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.
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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.