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History of South Africa in only 4000 words

Martie Coetser is a freelance writer from South Africa. She has a keen interest in a variety of topics.

Since 1994 South Africa is composed of nine provinces -

Since 1994 South Africa is a democratic country divided into nine provinces

Since 1994 South Africa is a democratic country divided into nine provinces

Author’s Note

This is a short and simplified summary of South Africa"s history. Detail are available via inserted links in blue.

South Africa before 1652

Perhaps South Africa is indeed the The Cradle of Mankind, as many scientists say it is. After all, various studies show that the South Africa's indigenous San people carry some of the oldest human Y-chromosome haplogroups. These haplogroups are specific sub-groups of haplogroups A and B - the two earliest branches on the human Y-chromosome tree. (Also read: worlds-most-ancient-race-traced-in-dna-study)

A set of tools almost identical to that used by the modern San was discovered at Border Cave in KwaZulu-Natal in 2012. Tests dated these tools to 44,000 BP.

(BP means 'before 1950'. Radiocarbon dating was first used in 1940. Beginning in 1954, metrologists established 1950 as the origin year for the BP scale for use with radiocarbon dating, using a 1950-based reference sample of oxalic acid.)

Be that as it may, until 1652 no white people lived in the land that would become South Africa.

While the San-people, who were nomadic hunter-gatherer people, and the Khoikhoi people, who raised cattle and cultivated land, lived in the south and south-west regions of SA, other distinct African chiefdoms and kingdoms occupied the rest of the country, each confined to a specific region. Among at least nine language-groups, were the Xhosa-, the Zulu-, and three distinct groups of Sotho people.

Apart from ordinary tribal wars, instigated by power-hunger kings and chiefs, the people were happy and contented. Social structures were thoroughly established and law and order were kept. There were economic relationships between the various groups. Remains of iron tools and weapons, and utensils of clay, indicate that the people lived in the Late Iron Age, in mixed-farming communities based on grain and livestock.

Read DavidOnline's hubs about the Khoisan people HERE.

Read more about the various ethnic groups in South Africa HERE.

Read more about indigenous South Africans here

Read more about indigenous South Africans here

Many rock art was discovered against the walls of cages throughout the country

Many rock art was discovered against the walls of cages throughout the country

Meantime in Europe: The trading of spices

From as early as 3000 B.C, the trading of spices such as cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, pepper, turmeric, and also opium, fell in the same category as the trading of oil today.

India's South West Coast path, especially Kerala, had established itself as a major spice trade centre. Merchants from all over the world went out of their way to find the best route to India.

The discovery of a sea route to the southern tip of Africa by Bartolomeu Dias in May 1488 was a break-through for the The Portuguese Empire, and even more so when Vasco da Gama finally discovered a route all the way to India in 1499. (The Portuguese Empire was the first global empire in history and also the longest-lived of the European colonial empires, spanning almost six centuries.)

For the next 164 years the spice route from Europe to India via the Cape of Storms had no effect on South Africa. The unpredictable and stormy sea at Africa's southern tip, where the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean meet, became known as the graveyard of ships, as it claimed more than 140 ships and the lives of thousands, including the life of Bartlomeu Dias on May 29, 1500.

Read about the Dias and Da Gama crosses (navigational beacons) at Cape Point HERE.

Portuguese ship of the 15th century

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The spice route from Europe to India via the southern tip of Africa

The spice route from Europe to India via the southern tip of Africa

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The Dutch East India Company

The United East India Company, also called the Dutch East India Company, was a powerful company since 1602. Its quasi-governmental powers gave it the right to establish colonies, negotiate treaties, to strike its own coins, wage war, and imprison and execute convicts. Between 1602 and 1796 it owned 4,785 ships and employed almost a million European workers, while their biggest competition, the British East India Company,had only 2,690 ships and 882,412 employees. The Dutch East India Company flourished for almost 200 years until it went bankrupt in 1800 due to corruption.

During the Dutch-Portuguese War (1601-1661), the Dutch managed to break the Portuguese monopoly of the spice route via the Cape of Storms.

The establishment of a vegetable (and fruit) garden at the southern tip of Africa, in order to supply fresh food to trading vessels plying the spice route via the Cape of Storms, became the Dutch East India Company's first priority in 1652.

The history of the The Company Garden

The history of the The Company Garden

Jan van Riebeeck, the founder of Cape Town

Johan Anthoniszoon (Jan) van Riebeeck joined the Dutch East India Company in 1639. After serving in a number of posts, he volunteered to realize the company's dream to establish a vegetable & fruit garden at the southern tip of Africa, specifically at the Cape of Good Hope, previously known as the Cape of Storms and today known as Cape Town.

On 6 April 1652, at the age of 33, he set foot on shore. With him was 90 people, all of them positive and eager to accomplish the company's goal.

Jan van Riebeeck was compelled to fortify the site not only to prevent the enemies of the Dutch from destroying their precious Tavern of the Seas, but also because the native Khoikhoi were not at all happy with the trend of events. (Being nomadic people, the San simply moved north where they found peace in the desert, as none of the other races in Southern Africa were interested in the desert. Only some of the San people stayed with the Khoikhoi via marriage and family relations.)

The first war between the Dutch and the Khoihoi broke out in 1659, then a second in 1673, and a third from 1674 - 1677. Read more about it HERE.

Jan van Riebeeck @ Wikimedia

Jan van Riebeeck @ Wikimedia

Arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in Cape Town painted by Charles Davidson Bell

Arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in Cape Town painted by Charles Davidson Bell

Land ownership

As “victims” of land owner’s policies in the Middle Ages, and of Feudalism, and Manorialism, the Europeans practiced by 1652 Capitalism, while the Khoikhoi, and also the rest of the inhabitants of Africa, were still contented with Primitive Communalism or/and Feudalism systems.

According to African historical culture, land belonged to the king of the tribe. Tribes were composed of several ‘families’. Each family had a chief. These chiefs had the right to transfer ‘land use rights’. After successful negotiations with a chief, which included the delivery of whatever the chief wanted in exchange for the providing of land use rights, the Dutch occupied and developed the land they were allowed to use, but with the idea that they have sole right to do so. Meanwhile the indigenous people had no concept of ownership and sole rights. Their trespasses usually ended in wars, which would be won by the Europeans whose rifles and gunpowder prevailed over bows and arrows, assegais and bludgeons.


Ref: Tradition, Culture and Development in Africa: Historical Lessons for Modern Development Planning by Ambe J. Njoh

Slavery

From 1652 to 1 December 1834 (182 years) Slavery was legal in South-Africa. There were already 11-20 slaves in the possession of the officials of the East Indian Company when the first shipment of Angolan slaves arrived on March 28, 1658. More slaves were imported from Batavia, Guinea, and Madagascar. The majority came from Dutch East Indies, known as Indonesia today. Today the latter is collectively known as the Cape Malay.

Painting by Carla Bosch of restored houses of slaves in Cape Town

Painting of restored houses of slaves in Cape Town

Painting of restored houses of slaves in Cape Town

List of Wars in Europe between 1651 and 1692

European invasion of South Africa

European invasion of South Africa

1652 - 1806: 154 years under the rule of the Dutch East India Company

The Cape of Good Hope surpassed the expectations of the Dutch. It was a haven comparing to the war-distressed Europe.

Dutch soldiers, compelled to do military service in the Cape of Good Hope, preferred at the end of their period of service to make a living as farmers in the Cape. German soldiers even joined the Dutch army with the intention to start a new life in the Cape of Good Hope. Businessmen, teachers, religious leaders, etc., came from all over Europe to meet the needs and demands of the settlers.

Although a number of French Huguenots already immigrated to the Cape of Good Hope, a large group came in 1687. In total some 180 from France, and 18 Walloons from the present-day Belgium, settled at the Cape of Good Hope to become the founders of South Africa’s flourishing wine industry. Read more about the French Huguenots in South Africa HERE.

The future of the Cape of Good Hope looked more than promising, as its strategic position meant that it would be, until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, supply each and every ship sailing between Europe and Asia with fresh food and wine.

As the number of farmers increased, more land was needed and obtained. As the years came and went, the tyrannical and authoritative Dutch East India Company compelled the Dutch farmers to move further away from Cape Town into the territory of the Xhosa people. Their intrusion led to two wars.

  • First Xhosa war (1779-81)
  • Second Xhosa war (1789–93)

By 1795 the Cape of Good Hope was much larger than the original garden of Jan van Riebeeck. The Khoikhoi was no longer a threat of any kind. 90% of them, as well as a quarter of the European settlers, had died during the fatal Smallpox epidemic of 1713. In order to survive, the remaining Khoikhoi offered their services to the Dutch farmers.

Read more about this time in South Africa's history in Charles Williams anthology, named Narratives and Adventures of Travelers in South Africa.

Read more about the history of the Cape Colony before 1806 HERE.

Expanding borders of the Cape of Good Hope 1652 to 1795

Expanding borders of the Cape of Good Hope 1652 to 1795

First European houses: Hartbeeshuis

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New ethnic groups

In the meantime two groups of mixed races came to life. While one of their parents/grandparents was an European, the other was a Khoikhoi, or a slave from Indonesia, or Batavia, or Africa, or Madagascar.

  • The Cape Coloureds – stayed in Cape Town and immediate regions. By 2015 they will be for a long time the predominant population group in the region today known as the Western Cape Province. As the Afrikaners migrated north, a second group of Coulereds will emerged from relationships between Afrikaners (whites) and Africans (blacks).
  • The Griqua people – migrated inland from Cape Town in a northern direction to establish settlements on the borders, near the territories of African people. (See Griqualand West and Griqualand East, today part of the Northern Cape Province.)

A third unique ethnic group that came into existence was the Afrikaner, who will become known as the Boere (farmers), and creators of the abhorrent Apartheids regime from 1948-1994. As a mixture of Dutch, German and French this group formed their own culture, completely alienated from their European ancestors. In 1691 the Afrikaner population was composed of 66,67% Dutch, 16,67 French, 14,29% German, 2.37% Scandinavian/Belgian.

A new language: Afrikaans

Although each of the three new ethnic groups developed a unique dialect, Afrikaans is the name of the language they started to develop in the Cape of Good Hope.

Afrikaans is a daughter-language of Dutch, composed of 90 to 95% Dutch words and a variety of Portuguese, German, Malay, Khoisan, and African words. It will only be recognized as an official language (instead of a slang) in 1925. The (Dutch) Bible will be translated in Afrikaans in 1933. Today Afrikaans is the third-most-spoken language in the country, spoken by 13.5% of the population.

1814 – 1910 - The Cape Colony and Boere Republics

Napoléon Bonaparte’s victory over the Netherlands encouraged Britain to conquer the Cape of Good Hope. After the Battle of Muizenberg in 1795, and finally the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814, the Cape was no longer Dutch, but English.

The British established more towns, and increased the number of wars with the Xhosa people.

  • Third Xhosa War (1799-1803) – was actually a Xhosa rebellion crushed by General T.P. Vandeleur.
  • Fourth Xhosa War (1811–12)
  • Fifth Xhosa War (1818–19)
  • Sixth Xhosa war (1834–36)
  • Seventh Xhosa War (1846-1847)
  • Eighth Xhosa War (1850-1853)
  • Ninth Xhosa War (1877-1878)

Read more about these wars HERE.

The Cape Colony by 1890

The Cape Colony by 1890

In the meantime up north (1816 – 1828)

The Zulu tribe, who occupied the land between the Drakensberge (Dragon Mountains) and the Indian Ocean, today known as KwaZulu-Natal, were in war with the Ndwandwe people. Under leadership of King Shaka, who came into power in 1816, the Zulus managed to unite all their neighboring tribes.

Some historians argue that Shaka changed the nature of warfare among the African tribes from 'a ritualised exchange of taunts with minimal loss of life into a true method of subjugation by wholesale slaughter. Be that as it may, by 1828, when Shaka was assassinated by his half brothers Dingane and Mhlangana, the Zulu people was a mighty tribe, ready to stop whomever wanted to take their land.

Read more about King Shaka HERE.

Zulu warrior

Zulu warrior

Zulu territory

Zulu territory

Mfecane / Difaqane / Lifaqane

At the same time, between 1815 and 1840, the ‘second greatest Southern African military leader after King Shaka’, named Mzilikazi, wreaked havoc in the rest of the country that would become South Africa.

Mzilikazi was originally a lieutenant of Shaka but after a disagreement in 1823, he took his clan, the Khumalo, and initiated the Mfecane (Difaqane/ Lifaqane) - a period of widespread chaos and warfare among indigenous South Africans that lasted from 1815 to 1840.

The Great Trek (1835-1846)

During the sixth Xhosa War (1834-1836) a total of 1093 Afrikaner families decided to leave the Cape Colony. They would cross the Orange River and negotiate for land with less hostile tribes, like the Sotho people, who were occupying the land today known as the Orange Free State.

The Voortrekkers - as they were called - had not yet met any of the tribes they were about to face, and had no idea what the world was like on the other side of the Orange River.

Disagreements between the leaders of the Voortrekker groups encouraged some of the groups to trek east instead of north. After crossing the Drakensberge (Dragon Mountains), they found themselves in the territory of King Dingaan, the half-brother, killer and successor of King Sjaka.

The Great-Trek, with all its heart-wrenching events, changed the future of South Africa. Sadly, it triggered racism that would lead to Apartheid and all the racial challenges South Africa is facing today.

Read more about the Great Trek HERE or HERE.

The Great Trek, South Africa

The Great Trek, South Africa

The Battle of Blood River

The Battle of Blood River

The various routes of the Great Trek, South Africa

The various routes of the Great Trek, South Africa

Boere Republics

In spite of many adversities, including a number of battles and wars between the Afrkaners and the Africans, and disputes between the Afrikaners and the British, the Afrikaners managed to establish a number of Republics, of which two became the most problematic considering the objectives of the British.

South African Republic (Transvaal) 1852-1902)

South African Republic (Transvaal) 1852-1902)

Orange Free State 1854-1902

Orange Free State 1854-1902

Union of South Africa

Natalia, one of the republics established by the Afrikaners after the Great Trek, had already been annexed by the British in 1843. In 1848 the first sugar cultivars were imported from Mauritius. The sugar industry immediately proved to be successful.

Due to the indigenous Zulu people’s unwillingness to become the slaves of the British by providing cheap labor, the British imported indentured labor from India.

(Between 1893 and 1914 the young Indian lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi, faced the discrimination directed at all coloured people in the British colonies and Boere republics. His efforts - through non-violent protests - to improve the living and working conditions of Indians and non-whites in SA, were impressive, but in vain. He returned to India to play a major role in India’s struggle for independence.)

The discovery of diamonds in 1866, as well as the discovery of gold in 1884, led to a massive migration of laborers, fortune seekers, and businessmen from all over the world. From Mid-, East-, and West Africa came people, eager to accept the minimum wages offered by the British entrepreneurs who had grabbed the opportunities to establish mining companies. This led to a Mineral Revolution that would form the basis of the Apartheid system that was implemented in the 1950’s.

The efforts of the British to colonize the two independent Boere republics led to two wars –

While the Afrikaners won the first war, and kept their independence, they lost the second war due to the British inhuman tactics - of burning down all the farms of the Afrikaners, including their homes, and to incarcerated all women and children and men (who were too old or ill to participate in the war) in concentration camps. 27 927 persons died in those camps - 1 676 men, 4 177 women and 22 074 children under sixteen. Africans, who worked as laborers on the farms, were put in separate camps. The total deaths in their camps were between 14 154 and 20 000, of which 81% were children.

On 31 May 1910 all the colonies, including the two previous Boere republics, were unified to become the Union of South Africa - a dominion of the British Empire.

Read more about the Second Anglo-Boer War HERE.

Second Anglo-Boer War

Tents in the Bloemfontein concentration camp

Tents in the Bloemfontein concentration camp

Lizzie van Zyl, visited by Emily Hobhouse in a British concentration camp

Lizzie van Zyl, visited by Emily Hobhouse in a British concentration camp

Union of South Africa (1910-1961)

The Union of South Africa (1910-1961)

The Union of South Africa (1910-1961)

World Wars

Being a colony of the British, South Africa joined with Great Britain in World War I (July 1914 - November 1918). More than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks and 2,500 coloureds/Indians served in South African military units during this war. The total casualties was about 18,600.

South Africa also participated with Great Britain in World War II (September 1939 – September 1945). Of the 334,000 men volunteered for full-time service (211,000 whites, 77,000 blacks, 46,000 coloureds/Indians), 11,023 were killed in action.

Read more about this HERE.

BL 5.4 inch Howitzer and crew, East Africa, 1916 or 1917. Photo courtesy of SANDF Archives, from Nöthling, C J (ed), "Ultima Ratio Regum: Artillery History of South Africa" 1987

BL 5.4 inch Howitzer and crew, East Africa, 1916 or 1917. Photo courtesy of SANDF Archives, from Nöthling, C J (ed), "Ultima Ratio Regum: Artillery History of South Africa" 1987

Apartheid (1948-1994)

Apartheid

Racial segregation was the order of the day through social norms since the arrival of Europeans in 1652. When the National Party came into power in 1948, it became enforceable through a series of legislation. Residents were classified in groups and assigned to different regions. Between 1960 and 1983 approximately 3.5 million non-whites were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighborhoods called locations, today known as townships. All Africans had to registered as citizens of one of the ten tribal homelands, called bantustans. They had no right to vote in South Africa’s municipal and national elections.

All residents were deprived of their right to travel freely. As in the days of slavery, non-whites required passes to work and travel beyond the boundaries of their homelands. In the towns and cities of whites, signs indicated where they were allowed to sit, stand, eat and drink. Their segregated beaches, education, medical care, and all other public services, were inferior to those of whites.

Interracial marriage and romantic relationships were banned.

In the process only whites got the opportunity to found companies. Skilled jobs were reserved for white people, and unskilled labor for non-whites. As skilled businessmen, Indians did not plunge into poverty, while Africans and Coloureds had no hope to rise above their straitened circumstances.

This system was called Apartheid. Read more about it HERE and HERE.

Africans confined to homelands during Apartheid

Black homelands during Apartheid in South Africa 1960-1994

Black homelands during Apartheid in South Africa 1960-1994

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Signs during Apartheid in South Africa

Signs during Apartheid in South Africa

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BGS Best ​Book 2015 Award, Dublin, Ireland was won by Mark Fine for his book 'The Zebra Affair' - an Apartheid love story