Among the most famous tribal leaders in what is now South Africa were Shaka (1773–1828), who built the Zulu into a powerful nation, and Cetewayo (d.1884), who led the Zulu in an unsuccessful war against the British in 1879. Other outstanding figures of 19th-century South Africa were Stephanus Johannus Paulus (Oom Paul) Kruger (1825–1904), president of the Transvaal and leader of the Boers, and British-born Cecil John Rhodes (1853–1902), entrepreneur and empire builder, after whom the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) were named. Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870–1950), statesman and military leader, was one of the great men of the first half of the 20th century. He and two other prime ministers of Boer descent— Louis Botha (1862–1919) and James Barry Munnik Hertzog (1866–1942)—attempted to merge the two white nationality groups in a common loyalty to the British Commonwealth. Daniel François Malan (1874–1959), an Afrikaner Nationalist leader, led his party to victory in 1948 and served as prime minister (1948–54) when South Africa's racial separation policies were codified. Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd (1901–66), Nationalist prime minister from 1958 until his assassination, vigorously enforced separate development of the races and created the black homelands. His successor, Balthazar Johannes Vorster (1915–83), served as prime minister from 1966 until his elevation to the presidency in 1978; he resigned in the following year because of a political scandal. Pieter Willem Botha (b. 1916) became prime minister in 1978 and president in 1984.
Among the best-known South African writers in the English language was Olive (Emily Albertina) Schreiner (1855–1920), whose Story of an African Farm has become a classic. A collection of short stories about Afrikaner farmers, The Little Karoo, by Pauline Smith (1882–1957), is regarded as a masterpiece. South African authors of novels and short stories such as Sarah Gertrude Millin (Liebson, b. Russia, 1889–1968), Alan Stewart Paton (1903–88), Sir Laurens Van der Post (1906–96), Peter Abrahams (b. 1919), Ezekiel Mphahlele (b.1919), Nadine Gordimer (b. 1923), Dan Jacobson (b. 1929), and John M. Coetzee (b. 1940) have won considerable attention in the United Kingdom and the United States. Ignatius Roy Dunnachie Campbell (1901–57) was an eminent South African poet, and his friend William Charles Franklyn Plomer (1903–73) was a highly regarded novelist, poet, essayist, and critic. Athol Fugard (b.1932) has written internationally acclaimed plays about South African race relations.
Well-known authors and poets in the Afrikaans language are Cornelis Jacob Langenhoven (1873–1932), author of the national anthem; Christian Frederick Louis Leipoldt (1880–1947); N.P. van Wyk Louw (1906–70); the poet, playwright, and critic Uys Krige (1910–87), who also wrote in English; and André Brink (b.1935). Eugène Nielsen Marais (1871–1936), a journalist, lawyer, poet, and natural historian, was an outstanding student of animal and insect behavior. Breyten Breytenbach (b. 1939) has earned international recognition as an important Afrikaans poet; he served seven years in prison (1975–82) after pleading guilty to a passport violation and to illegal contacts with an African political group.
V. (J.E.A.) Volschenck (1853–1935) is sometimes called the "father of South African art," and Anton Van Wouw (b.Netherlands, 1862–1945) is called the "doyen" of South African sculpture. Other artists include the painters Robert Gwelo Goodman (b.England, 1871–1939), Jacob Hendrik Pierneef (1886–1957), and Walter W. Battiss (b.England, 1906–82), also an authority on Bushman art; and sculptor Coert Laurens Steynberg (1905–82).
Other noted South Africans are historian George McCall Theal (b.Canada, 1837–1919); the physical anthropologist Raymond Arthur Dart (b.Australia, 1893–1988); Clement Martyn Doke(b.England, 1893–1983), an authority on Bantu philology; the social anthropologist Isaac Schapera (1905–86); Louis Franklin Freed (b.Lithuania, 1903–81), a specialist on tropical diseases; and pioneer open-heart surgeon, Christiaan Neething Barnard (1922–2001). Lord Henry de Villiers of Wynberg (1842–1914) was chief justice of Cape Colony and of the Union of South Africa.
South Africa's first Nobel Prize winner (for peace in 1961) was Chief Albert John Luthuli (1898–1967), a former president of the ANC, who maintained a policy of nonviolence and of cooperation between whites and blacks. Desmond Mpilo Tutu (b.1931), the secretary general of the South African Council of Churches during 1979–84 and an outspoken foe of apartheid, received the 1984 Nobel Prize for peace. As archbishop of Cape Town, he became the Anglican primate for southern Africa in 1986. Nelson R. Mandela (b. 1918), a prominent leader of the ANC, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964; his release was a principal demand of antigovernment activists. Oliver Tambo (1919–93), the president of the ANC since 1977, directed the group from exile. Another outspoken critic of the government was the Rev. Allan Boesak (b. 1947), a UDC founder and the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches since 1982. More conciliatory toward the regime was Gatsha Buthelezi (b. 1928), the chief of the Zulu people, who heads the Inkatha movement; he favors a gradualist approach to black power sharing.