South African History

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A condensed chronological narrative of the events that defined the


Author: Michael David Leicester


Scientists researching the periods before written historical records have established that the territory of what is now referred to generically as South Africa was one of the most important centres of human evolution. It was inhabited by Australopithecines since at least 2.5 million years ago, and modern human settlement occurred around 125,000 years ago in the Middle Stone Age. The first human habitation is associated with a DNA group originating in a north-western area of southern Africa and which is still prevalent in the indigenous Khoisan (Khoikhoi and San).

Professor Raymond Dart discovered the skull of the 2.5-million-year-old Taung Child in 1924, the first example of Australopithecus africanus ever found. Following in Dart's footsteps, Robert Broom discovered a new and much more robust hominid in 1938 (Paranthropus robustus,) at Kromdraai, and in 1947 he uncovered several more examples of Australopithecus africanus at Sterkfontein. In the Blombos cave in 2002, stones were discovered engraved with grid or cross-hatch patterns, dated to some 70,000 years ago. This has been interpreted as the earliest example ever discovered of abstract or symbolic art created by Homo sapiens.

Homo NalediHomo Naledi

Many more species of early hominid have come to light in recent decades. The oldest is “Little Foot”, a collection of footbones of an unknown hominid between 2.2 and 3.3 million years old, discovered at Sterkfontein by Ronald J. Clarke. An important recent find was that of the 1.9-million-year-old Australopithecus sediba, discovered in 2008. In 2015, the discovery near Johannesburg of a previously unknown species of early man was announced, named Homo naledi. It has been described as one of the most important paleontological discoveries in modern times.

San and Khoikhoi People

San PeopleSan People

Archaeological evidence shows that South Africa was part of a large region, including North and East Africa, in which modern humans first evolved and lived. Hundreds of thousands of generations of Stone Age hunter-gatherers populated the South African landscape for nearly two million years, yet for all of that time little is known of their names, languages, memories, beliefs, wars or alliances.

About 2,300 years ago, hunter-gatherers called the San acquired domestic stock in what is now modern-day Botswana. Their population grew and spread throughout the Western half of South Africa. They were the first pastoralists in the country, and called themselves the Khoikhoi (or Khoe), which means “men of men”. The Khoikhoi brought a new way of life to South Africa and to the San, who were hunter-gatherers as opposed to herders.

Rock art is evidence of the historical widespread distribution of the San people, as paintings and engravings can still be found in almost every district in South Africa. There is no comprehensive list of all of the sites and many have not been recorded, but it is estimated that there are at least 20,000 to 30,000 sites and more than one million individual images. Some of them are not well preserved, but collectively they represent a remarkable record of the beliefs and cultural practices of the people that created them. Eventual encroachment into their hunting areas by migrating black tribes and later by white settlers resulted in a protracted genocide, and the San were driven into remote and previously uninhabited regions of the country, or forcibly assimilated into other cultures.

The Khoikhoi were the first native people to come into contact with Dutch settlers in the mid-17th century. Unfortunately for them, land disputes and livestock theft resulted in a series of conflicts that largely destroyed their way of life, and diseases such as smallpox, brought into the country by visiting sailors and against which they had no natural resistance or indigenous medicines, decimated the population.

Bantu People

Colourful Venda cultureColourful Venda culture

The Bantu expansion was one of the major demographic movements in human prehistory, sweeping through much of the African continent during the 1st and 2nd millennia BC. Bantu-speaking communities reached southern Africa from the Congo basin by the early centuries AD. The advancing Bantu encroached on Khoisan territory, forcing the original inhabitants of the region to move to more arid areas. Some of the migrant groups, ancestral to today's Nguni peoples (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, and Ndebele), preferred to live near the eastern coast of South Africa. Others, now known as the Sotho–Tswana peoples (Tswana, Pedi, and Sotho), settled in the interior on a plateau known as the Highveld, while today's Venda, Lemba, and Tsonga peoples made their homes in the north-eastern areas of the country.

Mapungubwe, which was located near the northern border at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, adjacent to present-day Zimbabwe and Botswana, was the first indigenous kingdom in southern Africa. It existed between AD 900 and 1300, and developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned due to climatic changes. Smiths created objects of iron, copper and gold both for local decorative use and for foreign trade. The kingdom traded through various east African ports to Arabia, India and China, increasing its wealth through the exchange of gold and ivory for other valuable imports.

Specifics of the contact between Bantu-speakers and the indigenous Khoisan ethnic group remain largely unknown, although linguistic proof of some assimilation exists, as several southern Bantu languages (notably Xhosa and Zulu) incorporate many click consonants of the Khoisan languages. The assimilation is not dissimilar to that of the European settlers, who adapted and incorporated the Dutch, Flemish, German and Malay languages into the present-day language of Afrikaans.

Early Portuguese Explorers

Vasco da GamaVasco da Gama

A Portuguese mariner named Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to explore the coastline of South Africa in 1488, whilst attempting to discover a trade route to the Far East via the southern cape of Africa, which he named Cabo das Tormentas (meaning “Cape of Storms”). Dias's expedition reached its furthest point on 12 March 1488 when they anchored at Kwaaihoek, near the mouth of the Boesmans River. He wanted to continue his voyage, but was forced to abandon when his crew refused to go any further and the rest of his officers unanimously favoured returning to Portugal.

In November 1497, a fleet of Portuguese ships under the command of Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope. On 16 December, the fleet sailed past the point where Dias had earlier turned back. Da Gama gave the name “Natal” to the coast he was passing, which in Portuguese means “Christmas”. His fleet proceeded northwards to Zanzibar and later sailed eastwards, eventually reaching India and thereby opening up a new trade route between Europe and Asia. Da Gama returned to Lisbon on 29 August 1499, where he was given a hero’s welcome.

Da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India was significant and opened the way for an age of global imperialism and for the Portuguese to establish a long-lasting colonial empire in Asia. Traveling the ocean route allowed the Portuguese to avoid sailing across the highly disputed Mediterranean and traversing the dangerous Arabian Peninsula. The sum of the distances covered in the outward and return voyages made this expedition the longest ocean voyage ever made up to that time, much further than a full voyage around the world by way of the Equator.

Dutch Colonisation

Van Riebeeck landing at the Cape (painting by Charles Bell)Van Riebeeck landing at the Cape (painting by Charles Bell)

The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) decided to establish a permanent settlement at the Cape. The VOC originally had no intention of colonising the area, instead wanting only to establish a secure base where passing ships could shelter and be serviced, and where hungry sailors could stock up on fresh supplies. To this end, a small VOC expedition under the command of Jan van Riebeeck reached Table Bay on 6 April 1652.

The VOC had settled at the Cape in order to supply their ships, but the local Khoikhoi eventually stopped trading with the Dutch, and the VOC had to import farmers from their home country to establish smallholdings that would replenish the passing ships and support the growing settlement. The small initial group of free burghers, as these farmers were known, steadily increased in number, and they began to expand their farms further to the north and east.

The majority of burghers had Dutch ancestry and belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church, but there were also some Germans, mostly of the Lutheran faith. In 1688, the Dutch and Germans were joined by French Huguenots, who were Calvinist Protestants fleeing religious persecution in France under its Catholic ruler, King Louis XIV.

Van Riebeeck was under strict instructions not to enslave the local Khoikhoi and San aboriginals, so the VOC began to import large numbers of slaves, primarily from the Dutch colonies in Indonesia. The offspring from miscegenation between the settlers and the Khoisan and Malay slaves became known officially as the Cape Coloureds and the Cape Malays respectively.

British Occupation of the Cape Colony

1820 Settlers arriving in Port Elizabeth (Painting by Thomas Baines)1820 Settlers arriving in Port Elizabeth (Painting by Thomas Baines)

In 1787, shortly before the French Revolution, a faction within the politics of the Dutch Republic known as the Patriot Party attempted to overthrow the regime of William V, also known as the Prince of Orange. Although the revolt was crushed, it was resurrected after the French invasion of the Netherlands in 1794 and 1795, which resulted in the prince fleeing the country. The Patriot revolutionaries then proclaimed the Batavian Republic, which was closely allied to revolutionary France. In response, the prince, who had taken up residence in England, issued the Kew Letters, ordering colonial governors to surrender to the British. The British then seized the Cape in 1795 to prevent it from falling into French hands. The Cape was relinquished back to the Dutch in 1803, but in 1806 the British again inherited the Cape as a prize during the Napoleonic Wars. 

Like the Dutch before them, the British initially had little interest in the Cape Colony, other than as a strategically-located port. The Cape Articles of Capitulation of 1806 allowed the colony to retain all of its rights and privileges, and this launched South Africa on a divergent course from the rest of the British Empire. 

British sovereignty of the area was recognised at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Dutch accepting a payment of 6 million pounds for the colony. As one of their first tasks, the British outlawed the use of the Dutch language, with a view to converting the European settlers to the British language and culture. 

In 1820, the British authorities persuaded about 5,000 middle-class British immigrants (most of them “in trade”) to leave Great Britain with the promise of free farms in South Africa. They were settled in the region around modern-day Port Elizabeth and East London, creating a buffer zone between the existing farmers in the Cape Colony and the marauding black tribes which were sweeping down from the north. Even in modern times, this area is still referred to as “the Border”.

Shaka: Zulu Militarism and Expansion

Modern-day Zulu warriors re-enacting a battleModern-day Zulu warriors re-enacting a battle

Sigidi kaSenzangakhona was born in July 1787, the illegitimate son of the chief of a small clan called the Zulus. When the elders of the tribe discovered that his mother was pregnant, his parents tried to deny it, and claimed that her bloated belly was a symptom of iShaka, an intestinal and parasitic beetle. This is how the boy acquired the nickname by which he would later become so famous.

When he was six years old, Shaka and his mother were exiled from his father’s kraal and they later joined a different tribe, the Mthethwa. In his late teens, Shaka was assigned to an amabutho, a military regiment of young men based on age group. During this time, he caught the attention of the premier chieftain, Dingiswayo. Shaka displayed great valour, skill, and strength, and an impressed Dingiswayo became his mentor.

After the young warrior had led his troops to victory in a number of skirmishes, Dingiswayo made Shaka his commander-in-chief, and helped to organize a reconciliation between Shaka and his estranged father. But as he was illegitimate, Shaka had no valid claim to succession. After his father died in 1816, he killed his half-brother Sigujana and took over as chief of the Zulus. At this stage, his army consisted of just 1,500 warriors.

Inter-tribal battles at this time consisted of a show of strength with very little bloodshed. The opposing forces would line up in two long lines facing one another just more than a spear-throw apart. They would begin by hurling insults, then warriors from either side would run forward and throw a spear at their opponents. Many could be warded off with a shield or dodged. If one side received more casualties than the other, this would be seen as a sign that it was not a very auspicious day and they would usually retreat, with the resolve to seek a return engagement on a more favourable occasion.

But Shaka set about to revolutionise traditional weaponry and tactics, with far more deadly intentions. Rather than using long assegais that were thrown at an enemy, Shaka adapted the spear into a close-quarters weapon with a short, thick handle and a massive blade known as the iklwa, so called because of the sound it made when it was thrust and pulled out of an enemy’s body. Shaka also introduced a larger, heavier version of the Nguni shield, and he taught his warriors how to use the shield's left side to hook an enemy's shield to the right, exposing his ribs for a fatal spear stab. Instead of all-out frontal charges, Shaka developed the famous “bull horn" attack formation, composed of three elements; the “chest”, a main frontal force normally comprised of senior veterans; the “horns”, which would flank the enemy from both sides and encircle them; and the “loins”, a reserve force hidden behind the “chest”.

Shaka imposed a rigorous system of discipline on his troops, and drilled them without mercy. He organised various grades into regiments, and quartered them in special military kraals, with each regiment having its own distinctive name and insignia. He forced them to practice his encirclement tactics, and to undertake marches that sometimes covered more than 50 miles a day in a fast trot over hot, rocky terrain, usually without any footwear. Any warriors that could not keep up or that objected were killed.

In 1818, Shaka began a massive programme to expand his kingdom. He used various methods, including forging alliances, negotiation, diplomatic pressure, patronage and reward, but if none of these was successful, he killed, enslaved or assimilated any tribes that resisted his forces. As more and more tribes and territories became incorporated into Shaka's empire, others moved away to be out of the range of his impis, becoming in turn aggressors against their neighbours. The ripple effect caused by these mass migrations would become known as the Mfecane (“the crushing”).

Within ten years, the Zulu nation had ballooned to a total of about 250,000 people covering a vast territory, and the warrior king ruled over his lands with an iron fist. He could assemble more than 50,000 warriors at any given time, and he would ruthlessly crush any uprising or resistance amongst his subjects. Shaka was known for his cruelty, and it is estimated that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, although this figure is sometimes hotly disputed.

As there were only a few white hunters and traders living in his kingdom during this period, Shaka never came into conflict with any of them. Indeed, he accorded them favoured treatment, ceded them land, and permitted them to build a settlement at Port Natal. He was curious about their technological developments, was anxious to learn more about European military methods, and he was especially interested in the culture that they represented. Moreover, he was alert to the advantages that their trade might bring.

Shaka was an undisputed ruler and a cruel tyrant, but he had always maintained very close ties with his mother, Nandi. When she died from dysentery in October 1827, he proclaimed a period of national mourning which would last for 12 months. He ordered that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk should be consumed, and that any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people that were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed. The killing was not restricted to humans; even some of his cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what it was like to lose a mother.

On 24 September 1828, Shaka was assassinated by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana. His corpse was dumped in an empty grain pit, which was then filled with stones and mud. The exact location of his final resting place is unknown, although a monument was built at one alleged site.

Much of the legend and mystique around the figure of Shaka has been garnered from African oral history and praise poetry, and from the few written accounts of his interactions with European settlers. There is some dispute amongst modern scholars as to the veracity of the stories, but there is no doubt that he was a both a brilliant military tactician and a brutal despot. Despite his violent methodology, Shaka created a large and powerful nation that would forever leave its mark on the history of South Africa.

The Great Trek

Voortrekkers (Painting by Red Skelton)Voortrekkers (Painting by Red Skelton)

The rural descendants of the Cape’s original European Settlers, now known collectively as “Boers”, became increasingly unhappy with the British administration during the 1820s and 1830s. The replacement of Dutch with English as the language used in the Cape's judicial and political systems put the Boers at a disadvantage, as most spoke little or no English. Great Britain's alienation of the Boers was also particularly amplified by their decision to abolish slavery in all of its colonies in 1834. 

Bridling at what they considered an unwarranted intrusion into their way of life, some of the Boer community began to consider selling their farms and venturing deep into South Africa's unmapped interior to pre-empt further disputes and live completely independently of British rule. Others were frustrated by the apparent unwillingness or inability of the British government to extend the borders of the Cape Colony eastward and to provide them with access to more prime pastures and economic opportunities. They resolved to trek beyond the colony's borders on their own. 

On 8 September 1834, an exploratory expedition was sent out to reconnoitre routes and to establish treaties with the black tribes that they would encounter along the way. They arrived in Port Natal (now Durban) in February 1835, exhausted after their long journey. They were welcomed with open arms by the few hunters, traders and missionaries that had settled there. After some rest and replenishment, they departed Port Natal in early June 1835, and followed more or less the same route back to the Cape, arriving in Grahamstown in October 1835. Feedback meetings and talks took place in the main church to much approval, and the first sparks of Trek Fever began to take hold. 

Calling themselves the “Voortrekkers” (literally meaning “early migrants”, but better translated as “pioneers” or “pathfinders”), six large groups left the Cape Colony between January 1836 and April 1837. There was no clear consensus amongst the Trekkers on where they were going to settle, but they all had the goal of settling near an outlet to the sea. Initially all of the groups moved north, to an area between the Orange and Vaal rivers (the present-day Free State province) but after this they split up into three main directions; north-west, north, and east. 

The Voortrekkers faced incredible hardships, including the mountainous terrain, wild animals, and diseases such as sleeping sickness and malaria. But it was conflict with the local black tribes that was to cause the most damage. Despite pre-existing peace agreements, the Voortrekkers were hounded and attacked, first by the Ndebele and later by the Zulus, whose intent was either to steal cattle or to protect tribal lands, or both. Despite superior weapons and tactics, sheer weight of numbers often resulted in heavy losses on the Boer side, and sometimes even in complete annihilation of the trekking parties. 

One of the biggest and the most famous of these battles was the Battle of Blood River, which took place on 16 December 1838. A Trekker scouting party brought news of a gathering of Zulu forces, so Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius formed his wagon train up into a fortified laager next to the Ncome River. There were 468 Boers, 3 Britons, and about 60 black helpers in the group. 

During the night of 15 December, six Zulu regiments with an estimated 15,000 soldiers crossed the Ncome River and started massing around the encampment. The battle started at dawn on the 16th, and for two hours the laager was stormed by successive waves of warriors, the Boers managing to successfully repel each attack. Pretorius then ordered a group of horsemen to leave the encampment and engage the Zulus in order to disintegrate their formations. The Zulus withstood the charge for some time, but rapid losses led them to scatter, and the Trekkers pursued their fleeing enemies for another three hours. 

The Zulus lost an estimated 3,000 warriors in the battle. Amazingly, none of the Voortrekkers had been killed and only three had been wounded, including Pretorius himself. 

Before the battle, the Voortrekkers had taken a vow that, if victorious, they would observe the date forever afterwards as a Sabbath. The 16th of December is still a public holiday in South Africa; prior to 1994, it was known as the “Day of the Covenant”, and after that as the “Day of Reconciliation”. 

By early 1840 the Great Trek had largely ended, although another smaller migration would take place after the British annexation of Natal in 1843. Altogether about 12,000 persons had taken part, about one fifth of the Cape Colony’s population at the time. The event was a defining moment in South Africa’s history, as it opened up the interior of the country, changed the dynamics and distribution of the black tribes, and led directly to the founding of several autonomous Boer republics.

British Annexation of Natal

Durban in modern timesDurban in modern times

The British had established a trading post at Port Natal (now Durban) in 1824, and in that same year they signed a treaty with Shaka ceding them Port Natal and about 50 miles (80 km) of coastline to a depth of 100 miles (160 km) inland. They made little attempt to develop the interior, which continued to be decimated by the Zulus during the mfecane period.

The British settlement at Port Natal did grow, however, and in 1835 Captain A.F. Gardiner secured from Dingaan (who had succeeded Shaka as the Zulu chief) a treaty ceding the southern half of Natal to the British. The apparently empty interior was entered in October 1837 by the Voortrekkers. They crossed the passes of the northern Drakensberg Mountains under the leadership of Piet Retief and others. Retief obtained from Dingaan the promise of nearly all of Natal if he recovered some stolen cattle for the Zulu leader. Retief’s promptness in this task so alarmed Dingaan that he had Retief and more than 60 of his followers massacred in February 1838. After the Battle of Blood River, Dingaan was replaced by his brother Mpande, who made concessions to the Boers and established himself north of the Tugela in a vassal state known as Zululand.

The Afrikaners established the Republic of Natalia with its capital at Pietermaritzburg and its northern border at the Tugela River. The new Boer republic was soon unsettled by an influx of indigenous tribes returning to Natal to repopulate the lands they had abandoned to the Zulus. The British, moreover, opposed the establishment of any independent state on the coast of southern Africa, and annexed Natal in 1843 after a few minor skirmishes. In response, many of the former republic’s Afrikaner inhabitants left for the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and were replaced by new immigrants, mainly from Britain. Natal was given a local administration but remained basically an adjunct of the Cape Colony until 1856, when it was made a crown colony and given its own legislative council.

Establishment of the Boer Republics

Map of Southern Africa circa 1854-1899Map of Southern Africa circa 1854-1899

After the demise of the short-lived Republic of Natalia and the British annexation of Natal, many of the Boer families living in the region trekked back over the Drakensberg Mountains to join up with the Voortrekker communities that had established themselves in the central and northern parts of the country.

The scattered Trekker groups had started to form what they called “Republics”, but in essence these usually consisted of an established town (e.g. Winburg, Potchefstroom, Lydenburg and Utrecht) and its surrounding area. At least 10 of these republics were established in the period from 1836 to 1854. As alliances evolved and boundaries changed due to ongoing wars or treaties with the indigenous peoples, these communities started to band together, eventually ending up with two main groups; those to the north of the Vaal River as well as the eastern part of the highveld plateau, and the group located between the Orange and Vaal Rivers in the central region of the country.

The British, at this stage, had no interest whatsoever in these developments. As far as they were concerned, they controlled the Cape, Natal, and virtually the entire coastline of the country, and the Boers were welcome to the hot, dry and apparently worthless interior. Besides, they had enough problems with the Xhosa on their eastern frontier and the Zulus in Natal. They agreed to recognise Boer independence, and the South African Republic (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, usually known as the ZAR) was officially established on 17 January 1852 with the signing of the Sand River Convention. The Republic of the Orange Free State (Oranje-Vrijstaat) followed two years later, on 23 February 1854.

Nongqawuse: The Dead Will Arise

Nongqawuse on the rightNongqawuse on the right

A series of battles historically known as the Frontier Wars started in 1779, during which the Xhosa tribe and the Boer and British settlers clashed intermittently for nearly a hundred years. This was largely due to farming expansion along the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. The wars would continue right up until 1878, but a sequence of unfortunate events occurred in 1856 and 1857 which would have a dramatic effect on the Xhosa nation, changing their fortunes forever.

In April 1856, a 15-year-old girl named Nongqawuse was sent to scare birds from her uncle's crops in his fields near the mouth of the Gxara River in the Wild Coast region of South Africa. When she returned, Nongqawuse told her uncle and guardian Mhlakaza, a Xhosa spiritualist, that she had met the spirits of two of her ancestors.

She claimed that the spirits had told her that the Xhosa people should destroy all of their crops and kill all of their cattle. In return, she said, their dead ancestors would arise and help the Xhosa to sweep the British settlers into the sea. Their granaries would be replenished, and their kraals would be filled with healthier and more beautiful cattle.

Somehow the Xhosa chiefs and leaders believed her and became convinced that her prophecy would be fulfilled. In the eight days leading up to 18 February 1857, the date of the predicted apocalypse, most of the tribe slaughtered their cattle and burned their crops. It is estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 cattle were killed.

The prophecy never did transpire, and the resulting famine decimated the Xhosa population, reducing their numbers from 105,000 to 27,000 over the next few years, a decrease of about 75%. Nongqawuse blamed the failure of her prophecy on a small minority of the nation that had refused to obey her instructions, but the people turned against her and she fled to live with a white family near Alexandria. She died in 1898.

Discovery of Diamonds

Early diamond diggings, KimberleyEarly diamond diggings, Kimberley

The history of diamond mining in South Africa began in early 1867 on the land of a poor Boer farmer, Daniel Jacobs, near the small isolated settlement of Hopetown on the Orange River. Jacob’s son, Erasmus, collected some pretty stones, including a shiny pebble, along the south bank of the river that he and other children wanted to use in games. His mother noticed it and showed it to a neighbouring farmer, Schalk van Niekerk, who was so intrigued by its appearance that he offered to buy it. The woman laughed at this idea and gave the pebble to him.

The farmer thought it might have some value and showed it to several individuals in Hopetown and nearby Colesberg, but found little interest. The civil commissioner in Colesberg, Lorenzo Boyes, examined the pebble and discovered that it could scratch glass. He then sent it to Dr. William Guybon Atherstone, a physician and amateur geologist residing in Grahamstown who, based on its physical properties, pronounced it a diamond weighing 21.25 carats.

This surprise discovery prompted Boer farmers along the rivers to look more carefully for “blink klippe” (bright stones). As news of the initial diamond discovery spread, small parties of prospectors rushed into the region to search for similar gems. Over the following months, additional diamonds continued to be found, and by 1869 the river diggings had yielded hundreds of diamonds (including the discovery of the 83.5 carat diamond known as the “Star of South Africa”). Much of the scientific effort during this time was directed toward finding the host rock in which the diamonds had originally formed.

In 1870 diamonds were being found in some abundance on the Bultfontein farm, 20 miles south-east of the river diggings, in what came to be called the “dry diggings” (later recognized as diamonds occurring in the upper weathered and decomposed sections of a volcanic pipe). These events started a rush of thousands of people of all backgrounds and from a number of countries to lay claim to sections of land to prospect for diamonds over a large area. Within two decades, many rich deposits were found that would later become the famous diamond mines of South Africa.

The 1st Gold Rush: MacMac and Pilgrim’s Rest

Pilgrims Rest in modern timesPilgrims Rest in modern times

A number of insignificant gold deposits were discovered in the northern parts of the South Africa between 1840 and 1870. But the first gold rush in the country took place in 1873, when payable gold was discovered on the farm Geelhoutboom near Sabie. President T.F. Burgers, when he visited the site, officially named the area the New Caledonian Gold Fields, but jokingly referred to it as “MacMac”, because many of the miners had Scottish surnames. The name has stuck until the present day.

One of the diggers, Alec “Wheelbarrow” Patterson, left the crowded MacMac diggings and went off on his own to explore new territory. He had earned his nickname when he arrived at the diggings pushing a wheelbarrow with all of his belongings in it. He had gotten rid of his donkey after it kicked him, and had decided that a wheelbarrow was a less painful mode of transport. He had pushed it all the way from Cape Town – a distance of about 1,000 miles.

“Wheelbarrow” Patterson struck it rich in a small stream a few kilometres away from MacMac, later named Pilgrim’s Creek. He was a solitary man and did not share his find with anybody, but soon afterwards another digger named William Trafford also found gold in the same stream, and registered his claim with the Gold Commissioner in MacMac.

This sparked off the biggest gold rush of the time, and on 22 September 1873, Pilgrim’s Rest was officially proclaimed a gold field. By January 1874, some 1,500 diggers were working about 4,000 claims in and around Pilgrim’s Creek. By 1876 most of the tents had been replaced with more permanent structures (usually made from timber and corrugated iron) and various businesses began to trade, supplying the diggers with the necessary equipment and provisions.

Most of the gold in the area was alluvial gold – gold dust recovered by washing the gravel from the beds and banks of the streams. But there were nuggets too, lumps of solid gold occasionally found under or wedged against boulders. The largest of these was the “Breda” nugget, which weighed in at 214 ounces (more than 6 kg), but legends of nuggets weighing as much as 11 kilograms were told around the campfires.

The Anglo-Zulu War

Battle of Isandlwana (Painting by Charles Edwin)Battle of Isandlwana (Painting by Charles Edwin)

After finally defeating the Xhosa in a series of frontier wars which had lasted for 99 years (1779–1878), the British now turned their attention towards the Zulus in Natal. Sir Henry Bartle Frere, the High Commissioner, on his own initiative and without the approval of the British government, decided to instigate a war with Cetshwayo, the Zulu king at the time. He did this by issuing a long list of demands, knowing full well that his terms would be completely unacceptable. When Cetshwayo refused to respond to his ultimatum, Bartle ordered an invasion of Zululand. 

The campaign had a disastrous beginning. Three columns of British troops under the overall command of Lord Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo River into Zululand on 11 January 1879, and by 22 January the centre column was encamped near Isandlwana. Chelmsford was lured eastward, with much of his centre column, by a Zulu diversionary force, whilst the main Zulu army of about 20,000 warriors attacked his camp. The ensuing battle became a massacre; the British camp was annihilated, with heavy casualties as well as the loss of all its supplies, ammunition and transport. Of the 1,700-plus force of British troops and African auxiliaries, about 1,300 were killed. The defeat left Chelmsford with no choice but to hastily retreat out of Zululand. 

After a few more battles and skirmishes, and some British successes at Kambula, Gingindlovu and Eshowe, Chelmsford started to prepare for a second invasion. He had a pressing reason to proceed with haste; Sir Garnet Wolseley was being sent to replace him, and he wanted to inflict a decisive defeat on Cetshwayo's forces before then. Chelmsford reorganised his forces and again advanced into Zululand in June 1879, this time with extreme caution. 

Cetshwayo, understanding that the newly-reinforced British would be formidable opponents, attempted to negotiate a peace treaty. Chelmsford was not open to negotiations, and he proceeded to the royal kraal of Ulundi, intending to crush the main Zulu army. On 4 July 1879, the armies clashed at the Battle of Ulundi and Cetshwayo's forces were comprehensively defeated, thus ending the war.

The 1st Anglo-Boer War

Battle of MajubaBattle of Majuba

Having originally discounted the interior of South Africa as worthless, the British became increasingly perturbed by the discovery of diamonds near Kimberley and the early gold strikes in the Eastern Transvaal. Even though they had recognised the independence of the Boer Republics in 1852 and 1854, they now arrogantly decided to rescind their decision. 

On 12 April 1877 a proclamation of annexation was read out in Church Square in Pretoria, the capital of the ZAR. Although highly incensed by this, the ZAR Volksraad (government) initially decided on a path of passive resistance, and sent a number of delegations to London to argue their case, but to no avail. The UK government insisted that the ZAR remain under British authority. 

Realising that they had no other option, the Boers began to prepare for active conflict. They surreptitiously surrounded the six British garrisons that had been established in the territory after the Anglo-Zulu War, then waited for an excuse to start hostilities. 

This came when a farmer named Pieter Bezuidenhout refused to pay extra fees on his wagon, saying that he had already paid his taxes. The British authorities then confiscated the wagon and his oxen. On 11 November 1880, a commando of 100 men under General Piet Cronje took back his goods from the British bailiff and returned them to Bezuidenhout. 

Following this event, between 8,000 and 10,000 Boers gathered at Paardekraal, near Krugersdorp. A triumvirate of leaders was appointed, and on 13 December 1880 they proclaimed the restoration of the ZAR. Three days later they raised their flag at Heidelberg, thus rejecting British dominion and precipitating a war.

The fiercely independent Boers had no regular army; when danger threatened, all of the men in a district would form into loose groups called commandos and would elect their own officers. Being civilian militia, each man wore whatever he wished, usually everyday dark-grey, neutral-coloured, or earth-tone khaki farming clothes such as a jacket, trousers and a slouch hat. Each man brought his own weapon, usually a hunting rifle, and his own horse. The average Boer soldier had spent almost all of his working life in the saddle and was both a skilled hunter and an expert marksman. Boer commandos could also live off the land, negating the need for supply lines. 

British infantry uniforms at that time consisted of red jackets, black trousers with red piping on the side, white pith helmets and pipeclayed equipment, all of which formed a stark contrast to the African landscape. This made them highly visible, and enabled Boer troops to snipe at them from long range. British military tactics emphasized the traditional values of command, discipline, formation and synchronized firepower. The average British soldier was not trained to be a marksman and had received very little target practice. 

On 16 December 1880, the Boers laid siege to the British garrisons, cutting off all supply lines and effectively removing these troops from the hostilities. The first battle of the war took place on 20 December near Bronkhorstspruit, when an Irish unit marching to relieve the siege of Pretoria was halted by a Boer commando. The Boer leader, Piet Joubert, ordered the column to turn back, but the British refused; the Boers opened fire and most of the British soldiers were killed. The battle took just 15 minutes. 

With all of the British troops in the Transvaal under siege or defeated, the Boers concentrated their forces on the south-eastern border with Natal, where the remnants of the British army were located. Over a period of just 29 days, three major battles took place. The first of these was the Battle of Lang’s Nek, on 28 January 1881, during which the British were heavily defeated. The second battle (the Battle of Schuinshoogte) took place on 8 February 1881, again resulting in an almost complete annihilation of the imperial forces. 

On 26 February 1881, the British commander, Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, led a night march of his troops to the top of Majuba Hill, which overlooked the main Boer position. Early the next morning, the Boers saw the British occupying the summit and started to ascend the mountain. Exhausted from their climb the night before and unprepared for this assault, the British soldiers offered little resistance and the battle turned into a rout. Colley himself was shot and killed almost immediately, as were many of his officers; the rest of the troops suffered heavy losses, some of the casualties occurring by men falling to their deaths off the mountain. The Boers suffered only one killed and five wounded. 

The British government realised that any further action would require substantial troop reinforcements, and that a continuance of the war would be costly, messy and protracted. They requested a truce which was granted on 6 March 1881, subsequently followed by a peace treaty on 23 March. The British surrender and the Boer right to self-government was officially ratified on 3 August 1881 with the signature of the Pretoria Convention. 

The 1st Anglo-Boer War was the first conflict since the American War of Independence in which Britain had been decisively defeated and forced to sign a peace treaty under unfavourable terms. It would also be the last time that the British would sport their famous “Redcoats”, and the final occasion on which a British regiment would carry its official regimental colours into battle.

The 2nd Gold Rush - Barberton

Barberton circa 1887Barberton circa 1887

By 1880, the alluvial gold around MacMac and Pilgrim’s Rest had started to dwindle, so most of the miners moved on to prospect in the De Kaap Valley near present-day Kaapsehoop and Barberton. The first big strikes in the region took place in 1882, on the farm Berlin and at a place named Jamestown. Other finds soon occurred in the surrounding area, and on 21 June 1884 Graham Barber wrote a letter to the State Secretary to inform him that he had found payable gold on state-owned land. David Wilson, the Gold Commissioner, made an investigation and found the claim to be true, so he declared a township and named it Barberton. There was no champagne available, so he broke a bottle of gin over a rock to christen the town. 

In 1885, an ex-coal miner named Edwin Bray started fossicking in the mountains to the north-east of Barberton, on the theory that the alluvial gold in the valley must have originated from higher altitudes. He struck a vein of gold so rich that it was claimed that the rocks had to be removed from the gold, rather than the other way around. Using only picks and shovels, he and his workers excavated a massive cavern in the mountain which today resembles a great subterranean cathedral, now known as the Golden Quarry. It is the richest mine ever found, and is one of the mining wonders of the world. It is still in production and, more than 130 years later, is considered to be the oldest and richest gold mine on earth. 

A former butcher from Durban named John Sherwood established a hotel and shop near to the mine to cater to the miner’s needs. This was followed by a butchery, bakery, post office, more hotels, several canteens and even a horse racing course. Soon a little town had sprung up, quickly gaining a reputation for festivities and lawlessness, which at its height had a population of over 700 people. It was called Eureka City. Not much is left of the town today, but there are still numerous ruins scattered over a large area.

Discovery of Gold on the Witwatersrand

Barberton circa 1887Barberton circa 1887

The first recorded discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand was made by Jan Gerrit Bantjes in June 1884, on the farm Vogelstruisfontein, and this was followed soon afterwards by the Struben brothers who uncovered the Confidence Reef on the farm Wilgespruit. However, these were minor reefs, and today it is the general consensus that credit for the discovery of the main gold reefs in the area must be attributed to George Harrison, whose findings on the farm Langlaagte were made in July 1886. His discovery precipitated the biggest gold rush in recorded history. 

It did not take long for fortune-seekers from all over the world to flock to the area, and soon what was a dusty mining village known as Ferreira's Camp was formalised into a settlement. The name chosen for the new town is thought to have been derived from the names of two state surveyors that were sent to map out the plots, Johann Rissik and Christiaan Johannes Joubert. Within 10 years, Johannesburg had become the largest city in South Africa, and it remains so up until the present day. 

From humble beginnings, gold production in South Africa increased steadily to reach a peak of approximately 1000 tons in 1970, at which point the country was by far the largest producer of gold in the world. But it became necessary to dig deeper and deeper to find payable gold, and many of the mines are no longer economically viable. 

As a major global industry, mining in South Africa boasts a high level of technical and production expertise, as well as wide-ranging research and development activities. The country has world-class primary processing facilities, covering carbon steel, stainless steel and aluminium in addition to platinum and gold beneficiation. 

In modern times, gold and diamond production are well down from their peaks, although South Africa is still on the world’s top 10 list for both products. But it remains a cornucopia of other mineral riches, and is the world's largest producer of platinum, titanium, chrome, manganese, vanadium and vermiculite. It is the second-largest producer of uranium, ilmenite, palladium, rutile and zirconium, and is the third-largest coal exporter. South Africa also has huge reserves of iron ore.

The Rinderpest Panzootic

Cattle killed by the RinderpestCattle killed by the Rinderpest

in February 1896, large numbers of cattle and game were reported to be dying from an obscure disease on both sides of the Zambesi River. Later identified as the Rinderpest (German for "cattle plague"), it was thought to have been introduced to North Africa in 1889 from Arabia or India, probably by the Italian army, after which it began to migrate towards the south.

On 3 March 1896 it reached Bulawayo in Rhodesia, and from there the plague was rapidly conveyed southwards by means of transport oxen. By April it had crossed the Limpopo into the ZAR, where the cattle population was quickly decimated. As soon as it appeared the authorities made every effort to confine the infection locally, but in spite of the most strenuous precautions, by October of that year the disease had spread to both the Orange Free State and parts of the Cape Colony.

A final determined attempt to check the extension of the scourge further southward was then made at the Orange River, by erecting a barbed-wire fence which was about a thousand miles long. This did delay the invasion of the disease into the Cape for a while, but on 24 March 1897 an outbreak unexpectedly occurred south of the line.

Realising the impossibility of preventing the spread of the disease by means of the measures already adopted, the authorities resorted to prophylactic methods. Robert Koch pioneered an immunizing vaccine by using the bile of animals that had died from the disease, and by the end of 1898 millions of cattle had been successfully inoculated. Koch was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work in 1905.

During this virulent panzootic, the Rinderpest caused ruin and devastation over extensive stretches of the country, destroying not only the majority of domestic bovines along its route, but also considerable numbers of indigenous antelope. It is estimated that nearly 3 million head of cattle succumbed to it in South Africa alone.

On 25 May 2011, Rinderpest was declared as the second disease to have been completely eradicated from the earth (the first was smallpox, in 1980).

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War

Boer troops in action during the Siege of Ladysmith in NatalBoer troops in action during the Siege of Ladysmith in Natal

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War (also known as the South African War) took place from October 1899 to May 1902, between the imperial forces of the British Empire and the independent Boer republics (the ZAR and the Orange Free State). Because of the tactics used by the British in the latter stages, the war caused untold hardship and devastation amongst the civilian population, and resulted in a wave of resentment that has lasted until the present day.

There were many factors that contributed to the outbreak of hostilities, including the conflicting political ideologies of imperialism and republicanism, tension between political leaders, the Jameson Raid (a botched military attempt to overthrow the ZAR government) and the disfranchisement (denial of voting rights) of all “Uitlanders” (foreigners) in the ZAR. But the primary underlying cause was just pure greed. The Witwatersrand gold strike had led to the Boer republic becoming one of the richest nations on earth, playing a prominent role in international finance because of the importance of gold as a global monetary system. Britain was the centre of trade and industry in the world at the time, and needed a steady supply of gold to maintain this position.

The war started with the British overconfident and under-prepared, not having learned their lessons from the 1st Anglo-Boer War a few years previously. The Boers were well armed and struck first, besieging Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mahikeng in early 1900, and winning important battles at Colenso, Magersfontein and Stormberg. Incensed, the British brought in large numbers of troops and fought back. They relieved all three of the besieged cities, then invaded the two Boer republics in late 1900. The onward march of the British Army, by now numbering well over 400,000 men, was so overwhelming that the Boers could no longer fight staged battles in defence of their homeland. The British seized control of the Orange Free State and the ZAR, and the Boer leadership went into hiding or exile. In conventional terms, the war was all but over.

But the Boers were by no means finished just yet. They abandoned formal warfare tactics and increased their reliance on small and highly mobile military units, sniping at and raiding the British camps, capturing supplies, and disrupting communications. They avoided pitched battles and their casualties were light. There was no need for orthodox support structures, as every farmhouse in their area of operation became a potential resupply base.

The British response was fairly conventional at first, and they concentrated on restricting the freedom of movement of the Boer commandos and depriving them of local support. The railway lines had provided a vital method of communication and supply, and as the British had advanced across South Africa, they had used armoured trains and had established fortified blockhouses at key points. They now built additional blockhouses (each housing 6 to 8 soldiers) and fortified these to protect supply routes against the Boer raiders. Eventually some 8,000 such blockhouses were built across the two Boer republics, radiating out from the larger towns along the principal routes.

When this proved to be relatively ineffective, they resorted to a highly controversial tactic now known as the “scorched earth” policy. As British troops swept through the countryside, they systematically destroyed crops, slaughtered livestock, burned homesteads and farms, and interned Boer men, women, children and their workers in concentration camps. A total of 109 of these camps were set up, and more than 100,000 Boers, mostly woman and children, were imprisoned.

The camps were poorly administered from the outset and became increasingly overcrowded when the British implemented the internment strategy on a vast scale. Conditions were appalling, mainly due to neglect, poor hygiene and bad sanitation. Food rations were meagre and there was a two-tier allocation policy, whereby families of men who were still fighting were routinely given smaller rations than others. The inadequate shelter, poor diet, bad hygiene and overcrowding led to malnutrition and endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery, to which the children were particularly vulnerable. In some camps, the child mortality rate was as high as 95%.

Exhausted by more than two years of guerrilla warfare, demoralised, deprived of places of refuge, and broken-hearted by the loss of their wives and children, the Boer commandos were eventually forced to surrender. The last of the Boers capitulated in May 1902, and the war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging which was signed on the 31st of that month. This agreement ended the existence of the South African Republic (ZAR) and the Orange Free State as independent Boer republics, and forced them into the avaricious arms of the British Empire.

The cost of the war was staggering, in terms of both finances and casualties. It is estimated that Great Britain spent in total about 210 million pounds during the war, which equates to around 250 billion pounds in today’s money. Nearly 22,000 British soldiers died, and more than 75,000 were wounded and repatriated. The Boers lost about 4,000 men during the fighting, but it was the concentration camps that did the most damage. Altogether, about 14,000 black South Africans and 28,000 Boer civilians died in the camps, of which approximately 24,000 were children under 16 – about 50% of the Boer child population at the time.

Formation of the Union of South Africa

Union Buildings, PretoriaUnion Buildings, Pretoria

Following the end of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War, High Commissioner Alfred Milner transferred his headquarters from Cape Town to Pretoria, the move symbolizing the centrality of the Transvaal to his mission of constructing a new order in South Africa. By the time Milner departed in 1905, his vision of a country politically dominated by English-speaking whites had failed. Schemes to flood the Transvaal with British settlers had yielded only a trickle, and, worse yet, compulsory anglicization of the education system had further intensified feelings of Boer nationalism.  

Britain was now forced to accept the fact that English speakers would never constitute a majority in white South Africa. In 1907, the British granted limited self-government to both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and, in subsequent elections, Boer parties swept to victory in both provinces. In the following year, the South African Party came to power in the Cape Colony. Reassured by the stated readiness of the Boer leaders to assist with the stabilisation of the mining industry, the British government encouraged negotiations amongst white representatives of the four self-governing colonies with the aim of establishing a single state. 

Negotiations held in 1908 and 1909 produced a constitution that embodied three fundamental principles. South Africa would adopt a Westminster style of government and would become a unitary state in which political power would be won by a simple majority; the question of voting rights for blacks would be left up to each of the four self-governing colonies to decide for itself (the Cape and Natal based their franchise on a property-owning qualification; the Orange Free State and the Transvaal denied all blacks the vote); and both English and Dutch would be the official languages. 

On 31 May 1910, exactly eight years after the end of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War, the Union of South Africa was officially recognised. Louis Botha was appointed as the first prime minister, and Jan Smuts became his deputy.

World War 1

General Botha inspecting troops in Luderitz, German South-West Africa (now Namibia)General Botha inspecting troops in Luderitz, German South-West Africa (now Namibia)

The newly-formed Union of South Africa had very few good reasons to fight for the British during World War I. Many of its citizens were still bitter about the recent Anglo-Boer War and the subsequent discovery of the concentration camps in which thousands of women and children had died. Great Britain continued to be viewed as an enemy. 

But when the war started on 28 July 1914, the Afrikaner-led government unhesitatingly joined the side of the Allies against the German Empire. Prime Minister Louis Botha and Defence Minister Jan Smuts, both former Anglo-Boer War generals that had fought against the British, became active and respected members of the Imperial War Cabinet. 

The South African Defence Force saw action in a number of different areas. It dispatched part of its army to German South-West Africa (now Namibia), expelling German forces and gaining control of the colony. A military expedition under the command of Jan Smuts was sent to German East Africa (now Tanzania) to fight the Germans in that country, primarily with an intent to capture the elusive General von Lettow-Vorbeck and his troops. 

South African soldiers were also shipped to France to fight in Europe. The most significant battle in which the South African forces on the Western Front took part was the Battle of Delville Wood, in 1916. They also saw action with the Cape Corps as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine. 

More than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks and 2,500 people of mixed race served in South African military units during the war, including 43,000 in German South-West Africa, 30,000 on the Western Front, and an estimated 3,000 South Africans joined the Royal Flying Corps. In total, about 12,500 of them were killed and about 6,000 of them were wounded during the course of the war. 

South Africa played a significant role in the Allied victory through its contributions in Africa, western Europe and the Middle East. Its ports were important rest stops, refuelling stations and strategic strongholds of the British Royal Navy, helping to maintain control of the vital sea routes around the Cape of Good Hope.

Between the World Wars: Urbanisation and Segregation 

Gold miners, Johannesburg circa 1925Gold miners, Johannesburg circa 1925

Mass urbanisation was the most important social development between World War I and World War II. The number of city-dwelling blacks more than tripled during this period, and this urban growth occurred within a context of intensifying segregation. The need for cheap labour, particularly on the mines, caused a migrant worker movement which also resulted in an unprecedented gender imbalance, with many more men working in the urban areas than women. Blacks in the cities lived in terrible conditions, with inadequate housing, poor health and transport services, and no electricity. Along with poverty came crime and white fears for personal safety.

The prevailing government view at this time can be summed up in a paragraph extracted from a report released by the Native Affairs Commission in 1921:

“It has become a truism that the native has not yet made a success of city life, but whatever views one may hold as to the desirability of having Natives as co-dwellers with Europeans in the cities, it must, we hold, be admitted that Natives are there and are likely to remain there, and that it is our duty both for their sake and for the sake of Europeans to improve the conditions under which they live. At the same time it seems only right that it should be understood that the town is a European area in which there is no place for the redundant Native, who neither works nor serves his or her people but forms the class from which the professional agitators, the slum landlords, the liquor sellers, the prostitutes, and other undesirable classes spring.”

By the 1930s, the government’s segregationist stance had hardened further, and repressive legislation had also become aimed at Indian and Coloured South Africans. In 1936, the Hertzog Bills removed from the voting rolls the few blacks that were still enfranchised in the Cape. Despite intensifying racism, respect for British legalism and liberalism inclined many early black leaders to use petitions, delegations, and other polite methods of protest against segregation. Whilst this period saw some ambiguity in the black response, protests against discriminatory policies laid an important foundation for later resistance against apartheid.

World War II

Tobruk, Libya, September, 1941Tobruk, Libya, September, 1941

On the eve of World War II, the Union of South Africa again found itself in a unique political and military quandary. Whilst closely allied with Great Britain, being a co-equal dominion under the 1931 Statute of Westminster with its head of state being the British king, the South African Prime Minister in September 1939 was J.B.M. “Barry” Hertzog, who was both pro-Afrikaner and anti-British.

Hertzog's problem was that South Africa was constitutionally obligated to support Great Britain against Nazi Germany. When Adolf Hitler's forces attacked Poland on 1 September 1939, a short but furious debate unfolded in the parliament of South Africa. It pitted those who wanted to enter the war on Britain's side, led by Jan Smuts, against those who wanted to keep South Africa neutral, led by Hertzog.

On 4 September 1939, the ruling party caucus refused to accept Hertzog's stance of neutrality in World War II, and deposed him in favour of Smuts. Upon becoming Prime Minister on the 6th of September, Smuts declared South Africa officially at war with Germany, and immediately set about fortifying the country against any possible sea invasion, given South Africa's global strategic importance in controlling the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope.

The declaration of war on Germany had the support of only a narrow majority in the South African parliament and was far from being universally popular. Indeed, there was a significant minority actively opposed to the war and, under these conditions, conscription was never an option. The expansion of the army and its deployment overseas depended entirely on volunteers.

In September 1939, the South African Defence Force numbered only 5,353 regulars, with an additional 14,631 men of the Active Citizen Force which gave peace time training to volunteers and which in time of war would form the main body of the defence force. Pre-war plans did not anticipate that the army would fight outside of Southern Africa, and it was trained and equipped only for local warfare. But South Africans emanate from a long and proud tradition of fighting men, and about 334,000 of them eventually volunteered for full-time military service in support of the Allies.

Given the country's attitudes to race at the time, the enlistment of fighting troops from the much larger black population was hardly considered. Instead, in an attempt to free up as many whites as possible for the fighting and technical arms, a number of corps were formed to provide drivers and pioneers, drawn from the more acceptable Coloured and Indian populations. These were eventually amalgamated into the Cape Corps. A Native Military Corps, manned by blacks, was also formed for pioneer and labouring tasks. For some of their tasks, individuals were armed, mainly for self-protection and guard duties, but they were never allowed to participate in actual combat against the Germans and Italians.

During World War II, South Africa's ports and harbours, such as at Cape Town, Durban, and Simon's Town, were important strategic assets of the British Royal Navy. South Africa's top-secret Special Signals Service played a significant role in the early development and deployment of the radio detection and ranging (“radar”) technology used to protect the vital coastal shipping route around southern Africa. By August 1945, South African Air Force aircraft had intercepted 17 enemy ships, assisted in the rescue of 437 survivors from sunken vessels, attacked 26 of the 36 enemy submarines operating the vicinity of the South African coast, and flown 15,000 coastal patrol sorties.

South African ground troops fought with the Allies in many different operations and locations, including Madagascar, Italy and North Africa. A number of South African fighter pilots served with distinction in the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, not least of whom was Group Captain Adolph “Sailor” Malan, who led 74 Squadron and who personally destroyed 32 enemy aircraft. The top South African pilot ace during the course of the war was Marmaduke “Pat” Pattle, credited with more than 50 victories. He was shot down and killed whilst engaged in a dogfight over Piraeus Harbour in Greece, on 20 April 1941.

Total South African casualties during World War II amounted to 12,046 dead (including 4,347 killed in action or died of wounds), 14,363 others wounded, and 16,430 captured or missing. More than 7,000 South Africans were decorated or mentioned in despatches. Located far away from the main theatre of the war, the country itself suffered no civilian casualties or physical damage.

Jan Smuts was the only non-British general whose advice was constantly sought by Britain's war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and he was invited to join the Imperial War Cabinet in 1939. On 28 May 1941, Smuts was appointed as a Field Marshal in the British Army, becoming the first South African to hold that rank. When the war ended, Smuts represented South Africa in San Francisco at the drafting of the United Nations Charter in May 1945. Just as he had done in 1919, Smuts urged the delegates to create a powerful international body to preserve peace; he was determined that, unlike the League of Nations, the UN would have some teeth. Smuts also signed the Paris Peace Treaty which resolved the peace in Europe, thus becoming the only signatory of both of the treaties which had ended World War I and World War II.

The Rise of Apartheid

Apartheid era signApartheid era sign

The origins of apartheid in South Africa can be traced back to racial prejudices and policies imposed firstly by the Dutch colonists and then later by the British. A combination of several factors, such as colonial conquest, slavery, land dispossession, economic impoverishment, exclusion from citizenship of non-white peoples, and in particular the segregation laws passed in 1913 (the Land Act) and 1923 (the Urban Areas Act), all paved the way for policies that were to become firmly entrenched in 1948 and beyond. 

World War II had proven to be an economic stimulant for South Africa, although wartime inflation and lagging wages contributed to social protests and strikes after the end of the war. Driven by reduced imports, the manufacturing and service industries expanded rapidly, and the flow of black people to the towns and cities became a flood. They set up vast squatter camps on the outskirts of the cities and improvised shelters from whatever materials they could find. They also began to flex their political muscles. Blacks boycotted a Witwatersrand bus company that tried to raise fares, they formed trade unions, and in 1946 more than 60,000 black gold miners went on strike for higher wages and improved living conditions. 

Although the 1946 strike was harshly suppressed by the government, white intellectuals did propose a series of reforms within the segregation framework. The government and private industry made a few concessions, such as easing the industrial colour bar, increasing black wages, and relaxing the pass laws, which restricted the right of blacks to live and work in white areas. The government, however, failed to discuss these problems with black representatives. 

The United Party, which had won the general election in 1943 by a large majority, approached the 1948 election with complacence. Whilst the ruling party appeared to take an ambiguous position on race relations, Danie Malan’s National Party took an unequivocal pro-white stance. In the campaign leading up to the election, the National Party claimed that the current government’s weakness threatened white supremacy, and produced a statement that used the word “apartheid” to describe a program of tightened segregation and discrimination. With the support of a tiny fringe group, the National Party won the election by a narrow margin. 

The new government wasted no time in implementing its policies. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 prohibited marriage between persons of different races, and the Immorality Act of 1950 made sexual relations with a person of a different race a criminal offence. The Population Registration Act of 1950 classified all South Africans into one of four racial groups; “Black”, “White”, “Coloured”, or “Indian”.  

Next came the Group Areas Act of 1950. Until then, most settlements had people of different races living side by side. This Act put an end to diverse areas and determined where people could live according to race. Each race was allotted its own area, which was used in later years as a basis for forced removal. 

The all-white Parliament passed many other laws to legalize and institutionalize the apartheid system. Besides the “Grand Apartheid” laws, minor regulations, collectively known as the “Petty Apartheid” laws, segregated South Africans in every sphere of life; in buses, taxis, and hearses, in cinemas, restaurants, and hotels, in trains and railway waiting rooms, and in access to beaches. When a court declared that separated amenities should be available to all races, Parliament passed a special law to override it. 

The government also established direct control over the education of blacks. The Bantu Education Act (1953) took black schools away from the missions, and more state-run schools, especially at the elementary level, were created to meet the expanding economy’s increasing demand for semi-skilled black labour. The Extension of University Education Act (1959) prohibited the established universities from accepting black students, except with special permission. Instead, the government created new ethnic university colleges - one each for Coloureds, Indians, and Zulus and one for Sotho, Tswana, and Venda students, as well as a medical school for blacks. The South African Native College at Fort Hare, which missionaries had founded primarily but not exclusively for blacks, became a state college solely for Xhosa students. The government staffed these ethnic colleges with white supporters of the National Party and subjected the students to stringent controls. 

During this period the National Party consolidated its control over state affairs, and won the next two elections with increased majorities. One of the original cornerstones of its platform was that South Africa should become an independent state, and a referendum to this effect was held on 5 October 1960. The poll, which was restricted to white voters only, was approved by a narrow margin of 52.29% to 47.71%. 

On 3 March 1961, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd went to an Imperial Conference in London, with the intention of raising a discussion about South Africa becoming a republic whilst remaining in the Commonwealth. He was, however, faced with strenuous objections to his country’s apartheid policies, and he decided it would be best to resign from the Commonwealth before South Africa was expelled, or his request for independence was denied. It had also become clear that other countries would leave the Commonwealth in protest if an unrepentant South Africa were allowed to remain. 

On 31 May 1961, British dominion over the country ended and the independent Republic of South Africa came into being. The date was no accident, being the same day on which the 2nd Anglo-Boer War had ended in 1902 and the same day on which the Union of South Africa had been formalised in 1910. South Africa’s membership of the Commonwealth expired simultaneously on this date.

Protests, Strikes and Riots: The Struggle Against Apartheid

The famous picture of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying a fatally wounded Hector Pieterson during the 1976 Soweto uprising. (Photograph by Sam Nzima)The famous picture of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying a fatally wounded Hector Pieterson during the 1976 Soweto uprising. (Photograph by Sam Nzima)

After independence, the South African government continued to expand its apartheid policies in the face of mounting resistance. An anti-pass campaign was launched, and thousands of unarmed blacks invited arrest by presenting themselves at police stations without pass books. On 21 March 1960, police opened fire on a crowd of protestors in Sharpeville, a black township near Johannesburg; 69 of them were killed and more than 180 wounded, most of them shot in the back. Thousands of workers then went on strike, and in Cape Town some 30,000 blacks marched in a peaceful protest to the city centre. The government re-established control by mobilizing the army, outlawing the ANC and the PAC, and arresting more than 11,000 people under emergency regulations. 

Following Sharpeville, black resistance organisations came to the conclusion that apartheid would never be overcome by peaceful means alone. They established military wings, and began a series of armed conflicts and bombings over the next few years. But by 1964, the government had captured many of their leaders, including Nelson Mandela, and sentenced them to long terms of imprisonment on Robben Island and other prisons. Some perpetrators of acts of sabotage were hanged, and hundreds of others fled the country to live in exile. 

At this point the government began a series of forced removals, during which millions of blacks were taken from towns and white rural areas and moved into reserves. These were then consolidated into ten distinct territories, designated as “homelands” or “Bantustans”, each set aside for a specific black ethnic community. The government manipulated homeland politics so that compliant chiefs controlled the administrations. Arguing that the Bantustans matched the decolonization process then taking place in other parts of Africa, the government devolved powers onto these administrations and encouraged them to become “independent”. Eventually four of them did so, but none was ever recognized by a foreign government. Like the other homelands, however, they were economic backwaters, and were mostly dependent on financial subsidies from Pretoria. 

A new phase of resistance began in 1973 when black trade unions organized a series of strikes for higher wages and improved working conditions. Steve Biko and other black students founded the Black Peoples Convention (BPC) and inaugurated what was loosely termed as the Black Consciousness Movement, which appealed to blacks to take pride in their own culture and which proved immensely attractive. 

On 16 June 1976, students from numerous schools began a protest in the streets of Soweto in response to the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. It is estimated that 20,000 students took part in the uprising, and they were met with fierce police brutality. The number of protesters killed by the police is usually given as 176, but other estimates range as high as 700. Outrage at these actions resulted in more protests and strikes, and additional riots broke out in other black townships. The government reacted by embarking on a renewed campaign of suppression and intimidation, and it also banned the BPC and other resistance organisations. 

These events focused worldwide attention on South Africa and the government was plunged into a crisis. The UN General Assembly had earlier denounced apartheid in 1973; now, four years later, the UN voted unanimously to impose mandatory embargoes and sanctions against the country. 

Trade unions and their workers began to play an increasing role in the fight against apartheid. With thousands of members, the unions had great strength in numbers and they used this to their advantage, campaigning for the rights of black workers and forcing the government to make some changes to its apartheid policies. Importantly, trade unions also filled the gap left by banned political parties. They assumed tremendous importance because they could act on a wide variety of issues and problems for their people, including broader community grievances. 

The illusion that apartheid would bring peace and stability to South Africa had been shattered by the late 1970s. All of the homelands had proven to be economic and political disasters; labour was their only significant export, and most of their leadership was corrupt and unpopular. Strikes, riots, uprisings and sanctions had caused the national economy to enter a period of recession and high inflation, and many skilled white people emigrated from the country. South Africa had become progressively isolated as the last bastion of white racial domination on the continent, and was now the focus of global denunciation. 

Throughout this period, the South African Defence Force had been expanded and adapted, and a considerable amount of money had been spent to increase its effectiveness. Conscription was used to increase the size of the military, with stiff prison sentences imposed for draft evasion or desertion. Only white males were conscripted, but volunteers from other races were also drawn in. Although initially used internally to support the police in the suppression of various uprisings and in civilian control, the role of the defence force was about to change. It had become increasingly obvious that a new threat was presenting itself on the country’s northern borders and in its neighbouring states, in the form of Russian and Cuban influence and expansion.

The South African Border War

South African troops withdrawing from Angola, 1988

After South African forces had conquered German South-West Africa in 1915 (the first major Allied victory of World War I), the colony in due course became a Class C Mandate under the League of Nations, and was placed under South African administration. Now known as South West Africa (SWA), the neighbouring territory was never supposed to become a part of South Africa, but was, in practice, administered as if it was a fifth province of the country. 

In 1960, the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) was established to advocate immediate independence from South Africa. Initially more of a military organisation than a political one, the first SWAPO guerrillas entered Ovamboland in September 1965, and by July 1966 were conducting operations in northern SWA. On 26 August 1966, members of the South African Police (SAP), assisted by aircraft of the South African Air Force (SAAF), attacked a SWAPO base at Ongulumbashe, defeating the insurgents. This date is considered to be the official start of the South African Border War. 

In due course the conflict ramped up. Members of the South African Defence Force (SADF) assisted the SAP in their efforts to eliminate the SWAPO guerrilla groups, but by 1973 the security situation in northern SWA had become so serious that the SADF had completely taken over counter-insurgency operations. 

When Portugal withdrew from Angola (South West Africa’s immediate neighbour to the north) in 1975, the three liberation movements that had been fighting the Portuguese for more than a decade, namely the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA) and União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), henceforth became embroiled in a civil war for control of the country. Supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba, the MPLA seized power, but remained locked in conflict with the other two organisations. 

Alarmed by what was perceived to be communist threat and encouraged by the United States of America (USA), South Africa invaded Angola in October 1975 in support of the FNLA and UNITA. SADF units swept quickly through the country and reached the outskirts of Luanda, the Angolan capital, in just 33 days, but political considerations, including a lack of continued diplomatic support from the USA, forced them to withdraw. 

The MPLA remained in power, supporting SWAPO in its struggle for independence in South West Africa. SWAPO established base facilities in southern Angola, and from there intensified its military activities across the border. 

By 1978 the conflict had escalated and SWAPO incursions increasingly continued to take place, the SADF retaliating with cross-border operations. This became the start of a long and bitter conflict which would last for another 10 years. South African tactics became more aggressive as the war progressed, sometimes resulting in significant Angolan casualties and occasionally producing severe collateral damage to economic installations regarded as vital to the Angolan economy. Ostensibly to stop these raids, but also to disrupt the growing alliance between the SADF and UNITA, both the Soviet Union and Cuba continued to support the war effort through a large contingent of “military advisers” (i.e. ground troops) and up to four billion dollars’ worth of modern defence technology. 

Although much of the war consisted of a series of sniping raids and counter-insurgency operations, conventional battles did take place. The most important of these was the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, fought intermittently between 14 August 1987 and 23 March 1988 in southern Angola. The battle was the longest engagement of the war and the biggest conventional battle on the African continent since World War II. It was a watershed event, in that it demonstrated to both sides the cost and futility of the conflict, and ultimately led to a negotiated settlement. 

Angolan forces launched a major offensive to overrun the town of Mavinga, a UNITA stronghold and logistics centre, paving the way for a final assault on the UNITA headquarters at Jamba. The SADF was determined to prevent the advance, as this would have allowed SWAPO insurgents to operate in an area which was adjacent to the SWA border. After weeks of preliminary skirmishes, the two armies met at the Lomba River on 6 September 1987. The SADF repulsed several Angolan attempts to cross the Lomba, then launched repeated counterattacks which sent the Angolan forces reeling back towards Cuito Cuanavale. 

During the second phase of the battle, the SADF and UNITA made several unsuccessful attempts to encircle and destroy the surviving Angolan forces before they could establish new defensive positions. Bolstered by Cuban reinforcements, the Angolans held their lines, and the SADF disengaged in March 1988, after laying minefields south-east of Cuito Cuanavale to dissuade a renewed offensive. 

In late 1988 the UN recognized SWAPO as a legal representative of the people of South West Africa. Both SWAPO and South Africa agreed to a UN plan for a cease-fire, withdrawal of South African troops, and free elections to be guaranteed by UN security forces. General elections under a universal franchise were held between 7 and 11 November 1989, returning 57% of the popular vote for SWAPO. This gave the party 41 seats in the territory's Constituent Assembly, but not a two-thirds majority which would have enabled it to impose a unilateral constitution on the other parties represented. South West Africa formally obtained independence and became the Republic of Namibia on 21 March 1990.


A New Dawn

Nelson Mandela after being sworn in as President of the new South Africa in 1994.

By the early 1980s, leadership of the National Party had passed to a new class of urban Afrikaner; business leaders and intellectuals who believed that reforms should be introduced. P.W. Botha succeeded B.J. Vorster as prime minister, and the government began a series of apartheid concessions. It repealed the bans on interracial sex and marriage, desegregated the hotels, restaurants, trains, buses and beaches, removed the reservation of skilled jobs for whites, and repealed the pass laws. A new constitution was promulgated that created separate parliamentary bodies for Indians and Coloureds. 

The Botha reforms, however, stopped short of making any real change to the distribution of power. The white parliamentary chamber could override the Coloured and Indian chambers on matters of national significance, and all blacks remained disenfranchised. The Group Areas Act and the Land Acts maintained residential segregation. Schools, health and welfare services for blacks, Indians and Coloureds remained segregated and inferior, and most non-whites, especially blacks, were still desperately poor. 

South Africa’s black neighbours formed the Southern African Development Coordinating Conference in an effort to limit South Africa’s economic domination of the region, but it made little progress. Most of the export trade from the region continued to pass through South African ports, and the country provided employment for some 280,000 migrant workers from neighbouring countries. Botha also used South Africa’s military strength to restrain its neighbours from pursuing anti-apartheid policies. Besides the support of UNITA in Angola, the SADF assisted the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO) rebels in Mozambique, and troops entered Botswana, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Lesotho in order to make pre-emptive attacks on ANC groups and their allies in these countries. South African dissidents from all race groups were harassed, banned, or detained in prison without necessarily being charged under renewable 90-day detention sentences. 

The conservative administrations of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Britain and President Ronald Reagan in the United States faced increasingly insistent pressures for sanctions against South Africa. A high-level Commonwealth mission went to South Africa in 1986 in an unsuccessful effort to persuade the government to suspend its military actions in the townships, release political prisoners, and stop destabilizing neighbouring countries. Later that year, American public resentment of South Africa’s racial policies was strong enough for the U.S. Congress to pass, over a presidential veto, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which banned new investments and loans, ended air links, and prohibited the importation of many commodities. Other governments took similar actions. 

The struggle intensified and became further polarized. The new constitution of 1983 had attempted to split the opposition to apartheid by meeting Indian and Coloured grievances, whilst at the same time giving blacks no political rights except in the homelands. In response, more than 500 community groups formed the United Democratic Front, which became closely identified with the exiled ANC. Strikes, boycotts, and attacks on black police and urban councillors began escalating, and a state of emergency was declared in many parts of the country. The government embarked on a campaign to eliminate all opposition. For three years, policemen and soldiers patrolled the black townships in armed vehicles. They destroyed black squatter camps and detained, abused, and killed thousands of blacks, whilst the army continued its forays into neighbouring countries. Rigid censorship laws tried to conceal these actions by banning television, radio, and newspaper coverage. 

The brute force used by the government did not halt dissent. Long-standing critics such as Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, defied the government, and influential Afrikaner clerics and intellectuals withdrew their support. Resistance by black workers continued and saboteurs caused an increasing number of deaths and injuries. The economy suffered under severe strain from the cost of sanctions, administering apartheid, and military adventurism, especially in Namibia and Angola. The gross domestic product decreased, annual inflation rose above 14 percent, and investment capital became scarce. Given these circumstances, most white citizens came to realize that there was no stopping the incorporation of blacks into the South African political system. 

Government officials held several discussions with imprisoned ANC leader Nelson Mandela as these events unfolded, but Botha balked at the idea of allowing blacks to participate in the political system. National Party dissent against Botha in 1989 forced him to step down as both party leader and president. The National Party parliamentary caucus subsequently chose F.W. de Klerk, the party’s Transvaal provincial leader, as his successor. More than 20 years younger than Botha, de Klerk exhibited more sensitivity to the dynamics of a world where, as democracy arose in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the blatant racism that still existed in South Africa could no longer be tolerated. De Klerk announced a program of radical change in a dramatic address to Parliament on 2 February 1990; nine days later, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. During the next year Parliament repealed the remaining apartheid laws, lifted the state of emergency, freed many political prisoners, and allowed exiles to return to South Africa. 

On 27 April 1994, South Africa held its first fully democratic election, with millions of blacks participating in a national election for the first time. The ANC was victorious, and Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first black president. The transition to democracy was a crucial turning point in world history, ending more than three centuries of colonialism and finally burying the repressive system of apartheid.


Key Dates & Events

4 February 1488 – Portuguese mariner Bartolomeu Dias and his crew make landfall at Mosselbaai (Mussel Bay), the first Europeans to set foot in the country.

12 March 1488 - Dias's expedition reaches its furthest point on the South African coast when they anchor at Kwaaihoek, near the mouth of the Boesmans River. His crew refuse to continue the voyage and his officers unanimously favour returning to Portugal.

4 November 1497 – Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama rounds the Cape of Good Hope.

16 December 1497 – The Vasco da Gama expedition reaches the point where Bartolomeu Dias had turned back a few years before. He continues northwards along the east African coast.

20 May 1498 – Vasco da Gama reaches India.

29 August 1499 – Da Gama arrives back in Lisbon after a nightmare return journey. He is given a hero’s welcome.

6 April 1652 – A fleet of ships under the command of Jan van Riebeeck arrives in Table Bay to establish a supply base for the Dutch East India Company.

1659 – The Khoikhoi revolt against Dutch encroachment.

1673 – The 2nd Khoikhoi-Dutch war breaks out.

1688 – A large group of French Huguenots arrive in the Cape.

1713 – A smallpox epidemic devastates the Khoikhoi nation.

1779 – Start of a series of wars on the eastern frontier between the Settlers and the Xhosa nation. The battles continue for another 99 years, until 1878.

July 1787 – Birth of Sigidi kaSenzangakhona, also known as Shaka Zulu.

1795 - France occupies the Seven Provinces of the Netherlands, the mother country of the Dutch East India Company. Great Britain occupies the Cape in order to prevent the colony from falling into French hands.

1803 - Improving relations between Britain and Napoleonic France, and its vassal state the Batavian Republic, oblige the British to hand the Cape back to the Dutch under the terms of the Treaty of Amiens.

8 January 1806 – The temporary peace between Britain and Napoleonic France crumbles into open hostilities, and the Cape is again occupied by the British after a victory at the Battle of Blaauwberg.

9 June 1815 – The Final Act of the Congress of Vienna is signed, formally handing sovereignty of the Cape Colony over to Great Britain.

18 June 1815 – The wars with France finally end when Napoleon is defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.

1816 – Shaka becomes the chief of the Zulu clan, after a relatively bloodless coup during which he murders his younger half-brother Sigujana, the legitimate heir to the Zulu chiefdom. The period of the Mfecane (“the crushing”) begins soon afterwards.

17 March 1820 – The first group of British settlers arrive in Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth).

1822 – The British outlaw the use of the Dutch language in the Cape Colony, with the aim of instilling British language and culture.

October 1827 – Shaka’s mother, Nandi, dies, and this event triggers a series of deranged behaviours from the King. Shaka orders that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk should be consumed, and any woman who becomes pregnant is to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people who are deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken are executed.

24 September 1828 – Shaka is assassinated by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana. Dingane takes over as Zulu chief. This date is observed in South Africa as a public holiday, now known as Heritage Day.

1 August 1834 - Slavery is abolished throughout the vast British Empire. In the Cape Colony, the emancipation is delayed for four months, until 1 December 1834.

8 September 1834 – An exploratory expedition leaves the Cape to reconnoitre routes into the interior and to Port Natal, as a precursor to the Great Trek.

January 1836 – Start of the Great Trek.

16 October 1836 – Andries Potgieter's party of Voortrekkers are attacked by an army of 5,000 Matebele warriors at the Battle of Vegkop. Even though the defender/attacker ratio is 1:150, the Trekkers prevail, but lose all of their livestock.

6 February 1838 – Voortrekker leader Piet Retief and his delegation are massacred by Zulu chief Dingane at a treaty signing ceremony.

16 December 1838 – The Battle of Blood River takes place.

4 May 1843 – The British annex Natal, causing a new “trek” or migration to the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, because many of the Boers refuse to live under British rule.

17 January 1852 – The South African Republic (ZAR) is officially recognised by Britain and many other countries as an independent Boer state, with the signature of the Sand River Convention.

23 February 1854 – The second independent Boer state, the Republic of the Orange Free State, is ratified on this date with the signature of the Bloemfontein Convention.

18 February 1857 – A Xhosa prophetess named Nongqawuse predicts that their dead ancestors will arise on this date to help the tribe end their war with the British, provided that the people slaughter all of their cattle and destroy all of their crops. The resulting famine kills or displaces 75% of the Xhosa nation.

1867 – 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs finds a “shiny pebble” on his father’s farm near Hopetown. It is later identified as a yellow diamond with a weight of 21.25 carats, and becomes known as the Eureka Diamond.

1869 – A Griqua shepherd boy picks up a diamond with an uncut weight of 83.5 carats on the banks of the Orange River, now known as the “Star of South Africa”.

1870 - Diamonds are found in the river diggings at Klip Drift (now Barkly West), triggering the second diamond rush. Later that year, diamonds are found on the farm Bultfontein, on the edge of modern-day Kimberley. In December, diamonds are found on the adjacent Du Toit's Pan, triggering the third diamond rush.

1871 - The De Beers Mine is discovered in May, and the Kimberley Mine in July. The latter, initially known as New Rush (then Kimberley Mine, and now the Big Hole), would become the world’s richest diamond mine for nearly a century.

1873 – Gold is discovered in payable quantities on the farm Geelhoutboom near Sabie. The area becomes known as “MacMac”, because many of the miners have Scottish surnames.

22 September 1873 – Pilgrim’s Rest is officially proclaimed as a goldfield. This quaint little mining town still exists today, and has been preserved as a National Monument.

12 April 1877 – The British issue a proclamation annexing the South African Republic (ZAR). The Boers view this an act of arrogance and aggression, but bide their time and prepare for war.

1878 – The Xhosa Wars eventually come to an end after 99 years. These events were the longest-running military action in the history of African colonialism.

11 January 1879 – Three columns of British troops invade Zululand, triggering the start of the Anglo-Zulu War.

22 January 1879 – The Battle of Isandlwana and the Battle of Rourke’s Drift take place, resulting in a crushing defeat of the British Army.

4 July 1879 – The British defeat Cetshwayo’s Zulu army at the Battle of Ulundi, thereby ending the Anglo-Zulu War.

16 December 1880 – Start of the 1st Anglo-Boer War (also known as the Eerste Vryheidsoorlog or First Freedom War).

28 January 1881 – The Battle of Lang’s Nek. The British are heavily defeated.

8 February 1881 – The Battle of Schuinshoogte, resulting in another defeat of the British.

26 February 1881 – The Battle of Majuba Hill. The battle turns into a rout, and most of the British troops are killed. Boer casualties include just one dead and five wounded. The battle is viewed as a complete disaster, and one of the most humiliating defeats ever of the British Army in history (although their defeat by the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana two years prior to this had to be right up there as well).

6 March 1881 – The 1st Anglo-Boer War effectively ends on this date, when a truce is declared. An official peace treaty is signed on the 23rd of March. Hostilities had lasted for just 73 days.

3 August 1881 – The Pretoria Convention is signed, ratifying the terms and conditions of the British defeat and Boer self-government. The last British troops are withdrawn from the territory.

1882 – First gold strikes in the Barberton area.

June 1884 - Jan Gerrit Bantjes finds gold in small quantities on the farm Vogelstruisfontein, near present-day Johannesburg.

1885 – Edwin Bray discovers a rich vein of gold in the mountains above Barberton, and starts to excavate the Golden Quarry. The Sheba Reef Gold Mining Company is formed and Eureka City established.

July 1886 – George Harrison discovers the main gold reefs in the Witwatersrand (“White Waters Ridge”) area. The subsequent gold rush leads to the founding of Johannesburg, a city literally and figuratively built on gold.

3 January 1892 - J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and many other books, is born in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

30 June 1893 – Discovery of the 3rd largest diamond ever found, and by far the largest up to this date, at Jagersfontein. The Excelsior Diamond, as it came to be known, weighed 995.2 carats. Jagersfontein would also produce another large gemstone two years later, the Jubilee Diamond, which weighed 650.8 carats.

April 1896 – Cattle in the ZAR, Orange Free State and Cape Colony begin dying from an unknown disease, later identified as the Rinderpest. Nearly 3 million cattle die in South Africa alone, as well as a considerable number of indigenous antelope.

11 October 1899 – Start of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War.

15 November 1899 - Winston Churchill, war correspondent for London’s Morning Post and later to become the British Prime Minister, is captured by the Boers. He escapes prison in Pretoria on the 12th of December and after a few days reaches the English colony in Durban.

31 May 1902 – The 2nd Anglo-Boer War comes to an end with the signature of the Treaty of Vereeniging. This time, the British emerge victorious.

26 January 1905 – Discovery of the Cullinan Diamond. It is the largest gem-quality rough diamond ever found in the world, weighing in at 3,106.75 carats. It is thought to be unlikely that another diamond of this size will ever be mined again.

31 May 1910 – The Union of South Africa is officially recognised, but remains under British control as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. Louis Botha, a former Boer general, is appointed as the first Prime Minister.

8 January 1912 - The South African Native National Congress is founded. It would change its name to the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923.

19 June 1913 - The Natives Land Act is passed. This law incorporates territorial segregation in South Africa into legislation for the first time.

28 July 1914 – Start of World War I

9 July 1915 - German South-West Africa surrenders to General Botha of the Union of South Africa.

15 July 1916 - A series of engagements in the Battle of the Somme begins at Delville Wood and continues up until the 3rd of September. A brigade of South Africans hold their position until the 19th of July, but at a cost of 80% of its men injured or killed.

18 July 1918 - Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is born in Mvezo, near Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. He would later achieve worldwide fame as an anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader and philanthropist, and would serve as the President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.

11 November 1918 - At 5:00 am, an armistice with Germany is signed in a railroad carriage at Compiègne. At 11 am on 11 November 1918 – “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” - a ceasefire comes into effect, and World War I is officially over.

17 December 1920 - South Africa is granted a League of Nations Class C mandate to preside over South West Africa.

14 June 1923 - The Native (Urban Areas) Act is passed. It segregates urban residential space and creates “influx controls” to reduce access to cities by blacks.

5 May 1925 – Afrikaans replaces Dutch as the second official language of South Africa.

1 September 1939 – Nazi Germany invades Poland, signalling the start of World War II.

7 December 1941 - Japan attacks Pearl Harbor in Hawaii without warning, forcing the USA into World War II.

6 June 1944 – D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe.

8 May 1945 – V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day). General Alfred Jodl of the German High Command signs the unconditional surrender of all German forces.

6 August 1945 – An American aircraft nicknamed Enola Gay drops an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, another atomic bomb is dropped on Nagasaki.

14 August 1945 - V-J Day (Victory in Japan Day). The Japanese accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and unconditionally surrender.

2 September 1945 – A Japanese delegation formally signs the Instrument of Surrender on board the USS Missouri, marking the official end of World War II.

26 May 1948 – In a general election held on this date, the United Party, which had been in power since 1933, and its leader, incumbent Prime Minister and wartime hero Jan Smuts, are ousted by the National Party led by Daniel François Malan.

8 July 1949 - The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, a law which prohibits marriage between people of different race groups, is passed. It will be the first of many apartheid laws to be enacted over the next few years.

6 December 1956 - Nelson Mandela and 156 others are arrested for political activities. They are charged with treason for supporting the Freedom Charter, which called for a non-racial and socialist-based economy.

21 March 1960 - A riot in Sharpeville leaves 69 black protestors dead, after police open fire on about 5000 people that have gathered to protest the pass books that the apartheid government requires them to carry at all times.

29 March 1961 - Nelson Mandela is acquitted on a treason charge after a 4-year trial.

31 May 1961 – South Africa becomes an independent republic. The country’s membership of the Commonwealth expires simultaneously.

5 August 1962 - Nelson Mandela is again arrested near Howick and charged with illegally leaving the country and incitement to strike. He is sentenced to five years hard labour.

9 October 1963 - The so-called Rivonia Trial begins on this date. Nelson Mandela and many others are convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment.

12 June 1964 - Nelson Mandela is moved into a jail cell on Robben Island. He would remain there until March 1982.

26 August 1966 - Members of the South African Police, assisted by aircraft of the South African Air Force, attack a SWAPO base at Ongulumbashe. This marks the start of the South African Border War, also known as the Namibian War of Independence.

6 September 1966 – Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd is assassinated in Cape Town, shortly after entering the House of Assembly at 14:15. A uniformed parliamentary messenger named Dimitri Tsafendas stabs Verwoerd in the neck and chest four times before being subdued by other members of the Assembly. Verwoerd is rushed to hospital, but is pronounced dead on arrival.

3 December 1967 – A team of surgeons led by Doctor Christiaan Barnard perform the first human heart transplant at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. The patient, Louis Washkansky, lives for another 18 days with his new heart.

1970 – Gold production reaches its peak in this year, when approximately 1,000 tons of pure gold is mined. At this point, South Africa is producing five times more gold than any other country on earth.

16 June 1976 – 20,000 students from numerous schools begin a protest in the streets of Soweto in response to the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. At least 176 of them are killed by police.

9 November 1976 - The UN General Assembly approves ten resolutions condemning apartheid in South Africa, including one characterizing the white-ruled government as “illegitimate”.

12 September 1977 - Steve Biko dies whilst under police custody. He headed the Black Consciousness Movement and was one of the country’s best-known political dissidents. He was detained and held in Port Elizabeth and later driven naked in a truck 700 miles to Pretoria where he died in a prison cell.

31 March 1982 - Nelson Mandela and 3 others are transferred from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison on the South African mainland. Mandela had spent 18 years on the island.

16 October 1984 – Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his decades of non-violent struggle for racial equality.


14 August 1989 - President P.W. Botha announces his resignation, after losing a bitter power struggle within the National Party. F.W. de Klerk is sworn in as acting president the next day.

2 February 1990 - In a dramatic concession to South Africa's black majority, President F.W. de Klerk lifts a ban on the African National Congress and promises to free Nelson Mandela.

11 February 1990 - Nelson Mandela is released from Victor Verster prison after being detained for 27 years as a political prisoner.

21 March 1990 – South West Africa becomes an independent republic, now renamed as Namibia. This date also marks the official end of the South African Border War.

1 February 1991 - President F.W. de Klerk announces that all remaining apartheid laws will be repealed.

17 June 1991 - Parliament abolishes the Population Registration Act, the last major apartheid law still in effect.

17 March 1992 – In a referendum held on this date, white voters in South Africa endorse the continuation of the reform process by a margin of 68.73% to 31.27%.

15 October 1993 - Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk are named as winners of the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end apartheid.

27 April 1994 – South Africa holds its first fully democratic general election. The ANC wins an overall majority, and Nelson Mandela is elected as president.


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