A brief history of South Africa

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A brief history of South Africa

Africa is considered to be the cradle of mankind. There is evidence that some of the earliest people lived in southern Africa. Modern humans have lived here for more than 100 000 years. The hunter-gatherer San roamed widely over the area and the pastoral Khoi-Khoi wandered in the well-watered parts where grazing was available.

Within the last millennium great changes have taken place in the southernmost part of Africa. Tribes from central Africa moved southwards into the eastern and central parts of the area known today as South Africa.

By the 13th century iron-age people had settled in the northern part of the Kruger National Park area. They traded widely - artifacts from as far away as China have been found amongst the ruins of their settlements. Pastoralists, these people also cultivated the land and had mastered the techniques of mining and metallurgy. Among the archeological finds from this area there are some remarkable golden animal figures.

By the middle of the 17th century trading ships from Europe were sailing the seven seas and the Dutch East India Company sent out Jan van Riebeeck and a small group of men to build a fort and set up a halfway station for the ships going to the trading posts in the East. Originally they bartered with the Khoikhoi, but soon conflict arose about cattle theft and grazing grounds. Within 10 years after the establishment of the victualling post at the Cape the first farmers had been given land to cultivate and before the turn of the century some settlers began to migrate north and east. Slaves from Africa and the East were imported to carry out the strenuous labour. Diseases like smallpocks diminished the Khoisan population and a mixed- race group consisting of descendants of the Khoisan, slaves, excites and white colonists was formed. The newcomers brought Christianity and Islam to the Cape. The colonists, mainly of Dutch, German and French Huguenot descent began to lose their sense of identification with Europe and the Afrikaner nation came into being.

By the end of the 18th century these migrant farmers had come into contact with the Xhosa speaking inhabitants of the Eastern Cape and skirmishes between them ensued. In 1806 when the Napoleonic wars were raging in Europe the Cape became a British colony. Some 5000 British settlers were placed on the eastern frontier in 1820 in an unsuccessful effort to provide a buffer against the Xhosas. In 1857 a mass starvation occurred amongst the Xhosa as a result of a prophecy that the whites would return to the sea if the blacks would slaughter their cattle and destroy their crops.

During the early 19th century the great Zulu warrior king, Shaka, had risen to power. The resulting conquests had caused what was known as the mfecane and large parts of the interior were denuded of inhabitants. Into these parts now moved the white farmers who had become dissatisfied with British rule and the emancipation of slaves in 1834. A group of these Voortrekkers moved east into the area today known as KwaZulu-Natal. After several battles between the Zulus and the Trekkers the British, fearing conflict to spread, annexed Natal where they already had a small settlement. The Trekkers then established themselves in two republics, the Orange Free State and the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek between the Orange and the Limpopo rivers.

By the middle of the 19th century the small refreshment post at the Cape had grown into an area of white settlement that covered the whole of what is today the Republic of South Africa.

During the latter half of the 19th century vast deposits of diamonds and gold were discovered in South Africa resulting in the founding of Kimberley and Johannesburg. This had a dramatic economic and political effect, eventually leading to the Anglo-Boer War between Britain and the two Boer republics [1899-1902].

Many blacks had hoped that the British victory would result in franchise rights for them, but when the Union of South Africa consisting of the four former colonies came into being in 1910 they were barred from parliament and repressives measures to entrench white power soon followed. In an act of unity the African National Congress [ANC] was founded in Bloemfontein in 1912 and protests against these laws ensued. The period after the First World War was marked by strike action and the formation of unions. In the 1930's black Cape voters were removed from the common voters' roll, laws were passed to stem black urbanization and force municipalities to segregate black Africans and white residents.

The 1940's saw South Africa participating in World War II under the premiership of Smuts. Strong opposition to the war by the Afrikaners resulted in more support for Malan and the subsequent rise to power of the Nationalist Party. Meanwhile in 1944 the ANC Youth League was formed with Nelson Mandela as its secretary. The result being an almost 50 year long conflict between this organisation and the Nationalist Party.

After the war came a time of rapid industrialisation, but skilled work remained with the whites. In 1948 the Nationalist Party gained power which they would not relinquish until 1994. Separate Development [Apartheid] became the official government policy. The result was an increase of unity amongst resistance groups which included black, coloured, Indian and white organisations. In 1961 South Africa became a republic and left the Commonwealth. By the end of that year Umkhonto we Sizwe [The Spear of the Nation] started with acts of sabotage and the UN had called upon its members to institute economic sanctions against South Africa. Mandela, Sisulu and other leaders of the resistance groups were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. In 1976 the youth of Soweto marched against unacceptable educational conditions, police fired at them and violence broke out. A state of emergency was declared. By the late 1980's under increasing international pressure the government had no option but to start negotiations with Mandela. In 1990 Mandela was set free and in 1993 after further negotiations an interim constitution was agreed to by 21 political parties. In 1994 the first democratic election was held and Mandela became president.

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