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< BACKHistory, Culture and Politics - South Africa

Historians believe that the first people to settle in the area that is now South Africa were the San Bushmen, around 100,000 BC. These nomadic people lived a generally peaceful and isolated existence until the widespread settlement of Khoikhoi farmers around 80,000 BC. Bantu tribes arrived in the area in the 3rd century AD moving in from the north. Over time, the San have virtually disappeared as a separate race in South Africa; disease brought in from outsiders has combined with genocide on behalf of more aggressive peoples to wipe out the majority of the San. Many tribes have also merged their cultures with others through inter-marriage, for instance the Khoikhoi race has been largely absorbed into South Africa's coloured population.

Today there are many tribes living throughout the country, the most prominent of these include the Zulus, Xhosa and Ndebele as well as the Afrikaner and European peoples.

Modern day religion revolves mainly around Christianity but there is enormous variety with around 4000 African indigenous churches, and sub-sects of the Dutch Reformed Church. The Zion Christian Church has the largest Christian following in the country, members wear a Silver Star on a green background and advocate non-drinking and 'clean living'. Many people in neighbouring countries, such as Botswana, also adhere to this religion closely. As in much of Africa, Christianity mingles with ancestor worship and traditional values.

The Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz first rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, and a Dutch settlement was established at the Cape in 1652. In 1688 French Huguenot's arrived at the Cape armed with extensive wine producing experience. Their influence is still keenly felt! However, colonial influence did not occur on any kind of large scale until the arrival of the British and the Dutch in the early 19th century.

Development around the Cape area was mainly undertaken with British rule. From the 1820's, the Boer settlers were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with this fact, and began to move northwards into largely unexplored territory on what became known as the Great Trek. The first stopping point was an area near the current Bloemfontein in 1838 where the Boers hoped to establish a republic.

The leader of this republic, Retief, approached the Zulu King Dingaan who agreed to allow the Boer to establish their republic here. Unfortunately for the trek participants, the agreement was a trap and all were massacred immediately after signing the land title deed. There followed a revenge attack which left 3000 Zulus dead in the battle of 'Blood River'. When the Boers later moved into Mgungundlovu and found the deed granting them Retief's republic, they moved into this area.

The republic was short lived however, as the British annexed the area in 1843 and most of the Boer population moved northwards into the Transvaal. Between 1852 & 1854 the Transvaal & Orange Free State were granted independence from British rule, unfortunately the politics of the region were constantly unstable with the Boers often at war with the local Basotho tribe who were sometimes given help by the British, adding to animosity between the two colonial powers.

The Transvaal & Orange Free State both depended entirely on cattle for income, and boasted no industry, very little agriculture and small Boer populations. Just as the areas were beginning to settle into workable communities, diamonds were discovered in Kimberley in 1869 and the British again annexed the area, hence compounding existing tensions! The new mines led to a rush of European immigrants and a migration of black labour from all over the country. The Boers became angry that the republics were missing out on the economic benefits of these mines and the resultant unsettled feelings within the British rule led to the Transvaal being annexed by the British in 1877.

Rebellion followed and the first Anglo-Boer war resulted in a massive Boer victory at the Battle of Majuba in 1881. The Boers regained a certain amount of independence and established the ZAR, (Zuid - Afrikaansche Republiek). The situation deteriorated further with the discovery of gold in Witwatersrand, near the present day Johannesburg. More foreign workers and local people moved into the area drawn by promises of work, although these immigrants were not allowed any vote within the communities. The Boer population mounted another rebellion against the British who eventually brought in Lords Roberts & Kitchener with an army of 450,000. Against 80,000 Boers, the British gained the upper hand very quickly and the Boers were forced to give way.

A new kind of war began, with Boer countryside commandos doing their best to cause disruption and chaos within British controlled areas. Since no official army could be identified, the British took revenge by removing women and children to concentration camps where around 26,000 people died before the war was over. By 1902 the strain was taking its toll and a peace treaty was signed which gave power of the Boer republics to the British. Boers flooded back to the cities to compete with the local black population for work. The English language dominated and was made an official language along with Dutch. It was not until much later that Afrikaans was also given this distinction.

The British realised that they had to attempt some kind of co-operation with the Boers and a 'representative government' was established in 1906 (not very representative in fact since none of the black population were allowed to stand for parliament…)

The Union of South Africa was established in 1910, excluding the area which is now Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana (Bechuanaland) & Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). The first election was held, and won by the South Africa National Party, a coalition of Boer groups under the leadership of General Louis Botha and General Jan Smuts. Botha became the first Prime Minister.

Repressive legislation was implemented which included rules such as no striking by black workers and increased laws governing the movements of the black population. These laws prompted Pixley ka Isaka Seme to form the South Africa Native Congress in 1912, later becoming the ANC in 1923. In 1913 the Natives Land Act allocated 7.5% of the land area to the black population (approximately 70% of South Africa's people). Squatters were moved from traditional land to overcrowded reserves or cities.

In 1914 South Africa found itself at war with Germany, by default in its role as part of the British empire. Involvement on the side of the British prompted the last major Boer rebellion. South West Africa (now Namibia) was taken from German control and became part of South Africa under mandate from the League of Nations following the end of WWI. In 1924 the National Party, under the leadership of the staunch supporter of Afrikaner independence, Hertzog, merged with the South African National Party to form a fusion government. Jan Smuts became deputy to Hertzog, but this joint government was rejected by Dr. D. F. Malan and followers who formed the Purified National Party and became known as the 'Broederband" of Afrikaans brotherhood.

During the Second World War, South Africa's economy boomed and the black urban population nearly doubled with enormous squatter camps building up outside the cities. The National Party won the 1948 election on an apartheid platform; apartheid literally means a 'state of being apart'. Power was held in this way until 1994. Previous laws were strengthened and every aspect of life was made separate, from residential areas to public amenities with each member of the black population being required to carry a pass at all times and having their movements vigorously restricted.

In 1949 the ANC began to move towards open resistance and more physical methods of objection to this unethical state of government. Illegal strikes were organised along with protest marches and public disobedience. As part of a 1955 congress, a number of organisations including the ANC and the Indian Congress adopted a Freedom Charter with a vision of a non-racial and democratic state.

The situation escalated enormously with the Sharpville riots in 1960 when police opened fire on demonstrators and many black protestors were killed. Shortly afterwards, the ANC and the PAC (Pan African Congress) were banned and a vote was taken on withdrawing from the British Commonwealth. A slim majority voted in favour of this and South Africa became the Republic of South Africa in May 1961. At this point Nelson Mandela became the leader of the underground ANC and Oliver Tambo was sent abroad to establish and promote the organisation in exile. Mandela was arrested in July 1963.

The Homelands Policy was brought into place around this time; another separatist policy which was promoted under the guise of providing the black population with their own, self-governed, states.

These 'traditional' tribal areas were in fact the least desirable land areas in terms of agriculture, industry or any other viable means of making a living. Often, people were removed to tribal areas bearing no resemblance to their traditional background. No infrastructure was provided in the Homelands and the land areas were incapable of producing enough food to keep the population self-sufficient. Once again, a tiny percentage of the land area (13%) was assigned to 75% of the population. Residents were not allowed outside their homeland without a pass and prior permission.

By 1980 South Africa (along with South West Africa) was the last remaining white controlled state in Africa. Pressure was rising and sanctions were being steadily increased by countries abroad. The ANC and PAC had direct support from black African governments (except Malawi & Swaziland). Between 1977 & 1988 the South African Defence Force undertook some major attacks in Angola, Zimbabwe & Moçambique in an attempt to defend their position. By 1985 the country was under a state of emergency with censored media and up to 30,000 people detained without trial. Foreign banks refused to roll over government loans, sanctions continued to increase and the value of the Rand collapsed.

In 1989 Botha was replaced by FW De Klerk who realised the vital importance of ending the struggles within the country. In 1990 the ANC, PAC & Communist Party were legalised, and Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. This was also the year of Independence in South West Africa, which became Namibia. An interim government of National Unity ruled South Africa until the 1994 elections, the first free and fair of the country’s history. The ANC won with just under 63% of the vote.

Today's President is Jacob Zuma. In post-apartheid South Africa, unemployment has been extremely high as the country has struggled with many changes. While many blacks have risen to middle or upper classes, the overall unemployment rate of blacks worsened between 1994 and 2003. Poverty among whites, previously rare, increased. While some have attributed this partly to the legacy of apartheid, increasingly many attribute it to the failure of the current government's policies. In addition, the current government has struggled to achieve the monetary and fiscal discipline to ensure both redistribution of wealth and economic growth. Since the ANC-led government took power, the United Nations Human Development Index of South Africa has fallen, while it was steadily rising until the mid-1990s. Some may be attributed to the AIDS pandemic, and the failure of the government to take steps to address it in the early years.

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