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History of South Africa

South Africa has a long and glorious tribal history, replete with shining achievements in art and culture. The earliest settlers in the area now occupied by South Africa were the San (you may know them by the term ‘Bushmen’) and their close ethnic cousins, the Khoi-Khoi (otherwise known as the Hottentots). By the 11th century, the Bantu-speaking pastoral peoples from neighbouring parts of Africa had settled in the northeast and east coast of the country. By the 15th century, they had spread all along the eastern coast of southern Africa.

The Europeans started succumbing to their now renowned wanderlust by the 16th century, and Africa came under the full might of the European colonial intervention. The Dutch arrived in South Africa by 1652 and established base in the Cape of Good Hope. Dutch rule introduced the most significant cultural influence in South Africa, with the development of a close-knit Dutch community - the Boers - with their own dialect, Afrikaans (spoken widely till today) and their own Calvinist church.

The history of colonialism in South Africa, like anywhere else in Africa, was peppered with violent conflict between the settlers and the native inhabitants. The Dutch settlement around the area of Cape Town meant the displacement of the Khoi-San people. As the colonial power moved northwards over the next century and a half, the Bantus offered spirited resistance and were met with brutal repression.

The year 1779 was a landmark in the history of tribal resistance in South Africa – the Xhosa people defeated the eastward expansion of the Boers in the first Bantu War. However, the interference of the colonial powers in the Bantus’ local affairs caused unprecedented changes in their political and social systems. One of the consequences of these changes was the rise of the Zulu tyrant Shaka, who set about attacking neighbouring tribes and causing mass migration and general havoc in a period known as the difaqane (‘the scattering’). The Zulus were finally defeated by a combination of British and Boer armies, but relations between the two competing colonial powers remained tense.

In 1806, the British annexed the Cape, much to the chagrin of the Boers, who started a two-year migratory journey across the Orange River that became known as the Great Trek. The Boers now established their own independent republics – Orange Free State and Transvaal. With the discovery of diamonds and gold in the newly founded republics, British interference and money poured in, increasing Boer-British rivalry and leading to the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). With the Boers defeated at the end of the War, the British were free to rule all of South Africa, which they did along with years of brutal repression of the Afrikaners including the massacre of over 25,000 Boer men, women and children.

The Union of South Africa was established in 1910, with political power resting in the hands of the whites. Despite resistance against the government in the form of strikes and non-cooperation by blacks, the white government continued to impose the system of apartheid. Repression against black people and their leaders was swiftly and brutally implemented by the security forces – notorious instances include the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, the torture and murder of activist Steve Biko and the shooting of schoolchildren in Soweto in 1976.

The African National Congress (ANC) was established to combat apartheid by any means available, including guerrilla warfare. The South African government responded by arresting and deporting many of its leaders, including, of course, Nelson Mandela. By the 1970s, the white government hit upon the idea of using the so-called Black Homelands policy to physically segregate black populations and deny political and economic rights to black workers.

The rise of Marxist and socialist parties in neighbouring republics such as Mozambique and Angola, and the belated imposition of economic sanctions by the international community isolated the white regime of South Africa. The government responded to this suffocating economic and political exclusion by initiating some half-hearted reforms that did not impress the world community.

By 1989, the then President FW de Klerk recognised that something would have to change fundamentally – he started a far-reaching and comprehensive programme that envisaged a complete dismantling of apartheid and installing of democracy. The peace initiative with various black groups including the ANC was cemented with the freeing of political prisoners, including most popularly, Nelson Mandela on the 11th of February 1990. For the first time, popular elections were held and Nelson Mandela assumed power in 1994.

Post-apartheid governments in South Africa face an enormous task of economic and political reconstruction. At present, President Jacob Zuma is in charge of this daunting task.


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