Capetown from a distance.
Capetown from a distance.
Ten thousand years ago, the region that is now called South Africa was inhabited by hunters and gatherers who laid claim to resources of particular territories and followed annual migration routes.

Long before the Dutch arrived, crop cultivators had moved into the region. They mined and processed metals.

Chinese treasure fleets plotted the coastline and rounded the Cape of Good Hope centuries before the Europeans.

As late as the 1870s, the subcontinent was divided into large numbers of polities, chiefdoms, colonies and settlements of diverse size, power and racial composition without unity or cohesion.

White South African historical tradition starts in 1652, when the Dutch East India Company established a fort at Table Bay as part of an expanding trade network in the Indian Ocean.  By the end of the 17th Century, immigrants from Europe were settling the land and steadily encroaching farther into the grazing lands of Khoekhoe herders. Slave labor was imported from other ports in Africa, South and Southeast Asia to work on farms and small urban communities.

Conflict between the migrants and Khoekhoe was inevitable. A series of raids and truces marked those decades, and battles for environmental resources raged between the Khoekhoe and “Voortrekkers,” colonial farmers who continued to penetrate further inland.

A rebellion by oppressed indigenous people from 1799-'03 weakened the colonial rulers and bankrupted them. The British assumed control in 1806. British soldiers ruthlessly attacked chiefdoms.

During the first half of the 19th Century, the English colony continued to expand. The British abolished slavery, so former slaves were now more mobile, but no less impoverished.

In the 1830s, another wave of 15,000 trekkers who were outraged at the social order of the colonial government set out for the Natal area in southeast South Africa, where Pietermaritzburg is now located.

The interior of South Africa was not empty land. The trekkers set out during a time of major transformation, when a Zulu kingdom was being established among the people who lived there. New communities were emerging, expanding and reforming. Academics believe settler trading had some impact on this transformation, but so did sparse rainfall, environmental disruption and food shortages throughout the subcontinent that caused increased competition for resources. By the late 19th Century, the San hunter-gatherer societies were eliminated as they were forced into slave labor or slaughtered.

British expansion continued, as did conflict and bloodshed.

The Boers, farmers of Dutch descent, also laid claim to lands. Their resistance to British imperialism marked significant growth in Afrikaner nationalism.

By the late 1800s, British armies had dismantled the African polities; indigenous independence had largely been destroyed. However, the European population was still divided into settler colonies and Boer republics.

The South African War of 1899-'02 marked the completion of the British conquest, fueled largely by the discovery of precious minerals and diamonds. The war was hugely destructive, leaving 22,000 British troops dead and 30,000 farmsteads destroyed. More than 26,000 Boer women and children and 14,000 African internees died in concentration camps.

Though leaders in the British Union of South Africa were alarmed by white supremacy written into the Afrikaners’ constitutions, they allied in the face of Africans’ resistance and also the need to maintain economic and political stability.

Residential segregation originated in townships when African residents were expelled during plague outbreaks around the turn of the 20th Century.

Legislation at that time, and in the 1920s, enabled municipalities to enforce many forms of segregation.  
In Pietermaritzburg, people of color, including people of East Indian descent, were forced to live in barracks.

Black, Indian and Asian-Africans were barred in 1910 from serving in parliament. A land act in 1913 reserved 90 percent of the country for white ownership.

Rural and urban tensions, as well as class tensions, rose in the 1920s as capitalism took root and white and black workers transitioned from an agrarian society to mining and industrialized labor. Strikes among white and non-white workers pushed for decreased class division.

In 1944, a young lawyer, Nelson Mandela, had become part of the African National Congress. The ANC lobbied against the Nationalist Party, which ultimately gained enough power in 1948 to establish apartheid as official government policy. Apartheid, an Afrikaans word meaning "apart" and "held," became synonymous with racism, segregation and oppression.

Through the 1950s, nonviolent resistance and mass mobilization of opposition groups began. ANC leaders were jailed.

The passive campaign continued, until a 1960 protest when police killed 69 unarmed protesters. A state of emergency was called; resistance groups were outlawed. The rest of the world began pressuring the country to end apartheid; South Africa became further isolated.

Underground resistance groups continued their work, while the United Nations enforced sanctions against South Africa. Mandela and other senior ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 1976, 20,000 black high school youth of Soweto, an urban area of Johannesburg, took to the streets to protest the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools.  Police fired on them.  Soweto was by far the largest black township in the Johannesburg area during the apartheid era.  Most of the housing consisted of small matchbox style houses or large barrack style dorms.  The roads and services were mostly in very bad shape.  There were a few section were the wealthier blacks lived.  Despite the miserable living conditions for most of the residents, it did have a thriving shadow economy and a rich social culture and life.  Since the end of apartheid this has come to the surface and draws many visitors.

Nationalist estimates given at the time said 176 children died. Many now believe that number was as high as 700.

Violence overwhelmed South Africa. The country was governed under a state of emergency until 1989, when Mandela began secret negotiations with white political leadership.

In 1990, Prime Minister F.W. De Klerk lifted restrictions on opposition groups, and Mandela was released after 27 years in prison. A piecemeal dismantling of apartheid legislation began with fierce negotiations and continued violence.

Nelson Mandela found a willing partner in De Klerk and the two of them, by reaching a negotiated settlement, brought about  a resolution to the problem.  De Klerk, ironically, had been seen as a party bureaucrat who had never previously undertaken a reform initiative and was likely to continue the status quo.  Both he and Mandela broke free from the ideological underpinnings of their positions and this was the basis for their agreement.  Both received the Nobel Peace prize for the achievement.

April 1994 marked the country’s first democratic election. Mandela was elected president, and under his leadership South Africa created a new constitution and massive restructuring of civil service and national priorities.

— History sourced from "The Making of Modern South Africa" by Nigel Worden (Fifth edition) and