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 realization.

The earliest representatives of that 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 artifacts 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.

One of the famous gold rhinos found at Mapungubwe (Image: University of Pretoria)

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 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.

Colonial expansion

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 initial 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. At the same time, British military strength began to tell in the conflict with the Xhosa.

In 1820 some 5 000 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 liberalizing 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. 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 12 000 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. 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, he 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.

Diamonds and British consolidation

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 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 colored people in practice. Among those who did qualify many became politically active across color lines. The promise existed of progress towards full political inclusion of the population.

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 their 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.





  • A short history of South Africa  
  • Colonial expansion  
  • Diamonds and British consolidation  
  • Gold and war  
  • Union and the ANC  
  • The gathering storm  
  • Three decades of crisis  
  • The death of apartheid

    A 1595 engraving of Khoihhoi pastoralists at today's Mossel Bay in the Western Cape. The Khoikhoi, otherwise known as Hottentots, and the San Bushmen lived on the southern tip of Africa for thousands of years before its written history began with the arrival of European seafarers (Image: National Library of South Africa)



    European settlement of South Africa began with the arrival of Dutch commander Jan van Riebeeck and his 90 men, who landed 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 (Image: Wikipedia)



    An 1824 sketch of Shaka (1781 - 1828), the great Zulu king, four years before his death. By James King, it is the only known drawing of Shaka (Image: South African Government Online)



    The Battle of Blood River. The Boers used their oxwagons as a defensive barrier against the Zulu army, which they eventually defeated (Image: South African History Online)



    In 1879 the Zulu army, under King Cetshwayo, delivered a resounding and humiliating defeat to the armed might of the British Empire at Isandhlwana (Image: South African History Online)


    Diamond diggings at Kimberley produced the Big Hole, believed to be the largest hand-dug excavation in the world (Image: South African Tourism)