The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






History of South Africa

The history of South Africa encompasses over three million years. The first inhabitants of the area known as South Africa were ape-like hominids, who migrated to South Africa around three million years ago. They were gradually replaced around a million years ago by homo erectus, who also spread across Africa and into Europe and Asia. Homo erectus were replaced by homo sapiens around 100,000 years ago. The first homo sapiens formed the San culture, whose members were skilled hunter-gatherers. Around 2,500 years ago, Bantu peoples migrated into South Africa from the Niger River Delta. The San and the Bantu lived mostly peacefully together, although since they had no method of writing, little is known of this period outside of archaeological artefacts.

The written history of South Africa begins with the arrival of the first European explorers to the region. While the Portuguese were the first Europeans to see South Africa, they did not choose to colonise it, and instead the Dutch set up a supply depot on the Cape of Good Hope. This depot rapidly developed into the Cape Colony. The British seized Cape Colony from the Dutch in the end of the 18th century, and Cape Colony became a British colony. The ever-expanding number of European settlers prompted fights with the natives over the rights to land and farming, which caused numerous fatalities on both sides. Hostilities also emerged between the Dutch and the British, and many Dutch people trekked into the central Highveld in order to establish their own colonies. The Dutch, by then known as the Boers, and the British went to war twice in the Anglo-Boer Wars, which ended in the defeat of the Boers and their independent republics.

The Cape Colony and the two Boer republics unified in 1910 as the Union of South Africa. Black people were not granted suffrage in the Boer republics, and Boer-dominated politics continued to erode the rights of Black, Coloured, and Asian people, culminating in the 1948 creation of the system of racial discrimination that came to be known as apartheid. Apartheid became deeply entrenched in South African society, despite continued resistance. A vote in 1961 re-organised South Africa into the Republic of South Africa. The African National Congress was the most active black-run organisation to oppose apartheid, and after two decades of repression and economic troubles, apartheid was dismantled under F.W. de Klerk in 1992. The first multi-racial vote in South African history was held in 1994, making Nelson Mandela the President. South Africa now is a modern, multi-racial, democratic nation.




South Africa prior to the emergence of modern humans (Homo sapiens) is shrouded in mystery. A major archaeological find in 1998 at Sterkfontein near Johannesburg revealed that hominids roamed across the Highveld at least three million years ago. About a million years ago, Homo erectus had emerged and ranged well beyond Africa, found in Europe and Asia. Somewhere around 100,000 years ago, modern man replaced the hominids. Although it is still hotly debated by archaeologists, fossils found near the mouth of the Klasies River in Eastern Cape Province indicate that Homo sapiens may have lived in South Africa as early as 90,000 years ago.

The first modern people to migrate to the southern tip of the African continent were likely the San, skilled hunter-gatherers and nomads. Their respect for the land was great, and the environmental impact of their lifestyle was low, allowing them to sustain their way of life for years without leaving much archaeological evidence. Other than a series of striking rock paintings, the San left few traces of their early culture. Attempts to date the existing samples by radiocarbon dating indicate that the San were living in what is modern-day South Africa as late as 25,000 years ago, and possibly as early as 40,000 years ago. Small numbers of San still live in South Africa today, making their culture one of the oldest continuously-existing in the world, along with that of the Australian aborigines.

Beginning around 2,500 years ago, some San groups acquired livestock from further north. Gradually, hunting and gathering gave way to herding as the dominant economic activity as the San tended to small herds of cattle and oxen. The arrival of livestock introduced concepts of personal wealth and property ownership into San society. Community structures solidified and expanded, and chieftaincies developed.

The pastoralist San, known as Khoikhoi ("men of men"), began to move further south, reaching as far as the cape now known as the Cape of Good Hope. Along the way, they intermarried with the hunter-gatherer San, to the point where drawing a clear line between the two groups became impossible (prompting the use of the term Khoisan). Over time, the Khoikhoi established themselves along the coast, while small groups of San continued to inhabit the interior.

Bantu expansion

Main article: Bantu expansion

At about this time, Bantu-speaking peoples also began arriving in South Africa. Originally from the Niger Delta area in west Africa, they had started to make their way south and eastwards in about 1000 BCE, reaching present-day KwaZulu-Natal Province by 500 CE. The Bantu speakers not only had domestic animals, but also were agriculturalists, farming wheat and other crops. They were also skilled iron workers, and lived in settled villages. The Bantu arrived in South Africa in small waves, rather than in one cohesive migration. Some groups, the ancestors of today's Nguni peoples (the Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, and Ndebele), preferred to live near the coast. Others, now known as the Sotho-Tswana peoples (Tswana, Pedi, and Basotho), settled in the Highveld, while today's Venda, Lemba, and Shangaan-Tsonga peoples preferred to live in the northeastern areas of South Africa.

Bantu speakers and Khoisan mixed, evidenced by rock paintings showing the two different groups interacting. The type of contact is not known, although there is linguistic proof of integration, as several Bantu languages (notably Xhosa and isiZulu) incorporated the click consonant characteristic of earlier Khoisan languages. Numerous Khoisan artifacts have also been found at the sites of Bantu settlements.


European expeditions

Main article: Cape Colony

Little is known about the nearly 500 years from 500 CE to the date of first European contact. The first explorers from to reach South Africa were the Portuguese, drawn southwards in hope of finding a sea route to India and Asia to replace costly and time-consuming land routes through central Asia. In 1487, Bartolomeu Dias and a small group of his men rounded a rocky, windy cape, naming it Cabo da Boa Esperança (Portugese for "Cape of Good Hope"). Twelve years later, in 1498, Vasco da Gama rounded the same point of land, and sailed further to the northeast than Dias had mentioned. On the way to India, he landed and explored previously-uncharted parts of western South Africa and what is now Mozambique.

Although the Portuguese basked in the nautical achievement of successfully navigating the cape, they showed little interest in colonization. Its fierce weather and rocky shoreline posed a threat to their ships, and many of their attempts to trade with the local Khoikhoi ended in conflict. The Mozambican coast was more attractive, with appealing bays to use as waystations, prawns, and links with gold ore in the interior.

The Portuguese had little competition in the region until the late 16th century, when the English and Dutch began to challenge them along their trade routes. Traffic around the continent's southern tip increased, and the cape became a regular stopover for scurvy-ridden crews. In 1647, a Dutch vessel was wrecked in what is now Cape Town's Table Bay. The marooned crew, the first Europeans to attempt settlement in the area, built a fort and stayed for a year until they were rescued. Shortly thereafter, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) decided to establish a permanent settlement. The VOC, one of the major European trading houses sailing the spice route to the East, had no intent of colonizing the area, but only wanted to establish a secure base camp where passing ships could shelter, and where hungry sailors could stock up on fresh supplies of meat, fruit, and vegetables. To this end, a small VOC expedition under the command of Jan van Riebeeck reached Table Bay on April 6, 1652.

The Dutch settle in

While the new settlement traded out of necessity with the neighbouring Khoikhoi, the relationship could hardly be described as friendly, and there were deliberate attempts to restrict contact. Partly as a consequence, VOC employees found themselves faced with a labour shortage. To remedy this, they released a small number of Dutch from their contracts and permitted them to establish farms, with which they would supply the VOC settlement from their harvests. This arrangement proved highly successful, producing abundant supplies of fruit, vegetables, wheat, and wine; they later raised livestock. The small initial group of free burghers, as these farmers were known, steadily increased, and began to expand their farms further north and east into the territory of the Khoikhoi.

The majority of burghers were of Dutch descent, and were members of the Calvinist Reformed Church of the Netherlands , but there were also numerous Germans. In 1688 the Dutch and the Germans were joined by the French Huguenots, also Calvinists, who were fleeing religious persecution under King Louis XIV.

In addition to establishing the free burgher system, van Riebeeck and the VOC also began to import large numbers of slaves, primarily from Madagascar and Indonesia. These slaves often married Dutch settlers, and their decendants became known as the Cape Coloureds and the Cape Malays. With this additional labour, the areas occupied by the VOC expanded further to the north and east, where clashes with the Khoikhoi were inevitable. The beleaguered Khoikhoi 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 which continued into the 19th century. Most survivors were left with no option but to work for the Europeans in an exploitative arrangement that differed little from slavery. Over time, the Khoisan, their European overseers, and the imported slaves mixed, with the offspring of these unions forming the basis for today's Coloured population.

Among the best-known Khoikhoi groups were the Griqua, who had originally lived on the eastern coast between St Helena Bay and the Cederberg Range . In the late 18th century, they managed to acquire guns and horses and began trekking northeast. En route, they were joined by other groups of Khoisan, Coloureds, and even white adventurers, and rapidly gained a reputation as a formidable military force. Ultimately, the Griquas reached the Highveld around present-day Kimberley, where they carved out territory that came to be known as Griqualand.

Burghers meet the bush

As the burghers, too, 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 far removed from that of the Khoikhoi they were displacing. In addition to its herds, a family might have a wagon, a tent, a Bible, and a few guns. As they became more settled, a mud-walled cottage would be built, frequently located, by choice, days of travel from the nearest European. These were the first of the Trekboers (Wandering Farmers, later shortened to Boers), completely independent of official controls, extraordinarily self-sufficient, and isolated. Their harsh lifestyle produced courageous individualists, but also a backward people, whose only source of knowledge was often the Bible.

Brits at the Cape

As the 18th century drew to a close, Dutch mercantile 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 back to the Dutch, before finally garnering recognition of their sovereignty of the area in 1814.

Awaiting the British at the tip of the continent was a colony with 25,000 slaves, 20,000 white colonists, 15,000 Khoisan, and 1000 freed black slaves. Power was restricted to a white élite in Cape Town, and differentiation on the basis of race was deeply entrenched. Outside Cape Town and the immediate hinterland, isolated black and white pastoralists populated the country.

Like the Dutch before them, the British initially had little interest in the Cape Colony, other than as a strategically-located port. One of their first tasks was trying to resolve a troublesome border dispute between the Boers and the Xhosa on the colony's eastern frontier. In 1820, about 5,000 middle-class British immigrants, mostly traders and businesspeople, were persuaded to leave England behind and settle on tracts of land between the feuding groups with the idea of providing a buffer zone. The plan was singularly unsuccessful. By 1823, almost half of the settlers 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, thus fracturing the relative unity of white South Africa. Where the Boers and their ideas had before gone 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 settlers and the Boers further widened with the abolition of slavery in 1833, a move that was generally regarded by the Boers as being against the God-given ordering of the races. Yet, the British settlers' conservatism and sense of racial superiority stopped any radical reforms, and, in 1841, a Masters and Servants Ordinance was passed perpetuating white control. Meanwhile, British numbers increased rapidly in Cape Town, in the area east of the Cape Colony (present-day Eastern Cape Province), in Natal, and after the discovery of gold and diamonds, in parts of the Transvaal, mainly around present-day Gauteng.

Difaqane and destruction

 in traditional military garb.
Shaka Zulu in traditional Zulu military garb.

Against this backdrop, the stage was being set for a time of immense upheaval and suffering amongst the African peoples of the region. This period is known as the difaqane ("forced migration" in Sotho), and the mfecane ("crushing") in isiZulu.

The roots of the difaqane are disputed, although 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 KwaZulu-Natal began to shift from a loosely-organised collection of kingdoms into a centralised, militaristic state. The driving force behind this shift was Shaka Zulu, son of the chief of the small Zulu clan. At first something of an outcast, Shaka proved himself in battle, and was gradually able to consolidate power in his hands. He built large armies, shocking others in the clan by placing the armies under the control of his own officers rather than the hereditary chiefs. Shaka then set out on a massive programme of conquest and terror: those who stood in his way were either enslaved or decimated. Even his impis (warrior regiments) were subjected to similar rigours: failure in battle meant death.

Not surprisingly, tribes in the path of Shaka's armies turned on their heels and 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. It also accelerated the formation of several states, notably those of the Sotho (present-day Lesotho) and the Swazi (now Swaziland).

In 1828, Shaka met an untimely end when he was killed by his half-brothers Dingaan and Umthlangana. The weaker and less-skilled Dingaan became king, relaxing military discipline while continuing the despotism. Dingaan also attempted to establish relations with the British traders on the Natal coast, but events were unfolding that were to see the demise of Zulu independence.

The Great Trek

Meanwhile, the Boers were growing increasingly dissatisfied with British rule in Cape Colony. The British proclamation of the equality of the races was a particularly sharp thorn in their side. Beginning in 1836, several groups of Boers, together with large numbers of Khoikhoi and black servants, decided to trek off into the interior in search of greater independence. North and east of the Orange River which formed the Cape Colony's frontier, these Boers or Voortrekkers ("Pioneers") found vast tracts of apparently-uninhabited grazing lands. They had, it seemed, entered their promised land, with space enough for their cattle to graze and 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 the result of the difaqane, rather than the normal state of affairs.

With the exception of the more-powerful Ndebele, the Voortrekkers encountered little resistance among the scattered peoples of the plains. They had been dispersed by the difaqane and lacked horses and firearms. Their weakened condition also solidified the Boers' belief that European occupation meant the coming of civilisation to a savage land. However, the mountains where King Moshoeshoe I was forging the Basotho nation that would later 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 litter the next 50 years of increasing white domination.

A river runs red

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 apart. While some headed north, most crossed the Drakensberg into Natal, with the idea of establishing a republic there. As this was Zulu territory, the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief paid a visit to King Dingaan, and was promptly massacred by the suspicious Zulu. The massacre triggered others, as well as a revenge attack by the Boers. The culmination came on 16 December 1838 in the Battle of Blood River at the Ncome River in Natal. Several Boers were injured, while several thousand Zulus were killed, reportedly causing the Ncome's waters to run red.

After this victory, which was the result of superior weapons, the Boers felt that their expansion really did have a 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, feeling increasingly squeezed between the British on one side and the African populations on the other, headed north, adding yet another grievance against the British.

The British set about establishing large sugar plantations in Natal, but found few takers from the neighbouring Zulu areas for labour. They turned to India to resolve this labour shortage, and in 1860 the SS Truro arrived in Durban harbour with over 300 people on board. Over the next 50 years, 150,000 more indentured Indians arrived, as well as numerous free "passenger Indians", building the base for what was to become the largest Indian community outside of India. As early as 1893 when Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Durban, Indians outnumbered whites in Natal.

Independent South Africa

The Boer republics

The Boers meanwhile plugged on with their search for land and freedom, ultimately establishing themselves at Transvaal and the Orange Free State. For a while, it seemed that these republics were developing into stable states, despite having thinly-spread populations of fiercely independent Boers, no industry, and minimal agriculture. 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. Britain quickly stepped in and resolved the issue by annexing the area for itself.

The discovery of the Kimberley diamond mines unleashed 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.

The Anglo-Boer Wars

Long-standing Boer resentment turned into full-blown rebellion in the Transvaal, and the first Anglo-Boer War, known by Afrikaners as the "War of Independence", broke out in 1880. It was over almost as soon as it began with a crushing Boer victory at Battle of Majuba Hill in early 1881. The republic regained its independence as the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek ("South African Republic"), or ZAR. Paul Kruger, one of the leaders of the uprising, became President of the ZAR in 1883. Meanwhile, the British, who viewed their defeat at Majuba as an aberration, forged ahead with their desire to federate the Southern African colonies and republics. They saw this as the best way to come to terms with the fact of a white Afrikaner majority, as well as to promote their larger strategic interests in the area.

In 1879, Zululand came under British control. Then in 1886, gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand, accelerating the federation process and dealing 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, 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 enormous wealth of the mines soon became irresistible for British imperialists. In 1895, a group of renegades lead by Captain Leander Starr Jameson entered the ZAR with the intention of sparking an uprising on the Witwatersrand and installing a British administration, in what became known as the Jameson Raid. The scheme was a fiasco, but it was obvious to Kruger that it had at least the tacit approval of the Cape Colony government, and that his republic was in danger. He reacted by forming an alliance with Orange Free State.

The situation peaked in 1899, when the British demanded voting rights for the 60,000 foreign whites on the Witwatersrand. Until that 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 refused, Kruger declared war. This Second Anglo-Boer War was more protracted and the British were better prepared than at Majuba Hill. By June 1900, Pretoria, the last of the major Boer towns, had surrendered. Yet resistance by Boer bittereinders continued for two more years with guerrilla-style battles, which in turn were met by scorched-earth tactics by the British. By 1902, 26,000 people had died of disease and neglect in concentration camps. On 31 May 1902, a superficial peace came with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging. Under its terms, the Boer republics acknowledged British sovereignty, while the British in turn committed themselves to reconstruction of the areas under their control.

Peace and unity?

During the immediate post-war 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 ignominous 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 nationalist organisations sprang up.

Blacks and Coloureds 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 Rambatha Rebellion of 1906, in which 4,000 Zulus lost their lives after protesting onerous tax legislation. The British meanwhile moved ahead with their plans for union. After several years of negotiations, 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 Basotholoand (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. Afrikaans was not recognised as an official language until 1925. Despite a major campaign by blacks and Coloureds, the voter franchise remained as it was in the pre-Union republics and colonies, and only whites could be elected to parliament.


Repression, resistance, and rampant racism

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.

There was no place in the new Union for blacks, despite their constituting over 75 percent of the population. Under the Act of Union, they were denied voting rights in the Transvaal and Orange Free State areas, and in Cape Colony they were granted the vote only if they met a property ownership qualification. Coming on the heels of British wartime propaganda promoting freedom from "Boer slavery", the failure to grant the franchise was regarded by blacks as a blatant betrayal. It was not 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 restrictive pass laws. In 1939, the Natives Land Act was enacted, setting aside eight percent of South Africa's land for black occupancy. Whites, who made up only 20 percent of the population, were given 90 percent 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.

Black and Coloured opposition began to coalesce, and leading figures such as John Jabavu , Walter Rubusana , and Abdullah Abdurahman laid the foundations for new non-tribal 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 to ensure that they had an effective voice in the new Union. Thus was born the South African Native National Congress, known from 1923 on as the African National Congress (ANC). Parallel to this, Mahatma Gandhi had been working with the Indian populations of Natal and the Transvaal to fight against the ever-increasing encroachment on their rights.

The international recession which followed World War I put pressures on mine-owners, and they sought to reduce costs by recruiting lower paid black semi-skilled workers. White mine-workers saw this as a threat and in 1922 rose in the armed Rand Rebellion , supported by the new Communist Party of South Africa under the slogan "Workers of the World, unite and fight for a white South Africa". Smuts suppressed the rising violently, but the failure led to a convergence of views between Afrikaner nationalists and white English-speaking trade unionists. The Communists saw the failure as having resulted from a lack of mobilisation by black workers and reoriented their recruitment.

In 1924, the NP, under Hertzog, came to power in a coalition government with the Labour Party, and Afrikaner nationalism gained greater hold. Dutch was replaced by Afrikaans, which had previously been regarded only 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. In the mid-1930s, Hertzog joined the NP with the more moderate SAP of Jan Smuts to form the United Party; this coalition fell apart at the start World War II when Smuts took the reins and, amid much controversy, lead South Africa into war on the side of the Allies. However, any hopes of turning the side on Afrikaner nationalism were dashed when Daniel François Malan led a radical break-away movement, the Purified National Party, to the central position in Afrikaner political life. The Afrikaner Broederbond, a secret Afrikaner brotherhood that had been formed in 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", 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, outside the other major cities. Conditions in the townships were appalling, but poverty was not only the providence of the blacks; wartime surveys found that 40 percent of white schoolchildren were malnourished .

South Africa also officially took posession of South-West Africa in this time after it was conqured from the Germans during World War I. Following the war, the Treaty of Versailles declared the territory to be a League of Nations Mandate under South African administration. South Africa formally excluded Walvis Bay from the mandate and annexed it as an enclave. The Mandate was supposed to become a United Nations Trust Territory when League of Nations Mandates were transferred to the United Nations following World War II but the Union of South Africa refused to agree to allowing the territory to begin the transition to independence and it essentially became a South African colony.

The walls of apartheid go up

In the run-up to the 1948 elections, the NP campaigned on its policy of segregation called apartheid, an Afrikaans term for the state of being apart. It was voted in, in coalition with the Afrikaner Party (AP), under Malan's leadership.

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, while banishing non-whites 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; Blacks and Coloureds were compelled to carry identity documents at all times and were prohibited from remaining in towns, or even visiting them, without specific permission. Couples were not allowed to live together, or even visit each other, in the town were only one of them worked, and children had to remain in rural areas.

In 1960, tensions came to a head in the Sharpeville Massacre. Soon thereafter, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, whose rabid racism earned him 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. The South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) was founded in this year as well, resulting in a protracted struggle between South Africa and guerillas fighting for South-West African independence. Verwoerd withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth of Nations, and in May 1961, the Republic of South Africa came into existence.

Action and activism

These developments pushed the hitherto relatively conservative ANC into action. In 1949, they developed an agenda that for the first time advocated open resistance in the form of strikes, acts of public disobedience, and protest marches. These continued throughout the 1950s, and resulted in occasional violent clashes. In June 1955, at a congress held near Kliptown , near Johannesburg, a number of organisations, including the Indian Congress and the ANC, adopted a Freedom Charter. This articulated a vision of a non-racial democratic state, and is still central to the ANC's vision of a new South Africa.

In 1959, a group of disenchanted ANC members, seeking to sever all ties with white government, broke away to form the more militant Pan African Congress. First on the PAC's agenda was a series of nationwide demonstrations against the hated pass laws . On 21 March 1960, police opened fire on demonstrators surrounding a police station in Sharpeville , a township near Vereeniging. At least 67 people were killed, and 186 wounded; most of those shot were shot in the back. To many domestic and international onlookers, the struggle had crossed a crucial line at Sharpeville, and there could no longer be any doubt about the nature of the white regime. In the wake of the shooting, a massive stay-away from work was organised, and demonstrations continued. Verwoered declared a state of emergency, giving security forces the right to detain people without trial. Over 18,000 demonstrators were arrested, including much of the ANC and PAC leadership, and both organisations were banned.

As black activists continued to be arrested, 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. Together with ANC leader Nelson Mandela, who had already been arrested on other charges, they were tried for treason at the widely-publicised Rivonia Trial. 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.

"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 an to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." — Nelson Mandela, 20 April 1964, Rivonia Trial.

Decades of darkness

With the ANC banned, and Mandela and most of the rest of its leadership in jail or exile, South Africa entered some of its darkest times. Apartheid legislation was enforced with increasing gusto, and the walls between the races were built even higher. Most odious was the creation of separate Homelands for blacks. In 1966, Verwoerd was stabbed to death, but his policies continued under B.J. Vorster, and, later, P.W. Botha.

During the 1970s, resistance again gained force, first channelled through trade unions and strikes, and then spearheaded by the South African Students' Organisation under the charismatic leadership of 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 non-violent 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, beginning a round of nationwide demonstrations, strikes, mass arrests, riots and violence that over the next 12 month claimed over 1,000 lives.

In September 1977, Steve Biko was killed. Unidentified security police bashed him until he lapsed into a coma; he went without medical treatment for three days and finally died in Pretoria. At the subsequent inquest, the magistrate ruled that no one was to blame, although the South African Medical Association eventually took action against the doctors who had failed to treat Biko. South Africa was never to be the same again. A generation of young blacks committed themselves to a revolutionary struggle against apartheid under the catch-phrase of "liberation before education", and the black communities were politicised.

South Africa under siege

By 1980, South Africa was the only country in Africa with a white government and a constitution discriminating against the majority of its citizens. 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 sanctions, and the government even developed nuclear weapons, which have since been destroyed.

Negotiating majority rule with the ANC was not considered an option, at least publicly, which left the government to defend the country against external and internal threats through sheer military might. A siege mentality developed among 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. Brutal police and military actions seemed entirely justifiable. 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.

From 1978 to 1988 the South African Defence Force (SADF; now the South African National Defence Force; SANDF) made a number of major attacks inside Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Lesotho. All white males were liable for national service, and thousands fled into exile to avoid conscription. Many more were scarred mentally and physically by their participation in vicious struggles in the region, or in the townships.

Winds of change

In the early 1980s, a new wind began to blow across South Africa. Whites constituted only 16% of the total population and dropping, in comparison to 20% 50 years earlier. Recognising the inevitability of change, P.W. Botha told white South Africans to "adapt or die". Numerous reforms were instituted, including a repeal of the pass laws. But Botha stopped short of full reform, and many blacks as well as the international community felt that the changes were only cosmetic. Protests and resistance continued full force, as South Africa became increasingly polarised and fragmented and unrest was widespread. A white backlash also arose, giving rise to a number of neo-Nazi paramilitary groups, notably the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), lead 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 abandon its proposed reforms, and instead to abolish apartheid and eliminate the homelands.

International pressures 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 the next five years. The media was censored and, by 1988, 30,000 people had been detained without trial, and thousands tortured.

Stalked by a shadow

Amidst this turmoil, an even darker shadow began to move across South Africa. In 1982, the first recorded death from HIV occurred in the country. Within a decade, the number of recorded AIDS cases had risen to over 1,000 and by the mid-1990s, it had reached 10,000. Yet, these officially recorded cases were only the tip of the iceberg, with some estimates placing the actual number of HIV-positive cases at close to one million in 1995. Fuelled by the entrenched migrant labour system at South Africa's mines, AIDS is estimated to have been spreading at the explosive rate of over 500 new cases per day.

In the late 1980s, the South African Chamber of Mines began an education campaign to try and stem the rise of cases. But without a change in the underlying conditions of mine workers, a major factor contributing to the epidemic, success could hardly be expected. Long periods away from home under bleak conditions and a few days leave a month were the apartheid-induced realities of the life thousands of miners and other labourers worked. Compounding the problem was the fact that as of the mid-1990s, many health officials were still focused more on the incidence of tuberculosis than HIV.

As South Africa began to take its first tenuous steps to dismantle the walls of apartheid, HIV lay waiting to explode like a ticking time bomb.

The walls begin to fall

In 1986, President Botha announced to parliament that South Africa had "outgrown" apartheid. The government began a series of minor reforms in the direction of racial equality, while maintaining an iron grip on the media and all anti-apartheid demonstrations. The police entered the townships and Homelands in this time to violently surpress any protests, killing many protesters in the process which caused even larger protests. As the security situation in South Africa continued to deterioriate, many white South Africans fled the country as refugees. 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 Victor Vester 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. South Africa also gave up its long-standing military struggle against SWAPO, giving up its colony in South-West Africa. South-West Africa officially became the independent nation of Namibia on 21 March 1990.

Free elections

In December 1991, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) began negotiations on the formation of a multiracial transitional government and a new constitution extending political rights to all groups. Months of wrangling finally produced a compromise and an election date, although at considerable human cost. Political violence exploded across the country during this time, particularly in the wake of the assassination of Chris Hani, the popular leader of South Africa's Communist Party. It is now known that elements within the police and army contributed to this violence. There have also been claims that high-ranking government officials and politicians ordered, or at least condoned, massacres.

In 1993, a draft constitution was published, guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion, access to adequate housing and numerous other benefits, and explicitly prohibiting discrimination on almost any ground. 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 singing of the new anthem, "Nkosi Sikelele Afrika " ("God Bless Africa"). The election went off peacefully amidst a palpable feeling of goodwill throughout the country.

The ANC won 62.7% of the vote, less than the 66.7% that would have allowed 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.


Rewriting history

Following the elections, focus turned to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1994-1999), which worked to expose crimes of the apartheid era under the dictum of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "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 full confession. 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, few human rights criminals who gave the orders and commanded the police presented themselves. PW Botha himself is a famous no-show, and it has proven difficult to gather evidence against them.

Free elections: Round two

In 1999, South Africa held its second democratic elections. In 1997, Mandela had handed over ANC leadership to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, and there was speculation that the ANC vote might therefore drop. In fact, it increased, putting the party within one seat of the two-thirds majority that would allow it to alter the constitution.

The NP, restyled as the New National Party (NNP), lost two thirds of its seats, as well as official opposition status to the Democratic Party (DP). The DP was traditionally a stronghold of liberal whites, with new force from conservatives disenchanted with the NP, and from some middle-class blacks. Coming in just behind the DP was the KwaZulu-Natal Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), historically the voice of Zulu nationalism. While the IFP lost some support, its leader, Chief Buthelezi, held onto power as the national Home Affairs minister.

Into the future

Despite the scars of the past and the enormous problems ahead, South Africa today is an immeasurably more optimistic and relaxed country than it was a decade ago. While Mbeki is held in far less affection by the ANC grassroots than the beloved "Madiba" (Mandela), he has proven himself a shrewd politician, maintaining his political pre-eminence by isolating or co-opting opposition parties. In 2003, Mbeki manoeuvred the ANC to a two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time, giving it the power to rewrite the constitution if it chooses.

Yet, it has not been all clear sailing. In the early days of his presidency, Mbeki's effective denial of the HIV crisis invited global criticism, and his conspicuous failure to condemn the forced reclamation of white-owned farms in neighbouring Zimbabwe unnerved both South African landowners and foreign investors.

In the coming years, attention is likely to focus overwhelmingly on crime, economic inequality, overhauling the educational system and especially HIV. With an estimated 4.5 million South Africans affected, more than any other country in the world, this scourge threatens to eclipse all of South Africa's other problems.



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  • The Life and Death of Steve Biko. Malcolm Clarke. 1978

See also

Last updated: 07-31-2005 21:20:57
Last updated: 08-17-2005 16:37:11