administration. It would eventually regain its independence as the nation of Lesotho. Eventually, however, the submission of most of these kingdoms provided the cheap labor that the industrialists sought.

South African History, Part III:  Origins of the Modern South African State

These developments also reignited tensions between the Boers and the British, leading to war by the end of the century. The arrival of English speakers and African labor into the Boer republics created large urban communities almost overnight—Kimberley for diamonds, and Johannesburg for gold—that shared few of the values of the Afrikaners among whom they lived. Concerns about the potential political influence and growing numbers of the so-called uitlanders (outsiders) led the Afrikaner governments to restrict rights of citizenship and political participation. 

The latter’s disgruntlement caught the attention of the governor of the Cape Colony, Cecil Rhodes, an imperialist who saw an opportunity to expand British influence and control in the area under the guise of protecting the rights of the uitlanders. His attempt at toppling the Afrikaner regime by instigating a military coup with a hoped-for uitlander uprising was a total failure, and spurred his resignation. However, the presence of gold was too great for British business interests to ignore, and the continued conflict led to open war in 1899, a turning point in South African history. Because of inferior numbers, the Boers resorted to guerrilla warfare. The British, in turn, cut off Boer supplies by burning their farms and imprisoning wives and children in concentration camps. The poor conditions of imprisonment cost some 20,000 lives. The war of attrition forced the Boers to capitulate in 1902.

The resulting peace accords laid the foundation for the next century of South African history and the modern South African state. As a British colony, Black Africans, Coloured populations and Indians presumed that the British liberal political traditions would promote equal political rights in the new entity. They were gravely disappointed, therefore, when the British made concessions to Afrikaners who still remained a threat to destabilize the new state. Africans, Indians and peoples of mixed ancestry found their rights severely curtailed as part of the compromise, and the system of political and social inequality began to take effect, a critical event in South African history.

It was out of this reality that an African elite, educated mostly in Christian missionary institutions, came together and formed an organization known as the African National Congress in 1912. Pixley ka Seme and John Dube, leaders of this new organization, in a critical event of South African history, envisioned an advocacy group that would petition for the rights of indigenous Africans. However, despite numerous deputations to the British Parliament, colonial authorities went ahead with plans to make concessions to the Afrikaners in order to maintain peace. Thus, in short order, legislation was passed that restricted the franchise of black South Africans to the old Cape Colony, that reserved certain positions for skilled white workers, and which reserved 90% of the land for white ownership.

For most of the next thirty years, South African history was dictated by a coalition of moderate white parties that steered the society through ongoing tensions between British and Afrikaner populations, and between Europeans and Africans, Coloureds and Indians. It saw the forming of Afrikaner cultural and economic organizations, such as the Broederbond, formed particularly out of sense that the state supported British economic interests at the expense of Afrikaners. It also saw the continued curtailment of political rights, especially for Africans.

South African History, Part IV:  The Apartheid Regime and Popular Resistance

During this period, Afrikaner voter strength was growing, however, and shortly after WWII in 1948, the conservative Afrikaner Nationalist Party won a surprising victory over liberal coalitions. The ramifications of this development were immediate, as the Nationalist Party implemented their particular vision for South African history and their ideology of racial separation on South African society, called apartheid. Within short order, the government passed legislation further restricting ownership and residency by race. They also passed laws that formally classified the population along racial lines, as well as the hated pass laws that restricted free movement within the country for black South Africans.

Finally, the nationalist government made sure that racial segregation permeated all areas of life by segregating separate amenities, like post offices, entrances to establishments, and use of public transportation. In the face of this massive assault on personal liberties, the ANC along with other groups increased resistance to the government. Non-violent actions like strikes, marches, and passive disobedience resulting in mass jailings became commonplace. In 1955, the coalition of resistance groups came together in Soweto to articulate and record their vision of a non-racial South Africa under the Freedom Charter— a critical moment in South African history and the basis for South Africa’s current constitution. However, this only prompted the government to dig in its heels, and step up pressure on resistance groups.

In 1956, over a hundred leaders of resistance groups were arrested and charged with treason; and in 1959, the remaining black South African franchise in the Cape Province was taken away. Furthermore, the Nationalist policy of “separate development,” with the creation of so-called black homelands, was implemented in earnest. The idea to separate geographically racial populations in South Africa was one of the centrepieces of the apartheid vision of South African history.

With the 1960s, government repression took a violent turn. In Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, a peaceful protest against the hated pass laws turned tragic when police opened fire on unarmed protesters. 60 were killed, while many more were injured. Not long after, most of the resistance groups were declared illegal, and had to go underground. In the face of increasing repression, the decision was made to abandon non-violent resistance, and in late 1961 Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing connected with the ANC, staged the first of many acts of sabotage to increase pressure on the government.

The events of Sharpeville along with the increasing scrutiny of world opinion drew attention to the struggle against apartheid, and spurred South Africa’s international isolation. Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd declared the country a republic after a whites-only referendum, and not too long afterward, the UN called on the international community to impose sanctions. While this was taking place, a rising figure in the ANC, Nelson Mandela, began to make contacts with other international leaders sympathetic to the cause o black South Africans. This only intensified the struggle, and matters came to a head when police forces captured Mandela in 1962. Not too long afterward, police captured and arrested the ANC leadership hiding north of Johannesburg. In the resulting trial, much of the leadership was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robbens Island off Cape Town.

South African History, Part V:  The Resistance of the Younger Generation, and the arrival of democracy

With most of the resistance leaders in prison or exile, a younger generation took up the protest against the apartheid state. The 1970s saw increased unrest, as many young people came of age and refused to abide by the status quo imposed by the Nationalist government, taking a more militant stance than their predecessors. The Black Consciousness movement, for example, headed by medical student Steve Biko, captured the imagination of many young Africans of this period with its affirmation of African culture, its radical vision of South African history and determination to see peoples on equal terms. It was threatening enough to prompt Biko’s arrest; shortly afterward, he died from police abuse while in jail.

Much more of this sentiment galvanized in June 16 1976, when students in Soweto marched in protest against the inferior “Bantu” education, and particularly against a new government requirement of Afrikaans being the only medium of instruction in schools. When policed fired on them, the resulting outrage sparked the highest levels of violence in resistance to the regime. This, combined with increased international pressure from sanctions and isolation, resulted in increased attempts by the state to undermine and co-opt various sections of the resistance movement, either by offering a limited franchise to coloured and Indian populations, or by sponsoring internecine black violence. Such efforts only served one of the more better known aims of the resistance to “make the country ungovernable.”  This phrase became a famous hallmark of South African history.

Finally, in the 1980s, Nationalist intransigence turned into pragmatism. Secret negotiations commenced between jailed ANC figure Mandela and President Botha and his successor, FW de Klerk, aimed at reaching a resolution to the violence and implementing a new constitution. In 1990, De Klerk lifted restrictions against resistance groups, and released Mandela and other leaders from prison; not long afterward, the legislative framework of the apartheid regime was abolished. Although continued violence threatened the process toward democracy, South Africa held its first election under total suffrage in 1994, with an ANC-led coalition assuming power. For the first time in South African history, the nation was a democracy where everyone was in theory politically equal.

© 2007

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