** South African history

South African History

Figure 1.--.

The Dutch created the first European settlement in Southern Africa, located at Capetown near the strategic Cape of Good Hope. The Dutch ceeded the Cape Colony to Britain (1814) near the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. Conflict with the British began almost at once, but intensified after the British freed the slaves that the Boers still held (1834). The Boers decided to place themselves beyond British authority and about 7,000 intrpid pioneers emmigrated north in the Great Trek (1835-40). More Boer emmigrants followed and three states were created: the Orange Free State, Natal, and the Transvaal. Wars were fought both between the Boers and the native people. The Xhosa war was fought at the Fish and Kieskama rivers Eastern Cape. Later the Zulu wars were in the then Natal now Kwazulu province. The question of national jurisdiction was not finally settled until the Boer War (1899-1902). The various colonies were combined in the Union of South Africa (1910). Modern South Africa is a union of British and former Boer Republics (1910) with their diverse populations.

The Bushmen

The Bantu

The Bantu peoples from the Niger River Delta began a vast mogration across sub-Saharan Africa (about 1000 BC). The Bushmen the Bantu-speaking immigrants are believed to have for the most part lived mostly peacefully. There is, however, little real evidence because both people were pre-literate. The Bantu reached modern South Africa (KwaZulu-Natal Province) (about 500 AD).

Europeans at the Cape (1498)

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach the Cape. They began sailing south along the coast of Africa to find a sea route to the East. Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape (1488), but did not go further. Vasco da Gama finally rounded the Cape and reached India (1498). Opening trade with the East brought great wealth to tiny Portugal. During this period they demostrated little interest in the Cape itself. They saw the fierce weather with storms from the south and rocky shoreline as a threat to their ships. Nor did trade with the natives prove profitable. The Portuguese found the Mozambique coast to the east more attractive. The bays offered better protection and the storms were more moderate. The prawning and gold in the interior also attracted them. Portugal had a monopoly on the trade for only a short period. The Dutch, Spanish, English, and French followed the Portuguese to the East. By the late-16th century, the English and Dutch in particular began to challenge the Portuguese supremecy. Thus European maritime trade around the Cape increased with ships of several countries moving both ways. While the Portuguese had resupply points in Mozambique, other countries did not have access to supply points as they rounded the Cape. Some would try to trade with the natives.

Dutch Foundation (1652)

The Dutch settlement of what would become the Cape Colony began inadvertently when the ship Nieuwe Haarlem ran aground in Table Bayt (March 1647). They constructed a crude fort-- "Sand Fort of the Cape of Good Hope". They were marooned there almost a year. They were finally rescued by a fleet of 12 Dutch trading ships commanded W.G. de Jong. One of the merchants aboard was Jan van Riebeeck. After returning to the Netherlands, van Riebeeck and others worked to persuade the Dutch East India Company (Vereinigte Ostindische Kompanie--DEIC) `to found a trading center at the Cape. The DEIC had a monopoly on trade with the East and the idea of a secure base at the Cape made good sence. Thus the DEIC decided to do just that, establish a permanent settlement at the Cape. They have van Riebeeck the assifgnmernt and his fleet of five vessels (Reijer, Oliphant, Goede Hoop, Walvisch, and Dromedaris) landed at the Cape of Good Hope and founded the first European settlement (1652). It was located at the base of Table Mountain. The Dutch were not interested in founding a colony in the modern sence. Their primary interest was in creating a base to support Dutch shipping involved with the Asian trade. By the time Dutch ships reached the Cape either sailing east or west back home, they needed provisions. This created a lucrative market and Dutch settlers began farming to supply that market. Gradually Dutch Cape settlers looking for more grazing land, began spreading out from the coast treking toward the east and the north.

African Tribes

Zulu King Shaka establishes the mightiest kingdom in southern Africa (early 19th century). The Xhosa people retreated further eastwards, as the white settlers occupied their land.

The British

The British and Dutch were generally allies in wars with Spain and France. The British played a major role in the Dutch War for Independence and subsequent wars with Louis XIV's France. The British also fought three Naval Wars with the Dutch. As a result, the Brirish seized New Amstetdam (modern New York) in North America, but the Dutch retained the Cape Colony. Dutch mercantile power gradually wained because of the strain of these wars and wider trade competition with Britain. The Netherlands was a very small country compared with France to the south. And with the onset of the French Revolution (1789) a French Republic was formed whivh executed King Louis XVI. French armies seized control of the Netherlands. The British proceeded to seize the Cape Collony least in fall in French hands (1795). The British turned it back over to the Dutch (1803), but seized it again (1806). After the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna confirmed British sovereignty (1815). It was at the time, a small European outpost at the tip of southern Africa.


The Voortrekkers were the white Afrikaner (Dutch ancestry) farmers, then known as Boers. The Boers chafed under British rule established during the Napoleonic Wars. The result was that in the 1830s and 1840s, the Boers began migrating from the British-cobtrolled Cape Colony into the areas north of the Orange River beyond British rule. This movement became known as the Great Trek. Thus the Boers moved into the interior (1835 and 1854). The Great Trek was not one single event, but rather a seies of migrations. It was a mass Boer movement developed to resist British control. The covered wagon treks out of the Cape Colony were organized by several different Boer leaders including Louis Trichardt, Hendrik Potgieter, Sarel Cilliers, Pieter Uys, Gerrit Maritz, Piet Retief, and Andries Pretorius. This movement resulted in the creation of independent Boer Republics in the interior north of the Orage River. The Voortrekkers left the British dominatef Cape in their thousands and settle in the interior and along the coast nort of the Cape. The Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius defeated the Zulus at Battle of Blood River (1838). Several different Boer republics were founded, including the Orange Free State, Natal, and Transvaal. They were developing into stabel independent countries until diamonds were discovered. This resulted in a flood of immigrants and British renewed British interest.


The Boers treking out of the Cape Colony hoped to establishing a Natal republic. The British annexed Natal (1843). They founded their new Natal colony at Durban. Most of the original Boer settlers, refused to acceot British rule, began anogther trek north into the interior,

Zulu War (1879-80)

One of the most famous of Britain's colonial wars was the war fought aginst the Zulu Kingdom of southern Africa. The Zulus were a formidacle warrior people who had ammassed a huge kingdom by force of arms (19th century). Shaka Zulu (1787-1828) played major role in expanding the kingsom. was the founder of the Zulu Kingdom from 1816 to 1828. The Zulus An important part of their success was that defeated clans were integrated into the kingdom on a basis of full equality. When Britain and other Europen countries had begun to more firmly establish colonial rule, they had to contend with the Zulu Kingdom which controled much of what is today KwaZulu-Natal and Southern Africa. The Zulus were a formidabke force although poorly armed. Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies, was intent on expading British imperial control in South Africa. He wanted to create a federation of British colonies and Boer Republics. He appointed Sir Bartle Frere to be the British High Commissioner in South Africa to carry out his plan. Zululand bordered on Natal and the Transvaal, one of the Boer Repubics. Zulu King Cetshwayo refused to cooperate and acceot federatioin and British control and to dusband thev Zulu army. Frere ordered Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand to force compliance (January 1879). He assumed that he would have trouble brining the Zukus to battle. Chelmsford divided his force into three columns which proved to be a major mistake. His battle plan was to surround the Zulus and force them into a costly battle before capturing the royal capital at Ulundi. Chelmsford A right column crossed into Zululand near the mouth of the Tugela River ans set up a base at an abandoned missionary station at Eshowe. His left column entered Zululand from the Transvaal and marched on Utrecht. The center column which Chelmsford personally led crossed the Buffalo River at the Rorke's Drift mission station. The Zulus were well-trained, although poorly armed, mostly with leather shields and spears. Chelmsford faulty asessment of the Zulus resulted in disater on the Isandlwana. The Zulus startle the British with a victory in the battle Battle of Isandlwana (1879). The Zulus killed over 1,400 British soldiers. The British did not believe an African army had such a capability. A few day later the Zulus were stopped at Rorek's Drift by a small British unit. The British rushed reinforcenents to South Africa. The British after the Zulu War annex the whole of Zululand. The British public was shocked to read that 'spear-wielding savages' had defeated a modern British army. The British victory at Rorek's Drift was the focus of the movie 'Zulu' (1964), it had little impact on the British public at the time. The Zulus fought bravely, but could not overcome modern weaponry. The result were some of the blodiest battles in colonial warfare. The disciplined Zulus just kept cominmg in the face of modern weaponry.

Boer War (1899-1902)

The Boer War, or South African War as it is sometimes called, is today an obscure footnote in history. At the time it was a major turning point in history. Not only did it occur at the transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian era, but it helped to confirm the growing opinion in England that it was the rising power of Germany under the mecurial Kaiser Wilhelm II that posed a danger to Britain rather than the traditional English enemy--France. This was a major transition in English thinking that had enormous repersusions in the 20th century. The War also convinced many that major reforms were needed to modernize the Army. The Boer War brought the term concentration camp" to the 20th century. A more happy impact was indirectly the War was involved in the founding of the Scouting movement. The British casualties were much higher than anticipated and the civilian casualties were even higher. European public opinion was incensed and the British began to see their Empire in a new light. The Treaty of Vereeniging finally ended the War (1902),

Union of South Africa (1910)

Britain 8 years after the after the Treaty of Vereeniging unified each of the four South African states (Cape Coloby, Natal, Orange Free State, and Transvaal) into the Union of South Africa (1910). This includied the defeated Boer Republics The British attempted to win the alergianced of the defeated Boers by allowed each of the constituent states to retain franchise (voting) qualifications. At the time only the Cape Colony allowed non-whites if they met property qualifications to vote. The formation of the Union set in process the creation of a legal system of strict racial separation that was to be called Apartheid. With the creation of the Union, a new nation-wide legal framework was needed. The Union government from its creation introduced a series of laws that further curtailed the rights of non-whites. The first objective of white legislators was to legally restrict the rights of the black majority. Laws passed at this time established the cornerstones of the Apartheid system. The "Mines and Works Act" was the first step (1911). This restricted black workers exclusively to menial work in the country's most important industry. It thus guaranteed both the availability of cheap labor and preferred position of white employees. Tghe Government also prevented the formation of blasck labor unions and strikes. The next step was the Native Land Act (1913). This Act reserved 7.3 per cent of South African territory as reservations for mative black people. The Act also barred blacks them from purchasing land outside the reserved aread. Blacks were the vast majority of the Union's population, but as they were denied the right to vote, they had no way to exert political influence on the Union Government or the legislation which established the legal framework. As a result, black resistance movements began to form. The most important would be the African National Congress (ANC). The early organizers were inexerienced and a result these groups were at first poorly organized and had little impact. Thus their was little or no resistance to the white governments that ruled the Union of South Africa.

World War I (1914-18)

The Union of South Africa when war broke out in Europe as part of the British Empire joined the Allied war effort against Germany and the Central Powers. South Africa was immediately affected because of neigboting German colonies, especially Southwest Africa (modern Namibia. Prime Minister Louis Botha and ??? Defence Minister of South Africa joined in significant military operations against the Germans. Many Afrikaners (South Africans of Dutch ancestry) were stidently anti-British because if the Boer War. Even so, the Afrikaner-led government of Louis Botha immediately supported the British. South Africans thus fought with the British in the War. The British were thus abel to withdrawal most of the British Army units so that they coild be redeployed to France. The South African Government itself launched an invasion of German Southwest Africa. At this point, some units of the South African army refused to obey orders and fight the Germans. They staged a revolt. The Government declared martial law (October 14, 1914). Loyal forces of General Louis Botha and Jan Smuts managed to supress Maritz Rebellion. The Government dealt with them leniently. With the rebelion put down, The South Africans invaded and seized control German Southwest Africa (modern Namibia). Next South Africa forces commanded by General Jan Smuts invaded German East Africa (modern Tanzania). The goal was to seize the colony. German General von Lettow-Vorbeck fought an elusive guerrilla campaign. Lettow-Vorbeck eventually had to withdraw to Mozambique where he finally surrendered after the Armistice in Europe. The 1st South African Brigade was deployed in France. South Africans were also deployed in the Cape Corps which made up part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine.

Inter-War Era

The basic political dynamic was the differences between the whites of English and Dutch ancestry. As an British colony, The english South Africans were the dominant political faction. As the Union becanme increasingly self-govedrning, the role of the Afrikaaners steadily increased ans exerted more influence. The Union became a sovereign state within British Empire (1934).

World War II (1939-45)

The Union of South Africa was created after the Boer War (1910). The Union consisted of the Cape Colony, Natal Colony, and the Boer republics of the Orange Free State, and Transvaal. The two major political parties, the South African Party and National Parties, merged to form the United Party in an attempt to untite Afrikaners and English-speaking whites (1934). The union did not last long, the two parties split only 5 years later (1939). The issue that split the United Party was joining Britain in war against the Germans. The Afrikaner dominated National Party sympathised with NAZI Germany in part because of the importance the NAZIs placed on race. Hertzog did not want to join the British in the War. He proposed that South Africa should remain neutral. Smuts wanted to support the British. Smuts won a narrow parliamentary vote. Smuts was appointed prime minister and South Africa declared war. The National Party left the United Party and continued to be pro-Germany even after the NAZIs invaded and occupied the Netherlands. South African units played an important role in early phases of the War before Britain had fully mobilized its forces. The South Africans played a key role in the British campaign which defeated the Italians in East Africa (1941). They then proceeeded to play an important role in the Western Desert (1941-43). The South Africans also fought in the Italian campaign (1943-45). The South African forces were segregated. White troops (135,000) served in combat units. Africans and Coloreds (70,000) served in labor and transport units. South Africa was an important source of raw materials (platinum, uranium, and steel). South African ports (Durban and Cape Town) were also an import part of the Allied supply lines. This was especially important when the Axis had closed the the Mediterranean and supplies to the Desert Army had to flow around the Cape of Good Hope. As the War progressed, South Africa continued to be useful to supply Allied forces in India and Burma.


World War II powefully affected the dynamics of world politics. South Africa was one of the previous European colonies affected. The War had severely weakened the colonial powers. Many were occupied by the Germans (Belgium, France, Italy, and the Netherlands). Their ability to maintain their empires were thus severely weakened. And the Japanese had shown how tenuous the European colonial controls were. At the same time, the Axis defeat had undermined concepts which underpinned colonial empires, mamely racial supremecy and imperial controls. As a result, colonial peoples throughout Asia and Africa began to press for independence. This process was different in South Africa as the country was alreafy independent. It was the local white population not Britain that maintained an oppresive regime. As in the rest of Africa, the black majority began to demand basic rights. This took the form in South ASfrica of industrial strikes. As black workers were not legally able to form unions, this took the form of poorly organized wild-cat strikes. The Government was able to maintain order, but the strikes affected production. More importantly, they unervered the white minority. As a result, the right-wing National Party (NP) attracted a substantial number of English voters for the first time. The result was a decisive victory in the 1948 elections. This gave the Afrikaners who dominated the NP political control for the first time. They moved to expanded and strengthen the already existing Apartheid system. The NP leader was D.F. Malan who advocated stern measures against what he called the "black menace". It was at this time the the concept of "Apartheid" was coined and became the cornerstone of Government policy. The NP moved Apartheid from the economic sphere into the social sphere and attempted to control the private lives of both whites and blacks. The system was further complicated by the exitence of coloreds (mixed race people). The Apartheid sysytem developed by the NP was very complicated and involved, but in essence was based on three core elements. First, non whites were denined the right to vote and ultimately citzenship. Second, there were resrictions on land ownership and where the different racial groups could live. Third, racial intermarriage was prohibited. Marriage or actually any sexual realationship between the different racial groups was prohibited and crimanilzed. The races were separated in all public institutions and offices, public transport, and public toilets. A new education system was introduced. Previously there was very limited schooling available for blacks. Racial segregation was introduced in the public schools. The Bantu Education Act expanded black education, but had the goal of keeping black children at a very low educational standard suitable for menial labor and acceptance of white superority (1953). The Act however contains the seeeds of its own destruction. Whart ever its intentions, it expanded black education. It also left black education in the hands of black teachers, many of who did not accept the goals the Afrikaaner Government had in mind for black education. It is notable that the movement to end Apartheid traces its origins from student demonstrations.

Democratic South Africa

Apartheid was finally ended with Nelson Mandela's victory as the first democratically elected president of South Africa (1994).


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Created: 9:32 PM 3/14/2009
Last updated: 4:00 AM 4/7/2022