History of South Africa
If the history of South Africa is in large part one of increasing racial divisiveness, today it can also be seen as the story of – eventually – a journey through massive obstacles towards the creation, from tremendous diversity, of a single nation whose dream of unity and common purpose is now capable of realisation.
The earliest people
The earliest representatives of South Africa’s diversity – at least the earliest we can name – were the San and Khoekhoe peoples (otherwise known individually as the Bushmen and Hottentots or Khoikhoi; collectively called the Khoisan). Both were resident in the southern tip of the continent for thousands of years before its written history began with the arrival of European seafarers.
And before that, modern human beings had lived here for more than 100 000 years – indeed, the country is an archaeological treasure chest.
The hunter-gatherer San ranged widely over the area; the pastoral Khoekhoe lived in those comparatively well-watered areas, chiefly along the southern and western coastal strips, where adequate grazing was to be found. So it was with the latter that the early European settlers first came into contact – much to the disadvantage of the Khoekhoe.
As a result of diseases such as smallpox imported by the Europeans, of some assimilation with the settlers and especially with the slaves who were to arrive in later years, and of some straightforward extermination, the Khoekhoe have effectively disappeared as an identifiable group.
Other long-term inhabitants of the area that was to become South Africa were the Bantu-speaking people who had moved into the north-eastern and eastern regions from the north, starting at least many hundreds of years before the arrival of the Europeans.
The Thulamela site in the northern Kruger National Park is estimated to have been first occupied in the 13th century. The ruins of Mapungubwe, where artefacts from as far away as China have been found, are the remains of a large trading settlement thought to stretch back to the 12th century. Agro-pastoralists, these people brought with them an Iron Age culture and sophisticated socio-political systems.
Settlers and slaves
Their existence was of little import to Jan van Riebeeck and the 90 men who landed with him in 1652 at the Cape of Good Hope, under instructions by the Dutch East India Company to build a fort and develop a vegetable garden for the benefit of ships on the Eastern trade route.
Their relationship with the Khoekhoe was initially one of bartering, but a mutual animosity developed over issues such as cattle theft – and, no doubt, the growing suspicion on the part of the Khoekhoe that Van Riebeeck’s outpost was becoming a threat to them.
Perhaps the first sign that the threat was to be realised came in 1657 when nine men, released from their contracts, were given land to farm. In the same year the first slaves were imported. By the time Van Riebeeck left in 1662, 250 white people lived in what was beginning to look like a developing colony.
Later governors of the Cape Colony encouraged immigration, and in the early 1700s independent farmers called trekboers began to push north and east. Inevitably, the Khoisan started literally losing ground, in addition to being pressed by difficult circumstances into service for the colonists.
The descendants of some of the Khoisan, slaves from elsewhere in Africa and the East, and white colonists formed the basis of the mixed-race group now known as “coloured”. It is noteworthy that the slaves from the East brought a potent new ingredient to South Africa’s racial and cultural mix, especially with their religion of Islam.
As the colonists began moving east, they encountered the Xhosa-speaking people living in the region that is today’s Eastern Cape. A situation of uneasy trading and more or less continuous warfare began to develop.
By this time, the second half of the 18th century, the colonists – mainly of Dutch, German and French Huguenot stock – had begun to lose their sense of identification with Europe. The Afrikaner nation was coming into being.
As a result of developments in Europe, the British took the Cape over from the Dutch in 1795. Seven years later, the colony was returned to the Dutch government, only to come under British rule again in 1806, recaptured because of the alliance between Holland and Napoleon.
The initially somewhat cautious regulations aimed at ameliorating the conditions under which, for instance, Khoi servants were employed, caused discontent and even open rebellion among the colony’s white inhabitants.
The Cape frontier wars
At the same time, British military strength began to tell in the conflict with the Xhosa. In 1820, some 5Ã‚Â 000 newly arrived British settlers were placed on the eastern frontier as a supposed defensive buffer against the Xhosa – a strategy that failed when many of them gave up the struggle with uncooperative land and turned to other occupations in Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown.
The Xhosa reacted with heroic defiance at the additional pressure on their land and independence. But this ended tragically with the mass starvation that followed an 1857 prophecy that the whites would return to the sea if the Xhosa slaughtered their cattle and destroyed their crops.
After 1806, philanthropist missionaries had begun arriving, their liberalising influence reaching its high point in the activities of John Philip, friend of the British abolitionist William Wilberforce and local superintendent of the London Missionary Society.
The Great Trek
This development and, in particular, the emancipation of slaves in 1834, had dramatic effects on the colony, precipitating the Great Trek, an emigration north and east of about 12Ã‚Â 000 discontented Afrikaner farmers, or Boers. These people were determined to live independently of colonial rule and what they saw as unacceptable racial egalitarianism.
The early decades of the century had seen another event of huge significance: the rise to power of the great Zulu king, Shaka. His wars of conquest and those of Mzilikazi – a general who broke away from Shaka on a northern path of conquest – caused a calamitous disruption of the interior known as the mfecane.
Ironically, it was this that denuded much of the area into which Trekkers now moved, enabling them to settle there with a belief that they were occupying vacant territory. But this belief was by no means accompanied by an absence of conflict with the Zulu armies and others.
Initially, many Trekkers moved east into the Natal area, today the province of KwaZulu-Natal, under the leadership of Piet Retief. Intending to negotiate for land, Retief was murdered with a party of followers and servants at the kraal of Dingane, Shaka’s successor.
The Battle of Blood River
In the war that followed, the Boers won victory at the Battle of Blood River. They began to settle in Natal, but smaller conflicts followed and the British – fearing repercussions in the Cape Colony – annexed Natal, where a small British settlement called Port Natal (later Durban) had already been established.
On the highveld, however, two Boer republics were formed: the central Orange Free State and South African Republic (Transvaal or ZAR – Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek) to its north.
By the mid-1800s, the tiny refreshment post at the Cape of Good Hope had grown into an area of white settlement that stretched over virtually all of what is today South Africa.
In some areas the indigenous Bantu-speakers maintained their independence, most notably in the northern Natal territories, which were still unmistakably the kingdom of the Zulu. Almost all were eventually to lose the struggle against white overlordship – British or Boer.
One territory that was to retain independence was the mountain fastness where King Moshoeshoe had forged the Basotho nation by offering refuge to tribes fleeing the mfecane. Clashing with the Free Staters, Moshoeshoe asked Britain to annex Basotholand, which was done in 1868. Known today as Lesotho, this country is entirely surrounded by South Africa, but has never been a part of it.
The Cape Colony was granted representative legislature in 1853 and self-government in 1872. Between these two dates, a dramatic new element was introduced to the economic, and consequently political, balance – the discovery of diamonds and subsequent establishment of Kimberley.
For the first time it became evident that there was wealth for the taking in the subcontinent. Rival claims by the Orange Free State, the ZAR and Nicholas Waterboer, chief of the West Griquas – a community of mixed race – were defeated and the area was incorporated into the Cape Colony in 1880.
As a British territory, it was a perfect proving ground for the young Cecil John Rhodes, one of the many thousands to be attracted by the diggings, and one who made his fortune there.
The colony had taken tentative steps towards political equality among the races. The franchise was based on economic qualifications, non-racial in theory but excluding the vast majority of African and coloured people in practice. Among those who did qualify, many became politically active across colour lines. The promise existed of progress towards full political inclusion of the population.
Natal, and the Battle of Isandhlwana
The Colony of Natal, however, was developing along somewhat different lines, the size of the Zulu nation assuming threatening proportions to the colonists. Reserves were created under traditional African law for refugees from Zulu might; outside those reserves, British law held sway. As almost all blacks were deemed to fall under the rule of the chiefs in the reserves, almost none had any chance of political rights outside their borders.
Economically, Natal had the advantage of being ideal for the cultivation of sugar cane. The consequent labour requirements led to the importation of indentured labourers from India, many of whom – in spite of discrimination – remained in the country after their contracts had expired: the forebears of today’s significant and influential Indian population.
The late 19th century was an area of aggressive colonial expansion, and the Zulus were bound to come under pressure. But they were not to prove easy pickings. Under King Cetshwayo, they delivered resounding proof at Isandhlwana in 1879 that the British army was not invincible.
However, they were defeated in the following year, leading to Zululand eventually being incorporated into Natal in 1897.
Gold and War
Britain achieved a temporary expansion of its southern African rule in the politically unstable north, where the unpopularity of President TF Burgers opened the way for Britain to annex the Transvaal in 1877. It lost control again after a rebellion that dealt another blow to the military pride of the empire at Majuba.
The eventual resolution was the granting of qualified independence in 1881 and full internal autonomy in 1884 – by which time the conservative and intensely pro-Afrikaner Paul Kruger had been elected president of the restored, but financially strapped, republic.
Two years later, when gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand, Kruger presided over a financial turnaround of spectacular proportions – but he also saw a serious threat to Afrikaner independence develop as huge numbers of newcomers, mostly British, descended on the gold fields.
Without urgent action, these people (the uitlanders, or foreigners) would soon qualify for the vote. The response was to create stringent franchise qualifications, an action which, with its 14-year residence stipulation, would at least postpone the difficulty.
Rhodes and the Jameson Raid
In the Cape, however, Cecil John Rhodes had become Prime Minister. His overriding vision of a federation of British-controlled states in southern Africa was well served by the growing discontent of the uitlanders and exasperation of the mining magnates in the ZAR.
Rhodes’ first attempt at takeover, however, came to an ignominious end when his plan to have Leander Starr Jameson lead a raid into Johannesburg in response to a planned uitlander uprising failed. The uprising did not happen: Jameson rode precipitously into the Transvaal and had to surrender. Rhodes resigned.
The Jameson Raid had a polarising effect. Afrikaners in the Cape and the Orange Free State, though disapproving of Kruger in many ways, became more sympathetic to his anti-British stance. The Orange Free State, under President MT Steyn, formed a military alliance with the Transvaal.
The Anglo-Boer War
In Britain, however, Rhodes and Jameson were popular heroes. It kept up the pressure on Kruger, and the Anglo-Boer/South African War began in October 1899. Up to half a million British soldiers squared up against some 65Ã‚Â 000 Boers; black South Africans were pulled into the conflict on both sides.
Again, Britain’s military reputation suffered a blow as the Boers set siege to Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking (Mafikeng – home at the time to a young black diarist named Sol Plaatje, whose initially pro-British attitudes were to be severely shaken by the shameful treatment of the town’s black inhabitants during the siege).
Under Major General Herbert Kitchener and Field Marshal Sir Frederick Sleigh Roberts, however, the British offensive gained force, and by 1900 Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Pretoria were occupied. Kruger fled for Europe.
The Boer reply was to intensify guerilla war – General Jan Smuts, who had been Kruger’s state attorney, led his troops to within 190 kilometres of Cape Town – and in response Kitchener adopted a scorched-earth policy and set up racially separate civilian concentration camps in which some 26Ã‚Â 000 Boer women and children and 14Ã‚Â 000 black and coloured people were to die in appalling conditions.
The war ended in Boer defeat at the Peace of Vereeniging in 1902.
Union and ANC
Many blacks saw the British victory in the Anglo-Boer war as the hoped-for opportunity to put all four colonies on an equal and just footing, but the treaty left their franchise rights to be decided by the white authorities. The ex-Boer republics retained the whites-only franchise.
In 1909 a delegation appointed by the South African Native Convention, including representatives of the coloured and Indian populations, went to London to plead the case of the country’s black population.
But when the Union of South Africa came into being on 31 May 1910, the only province with a non-racial franchise was the Cape, and blacks were barred from being members of parliament. Of the estimated 6-million inhabitants of the Union in that year, 67% were black African, 9% coloured and 2.5% Asian.
The South African Party, a merging of the previous Afrikaner parties, held power under the premiership of General Louis Botha.
The 1913 Land Act and the ANC
Repressive measures to entrench white power were not long in coming – the Masters and Servants Act, the reservation of skilled work for whites, pass laws, the Native Poll Tax and the 1913 Land Act which reserved 90% of the country for white ownership.
By the time this Act was passed, the African National Congress (ANC) had come into being on January 8 1912, in Bloemfontein, in an act of unity joining an educated elite, the rural classes and tribal structures. The committee included Sol Plaatje as secretary; the first president of the ANC was the Rev John L Dube. Both formed part of a second unsuccessful delegation to London, this time to protest the land grab.
Resistance started to assume a more outspoken and militant form, especially when several hundred black women marched in Bloemfontein to protest against being forced to buy passes every month. Similar protests were held in other places, and participants arrested. The women were harshly treated in jail.
The Indian community were also suffering under viciously racist treatment – in 1891 they had been expelled from the Orange Free State altogether. Mohandas Gandhi, then a young lawyer who had arrived in South Africa in 1892, had become a leading figure in Indian resistance.
The struggle against the Ã‚Â£3 Indian poll tax in Natal involved a mass strike in which a number of Indians were killed, but achieved success when the tax was removed in 1914 – the year Gandhi, then known as Mahatma, left the country.
In the white camp, Botha and Smuts were in favour of reconciliation with English South Africans. But they did not represent the whole of the embittered Afrikaner nation, and JBM Hertzog formed the more conservative Nationalist Party. Afrikaner polarisation assumed dramatic form when South Africa entered the First World War in support of Britain and anti-British Afrikaners unsuccessfully rebelled.
Still hoping for support from the British government – there had been further delegations – the ANC supported involvement in the war and unknown numbers of black soldiers died.
(South Africa gained control over the previously German-held South West Africa – now Namibia – as a result of the war; the territory became a Union mandate.)
Black workers, white workers
With the inspiration of the October Revolution in Russia, the post-war period was marked by strike action. In 1918, a million black mine workers went on strike for higher wages, and 71Ã‚Â 000 did the same in 1920 – the latter strike successfully extracting a wage increase.
Between those strikes, 1919 saw the formation of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of South Africa and the convening of the South African Indian Congress. In the same year, Botha died and Smuts became Prime Minister.
If official (white) South Africa was taking its place in the wider world as a result of the First World War, the ANC was beginning to see itself as part of the wider African efforts against colonialism in Africa. In its 1918 constitution it referred to itself as a “Pan African Association” and the organisation attended the second congress of the international Pan African Movement in 1921 (not to be confused with the later South African Pan-Africanist Congress).
Another strike was looming on the mines – by a different group of miners. Rising costs and a falling gold price led the Chamber of Mines to allow the lower-paid African miners to do semi-skilled work. White miners reacted violently in a 1922 strike, militarily suppressed by Smuts. Hertzog’s Nationalists found increased support in the white Labour Party, and an election pact saw Smuts ousted and Hertzog as Prime Minister in 1924.
The next decade saw Hertzog successfully working for increased independence from British control and greater job reservation security for whites. Franchise acts extended the vote to all white men and women, but left the still existing black vote in the Cape restricted to men.
Birth of the Nationalist Party
The government’s popularity with its voters declined, however, with economic depression in the early 1930s, forcing Hertzog into a Smuts coalition government in 1933 (the year before South Africa became independent from Great Britain). Their parties fused as the United Party, but Hertzog’s move was balanced by the breaking away on the right of DF Malan’s new Nationalist Party as a political home for the more extreme Afrikaner nationalists.
Not that the new government displayed any noticeable leftist tendencies: in 1936 black Cape voters were removed from the common roll; in the following year laws were passed to stem black urbanisation and compel municipalities to segregate black African and white residents.
The Hertzog-Smuts coalition fell apart with the Second World War, Smuts winning the power battle to form a government that took South Africa into the war. Afrikaner opposition to the war strengthened Malan’s support base.
ANC Youth League, Natal Indian Congress
At the same time, developments in the ANC symbolically marked the start of what was to be nearly 50 years of head-to-head conflict between that organisation and the Nationalist Party. In April 1944 the ANC Youth League was formed. Its first president was AM Lembede (who died three years later); Nelson Mandela was its secretary. Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu were among those who came to the fore as the influence of the Youth League in the broader ANC increased.
It was a time of rapid industrial expansion, but skilled work remained the domain of whites. On the other hand, the black influx into urban areas combined with the continuing repression strengthened black resistance. A Bill introduced by Smuts in 1946, for instance, aimed at curtailing the movement, residence and property ownership of Indians led to mass defiance and the rapid expansion of the Natal Indian Congress.
The ideals of the United Nations cast a spotlight on the country’s racial inequity, and the first of many attacks on the country in the General Assembly came from the Indian government in 1946.
The Nationalist Party, however, was gathering strength and, in a surprise result, gained power in the 1948 election – power that it would not relinquish until 1994. Apartheid became official government ideology.
The 1950s were to bring increasingly repressive laws against black South Africans and its obvious corollary – increasing resistance.
The Group Areas Act, rigidifying the racial division of land, and the Population Registration Act, which classified all citizens by race, were passed in 1950. The pass laws, restricting black movement, came in 1952. The Separate Amenities Act of 1953 introduced “petty apartheid” segregation, for example, on buses and in post offices. In that year Malan retired and JG Strijdom became Prime Minister.
The Defiance Campaign
In reaction to all this came the mass mobilisation of the Defiance Campaign, starting in 1952. Based on non-violent resistance, it nevertheless led to the jailing of thousands of participants.
The result was to increase unity among resistance groups with the forming of the Congress Alliance, which included black, coloured, Indian and white resistance organisations as well as the South African Congress of Trade Unions.
In 1954 a campaign against the deliberately inferior Bantu Education System was launched.
The Freedom Charter
The following year saw two of the most significant events of the decade.
One established how far the government was willing to go to pursue its aims. Unable to gain the two-thirds majority required by the 1910 constitution to remove coloureds from the common voters’ roll, the government changed the composition of the Senate by increasing its size (and consequently Nationalist majority) to give it the required majority in a joint sitting of the Senate and the House of Assembly.
The second watershed moment came when, after an ANC campaign to gather mass input on freedom demands, the Freedom Charter – based on the principles of human rights and non-racialism – was signed on June 26 1955 at the Congress of the People in Soweto.
Reaction was swift: the following year 156 leaders of the ANC and its allies were charged with high treason. The longest trial in South African history was to lead to the acquittal of all accused in 1961.
Strijdom died in 1958, to be succeeded by HF Verwoerd. The following year representatives of black Africans were removed from both houses of parliament and the Cape provincial council.
On the other side of the political fence, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), founded by Robert Sobukwe, broke away from the Congress Alliance.
The stage was set for the even more polarised 1960s.
The 1950s had still offered many opportunities to resolve South Africa’s racial injustices peacefully. This, however, was contrary to official ideology. Instead, apartheid transmuted itself into the policy of “separate development”: the division of the black population into ethnic “nations”, each of which was to have its own “homeland” and eventual “independence”.
The Sharpeville Massacre
A turning point came at Sharpeville on March 21 1960 when a PAC-organised passive anti-pass campaign came to a bloody conclusion with police killing 69 unarmed protesters. A State of Emergency was declared: detention without trial was introduced and the ANC, PAC and other organisations were declared illegal. The resistance groups went underground.
South Africa’s isolation increased in 1961 when, following a white referendum, South Africa became a republic and Verwoerd took it out of the Commonwealth. A general strike was called to coincide with the May 31 institution of the republic.
At the end of that year, Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation), emerged with acts of sabotage against government installations. Originally formed by a group of individuals within the ANC, including Mandela, it was to become that organisation’s armed wing.
A new stage of international pressure began when the UN General Assembly called on its members to institute economic sanctions against South Africa. Mandela, in the meanwhile, had travelled through Africa making contact with numerous leaders. Going underground on his return, he was arrested in Natal in August 1962 and received a three-year sentence for incitement.
The Rivonia Trial
In July 1963 a police raid on the Rivonia farm Lilliesleaf led to the arrest of several of Mandela’s senior ANC colleagues, including Walter Sisulu. They were charged with sabotage, Mandela being brought from prison to stand trial with them. All were sentenced in 1964 to life imprisonment and taken to Robben Island.
In September 1966 BJ Vorster became Prime Minister after the assassination in parliament of Verwoerd. Segregation became even more strictly enforced. Reeling under the blow of the “Rivonia Trial”, the ANC nevertheless continued to operate, regrouping at the Morogoro Conference in Tanzania in 1969.
The first half of the next decade was marked by increasing repression, increasing militancy in the resistance camp, and extensive strikes.
June 16, 1976
The moment of truth came on June 16, 1976, when the youth of Soweto marched against being taught in the medium of Afrikaans. Police fired on them, precipitating a massive flood of violence that overwhelmed the country.
Nevertheless, an attempt was made to further the “homeland” policy, with Transkei being the first to accept nominal independence later that year.
A new movement known as Black Consciousness had become increasingly influential. The death as a result of police brutality of its charismatic founder, Steve Biko, shocked the world in 1977.
PW Botha, who became Prime Minister in 1978 after Vorster’s retirement, tried to co-opt the coloured and Indian population in the early 1980s with a new constitution establishing a Tricameral Parliament, with separate houses for these groups. The constitution also did away with the post of Prime Minister and provided for an executive State President.
Opposition came from both left and right, a section of the right wing splitting off from the National Party. The United Democratic Front, an internal coalition of anti-apartheid groups, organised highly successful boycotts of the coloured and Indian elections in 1984.
State of emergency
There was a further escalation of violence, with the country being governed – as far as it was governable – under a state of emergency in a spiral of revolution and repression. International sanctions increased.
Among the other organisations in the spotlight at this time were the trade union body Cosatu and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha, the latter involved in bloody conflict with pro-ANC factions.
1989 was the year in which the logjam started to break up. Negotiations had been entered into between Mandela and PW Botha, but these were secret. Dissension within the Nationalist Party, in combination with Botha’s ill health, led to his resignation, and he was replaced by FW de Klerk.
After an election in September, De Klerk released Walter Sisulu and seven other political prisoners.
The death of Apatheid
On February 2 1990, FW de Klerk lifted restrictions on 33 opposition groups, including the ANC, the PAC and the Communist Party, at the opening of Parliament. On February 11 Mandela, who had maintained a tough negotiating stance on the issue, was released after 27 years in prison.
The piecemeal dismantling of restrictive legislation began. Political groups started negotiating the ending of white minority rule, and in early 1992 the white electorate endorsed De Klerk’s stance on these negotiations in a referendum.
Violence continued unabated, a massacre at the township of Boipatong causing the ANC to withdraw temporarily from constitutional talks.
In 1993, however, an agreement was reached on a Government of National Unity which would allow a partnership of the old regime and the new.
The optimism generated by the negotiations was shattered by the assassination of Chris Hani, the secretary-general of the Communist Party: only a prompt appeal to the nation by Mandela averted a massive reaction. At the end of the year an interim constitution was agreed to by 21 political parties.
First democratic elections
South Africa’s first democratic election was held on 26, 27 and 28 April 1994, with victory going to the ANC in an alliance with the Communist Party and Cosatu. Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President on May 10 with FW de Klerk and the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki as Deputy Presidents.
Mandela’s presidency was characterised by the successful negotiation of a new constitution; a start on the massive task of restructuring the civil service and attempts to redirect national priorities to address the results of apartheid; and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up primarily to investigate the wrongs of the past.
In the country’s second democratic election on 2 June 1999 the ANC marginally increased its majority and Thabo Mbeki became President. The New Nationalist Party, previously the official opposition, lost ground and ceded that position to the Democratic Party, which later became the Democratic Alliance.
In 2004 South Africa’s third democtaic election went off peacefully, with Thabo Mbeki and the ANC again returning to power, and the Democratic Alliance retaining its position as official opposition.