Fossil skulls suggest that South Africa may have been one of the earliest scenes of human evolution. Little is known of the original settlers, but when Europeans first arrived, there were two distinct groups of peoples—the Bushmen, primitive nomadic hunters of the western desert upland country, and the Hottentots, a pastoral people who occupied the southern and eastern coastal areas. Before AD 100, Bantu-speaking peoples entered the Transvaal from the north, settling territories in the north and east.
In 1488, the Portuguese sailor Bartholomeu Dias discovered the Cape of Good Hope, and on Christmas Day of 1497, Vasco da Gama discovered Natal. The first European settlement at the Cape was made in 1652 under Jan van Riebeeck on behalf of the Dutch East India Co., which needed a refreshment station on the route to the East. Because there was a shortage of farm labor, the Dutch imported slaves from West Africa, Madagascar, and the East Indies, and because of the scarcity of European women, mixed marriages took place, eventually producing the Cape Coloured people. Huguenot settlers joined the small Dutch settlement in 1688. Continued demands for meat and relatively poor agricultural production encouraged the development of cattle farming, which in turn led to the need for more grazing land. Settlements were established on the coastal plain, along the valleys, and on the Great Karoo. The European population multiplied, but the Bushmen and Hottentots declined in numbers. The first contacts with Bantu-speaking Africans were made along the Great Fish River, which, in 1778, the Cape authorities proclaimed the boundary between the colonists and the Africans. The first serious clash came in 1779, when invading Xhosa tribesmen were driven back across the river border. Three more frontier wars were fought by 1812.
In 1795, Britain occupied the Cape, and in 1814, the area was ceded to the UK by the Treaty of Vienna. The free Coloured inhabitants of the Cape were given the same legal and political status as whites, and in 1834, slavery was abolished. Because of severe droughts and in reaction to British policy and administration, about 6,000 Boers (Dutch farmers) undertook the Great Trek in 1834–36, migrating northward into the present Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Some crossed the Drakensberg Mountains into Natal. The British annexed Natal in 1843 and extended their rule over Kaffraria in 1847, Griqualand West in 1871, and Zululand and Tongaland in 1887. The Transvaal was annexed in 1877 but returned to independence after a revolt in 1880–81, culminating in a British defeat by the Boers at Majuba Hill. In 1881, Swaziland also was declared independent. After a war between the Boers and Basutos, the British proclaimed Basutoland (now Lesotho) a British territory, and in 1884, it became a British protectorate. The British granted local self-government to the Cape in 1872 and to Natal in 1897.
Meanwhile, the spread of European settlements into areas occupied by Africans led to the setting aside of large native reserves and to the development of separate white and black communities. In 1860, indentured Indians were brought into Natal to work on the sugarcane plantations; by 1911, when India halted the emigration because of what it called "poor working conditions," more than 150,000 Indians had come to South Africa as contract laborers. It was in South Africa, while pursuing the Indians' claims of injustice, that Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, then a young lawyer, developed his philosophy of nonviolent resistance.
The discovery around 1870 of diamonds along the Orange and Vaal rivers and in the Kimberley district led to an influx of foreigners and brought prosperity to the Cape and the Orange Free State. Railways were built and trade increased. The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 brought in thousands of additional newcomers and made Transvaal potentially the wealthiest state. Tension between the Boers and outsiders attracted to Transvaal was accentuated by an unsuccessful attempt to capture Johannesburg by Dr. Leander Starr Jameson (Jameson Raid) in 1895–96 and culminated in the South African (or Boer) War in 1899–1902. After a desperate struggle against the larger British forces, the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State gave up their independence by the Treaty of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902 but shortly thereafter were granted self-government by the British. In a convention during 1908–9, the leaders of the Afrikaners (as the Boers were now called), together with those from the Cape and Natal, drafted a constitution for a united South Africa that passed the British Parliament as the South Africa Act in 1909 and became effective on 31 May 1910. The constitution provided for a union of the four territories or provinces, to be known as the Union of South Africa. In 1913, the Union Parliament passed the Bantu Land Act, setting aside 8.9 million hectares (22 million acres) of land as black areas; an additional 6.3 million hectares (15.6 million acres) were added to the black homelands by another parliamentary act in 1936.
The Union of South Africa fought with the Allies in World War I, signed the Treaty of Versailles, and became a member of the League of Nations. In 1920, the League gave South Africa a mandate over the former German colony of South West Africa (now generally called Namibia), which lasted until 1946, when South Africa refused to recognize UN authority over the area and regarded it as an integral part of the country. In 1926, a British declaration granted South Africa national autonomy and equal legal status with the United Kingdom. Mining and industrialization advanced in the period between the two wars. More intensive exploitation of the wealth of the country led to better living standards. South Africa sent troops to fight the Nazis in World War II, although many Afrikaners favored neutrality. In 1948, the National Party (NP) took power, influencing the general character of life in South Africa and, in particular, enforcing its policies of apartheid, or racial separation (officially called "separate development" after 1960) of whites and nonwhites.
South Africa's white electorate approved a republican form of government in a 1960 referendum, and South Africa became a republic on 31 May 1961. The republican constitution did not deviate substantially from the former one, the only major change being the substitution of a president for the monarch as the head of state. As a result of objections from nonwhite members of the Commonwealth of Nations to South Africa's presence, South Africa withdrew its application for continued Commonwealth membership in 1961.
The immediate period surrounding the creation of the republic was one of mounting pressures applied to the government because of its apartheid policies. In 1960, black unrest swelled to the point where a state of emergency was declared. On 21 March 1960, a black demonstration was staged against the "pass laws," laws requiring blacks to carry "reference books," or internal passports, thus enabling the government to restrict their movement into urban areas. The demonstration resulted in the killing at Sharpeville of 69 black protesters by government troops and provided the touchstone for local black protests and for widespread expressions of outrage in international forums. During 1963–64, the government acted to stiffen its control over blacks living in white areas. After 1 May 1963, the General Law Amendment Act allowed the government to hold people for consecutive 90-day periods without trial (the length was decreased to 15 days in 1966). In 1965, the Suppression of Communism Amendment Bill renewed the government's authority to detain for security reasons persons who had completed prison sentences.
As the Portuguese colonial empire disbanded and blacks came to the fore in Mozambique and Angola during the mid-1970s, South African troops joined the Angolan civil conflict, in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent a Soviet-backed faction from coming to power, but then withdrew from Angola in March 1976. South Africa subsequently launched sporadic attacks on Angola (which supported insurgents seeking to end South African rule over Namibia) and Mozambique and aided insurgencies in the two former Portuguese territories; these operations (and other raids into Botswana, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe) were apparently in response to the aid and political support given by South Africa's neighbors to the African National Congress (ANC), a black nationalist group.
Beginning in June 1976, the worst domestic confrontation since Sharpeville took place in Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where blacks violently protested the compulsory use of Afrikaans in schools; suppression of the riots by South African police left at least 174 blacks dead and 1,139 injured. The Afrikaans requirement was subsequently modified. During the late 1970s, new protest groups and leaders emerged among the young blacks. After one of these leaders, 30-year-old Steven Biko, died on 12 September 1977 while in police custody, there were renewed protests. As a result, on 4 November, the UN Security Council approved a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa—the first ever imposed on a member nation.
As of 1981, the government had designated four of the ten black homelands as "sovereign" states: Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Transkei, and Venda. All members of the ethnic groups associated with these homelands automatically lost their South African citizenship; the government's stated intent to grant independence to the remaining six homelands meant that the vast majority of South Africa's blacks would eventually lose their South African citizenship. In an effort to conciliate nonwhites and international opinion, the government scrapped many aspects of apartheid in the mid-1980s, including the "pass laws" and the laws barring interracial sexual relations and marriage. A new constitution established legislative houses for Coloureds and Indians in 1984, although only 31% and 20% of the respective eligible voters went to the polls.
These measures failed to meet black aspirations, however, and as political violence mounted, in July 1985, the government imposed a state of emergency in 36 magisterial districts, embracing nearly all of the urban black population, which lasted over seven months. During this time, 7,996 persons were detained and 757 people died in political violence, by government count. A new, nationwide state of emergency was imposed in June 1986, with police and the military exercising extraordinary powers of arrest and detention. At least 4,000 and possibly as many as 10,000 were detained in 1986, including over 1,400 aged 18 or under.
In 1984, South Africa and Mozambique signed an agreement by which each country pledged not to aid the antigovernment forces in the other country; also in 1984, South Africa signed an agreement under which it withdrew forces that it had sent into southern Angola in an effort to forestall aid to guerrillas in Namibia. However, the government continued to hold its neighbors responsible for ANC violence, and South African raids into Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe were conducted during 1985–86. In 1987, the government announced that it was withdrawing troops that it had sent into Angola to aid the rebels fighting against the Angolan government, which was supported by Cuban and Soviet troops.
In July 1987, the government cracked down on the United Democratic Front (UDF), an umbrella organization of over 600 civic, sports, church, trade union, women's, professional, youth and student bodies opposed to apartheid. Some 22 of its leaders were charged with treason and many more were forced to go underground. The government banned 17 antiapartheid organizations, including the UDF and the largest trade union, on 24 February 1988. Repression increased throughout 1987 and 1988, as did protest against state policies. Alternative newspapers, New Nation and Weekly Mail, were prohibited briefly from publishing. Various antiapartheid leaders were assassinated by secret hit squads identified with the police and military intelligence. Others were detained and otherwise restricted; still others were served with banning orders. In retaliation, protest strikes and demonstrations mounted, as did organization efforts among antiapartheid activists.
In 1989, President P.W. Botha resigned as head of the NP after a "mild stroke" in January. He was replaced by F. W. de Klerk who, on 15 August, was also named acting state president. After the general election, held 6 September, de Klerk was elected to a five-year term as president.
De Klerk launched a series of reforms in September 1989 that led speedily to the release of ANC leader Nelson Mandela and others on 10 February 1990. The ANC and other resistance militants, including the Communist Party, were legalized. Mandela had been in prison 27 years and had become a revered symbol of resistance to apartheid.
At that point, the ANC began to organize within South Africa. Government began "talks about talks" with the ANC and in August 1990, the ANC suspended its armed struggle. Most leaders of the ANC returned from exile. Still, fighting continued, largely between ANC activists and supporters of the Zuludominated Inkatha Freedom Party, strongest in Natal province. More than 6,000 people were killed in political violence in 1990 and 1991, many victims of fighting provoked by a "third force" of operatives employed by hardliners within the Defense Force and the police.
In 1991, de Klerk introduced and parliament passed measures to repeal laws that had institutionalized apartheid policies—the Land Act (1913 and 1936), the Group Areas Act (1950), and the Population Registration Act (1950). A number of repressive security acts were repealed as well.
In July, the ANC convened its first full conference in South Africa in 30 years. They elected Mandela president and Cyril Ramaphosa the secretary general. The ailing Oliver Tambo moved from president to a new post, National Chairman.
Meanwhile, negotiations continued over constitutional changes and plans for nonracial elections and the transition to majority rule. Numerous parties engaged in a Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) starting in December 1991. On 14 September 1991, government, the ANC and Inkatha signed a pact to end factional fighting. Other groups signed on, but it hardly stemmed the high levels of violence. The militant right wing refused to cooperate with any negotiations and agreements. In order to strengthen his negotiating hand, de Klerk called a whites-only referendum for 17 March 1992. Of the 85% turnout, 68.7% supported de Klerk's efforts to negotiate a settlement. By May, however, CODESA talks bogged down. The ANC mounted a series of mass protests against the stalemated CODESA talks. After 42 residents were horribly murdered at Boipatong Township by Zulu hostel dwellers allegedly assisted by police, the ANC withdrew from CODESA. On 7 September, 24 ANC supporters were killed by the Ciskei army troops as they marched in protest on the homeland's capital.
Later that month, negotiations began again between government and the ANC. A 26 September summit between Mandela and de Klerk produced a Record of Understanding that met several key ANC demands. But this angered KwaZulu Chief Mangosuthu G. Buthelezi, so he withdrew from the talks. In February 1993, government and the ANC reached agreement on plans for a transition to democracy. Multiparty negotiations followed in April. An interim parliament was to be elected for a five-year period after a general election in April 1994. All parties gaining over 5% of the vote would be represented in the new cabinet. The new parliament would also serve as a constituent assembly to iron out details of a new constitution. The broad guidelines were agreed upon by the government, the ANC, and other parties in late December 1993. A transitional Executive Council to oversee some aspects of government, including security, came into existence in December 1993. Inkatha, led by Buthelezi, and the right wing Conservative Party refused to participate. The Conservative Party and Inkatha boycotted the talks on multi-party government. But just a few days before the scheduled elections, Inkatha agreed to participate. White conservatives tried to hold out for an Afrikaner homeland, yet the white right was divided on whether to participate in preelection talks, in the election itself, or whether to take up arms as a last resort. There were inefficiencies and some claims of electoral fraud and intimidation, especially by the ANC against Inkatha in Natal province. The elections proceeded relatively peacefully and with great enthusiasm. They were pronounced "free and fair" by international observers and the independent Electoral Commission.
The results left the ANC as the major vote getter with 62.5%. The NP gained 20.4%; the Inkatha Freedom Party, 10.5%; the Freedom Front, 2.2%; the Democratic Party, 1.7%; and the Pan-Africanist Congress, 1.2%. ANC, thus, was awarded 252 of the 400 seats in parliament. It was the governing party in all but two of the nine regions. The IFP carried KwaZulu/Natal and the NP held the Western Cape. Mandela became president and the ANC's Thabo Mbeki and the NP's de Klerk, deputy presidents. Even Buthelezi was persuaded to take a ministerial post in the cabinet.
In May 1994, the Constitutional Assembly convened to lay the groundwork for the new constitution. All parties were included in the initial sessions, but Inkatha boycotted the Assembly's drafting of an interim constitution when its demand for international mediation on regional autonomy was not met. At the same time, violent clashes between Inkatha and ANC supporters flared anew in the Natal Province.
South Africa held local elections on 1 November 1995, although last-minute changes to the interim constitution allowed for seven provinces—including Kwa-Zulu Natal—to delay elections until 1996. The ANC also swept the provincial elections, with the NP winning the largest minority share of the vote.
Bishop Desmond Tutu convened a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in early 1996 to expose apartheid atrocities committed in the years of white rule. Although those who refused to cooperate with the commission could be subject to criminal penalties, the commission granted immunity and amnesty to those who admitted their roles in apartheid crimes. Testimony in a 1995 court case also linked death squads to the highest levels of government, including the prime minister's office.
In 1997, the Constitutional Court ratified the new constitution after rejecting a first submitted draft in 1996. The new constitution was inaugurated in February 1997. It granted a strong central government with some limited powers vested in the provinces. Inkatha, which boycotted the drafting sessions to the end, accepted the Constitutional Court's decree.
The NP withdrew from the government of national unity immediately after ratification of the constitution to take its place as the official opposition party. De Klerk, who would leave politics in August 1997, also resigned his post to head the opposition party.
By 1997, the exuberance of the new constitutional era and two years of economic expansion had given way to uncertainty in the months following ratifications. South Africa was struggling with the new political structure, a flagging economy, revolutions of the Truth and Reconciliation, and a crime wave seemingly out of control. The latter was deemed by citizens as the number one problem facing the new government. The murder rate had grown to ten times higher than the murder rate in the United States. Robbery, assault, and carjackings had left downtown Johannesburg in ruins, and vigilante groups were prevalent throughout the nation. The high crime rate had deterred foreign investment and affected the tourist industry as well.
Early in 1999, Nelson Mandela, president of South Africa since 1994, delivered his final "state of the nation" address. The vote in June 1999 passed without a single political killing and was quickly embraced by all political parties. Despite the increase in crime in the nation, the second parliamentary elections held in June 1999 were peaceful and generally fair. In the 3 June elections, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) won 266 of 400 parliamentary seats (63%), just one seat shy of the twothirds majority required to change the constitution. Thabo Mbeki was sworn in as South Africa's second democratically elected president at a glittering inauguration ceremony, which saw Nelson Mandela step down after steering the country away from apartheid rule and oppression. However, the one-sided vote in favor of ANC was itself troubling. Critiques noted that the dominance of the ANC had the coloring of a de facto one party state.
Mbeki's first four years in office were marked by an active foreign policy and controversy over his AIDS policy. Along with Botswana, South Africa sent peacekeeping forces to Lesotho in 1999 to quell rioting and civil unrest following the 1998 elections there. Subsequently, the government played host to the belligerents of Africa's "first world war" in the Great Lakes region, helping them reach power sharing and peace agreements in December 2002 and April 2003. In addition to sending peacekeeping troops to the DRC, South Africa also took the lead in providing peacekeepers for Burundi in early 2003 following peace negotiations by Nelson Mandela in that country. Mbeki has been one of four African heads of state to champion the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), a continent-wide initiative that promises accountable governance in exchange for donor resources and technical assistance. South Africa hosted the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August 2002.
However strong this record, it has been tarnished by Mbeki's feeble response to the flawed March 2002 elections in Zimbabwe, and by his de-linking of HIV—the virus that the world scientific community says causes AIDS—from the disease itself. His government's reluctance to introduce anti-retroviral therapy widely and affordably has damaged his credibility at home and abroad. Given HIV prevalence rates of 23% among adults 15-49 years old, Mbeki was roundly booed at the world AIDS summit in Durban in July 2000.