Between 200 000 and 100 000 years ago, modern humans began to evolve throughout Africa – including South Africa. They became the San, who later met up with south-bound Khoi pastoralists from the north and became known collectively as the KhoiSan.
The KhoiSan drifted down into the Western Cape at about the same time (300AD) that early Iron Age groups crossed the Limpopo – whose descendants, about 1 000 years later, formed the African kingdom of Mapungubwe and began to trade with India, Arabia and China.
In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck and his 90-strong party arrived from The Netherlands and set up a ship-refuelling station at Cape Town – an important stop both geographically and politically, as it was on the only early trade route from Europe and the Americas to India, the ‘Spice Islands’ of the East Indies, and the East. Over the next 200 years, various waves of other European and Indian settlers also arrived.
Subsequently, 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 that began in Zululand, crossed the Drakensberg and swept through the present 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 British 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.
The 20th century saw the end of the South African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War), which was fought from 1899 to 1902; the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910; the 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.
Apartheid was a nearly 50-year period of institutionalised racism and the suppression of non-whites, during which the African National Congress (ANC) was banned and its leaders, including Nelson Mandela, banished to prison on Robben Island.
The unbanning of the ANC in 1990, the release of Mandela and his fellow prisoners, and the 1994 democratic elections – which saw Mandela installed as the country’s first democratic president – heralded the birth of the new South Africa.
During Mandela's presidency a new Constitution was implemented – one of the most inclusive and liberal in the world – and the government devoted itself, among other pressing priorities, to righting the wrongs of apartheid.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up, headed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, to explore some of the crimes of apartheid.
Since 1994, the ANC has won three successive elections, with Thabo Mbeki succeeding Nelson Mandela, followed by Jacob Zuma (who ousted Mbeki in a leadership battle within the party). The Democratic Alliance is currently the official opposition party, and the political status quo is unlikely to change in the next general elections, scheduled for 2014.