A Crash Course in South African History

A Crash Course in South African History

I have been watching a lot of videos on Crash Course World History and unfortunately their site has nothing on South Africa; a country with a history that was strongly influenced by trade and  was the first to implement a type of social engineering termed “Apartheid”. This system has been and still is a source of controversy in the South African society. It bred a plethora of social struggles among the different races and cultures and helped shape the country I am living in today. As I am a coloured person (mixed race), one can only understand the context of my life stories and viewpoint after understanding my country’s history and it’s impact on our lives. So here’s the just of it in about 10 minutes…

Indigenous South Africa

The first people to occupy most of South Africa are known as the San or Khoi-San people who were later termed “Bushmen”. They were pasturalists and hunter-gatherers and few of them exist today, concentrated mostly in the deserts of the Kalahari and parts of Namibia. There are tribes such as Griqua, Hotnot etc. which many coloured people in parts of the Cape descend from.

Vinesh Rajpaul
A modern day San woman in Namibia. (Photo: Vinesh Rajpaul)

Another group of people called the Bantu people then migrated south from Central Africa and East Africa and occupied some parts of the land. The Bantu people are the ancestors of many of the cultural groups we see in South Africa today such as Isizulu, Isixhosa, Sotho etc. Many of these people inter-married with the Khoi-San and because of their better knowledge of agriculture and metal-work, the Xhosa people dominated most of what is known as the Eastern Cape today, while the Zulu people occupied most of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

The Portuguese

The Portuguese were the first (documented) Europeans to land on South African shores but it was not until an explorer named Vasco Da Gama discovered the sea route to India in 1497 that they took great interest in South Africa for trade. Vasco landed in a natural port which is today known as Durban (my hometown) and the Portuguese saw that South Africa had potential as a halfway stop on the Indian trade route which promised treasures and spice that would make them wealthy men in Europe.

The Dutch East India Company

The arrival of the Dutch in 1652 sparked a war that lasted 100 years. A man named Jan Van Riebeck was tasked with building a refreshment station for the trade ships on route to India and they fought the Xhosa and Zulu People on the coast for decades. This was the first time guns were brought to South Africa and the Dutch built forts as they progressed on the border and claimed the land.

Dutch trade routes
The Dutch East India Company prospered due to its trade across the world in commodities that were not found in Europe.

Arrival of the Slave Ships

Many slaves were brought from Asia to South Africa for a variety of reported reasons. Some say they were tricked by the Europeans and promised a better life in Europe, only to be enslaved in South Africa. Others report that they were forcefully slaved and that even some of their religious leaders and nobility were brought here to labour on the land. Another source even says that they were better at hard labour as compared to the native people and that most of those taken were outcasts in their own communities. What ever the true reason may be, this added new races of people and new cultures (mostly asian) to the country. As a result of the sugar industry being formed by the British in the port city of Durban and a great need for labour on the sugar cane planations, Durban has a very large population of Indian people, even today.

Indian market
Indian people in Natal, South Africa. (Photo: South Africa Tourism)


British Settlers

In 1820, British settlement in South Africa was strongly encouraged  in order to strengthen the presence and defense of the Europeans in the Eastern Cape. About 4000 settlers arrived on the shores and either lived in the towns that were built on the coast or were allocated farm lands. Cities like Durban still have many British colonial buildings and statues dating back to these times.

Durban City Hall
British colonial building completed in 1910. It now houses Durban’s Natural History Museum and City Hall.

The Huguenots

Many French settlers came to South Africa around 1688 and they established the booming wine industry that exists in South Africa today. The winelands in the Western Cape still stretch over vast land and so this is another element of European influence in South Africa’s history. These French settlers were named the French Huguenots.

The Anglo-Boer War

Another war began at the end of the 19th century between the British and the Dutch where the Dutch defeated the British and were able to secure two independent republics; which are now known as the Free State and Gauteng (previously known as the Orange Free State and Transvaal State respectively). Further conflict began over the British interest in the Dutch mining activity in Gauteng. This war which began in 1899 spread to most parts of the country and after the Dutch were defeated by the British in 1902, the Union of South Africa was formed along with the borders of South Africa that exist today.

Union of SA
Flag of the Union of South Africa

The African National Congress

In reaction to the union that was formed that did not include equal representation of black people in South Africa (or any people of colour), the South African Native National Congress was formed by prominent black leaders and it later changed its name to the African National Congress which is the ruling party in South Africa today.

Nelson Mandela
A young Nelson Mandela. A lawyer who went on to lead the ANC’s militant force “mkhonto we sizwe” which eventually led to the abolishment of apartheid. (Photo: Durban Natural History Museum)


Many South Africans served in the South African army as allies to the Europeans during World War I and so when violent miner strikes began in 1922 in the Transvaal, there was a strong army presence as martial law was declared in the country. World War II brought more segregation between the Afrikaans and English people (Afrikaans originating from the Dutch or Boer people) as many of the Afrikaans people supported Nazi Germany. South Africa still served under the British allies in North Africa and Europe and it was these allies who won the war and founded an international union that we now know as United Nations. South Africa also aided the UN in the Korean war in 1950.

South African troops
South African gunners in German East Africa during World War II. (Photo: Deville Wood Museum)

The National Party and Apartheid

In 1948, the British government was defeated by the National Party under a man named Dr. Milan and it was their party that then went on to implement the system of apartheid. The policy included various laws that not only segregated the different races in South Africa which was extremely diverse at the time (coloured people were born throughout history as a result of interracial marriage, slave trade or in the earlier days, rape); but also gave privilege to white people in South Africa who were allocated separate and more lavish amenities, farms, land and even beaches. The resistance to this government grew (prominently being the ANC, South African Communist Party and the Pan African Congress) and resulted in violence for the first time in Sharpeville in 1960. This was also the year that South Africa became a republic, independent of the British common wealth. Many uprisings occurred until 1994, when Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and a few other freedom fighters were released from prison (initially imprisoned by the National Party for treason) and South Africa then went on to become a democracy. The ANC was voted into power by a free and fair election and formed the national constitution that we honour today.

Hector Peterson
A powerful image of Hector Peterson, a young boy gunned down by police during a youth protest against Afrikaans as a teaching medium in all Bantu schools. (Photo: Pretoria Art Museum)

I have written this to outline the events that occurred in South African history as reported by official sources such as the Museum of Natural History in Durban and direct interviews with some who lived during these times. The opinions and views expressed are not mine.

For more information on Apartheid in South Africa click here

Also, please donate to Wikipedia. They need our help!


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