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Home|World Cup 2010|South Africa Culture|South African History

South African Culture: South Africa History

South Africa History 1840-1948 | South Africa History 1948-Present

South African History


Recent archeological discoveries show that humans have inhabited the southern coast of Africa for at least 50,000 years. Much before that, maybe 3 million years ago, hominids (human-like creatures) are known to have existed in Southern Africa. The descendants of South Africa's earliest Stone Age hunter-gatherers, the San, can still be found in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia it was these people who encountered the first European adventurers to South Africa, who arrived at the Cape in the 15th century.

Early History

Rock art found in various places around the country testifies to an early human culture and society dating back at least 30,000 years. The early San were nomadic and egalitarian, living in small, fluid family groups with no concept of private property. This way of living began to change with the acquisition of livestock from the north, which introduced the ideas of ownership and accumulation of wealth. This new societal group of herders are known as Khoikoi and were ethnically the same as the San, who maintained the original hunting and gathering lifestyle. The two groups were fluid with San becoming Khoikoi and vice versa and collectively they are known as Khoisan.

San Rock Art, South Africa.

Arrival of the Bantus

Around 2,000 years ago Bantu-speaking people originally from west Africa began to arrive in the south across the Limpopo River. The newcomers practiced mixed farming (raising both crops and tending cattle) and lived a more settled lifestyle in villages, where they also produced crafts and metal objects from iron, copper and gold. The Bantu-speakers are the direct ancestors of South Africa's black majority. San rock art depicts the meeting of these two peoples as both hostile and amicable.

The Europeans

The Portuguese on their way to India and south east Asia were the first Europeans to set foot in South Africa, landing around what is now Cape Town in the 15th century. As elsewhere in the world at the time, first contacts between the Europeans and the natives were far from harmonious. The Portuguese were led by the explorer Bartholomeu Dias who named the Cape, Cabo da Boa Esperança (Cape of Good Hope).

In 1652 a group of Dutch employees of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) attempted to settle in Table Bay to set up a refuelling station for ships on their way to the Dutch East Indies in Malaysia and Indonesia. The Dutch commander Jan van Riebeeck was an early pioneer of what was later to become apartheid as he tried to fence off the Dutch base from the indigenous people by planting a bitter almond hedge, parts of which are still growing in Kirstenbosch Gardens today.

The growing base attempted to establish its own farms but faced a severe labour shortage. In attempt to increase production, VOC employees were allowed to set up on their own and these "free burghers" as they were known spread out into the hinterland and began to farm cereals, fruit and vegetables, tend cattle and produce South Africa's first wines around Stellenbosch. The European population at this time in the Cape was mostly Dutch but there were also German Calvinists and French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution back in Europe.

The growing expansion of the Europeans brought them into conflict with the native Africans and just as in North and South America, the results of this confrontation were disastrous for the indigenous peoples, who were decimated by new, imported diseases (smallpox) and superior weapons (guns and horses) and driven from their traditional lands, to be virtually enslaved by the interlopers. At the same time, the Dutch began to bring in slaves from their colonies in Indonesia and Madagascar and by 1711 there were more slaves in the Cape than burghers. The resulting mix of imported slaves, Europeans and Khoisan became the descendants of South Africa's coloured population.

Just as the pioneers in America moved west into Native American lands, trekboers - mostly impoverished white settlers - began to fan out into the Eastern Cape, further destroying the Khoisan and enslaving their women and children.

The British

In 1795, the British were the dominant military force on the seas as Dutch power began to fade and the British Navy seized the Cape to prevent it falling into the hands of their enemies, the French. In 1814 British sovereignty of the Cape colony was complete. The colony at the time consisted of roughly 25,000 slaves, 20,000 white colonists, 15,000 Khoisan and around 1,000 freed black slaves. As British power increased, more and more of the Dutch settlers set off into the interior as trekboers, especially when the British in 1828 passed the Cape Ordinance 50, which gave Khoi residents and free blacks equality with whites before the law. The last straw for many Boers was the abolition of slavery by the British in 1833.

In 1820 around 5,000 British settlers had been enticed out to South Africa and given land in a border region between Boer settlers and the Xhosa tribe, this proved unsuccessful as the British retreated to the towns of Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown. More and more English-speakers were becoming an urban, professional class as the Afrikaans-speaking Boers moved inland as self-sufficient pastoralists.

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