» View our vacations to South Africa
The San (Bushmen), nomadic hunter-gatherers, were the earliest people to inhabit southern Africa. DNA evidence suggests that the San lived here as long ago as 100,000 BC—very likely making them the oldest people in the world. If so, then we can all trace our genes to them. In the fourth or fifth century BC, the first Bantus arrived, bringing the first tribal structure to the region and taking over most of the arable land.
The "mefecane” under Shaka Zulu (also known as the black Napolean) had begun. Shaka sought to expand the territorial control of the Zulu nation, and he arguably created the most sophisticated military machine in all of Africa. He was politically savvy, an astute leader, and he always gave his enemy the option of surrendering and being incorporated into the Zulu nation. He specifically avoided war with white settlers coming in from the south.
The Boers negotiated land settlements with various tribes who saw them as a buffer between Shaka Zulu. Shaka was assasinated by his half-brother, Dingaan, who set about challenging the white settlers after much bloodshed, culminating in the “Battle of Blood River.” The Boers where able to establish two Boer republics in what is today the Northeastern part of the country.
Shortly after these republics where established, both gold and diamonds where discovered. This led to renewed interest from the British in these settlements, which culminated in the two Anglo-Boer wars. The first “war” was short-lived and embarrassing for the English.
The second war was much longer, and bloodier. During this war, the English sent more soldiers to fight on foreign soil than at any other time in their history. With a combined force of local militia and conscripted soldiers, the British force reached 550,000 men. At the height of the war, the Boers only had 50,000 troops in the field.
They resisted the British push with guerrilla tactics, but the British returned with greater force to defeat them at the turn of the 20th century. The formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 by the British and the Dutch-Afrikaaners set the stage for apartheid with its race-based policies, restrictions, and repression. Blacks were segregated to live in squalid backwaters known as “homelands.”
The white, ruling Afrikaaners paid plenty of lip service to the supposed self-sufficiency of these regions, but provided no means or opportunities for improvements. In the 1960s, blacks began to protest with strikes and marches. It wasn’t long before things turned violent: 69 were killed in Sharpeville and members of the African National Congress (ANC) were jailed, Nelson Mandela among them. Opposition against apartheid grew worldwide, and with the economic impacts of sanctions and divestments, the National Party’s FW de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and, 27 years after his imprisonment, released Nelson Mandela. In 1994, he won the country’s first multi racial election by a landslide and became president. Today, some of the disparities of apartheid still remain, but South Africa is far more optimistic than it once was.