Of the many internationally acclaimed South African writers, two –
Nadine Gordimer (in 1991) and John Maxwell Coetzee (in 2003) – have
Nobel Prizes; and Coetzee (2000) and Manu Herbstein (Best First Book in
2002) have been overall winners in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
Scholarships for postgraduate study are awarded by South Africa to
citizens of other Commonwealth countries under the Commonwealth
Scholarship and Fellowship Plan.
Joined Commonwealth: 1931 (Statute of Westminster; left in 1961,
rejoined in 1994)
Population: 52,776,000 (2013)
GDP: 0.9% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: World ranking 118
Official language: 11 most widely spoken
Timezone: GMT plus 2hr
Currency: rand (R)
Area: 1,221,038 sq km
Capital city: Pretoria
Population density (per sq. km): 43
The Republic of South Africa has land borders with: Namibia, Botswana,
Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland. Its sea borders are with the South
Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Lesotho is enclosed within its land area.
The country comprises nine provinces: Eastern Cape (provincial capital
Bhisho), Free State (Bloemfontein), Gauteng (Johannesburg),
KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg), Limpopo (Polokwane), Mpumalanga
(Nelspruit), Northern Cape (Kimberley), North-West (Mafikeng) and
Western Cape (Cape Town).
Pretoria (administrative capital, Gauteng, pop. 1.76m in 2011), Cape
Town (legislative capital, Western Cape, 3.43m), Bloemfontein (judicial
capital, Free State, 464,591), Johannesburg (Gauteng, 7.86m), Durban
(KwaZulu-Natal, 2.79m), Soweto (Gauteng, 1.27m), Nelson Mandela Bay
(Eastern Cape, 1.15m), Port Elizabeth (Eastern Cape, 876,436),
Soshanguve (Gauteng, 728,063), Evaton (Gauteng, 605,504),
Pietermaritzburg (KwaZulu-Natal, 475,238), Tembisa (Gauteng, 463,109),
Vereeniging (Gauteng, 377,922), East London (Eastern Cape, 295,644),
Boksburg (Gauteng, 260,321), Polokwane (Limpopo, 227,407), Kimberley
(Northern Cape, 225,155), Welkom (Free State, 211,014), Benoni (Gauteng,
158,777), Mafikeng (North-West, 64,359), Nelspruit (Mpumalanga, 58,670),
Richards Bay (KwaZulu-Natal, 50,511) and Bhisho (Eastern Cape, 11,192).
There are 364,130 km of roads (17 per cent paved) and 20,500 km of
railway (about half electrified). This substantial rail network serves
not only South Africa with its mining and heavy industries, but also
Ports also serve South Africa and its landlocked neighbours: Botswana,
Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The main commercial ports are
at Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and East London. Durban is the
leading port, with capacity for deep-sea ro-ro vessels and a principal
terminal of the 3,100-km long underground oil pipeline.
International airports are at Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban,
Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, while East London, Kimberley and
Pretoria are important domestic airports. There are also some 210
licensed aerodromes and 40 heliports.
South Africa is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of
States, African Union, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional
Cooperation, Non-Aligned Movement, Southern African Customs Union,
Southern African Development Community, United Nations and World Trade
The southern part of the ancient African plateau forms the centre of
South Africa, falling through rolling hills and coastal plains to the
coastal belt. The Great Escarpment, containing the Drakensberg and Cape
mountain ranges, marks the high edge of the plateau. The plateau lies at
an altitude of about 1,500m in the south and east, dipping towards the
north and west. On the plateau, land is flat or undulating and dotted
with round hills or ‘koppies’. The Limpopo and Orange are the major
river systems, although Natal and parts of the Cape are traversed by
fast-flowing, seasonal rivers with coastal lagoons. Surface water is in
Climate varies with altitude and continental position: Mediterranean
climate in the Western Cape; humid subtropical climate on the northern
KwaZulu-Natal coast; continental climate of the highveld; and arid Karoo
and Kalahari fringes, with a great temperature range, giving very hot
summer days and cold dry nights. The south-east trade winds, blowing
first over KwaZulu- Natal, are the principal source of precipitation,
falling in summer. Winter rains reach the Western Cape.
The most significant environmental issues are soil erosion,
desertification, air pollution and resulting acid rain, and pollution of
rivers from agricultural run-off and urban discharges. In a country with
relatively few major rivers and lakes, extensive water conservation and
control measures are necessary to keep pace with rapid growth in water
Varies with climate, including temperate hardwood forest, dense coastal
bush, Mediterranean scrub (including many varieties of aloes and proteas),
vast grasslands of the veld dotted with flat-topped thorn trees, and
bushveld scrub. South Africa’s native flora have been developed as
garden flowers all over the world. Forest covers eight per cent of the
land area, having declined at 1.8 per cent p.a. 1990–2010. Arable land
comprises ten per cent and permanent cropland less than one per cent of
the total land area.
South Africa’s wildlife, among which are the large mammals
characteristic of the African grassland, includes species, such as the
white rhino, that are endangered elsewhere. The game reserves such as
the Kruger and Hluhluwe are considered among the world’s best. The wide
range of bird species includes many migrants from the northern
hemisphere. South Africa was a founder member of the International Union
for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Some 24
mammal species and 41 bird species are thought to be endangered (2014).
Stone-age Khoisan hunter-gatherers inhabited the region for about 8,000
years. At some period before AD 300 iron-age communities of pastoralists
(almost certainly people of the Bantu groups) were living in the
interior. The San people (Bushmen) were pushed towards the hostile
desert areas; the Khoi-Khoi (Hottentots) added pastoralism to their
economy, possibly learned from the more advanced and powerful Bantu, and
inhabited the South-West Cape.
People of the Bantu groups, constituting South Africa’s majority, are
related to the peoples of other east and southern African countries, and
come from four main linguistic groups: the Nguni, Sotho-Tswana, Venda
and Tsonga. The Nguni (including Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi peoples) are by
far the largest.
The first European settlers – Dutch farmers sent to re-provision ships
of the Dutch East India Company – arrived at the Cape in 1652. They were
joined in 1688 by Huguenots (French Protestant refugees), followed by
groups from Belgium, Britain, France and Germany, and augmented by often
highly skilled slaves from Indonesia and Malaya. Control of the Cape
passed from the Dutch to the French and, after 1814, to the British. The
European and racially mixed groups developed the language of Afrikaans,
a sense of folk identity as Afrikaners, or Boers (farmers), and a
religious identity as strict Calvinists. They developed a ranching-centred
style of agriculture suitable to the terrain (and similar to that of the
Bantu peoples) and, as their numbers grew and the distant administrative
authority became more irksome and foreign, migrated towards the
Continuing friction on the Eastern Cape frontier and the abolition of
slavery by Britain triggered a significant migration, the Great Trek,
which from 1836-38 onwards brought them into direct conflict with the
African peoples. While the black societies welcomed the traders and
missionaries, between them and the Boers was direct competition for
land. The Africans were themselves in upheaval in the 19th century. In
Natal, a military genius, Shaka, had moulded the formerly insignificant
Zulus into a powerful fighting force and developed an economy of war.
The Xhosas had been weakened by 100 years of battle with the white
settlers along the Eastern Cape frontier. The Boers trekked inland,
defeating first the Ndebele and then other tribes, and establishing the
Boer Republics of the Transvaal (South African Republic) and Orange Free
Meanwhile, Britain was also expanding, taking Natal in 1843 and then
following the Boers inland. The first Indians came in 1860 to work as
indentured labourers in the Natal sugar fields and, in 1867, diamonds
were discovered, triggering adventurer immigrants from many countries.
Gold was discovered in 1871 – in a Boer Republic. Britain went to war
with the Boers and, with difficulty, defeated them. Having also finally
defeated the Zulus, Britain gained control of all South Africa. The four
provinces were united in 1910 into the dominion of the Union of South
Africa, and the country’s independence was formally recognised under the
Statute of Westminster in 1931.
The country had come to independence with a constitution which
effectively denied black rights. Most areas excluded black, coloured and
Indian people from the vote. Resistance to racial discrimination was
begun by Mahatma Gandhi, who arrived in South Africa as a young lawyer
in 1893. He led the first passive resistance to the pass laws in 1906.
In 1912, the African National Congress (ANC) was founded, to fight for
full constitutional rights for blacks.
However, South Africa steadily reduced black rights. In 1913, land acts
severely limited the rights of blacks to own land or live in certain
areas. In 1936, black voters were removed from the common voters’ roll
in the Cape.
The apartheid years
In 1948, the National Party (NP) came to power on an electoral platform
of apartheid, and moved rapidly in enacting a policy of racial
segregation into law. The ANC, in collaboration with the Indian
Congress, Coloured People’s Congress and Congress of Democrats (mainly
white communists and anti-racists), launched the Freedom Charter and, in
1952, the Defiance Campaign in response. More apartheid laws, separating
education and public amenities, followed. Then, in 1960, the police at
Sharpeville shot and killed 69 peaceful demonstrators. The ANC, Pan-Africanist
Congress (PAC), South African Communist Party (SACP) and other
anti-apartheid movements were banned and went under ground or into
exile. The ANC adopted a policy of armed struggle and Nelson Mandela, as
head of its new military wing, launched a sabotage campaign. In 1963
Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other ANC leaders were sentenced to life
imprisonment. After the Sharpeville massacre the world woke up to
apartheid. South Africa became a pariah nation, forced out of the
Commonwealth and increasingly isolated internationally. The UN declared
apartheid to be a danger to world peace in 1961 and a crime against
humanity in 1966.
During the 1970s some 3 million people were forcibly resettled in
‘homelands’. Further shockwaves ran through the international media
when, in 1976, schoolchildren in Soweto protesting against school
classes in the Afrikaans language were shot by police and this sparked a
violent uprising throughout the country in which some 600 mainly young
people were killed. Popular activist Steve Biko (a young leader of the
Black Consciousness Movement) was beaten to death while in police
custody in 1977, and his name became a rallying cry of resistance.
In 1983, the government introduced a new tricameral parliament, which
gave representation (in separate chambers) to white, coloured and Indian
people, but excluded blacks. Intended as an act of appeasement, this
aroused new united opposition, led by a new umbrella body, the United
Democratic Front, with strong representation from the churches and trade
unions as well as political parties. In 1985, the Congress of South
African Trade Unions was founded. Despite the powerful police and
military apparatus, black resistance intensified.
From the mid-1980s, the Commonwealth, USA and EU introduced political,
sporting, cultural and economic sanctions. The Commonwealth was
consistently among the leaders in international action against
apartheid, for example with its Gleneagles Agreement against sporting
contacts with South Africa (1977). The Commonwealth also led the
peaceful dismantling of apartheid, starting in 1985 with establishment
of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (led by Olusegun Obasanjo of
Nigeria and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser).
Within South Africa, political protest grew, and began to take an
increasingly violent form, influenced by Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of
the Nation’, the military wing of the ANC). The country was becoming
ungovernable, and its economy disastrously weakened.
The ending of apartheid
In 1989, F W de Klerk succeeded P W Botha as president, and immediately
began negotiations to unscramble apartheid. Within months Walter Sisulu
and seven other imprisoned leaders were released and the bans on the
ANC, PAC and SACP were lifted. In February 1990, Mandela was released.
Apartheid laws were repealed. In August 1990, the ANC suspended the
armed struggle, and began negotiations with the government.
Political violence intensified within South Africa, with fierce
competition between the ANC and the Zulu traditionalist Inkatha Freedom
Party. Nonetheless, all-party negotiations – the Convention for a
Democratic South Africa – began in December 1991. An all-white
referendum showed that the whites were in favour of abolishing apartheid
and agreement was reached in June 1993. A multiparty transitional
executive council was formed to partner the government until the
elections for a new parliament could be held. As the reform process
gathered momentum from 1989, international sanctions were lifted. South
Africa’s first non-racial and democratic elections were held in April
1994, with Commonwealth, UN and other teams of observers present. The
observers concluded that despite technical problems during the
elections, the results were an overwhelming expression of the will of
the people. The elections gave the ANC an overall majority with 252
seats, and 63% of the votes. The NP obtained 20% and the Inkatha Freedom
Party (IFP) 11%.
Nelson Mandela, president of the ANC, was elected president of South
Africa at the first sitting of the National Assembly in May 1994.
Although the ANC had an overall majority, in the interests of achieving
consensus, a Government of National Unity (GNU) was formed, with a
cabinet comprising 18 ANC, six NP, three IFP MPs and one independent MP.
Mandela appointed Thabo Mbeki (ANC) and F W de Klerk (NP) as deputy
presidents. The then ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa was elected
Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly. In June 1994 South Africa
rejoined the Commonwealth and reclaimed its seat at the UN.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established with
Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chair in 1996 to provide a public forum
for the personal accounts of human rights abuses during the apartheid
years. It was attended by some 7,000 individuals (including ANC leaders,
but not Buthelezi or de Klerk) and delivered its final report in October
1998. People attended hearings on a voluntary basis and were then
entitled to apply to the TRC for amnesty from prosecution.
The NP withdrew from the GNU in 1996 to form the parliamentary
opposition, but the IFP remained in the national government, although
this collaboration was not reflected in the provincial government of
KwaZulu-Natal. In October 1996 a new constitution was approved by the
National Assembly and came into force in February 1997. At the 50th
national conference of the ANC in December 1997, Mandela stood down as
party president, making way for Thabo Mbeki.
In the second democratic general election in June 1999, the ANC received
66% of the votes, the Democratic Party (DP) 9%, the IFP just under 9%,
the (renamed) New National Party (NNP) 7% and the newly formed United
Democratic Movement (UDM) 4%. With 266 out of the National Assembly’s
400 seats, the ANC was able to command a two-thirds majority (necessary
for changes to the constitution) with the support of the Minority Front,
which had one seat. Mbeki succeeded Mandela as president and IFP leader
Mangosuthu Buthelezi was reappointed as home affairs minister, while the
22-member cabinet was partially reshuffled with Jacob Zuma becoming
deputy president. The DP replaced the NNP as the official opposition,
and in June 2000 the DP and the NNP merged to become the Democratic
A Brief History of South
Africa, with Dave Steward
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