A Traveller’s History of South Africa

Gary Arndt January 14, 2014 1

Before you go to South Africa (or anywhere for that matter), it is a good idea to get to know some of the basics about the history of the country. Here is a very brief overview of some of the important dates and events in the history of South Africa.  This is obviously not a complete history, but it should give any prospective traveler a brief overview of the country.

A statue of Nelson Mandela outside of the South African Embassy in Washington DC. Photo by T. Eytan.

A statue of Nelson Mandela outside of the South African Embassy in Washington DC. Photo by T. Eytan.

3.5 Billion Years Ago

Geologically, South Africa is old. Very old. Geologists have dated the formation of the Earth to 4.5 billion years ago. The oldest rocks in Africa can be found in South Africa, in the Barberton Mountain Lands near the border of Swaziland, which date back to 3.5 billion years.  Southern Africa has been relatively geologically inactive over a long period of time, which has resulted in long-term erosion and the exposure of these ancient rocks.

2.6 Billion Years Ago

Some of the earliest evidence of life on Earth comes from fossilized mats of bacteria called stromatolites. Some of the oldest cyanobacteria stromatolites have been found in the Cape Province, and they date back to 2.6 billion years ago. Evidence found in South Africa has contributed to the belief by scientists that single-celled life on Earth may have begun almost as soon as the Earth was cool enough to support it.

2.8 Million Years Ago

In 1924, what looked like a small human skull was found in northwestern South Africa. Anthropologists eventually determined it was the skull of Australopithecus africanus, an early human ancestor. The skull became known as “Taung Child.” It turns out that the distant relatives of human beings were walking across the plains of South Africa as early as 3 million years ago.

1.5 Million Years Ago

Everyone knows that cavemen use fire, right? Yet fire leaves very little evidence of its existence. Recent discoveries from a cave in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa might prove that the early human ancestors, Homo erectus, may have been using fire to cook meat 1.5 million years ago. If true, this would be earliest proof of humans using fire in the world.

100,000 Years Ago

Modern humans can be defined by our use of tools, language and art. Some of the earliest evidence of modern humans was found in the Blombos Cave east of Cape Town. There, evidence of paints in shell containers has been found. Other caves in South Africa have found engravings and beads dating back 77,000 years.

2,500 Years Ago

San and Bantu people begin to migrate from the north. San were herders, and today inhabit the eastern and central parts of the country. Europeans referred to them as ‘bushmen’ – most famously of the Kalahari Desert. The Bantu-speaking people settled in the eastern parts of what is South Africa today. Over the centuries, many of the groups intermingled and mixed.

1075

Beginning around the year 1075, the Kingdom of Mapungubwe existed along the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. It was an early version of what would eventually become the Kingdom of Zimbabwe.

1488

Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was believed to be the first European to explore the region. Despite having been the first Europeans in South Africa, Dias and his crew didn’t establish a permanent presence, instead establishing ports in Madagascar and Mozambique.

April 6, 1652

The Dutch East India Company, led by Jan van Riebeeck, lands in Table Bay. They were actually attempting to reach the East Indies and had no intention of creating a colony in Africa. Settlers in the Dutch Colony were the ancestors of who are today Afrikaners. The Afrikaans language is an off-shoot of Dutch.

1806-1815

In the 19th Century, Dutch influence waned while British influence grew. In 1806, the British conquered the Cape Colony and had their control codified in the 1815 Treaty of Vienna. This began what would eventually result in the British rule of all of what is today modern South Africa.

1879

The Zulu Kingdom had become one of the most powerful tribal kingdoms in South Africa, which eventually brought them into conflict with the British. Despite an impressive opening victory at the Battle of Isandlwana (one of the only battles in history where an army with guns was defeated by an army largely without), they were eventually defeated, and the Zulu Kingdom lost its independence.

1899-1902

In addition to conflicts with tribal groups, the British also fought two wars against the local Afrikaners known as Boers (Dutch for ‘farmer’). The second Anglo-Boer War was fought between 1899 and the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging. This war was known for the creation of the world’s first concentration camps by the British.

1909

There were several colonies and republics in southern Africa that were brought together in the Union of South Africa in 1909. Many current South African provinces were once separate colonies and were joined at this time (Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal, and Orange Free State). Other British colonies were not included in the Union of South Africa, and their history led them to become independent countries today: Lesotho, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland.

1913

The Natives’ Land Act was passed by the Union of South Africa parliament. It was the beginning of what would later be known as Apartheid, and deprived the majority of native people the right to own land.

1926

South Africa achieves dominion status in the British Empire, putting it on an equal footing with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other similar territories under the British Monarchy.

1948

South Africa adopts a formal system of Apartheid. While there had always been segregation since the arrival of Europeans, Apartheid as it was known to the world began in 1948. It classified everyone into several categories based on race, controlled voting, travel and ownership.

1960

South Africa becomes a republic and achieves total independence from the United Kingdom.

1961

The African National Congress (ANC), tracing its roots back to 1912 to fight for the rights of black people in South Africa, creates a military wing to fight Apartheid.

1962

After years of fighting against white rule in South Africa, Nelson Mandela is imprisoned on Robben Island, where he is held for 27 years.

1964

The South African team is barred from attending the Olympic Games in Tokyo because of Apartheid. They would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics again until 1992 and the collapse of Apartheid.

February 2, 1990

After mounting international pressure and internal strife, the white South African Government lead by F.W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela, signifying the beginning of the end of Apartheid.

March 17, 1992

In a national referendum, white South Africans vote by 68% to dismantle the system of Apartheid.

May 9, 1994

Nelson Mandela was elected president of the first post-Apartheid government in South Africa.

1995

South Africa creates the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose purpose was to expose the crimes committed by all parties during the Apartheid era. Those guilty of crimes were given amnesty. The commission became the basis for commissions in other countries like Rwanda, which had experienced periods of violence and wanted a system of national healing.

In 1995 South Africa also hosted the Rugby World Cup, where Nelson Mandela famously wore a Springbok jersey to show his support of white South Africans, who were the largest rugby supporters.

1999

Nelson Mandela voluntarily steps down from the presidency to go into retirement. It was one of the few cases of a post-independent African leader who willingly stepped down and peacefully transferred power.

2010

South Africa completed its integration into the international world of sports by hosting the FIFA World Cup. It was the largest international event to be held in South Africa and served as a testimony to the country’s full transition from Apartheid.

December 5, 2013

Nelson Mandela dies. He leaves behind an integrated South Africa that is the most prosperous country on the continent. He managed to achieve the transition from Apartheid without a civil war or massive bloodshed, something many people thought would have been impossible.


Getting There

G Adventures invites you to improve your photography skills in one of the world’s most inspiring settings with the guidance of Wander-in-Residence Gary Arndt. Learn tips and techniques while capturing the diversity of South Africa through your viewfinder. In co-operation with Gary Arndt — the world’s most read travel blogger — G Adventures is pleased to present a very special departure of its ‘Cape, Rails & Kruger Quest’ this May. Reserve a space on this very special departure today.

One Comment »

  1. David DiGregorio January 15, 2014 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    This is a great history Gary!

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