South African History

South African History

The Humble Beginnings

It was just over 500 years ago that white man first anchored off the shores of South Africa. But southern Africa had a history of human occupation that goes back thousands of years. For perhaps as long as 10,000 years the BUSHMEN or SAN were the only people to inhabited most of South Africa. They are the last survivors in southern Africa of a Stone-Age culture. They were Hunter-Gatherers whose existence was governed by the seasons and the movements of the wild game. Some lived for part of the year as "Strandlopers" (beachcombers) gathering from the sea. They did wonderful paintings on rock faces, using natural pigments and dyes. Unfortunately, many are not well-preserved now.


Some Bushmen still live today, mainly in the northern wastelands, although their lifestyle has changed somewhat with the coming of black and white man. Many of them were wiped out, the men killed and the women taken captive, especially by the Bantu people. They are small, slight people, with large buttocks, which are an adaptation to their nomadic and precarious life where water is scarce: like a camel's hump, they store energy and water there. They live in clans and tribes. The men hunt and the women gather melons (such as the tsama), roots and berries, even snakes, lizards and scorpions in hard times. They tip their arrows with poison made from insect grubs, which acts slowly on the hunted animal's nervous system. They may have to follow and track the wounded animal for days. A kill is an occasion for feasting. They store water in ostrich shells which they bury in the desert sands. Broken shells are made into beads which, with skin karosses, loin cloths and aprons, are their only traditional adornment. Their only possessions are what they can carry, and homes are "skerms" - rough, semi-circular shelters made from branches. But nowadays some of the tribes are more settles and have semi-permanent, or permanent, villages.

The Arrival of Black Settlers

Then about 4,000 years ago the HOTTENTOTS or KHOI came south with their herds of cattle and sheep. They were taller than the Bushmen and were mainly Pastoralists. They had semi-permanent settlements they returned to each year, in which they lived in a clan system with a chief. They had developed the craft of pottery and made clay storage vessels. Clothes were similar to the Bushmen's but they added refinements, such as feathers, seeds and seashells. Their numbers were not great and there were few conflicts with the Bushmen. Today few, if any, pure Hottentots exist. They were assimilated by the black and white peoples, or succumbed to their diseases, such as smallpox.

Later still came the blck man, the BANTU-SPEAKING PEOPLE, urging their cattle south in search of grazing. They were part of a population explosion in Central Africa and they needed water and pasture and land to till. His arrival brought him into conflict with the Bushmen and Hottentots because his cattle competed with the antelope for the sweet grasses and the water-holes. By the 14th century they occupied what is now Zimbabwe, east Botswana, and western Transvaal. By late 17th century one of the groups, the XHOSA, were moving into the eastern Cape. The stage was set for the arrival of the white man.

The Arrival of the White Settlers

The first white people to land in South Afica were the PORTUGUESE. In August 1487 Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape, landed at Mossel Bay and opened the sea-route to India. 1497 Vasco da Gama landed at St.Helena Bay, and sailed around the tip of Africa. 1503 Antonio de Saldanha found Table Bay and climbed Table Mountain. 1510, after the massacre of D'Almeida and 65 of his men by Hottentots, the Portuguese decided to bypass the Cape and stopped at Mozambique instead. (The Portuguese did colonize Mozambique and Angola).

But it was the DUTCH who came to dominate the sea lanes. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was formed, and it developed a very rich maritime empire in Malaya and Batavia (Java). In 1648 the "Nieuw Haarlem" foundered in Table Bay. Most of the men were taken back to Holland but 60 sailors remained, in a fort made from a wrecked ship. This led to suggestions for a victualling station: they could trage peacably with the local Khoi people and supply fresh produce for scurvy-ridden crews bound to and from the East Indies. So Jan Van Riebeck was given the task and he arrived on April 6th, 1652. To make the settlement self-supporting he released a number of men from company contracts to set themselves up ad independent farmers and tradesmen. They were called Free-Burghers. More free-burgher families arrived from Holland and the settlement flourished, growing wheat, vegetables and vines. The frontiers were slowly pushed out and more people came: mainly Dutch, some Belgians, Scandinavians, and many Germans. In 1688 a group of about 200 French Huguenots arrived, Protestants fleeing religious persecution in France. They were a real boost to the growing wine industry. British troops landed in 1795.

SLAVERY was a prominent aspect of Cape life for about 200 years. Early settlers were short of labor, and slavery began in earnest in 1668. Slaves came from Guinea and Angola, Delgoa Bay, Madagascar, Java, and Malaysia. By 1795 when the British took over there were 17,000 slaves. Parts of their languages and cultures were absorbed by the newer community. There was mauch mixing of the races, including black and hottentot, which created the coloured people.

The Great trek & the First Conflicts

1699, a new policy allowed stock farmers to trek, leading to the advance of the trek boers (nomadic farmers) further north and east, looking for places to cultivate soil and raise cattle. But, beyond Table Mountain, the Cape is not cattle country. The fynbos type of vegetation is soon replaced by suurveld (sour land) and therefore black, Bantu-speaking people had not settled south of the Kei river. They had instead broadened their influence on the Transvaal highveld and in Natal, where their grain flourished and sweet imfi cane grew. The Zulu chief, Shaka, had bound the neighboring peoples to him in a strong nation of warriors. The Xhosa to the south of them were also a proud people with a special regard for their cattle, as were the Venda, Tsonga, Pedi, Sotho, and Tswana. As the trekboers from the Cape pushed north they did not find what they needed until they reached the Kei - sweet grass and sweet water. But, the land they wanted was already peopled. And the conflict that arose was in essence that of herder against herder for the limited resources available. The bloody wars and conflicts that followed are well chronicled and in them are the beginnings of what was to come. What follows is a skeleton summary.

Nine Frontier Wars, mainly with the Xhosa, between 1779-1879, as the border moved eastward.

1820 Settlers arrive in Algoa Bay to help swell numbers.

1836, the Great trek started - an exodus of boers to the north and northeastern interior.

1838, Piet Retief signs a treaty with Dingaan, but they are still massacred.

1838, December 16th, the Trekkers defeat Zulus at Battle of Blood River (leading to the Covenant, and later, the Voortrekker Monument)

What followed was an extremely complicated time, with much jockeying for power and geographic position, border disputes, and disputes over who would govern what, some black v. white, some English v. boers.

Anglo-Boer Wars

Then in 1859 a 5-carat diamond was found on a farm near Witwatersrand. When Britain, tempted by these new-found resources and wealth, tried to change her presence to outright control, a new breed of men, the Afrikaaners, rallied to repulse her. This led to the Anglo-Boer Wars, the first in 1880, the second 1899-1902. There was no outright success, but eventually the Afrikaaaners had a place to assert themselves in - in an identity born of the soil. Post-war recovery was engineered by Alfred, Lord Milner, which was basically successful, but Anglo-Saxon in nature, so there was much resistance from Afrikaaners. Lobbying for second language and other rights began in 1905.

The Union of South Africa

1910, the 4 colonies formed one country, called the UNION OF SOUTH AFRICA, and was governed under the Westminster system under Louis Botha. Blacks were excluded from the democratic process. Equal status was given to both English and Afrikaans. Between the Union in 1910 and crucial parliamentary elections in 1948 South Africa was transformed into a powerful industrial nation. They were years of war (WW1 and WW2) and complex political interaction, dominated by three men: Louis Botha, and then Jan Smuts, were "Empire Men" who believed in conciliation between the two white cultural groups. The third was Barry Hertzog, who was quite different - a passionate nationalist, determined to entrench Afrikaaner power. In 1914 some went even further and formed a "purified" National Party. This grassroots movement had its doctrinal cornerstone of apartheid and was very popular - and came into power in 1948.

The Beginnings of Apartheid

This idea of Apartheid, or Separate Development, was an uncomfortable political thorn. It had its roots way back, to the introduction of the first slaves and the belief of the Dutch settlers that menial labor was not the lot of the white man, who was innately superior. Later, the Boers were so determined to maintain their national identity that they restricted the franchise to white males. Many of the Afrikaaners in the first Union Parliament saw the presence of blacks, and any conciliatory attitude to them, as a threat to their identity. Segregation became a generally accepted way of life, but it was not by law, and the emergence of a politically-aware black middle class led to the growing strength of organizations like the ANC. Afrikaaner identity was again threatened: times were hard in the 1920's and 1930's (depression, miners' strikes), black labor was cheap and the white labor force felt threatened. This had been another constant, the white fear of black encroachment.

1948, the National Party (NP) came into power. It began a series of legislations which emphasized the separateness or apartness of the country's blacks, such as the Group Areas Act. A homelands policy was devised which would create a series of black states, within the boundaries of South Africa, which would eventually be self-governing.
1956, formation of the United Party under Sir De Villiers Graaf

1961, South Africa withdrew from the British Commonwealth and became a republic. The presidents since 1948 were: D.F.Malan (1948-1954), J.G.Strijdom (1954-1958), Hendrik Verwoerd (1958-1966), B.J.Vorster (1966-1978), P.W.Boths (1978-1988), F.W.de Klerk (1988-1994), Nelson Mandela (1994-1999).

The Republic of South Africa

The 1970's were a time of detente and dialogue, an attempt to establish "normal and friendly" relations with other African states. But, deteriorating relations with the international community, much unrest and violence at home. Many black consciousness organizations formed, and many were banned - South African Communist Party, the Pan African Congress (PAC). Many leaders detained or jailed (eg. Nelson Mandela), some went into exile. State of Emergency declared in 1985. Economic recession, declining exchange rate, serious inflation, falling gold price, severe internal unrest (often black v. black), hardening of the political right, bomb blasts etc. all added up to the realization by more moderate, or reform-minded leaders, that change was inevitable.

Many reforms were enacted under P.W.Botha: job reservation scrapped, collective bargaining and black trade unions allowed, black right to purchase housing, influx control and Pass laws scrapped, Mixed Marriages Act abolished, black-white wage gap closed tremendously. The Presidents's Council (with 60 nominated coloured, Indian and white members) and a Parliament of 3 houses (white, Asian and coloured) were established.

The reform initiatives continued under F.W.de Klerk, where the government showed a willingness to move towards change, and a climate of negotiations was created. After much awful unrest there were relatively peaceful elections in 1994, and a new government came into power, with equal rights for all.


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