South Africa History

The people of South Africa have gone through a cycle of change for hundreds of years. Evidence of human occupation of South Africa extends back 40 000 years, when the Khoi Khoi and San peoples occupied the land. Later they were joined by the Bantu who migrated from the north. The Europeans landed at Table Bay from the 17th century. The Dutch (Boers) staked out the land and began their Great Trek to the interior, where they established the new colonies of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The British controlled the towns and coast.

A century of skirmish, conflict and casualty ensued between the British, the Boers and the tribes who owned the land that they desired so much. The discovery of diamonds, and later gold in the Transvaal at the end of the 19th century, resulted in an English invasion which sparked the second Anglo-Boer War. Lives were lost on a massive scale before British victory in 1902. The Union of South Africa was established to mend the country they had nearly destroyed.

An uneasy power-sharing between the two groups held sway until the 1940s, when the Afrikaner National Party was able to gain a strong majority. This had disastrous consequences for the black people of South Africa. Increasingly repressive legislation was introduced and apartheid (‘being apart’) reared its ugly head. Pass laws and classification forced blacks to live separate and inferior lives. Race laws touched every aspect of social life, including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites, and the sanctioning of ‘white-only’ jobs, services and public places. Non-compliance was dealt with harshly. All blacks were required to carry pass books.

In 1960 black demonstrators in Sharpeville who refused to carry their pass books clashed with the police. The conflict left 69 people dead and the government declared a state of emergency. Homelands were created from 1976 to 1981 as independent states ensuring the preservation of white supremacy elsewhere. The homelands denationalised nine million black South Africans who now needed passports to enter South Africa: they were aliens in their own country. The principal black opposition movement was the African National Congress (ANC). The bulk of the ANC’s organisation including its military wing worked in exile. During the state of emergency which continued intermittently until 1989, thousands of activists of the ANC and other groups were arrested. Some died in police custody and others were either banished from the country or imprisoned for life. Nelson Mandela was one of these.

In the 1989 elections, the hard-line national party president, PW Botha, gave way to the much more progressive FW De Klerk. The new government faced constant pressure from the international community and human rights bodies to dismantle apartheid. Over the next 12 months, the De Klerk government removed the ban on the ANC, the South African Communist Party and 30 other anti-apartheid groups. They released the jailed ANC leadership including its leader Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 27 years. Mandela and his ANC colleagues immediately started negotiating a political settlement with the white government.

After years of struggle during one of the most politically turbulent periods on earth, the ANC was democratically elected to power in 1994. Mandela as president created the ‘Rainbow Nation’. De Klerk became deputy president and he and Mandela jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize. The priorities for the new government were straightforward but daunting: to provide decent standards of housing, education, and health care to the majority black population - needs that had been ignored under the apartheid regime. Before the 1999 elections, Mandela announced that he would not stand for a second term and passed the presidential reins to Thabo Mbeki. Mandela is still one of Africa’s finest statesmen and the majority of South Africans hold great respect and admiration for him. The depth of change required in South Africa is enormous – poverty, unemployment and crime are problems that will take generations to overcome - but an atmosphere of freedom and hope has settled over a new South Africa.

Read more about South Africa’s destinations, parks & reserves or adventure activities, or browse our recommended South Africa overland tours.