History of South Africa
The history of the region that is now South Africa can be traced back millions of years. The fossils of the earliest known hominids have been found in the area and modern humans are thought to have arrived 125,000 years ago. The first tribal people were the San who herded cattle and hunted the regions abundant wildlife. Over time the nomadic way of life gave way to small settlements and basic farming was practised.
During the Middle ages the area was ruled by various tribal leaders called ‘Sacred leaders’ these elite members of society are thought to have established trade in the north with other tribes from different parts of Africa as well as with the expanding Muslims that had reached as far south as Mozambique.
It wasn’t until 1488 that South Africa was discovered by European sailors. The Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias sailed past the cape but did not land. The Portuguese regularly sailed past the area on their trips to India and attempted to trade with the locals. Unfortunately these meetings often ended in conflict and due to the dangers of the rocky shore the Portuguese chose not to settle in the area. The most common visitors became scurvy-ridden crews. In 1647 the first attempt at settlement was made by a crew of shipwrecked Dutch sailors, they built a fort and survived at Table Bay for a year before they were rescued.
Shortly afterwards the Dutch returned to Table Bay and established a permanent settlement in 1652. The settlement became a refuge for Germans and French escaping from religious persecution in Europe. Large numbers of slaves were also imported from Indonesia and Madagascar. The newcomers drove the local tribes from their traditional lands, decimated them with introduced diseases, and destroyed them with superior weapons when they fought back, which they did in a number of major wars and with guerrilla resistance movements that continued into the 19th century. Most survivors were left with no option but to work for the Europeans in an exploitative arrangement that differed little from slavery.
In the 18th century Dutch power was beginning to fade and as ever the British stepped in to fill the void. They seized control of the cape in 1795 to prevent it from falling into French hands; in 1806 the region was conquered fully. British sovereignty was established in 1815 and with the already established city of Cape Town they were able to solidify their presence on the continent. As the years went by the Afrikaans descendents of the original Dutch settlers, the Boers grew increasingly dissatisfied with British rule.
The 19th century was a period of immense upheaval for the South of Africa as the Zulu kingdom began its expansion through conquest. The Zulu Impi warriors forced the displacement of thousands of other tribes, many of which drifted into British controlled territory. The British proclamation of the equality of the races particularly angered the Boers and anger reached boiling point at the sight of so many tribal peoples being allowed to live freely amongst them and as an act of defiance many groups left the region embarking on the great trek to find new lands where they could be free forming a number of republics.
After the discovery of diamonds and other precious minerals the British began to expand their influence in the area and eventually the Empire ran into conflict with the Boers. Full scale wars took place in 1881 and in 1899 with the British emerging the victor after a long bloody fight.
In 1909 the British unionised the land forming the Union of South Africa. Sadly segregation between the races became the norm after the passing of the Native lands act in 1913. At the outbreak of World War One the country joined the Allies with South African troops occupying German controlled West and East Africa. Over 18,000 African soldiers perished in the war. When World War Two began South Africa once again joined the Allies, suffering 9,000 casualties.
After the war racism reared its ugly head once again. All whites were given the vote whereas the other ethnic groups were barred instead being granted a ‘separate vote’. The rise of the Apartheid began fully in 1948 with successive National Party governments formalising and extending the existing system of radical discrimination and denial of human rights into the legal system of the apartheid.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the fall of the apartheid began in earnest. After years of resistance, including an armed struggle, and pressure from the international community as well as the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 spelt the end for the regime.
Since then a new South African parliament was formed and a new constitution was created as well as a bill of rights granting equality to all races. Modern day South Africa has put its dark past behind it and is now the biggest economy on the African continent.