For thousands of years before South Africa existed, this southernmost part
of the African continent was populated by hunter-gatherer people known collectively
as the San.
c. 100 CE
The Khoikhoi people and many Bantu-speaking peoples began migrating from
the north into present-day South Africa, bringing with them iron technology,
agriculture, and cattle herding. As more and more migrants arrived, the San
retreated further south.
The first Dutch settlement is established at the Cape of Good Hope to be
a provisioning station for ships of the Dutch East India Company. Initially
the Dutch planned to keep their settlement small and rely upon trade with
the indigenous population to obtain cattle, sheep, and vegetables. When it
grows apparent that the native peoples are not interested in sustained trade,
the Dutch turn to farming, importing Asian and African slaves to perform
the necessary labor. These settlers became known as the "Boers," the Dutch
word for farmer.
Wars between the Khoikhoi and the Dutch end with the Dutch greatly expanding
into what were previously Khoikhoi pasturelands.
In response to European expansion by the Dutch and, later, the French, most
of the San and some of the Khoikhoi migrate north to inaccessible, arid regions
to avoid the settlers. Intermarriage of Europeans and Khoikhoi produces what
South Africa will later label its "colored" population.
By 1730, repeated smallpox epidemics have killed most of the Khoikhoi and
destroyed their cattle economy. European settlers expand further to meet
their own farming and herding needs. Land titles were vague or nonexistent
as both the remaining Khoikhoi and white cattle herders migrated seasonally
in search of pasturelands.
The Boers move into areas in the east occupied by the Xhosa, a Bantu-speaking
people, who have been living there for at least 250 years.
The latter part of the eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth century saw numerous
frontier wars fought between the Xhosa and the Europeans. The result of these
wars was further expansion of Dutch claims on territory.
As a result of wars being fought in Europe, the British permanently take
over Cape Province from the Dutch and begin actively encouraging immigration
The great military leader Shaka unites the Zulu Kingdom using revolutionary
fighting techniques. Large numbers of people migrate to escape the fighting.
The Ndebele move to present-day Zimbabwe, the Sotho to Zambia, and the Nguni
to Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania. The Mfengu people flee west into the British
In a migration that becomes known as the "Great Trek," 12,000 Boers depart
Cape Province, traveling east and north to escape British rule. As they move
beyond the Orange River, the trekkers battle with the black people living
there. Major battles with the Zulu occur at the Blood River and with the
Ndebele at Marico. The trekkers establish the independent republics of
Natal, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal, and assign black Africans
separate reserves within the states, where they live separately from the
white settlers but are still available to work for them when the need for
Diamonds are discovered in South Africa. In 1870, gold is discovered there
as well. Mineral wealth greatly increases the value of southern African lands
in the eyes of colonial powers and spurs three decades of great economic
development. This development vastly increases the demand for cheap, unskilled,
and semi-skilled African labor. The majority black population was forced
to give up independent farming.
From 1899 to 1902, the British and Boers fight the Boer War (also called
the South African War). Since the 1870s, Britain had stepped up efforts
to control the land and resources of the southern African region, battling
the Boers, Xhosa, and Zulu peoples. With British victory, all the former
Boer territories are combined with British colonial territories to form the
Union of South Africa. At the turn of the century, the population of European
ancestry living in South Africa numbers one million.
The Union of South Africa becomes an independent nation. Afrikaners (descendants
of Dutch settlers) form the majority white population within this new majority
black nation. In the first national elections, the overwhelming majority
of black citizens are not allowed to vote. Blacks and coloreds with large-enough property holdings and who reside within the former Cape Colony
temporarily retain voting rights. Over the years, the amount of land one needs to own
in order to vote steadily increases as the black population's ability to
own land decreases. In 1911, the first national census finds that 21.3% of
the population of South Africa is white. That percentage has declined steadily
Following the formation of the Union of South Africa, the dispossession
of the black population from their traditional lands is effected increasingly
by law rather than by warfare. The Natives' Land Act sets aside a tiny fraction
of South Africa's territory for black ownership.
It also forbids blacks from renting land, except in exchange for their labor.
The Afrikaner National Party comes to power in South Africa and intensifies
the forced relocation of black South Africans to all-black homelands, called "bantustans." Under
this policy, known as apartheid, the few black freehold farming communities
that still hold legal deeds to their land are destroyed in a massive police
operation. This policy continues for nearly fifty years, with black Africans
being forcibly removed from their lands and crowded onto small land reserves
which are often poorly suited for agriculture, resulting in impoverishment.
These black South Africans form a large pool of cheap labor for white-owned
industrial and agricultural enterprises.