South African history – an overview
Did you know?
The whole world is ‘twice South African’. It was here that some (though not the oldest) of our distant human ancestors, such as the hominid Australopithecus africanus once lived. And current fossil evidence suggests that modern humans also may have evolved in southern Africa (though there is also evidence of very early humans in countries like Ethiopia).
Between 200 000 and 100 000 years ago, modern humans began to evolve throughout Africa – including South Africa. They became the San, and these hunter-gatherers had a resource-rich golden age.
About 2 000 years ago, San groups in what is now Botswana met up with south-bound pastoralists from the north, and their livestock. They took on this way of life and called themselves the Khoi Khoi.
The Khoi Khoi drifted down into the Western Cape at about the same time (300 AD) that early Iron Age groups crossed the Limpopo. About 1 000 years later, their descendants formed the African Kingdom of Mapungubwe and began to trade with India, Arabia and China.
By now, the San people living in South Africa faced competition from the Khoi Khoi and the African groups moving southwards.
Competition increased in 1652 when Jan van Riebeeck and his 90-strong party of Europeans arrived to set up a ship-refuelling station at Cape Town.
Thus the stage was laid for more than 200 years of vying for resources all through South Africa. The players came from all the indigenous groups and the various waves of European and Indian settlers.
The Dutch, British and to an extent the French fought for control of the Cape, with the British finally triumphant in 1806. Dutch Boers prepared to trek into the hinterland to escape British rule .
This was also the start of the Mfecane ('the scattering, the crushing') of Africans which began in Zululand, crossed the Drakensberg and swept through what was then the Orange Free State (now simply the Free State province). Spurred on by the Zulu warrior king Shaka’s growing militarism, it became a confusing maelstrom of movement and massacre. Adding the land-hungry Voortrekkers and the newly-arrived 1820 Settlers into this mix brought further conflict.
The late 1800s saw the discovery of South Africa’s immense gold- and diamond wealth and later, the great platinum finds.
South African history in the 20th Century began with the end of the South African War (formerly the Anglo-Boer War), which was fought from 1899 to 1902 primarily but not exclusively between the British and the Boers; the establishment of the Union of South Africa; our involvement in World War I and World War II on the side of the Allies; a narrow victory for the mostly-Afrikaner National Party in 1948 and, in the years to come, the formulation of apartheid.
This was a 50-year period of institutionalised racism and subjection of South Africans who were not white, during which the African National Congress was banned and its leaders, including Nelson Mandela, banished to Robben Island.
The unbanning of the ANC, the release of Mandela and his fellow prisoners and the 1994 democratic elections heralded the birth of the New South Africa.
Now South Africa is a typical teenager: beautiful, tempestuous, impatient and full of wonderful possibilities.