The San (Bushmen) are among the oldest indigenous peoples of South Africa. About 2,000 years ago, the pastoral Khoikhoi (called Hottentots by Europeans) settled mainly in the southern coastal region. By at least the 8th cent., Bantu speakers moving southward from E central Africa had settled the N region of present-day South Africa. These Bantu-speaking groups developed their own complex community organizations. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese navigator, became the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope (so named by King John II of Portugal). The diaries of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors attest to a large Bantu-speaking population in present-day KwaZulu-Natal by 1552.
Although European vessels frequently passed by South Africa on their way to E Africa and India, and sometimes stopped for provisions or rest, no permanent European settlement was made until 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck and about 90 other persons set up a provisioning station for the Dutch East India Company at Table Bay on the Cape of Good Hope. Soon van Riebeeck began to trade with nearby Khoikhoi, gave Europeans land for farms, and brought in Africans (from W and E Africa) and Malays as slaves. By 1662, about 250 Europeans were living near the Cape and gradually they moved inland, founding Stellenbosch in 1679. In 1689 about 200 Huguenot refugees from Europe arrived; they established a wine industry and intermarried with the earlier Dutch settlers. By 1707 there were about 1,780 freeholders of European descent in South Africa, and they owned about 1,100 slaves.
By the early 18th cent., most San had migrated into inaccessible parts of the country to avoid European domination; the more numerous Khoikhoi either remained near the Cape, where they became virtual slaves of the Europeans, or dispersed into the interior. A great smallpox outbreak in 1713 killed many Europeans and most of the Khoikhoi living near the Cape. During the 18th cent. intermarriage between Khoikhoi slaves and Europeans began to create what became later known as the Coloured population. At the same time white farmers (known as Boers or Afrikaners) began to trek (journey) increasingly farther from the Cape in search of pasture and cropland.
By 1750 some farmers had migrated to the region between the Gamtoos and Great Fish rivers, where they encountered the Xhosa. At first the whites and blacks engaged in friendly trade, but in 1779 the first of a long series of Xhosa Wars (1789, 1799, 1812, 1819, 1834, 1846, 1850, 1877) broke out between them, primarily over land and cattle ownership. The whites sought to establish the Great Fish as the southern frontier of the Xhosa.
During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars the British replaced the Dutch at the Cape from 1795 to 1803 and again from 1806 to 1814, when the territory was assigned to Great Britain by the Congress of Vienna. In 1820, 5,000 British settlers were given small farms near the Great Fish River. They were intended to form a barrier to the southern movement of the Xhosa, but most soon gave up farming and moved to nearby towns such as Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown. They were the first large body of Europeans not to be assimilated into the Afrikaner culture that had developed in the 17th and 18th cent.
Great Britain alienated the Boers by remodeling the administration along British lines, by calling for better treatment of the Coloured and blacks who worked for the Boers as servants or slaves, by granting (Ordinance 50, 1828) free nonwhites legal rights equal to those of the whites, and by restricting the acquisition of new land by the Boers. In 1833 slavery was abolished in the British Empire, an act that angered South African slaveowners, but the freed slaves remained oppressed and continued to be exploited by white landowners.
To escape the restrictions of British rule as well as to obtain new land, about 12,000 Boers left the Cape between 1835 and 1843 in what is known as the Great Trek. The Voortrekkers (as these Boers are known) migrated beyond the Orange River. Some remained in the highveld of the interior, forming isolated communities and small states. A large group traveled eastward into what became Natal, where 70 Boers were killed (Feb., 1838) in an attack by Dingane's Zulu forces. Andries Pretorius defeated (Dec., 1838) the Zulu at the battle of Blood River, and the Boers proceeded to establish farms in Natal. After Britain annexed Natal in 1843, however, most of the Boers there returned to the interior. In the 1850s the Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal were established. In 1860 the first indentured laborers from India arrived in Natal to work on the sugar plantations, and by 1900 they outnumbered the whites there.
Diamonds were discovered in 1867 along the Vaal and Orange rivers and in 1870 at what became (1871) Kimberley; in 1886 gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand. These discoveries (especially that of gold) spurred great economic development in S Africa during 1870–1900; foreign trade increased dramatically, rail trackage expanded from c.70 mi (110 km) in 1870 to c.3,600 mi (5,790 km) in 1895, and the number of whites rose from about 300,000 in 1870 to about 1 million in 1900.
At the same time there were complex political developments. In 1871 the British annexed the diamond-mining region (known as Griqualand West), despite the protests of the Orange Free State. Britain annexed the Transvaal in 1877 but, after a revolt, restored its independence in 1881. In 1889, Cape Colony and the Orange Free State joined in a customs union, but the Transvaal (led by Paul Kruger) adamantly refused to take part.
In 1890, Cecil J. Rhodes, an ardent advocate of federation in S Africa, became prime minister of Cape Colony, and by 1894 he was encouraging the non-Afrikaner whites (known as the Uitlanders) in the Transvaal to overthrow Kruger. In Dec., 1895, Leander Starr Jameson, a close associate of Rhodes, invaded the Transvaal with a small force, planning to assist a hoped-for Uitlander rising; however, the Uitlanders did not revolt, and Jameson was defeated by early Jan., 1896. Tension mounted in the following years as British Prime Minister Joseph Chamberlain and the British high commissioner in South Africa, Alfred Milner, supported the Uitlanders against the dominant Afrikaners. In 1896, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State formed an alliance, and in 1899 they declared war on Great Britain. The South African War (Boer War; 1899–1902) was won by the British.
In 1910 the Union of South Africa, with dominion status, was established by the British; it included Cape of Good Hope, Natal, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal as provinces. Under the Union's constitution, power was centralized; the Dutch language (and in 1925 Afrikaans) was given equal status with English, and each province retained its existing franchise qualifications (the Cape permitted voting by some nonwhites). After elections in 1910, Louis Botha became the first prime minister; he headed the South African party, an amalgam of Afrikaner parties that advocated close cooperation between Afrikaners and persons of British descent. In 1912, J. B. M. Hertzog founded the Afrikaner-oriented National party. By 1914, largely as a result of the efforts of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Indians living there were receiving somewhat better treatment. Botha led (1914) South Africa into World War I on the side of the Allies and quickly squashed a revolt by Afrikaners who opposed this alignment.
In 1915, South African forces captured South West Africa (present-day Namibia) from the Germans, and after the war the territory was placed under the Union as a League of Nations mandate. In 1919, Botha was succeeded as prime minister by his close associate J. C. Smuts. In 1921–22 skilled white mine workers on the Witwatersrand, fearful of losing their jobs to lower-paid nonwhites, staged a major strike, which Smuts ended only with a use of force that cost about 230 lives. As a result, Hertzog was elected prime minister in 1924 and remained in office until 1939; from 1934 to 1939 he was supported by Smuts, with whom he formed the United South African National party.
Hertzog led an Afrikaner cultural and economic revival; was influential in gaining additional British recognition of South African independence (through the Balfour Declaration of 1926 and the Statute of Westminster of 1931); took (Dec., 1932) South Africa off the gold standard, thus raising the price of gold and stimulating the gold-mining industry and the economy in general. He also curtailed the electoral power of nonwhites and furthered the system of allocating "reserved" areas for blacks as their permanent homes, at the same time regulating their movement in the remainder of the country.
The Smuts-Hertzog alliance disintegrated over whether to support Great Britain in World War II. Winning a crucial vote in parliament (Sept., 1939), Smuts became prime minister again and brought South Africa into the war on the British (Allied) side; Hertzog, who was not alarmed by Nazi German aggression and had little affection for Great Britain, went into opposition. South African troops made an important contribution to the Allied war effort, helping to end Italian control in Ethiopia and fighting with distinction in Italy and Madagascar.
The National party won the 1948 elections, partly by criticizing the more liberal policy toward nonwhites associated with Jan Hofmeyr, Smuts's close aide. D. F. Malan of the National party was prime minister from 1948 to 1954, and he was followed by J. G. Strijdom (1954–58), H. F. Verwoerd (1958–66), B. J. Vorster (1966–78), and P. W. Botha (1978–89)—all members of the National party, which won the general elections between 1953 and 1979. These governments greatly strengthened white control of the country. The policy of apartheid in almost all social relations was further implemented by a varied series of laws that included additional curbs on free movement (partly through the use of passbooks, which most blacks were required to carry) and the planned establishment of a number of independent homelands for African ethnic groups.
Black South Africans had long protested their inferior treatment through organizations such as the African National Congress (ANC; founded 1912) and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (founded 1919 by Clements Kadalie). In the 1950s and early 60s there were various protests against the National party's policies, involving passive resistance and the burning of passbooks; in 1960 a peaceful protest against the pass laws organized by the Pan-Africanist Congress (an offshoot of the ANC) at Sharpeville (near Johannesburg) ended when police opened fire, massacring 70 protesters and wounding about 190 others. In the 1960s most leaders (including ANC leader Nelson Mandela) of the opposition to apartheid were either in jail or were living in exile, and the government proceeded with its plans to segregate blacks on a more permanent basis.
In 1961, South Africa left the Commonwealth of Nations (whose members were strongly critical of South Africa's apartheid policies) and became a republic. The first president of the new republic was C. R. Swart; he was succeeded by T. E. Donges and J. J. Fouché. In the 1960s there were international attempts to wrest South West Africa from South Africa's control, but South Africa tenaciously maintained its hold on the territory. In 1966, Prime Minister Verwoerd was assassinated by a discontented white government employee. From the late 1960s, the Vorster government began to try to start a dialogue on racial and other matters with independent African nations; these attempts met with little success, except for the establishment of diplomatic relations with Malawi and the adjacent nations of Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland, all of which were economically dependent on South Africa.
South Africa was strongly opposed to the establishment of black rule in the white-dominated countries of Angola, Mozambique, and Rhodesia, and gave military assistance to the whites there. However, by late 1974, with independence for Angola and Mozambique under majority rule imminent, South Africa, as one of the few remaining white-ruled nations of Africa, faced the prospect of further isolation from the international community. In the early 1970s increasing numbers of whites (especially students) protested apartheid, and the National party itself was divided, largely on questions of race relations, into the somewhat liberal verligte [Afrikaans, = enlightened] faction and the conservative verkrampte [Afrikaans, = narrow-minded] group.
In the early 1970s, black workers staged strikes and violently revolted against their inferior conditions. South Africa invaded Angola in 1975 in an attempt to crush mounting opposition in exile, but the action was a complete failure. In 1976, open rebellion erupted in the black township of Soweto near Johannesburg as a protest against the requirement of the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in black schools. Over the next months rioting spread to other large cities of South Africa, resulting in the deaths of more than 600 blacks. In 1977, the death of black leader Steve Biko in police custody (and under suspicious circumstances) prompted protests and sanctions.
After Botha became prime minister in 1978, he pledged to uphold apartheid as well as improve race relations. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the government granted "independence" to four homelands: Transkei (1976), Bophuthatswana (1977), Venda (1979), and Ciskei (1981). In the early 1980s, as the regime hotly debated the extent of reforms, it launched military strikes on the exiled ANC and other insurgent groups in neighboring countries, including Lesotho, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.
In 1984, a new constitution was enacted which provided for a tricameral parliament. The new Parliament included the House of Representatives, comprised of Coloureds; the House of Delegates, comprised of Indians; and the House of Assembly, comprised of whites. This system left the whites with more seats in the Parliament than the Indians and Coloureds combined. Blacks violently protested being shut out of the system, and the ANC, which had traditionally used nonviolent means to protest inequality, began to advocate more extreme measures as well.
As attacks against police stations and other government installations increased, the regime announced (1985) an indefinite state of emergency. In 1986, Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, a black South African leader, addressed the United Nations and urged further sanctions against South Africa. A wave of strikes and riots marked the tenth anniversary of the Soweto uprising in 1987. In 1989, President Botha fell ill and was succeeded, first as party leader, then as president, by F. W. de Klerk. De Klerk's government began relaxing apartheid restrictions, and in 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years of imprisonment and became head of the recently legalized ANC.
In late 1991 the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), a multiracial forum set up by de Klerk and Mandela, began efforts to negotiate a new constitution and a transition to a multiracial democracy with majority rule. In Mar., 1992, voters in a referendum open only to whites endorsed constitutional reform efforts by a wide margin. However, there was continuing violence by opponents of the process, especially by supporters of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Zulu-based Inkatha movement, with the backing and sometimes active participation of South African security forces. There were also reprisals by supporters of the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress. In Sept., 1992, government-backed black police fired on a crowd of ANC demonstrators in Ciskei, killing 28. In Apr., 1993, the secretary-general of the South African Communist party was murdered by a right-wing extremist.
Despite obstacles and delays, an interim constitution was completed in 1993, ending nearly three centuries of white rule in South Africa and marking the end of white-minority rule on the African continent. A 32-member multiparty transitional government council was formed with blacks in the majority. In Apr., 1994, days after the Inkatha Freedom party ended an electoral boycott, the republic's first multiracial election was held. The ANC won an overwhelming victory, and Nelson Mandela became president. South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth in 1994 and also relinquished its last hold in Namibia, ceding the exclave of Walvis Bay.
In 1994 and 1995 the last vestiges of apartheid were dismantled, and a new national constitution was approved and adopted in May, 1996. It provided for a strong presidency and eliminated provisions guaranteeing white-led and other minority parties representation in the government. De Klerk and the National party supported the new charter, despite disagreement over some provisions; Inkatha followers had walked out of constitutional talks and did not participate in voting on the new constitution. Shortly afterward, de Klerk and the National party quit the national unity government to become part of the opposition, after 1998 as the New National party. The new government faced the daunting task of trying to address the inequities produced by decades of apartheid while promoting privatization and a favorable investment climate.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996–2003), headed by Archbishop Tutu, sought to establish the truth about atrocities committed during the country's apartheid era, while avoiding the expense and divisiveness of trials. The commission's final report said the apartheid government had institutionalized violence in its fight against racial equality but was also critical of most of the groups involved in the liberation struggle, including the ANC. By the end of the 1990s, many blacks had entered the middle class, often through government jobs. Unemployment remained critically high, however, and crime and labor unrest were on the rise. In the 1999 elections Thabo Mbeki, who had succeeded Mandela as head of the ANC, led the party to a landslide victory and became South Africa's new president. The liberal Democratic party became the leading opposition party, and in 2000 it joined with the New National party to form the Democratic Alliance (DA). That coalition, however, survived only until late 2001, when the New National party left it to form a coalition with the ANC.
The end of apartheid led as well to a reemergence of South Africa on the international stage, particularly in Africa. The country has become active in the African Union (the successor of the Organization of African Unity) and the nonaligned movement, and has helped broker peace agreements in strife-torn Burundi (2001) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2002). In Apr., 2002, the small Federal Alliance party joined the Democratic party in the Democratic Alliance; and in Nov., 2003, the Alliance agreed to form a coalition with Inkatha against the ANC in the 2004 elections. AIDS has become a significant health problem in South Africa, and in late 2003 the government finally agreed to provide a comprehension anti-AIDS prevention and treatment program through the public health system.
Parliamentary elections in Apr., 2004, resulted in a resounding victory for the ANC, which won nearly 70% of the vote; the DA remained the largest opposition party and increased its share of the vote. The new parliament subsequently reelected President Mbeki. As a result of its poor showing, the New National party merged with the ANC, and voted to disband in Apr., 2005. In June, Mbeki dismissed Deputy President Jacob Zuma after Zuma's financial adviser was convicted of paying the deputy president bribes. The ANC, however, refused to remove Zuma from his deputy party leadership post, even after he was arraigned on corruption charges later in the month; he was formally indicted in November. In Dec., 2005, Zuma was also charged with rape in an unrelated case, and suspended his participation in the ANC leadership for the duration of that case. After his acquittal on the rape charge in May, 2006, he resumed his ANC duties; the corruption case was dismissed in Sept., 2006, for procedural reasons. Zuma was elected head of the ANC in Dec., 2007, defeating Mbeki; the result reflected widespread unhappiness with South Africa's president within the ANC. In May, 2008, there were a series of attacks on foreigners in various South African cities and towns, apparently sparked by frustrationss over economic issues; thousands of immigrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Nigeria were displaced and many fled South Africa.
In Sept., 2008, a judge again dismissed (for procedural reasons) the renewed corruption case against Zuma, but the trial judge also stated that it appeared that Mbeki's government had interfered with the prosecution of Zuma for political reasons. Although Mbeki strongly denied that accusation, the ANC called for him to resign as president and he did. Kgalema Motlanthe, the ANC's deputy leader and a Zuma ally, was elected as South Africa's interim president. The decision in the Zuma case was overturned on appeal in Jan., 2009, and the charges were dropped three months later.
In the Apr., 2009, National Assembly elections the ANC again won by a landslide, but it narrowly failed to secure a two-thirds majority, which would have enabled it to amend the constitution without support from another party. The DA, which again increased its share of the vote, remained the largest opposition party, and the Congress of the People (COPE), formed by ANC members who left the party after Mbeki resigned the presidency, placed a distant third. The victory assured Zuma's election as president by the legislature, which occurred the following month. In July, as South Africa suffered through its worst recession in some two decades, township protests against poor living conditions and inadequate services turned violent in a number of provinces. The murder of Eugene Terreblanche, a white supremist leader, by two black farmhands in Apr., 2010, raised fears that the incident would spark racial violence. The important mining industry was affected by strikes and violence in the second half of 2012 that began in part as a conflict between two competing labor unions; the unrest in the mining industry continued into 2013.