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Like many Americans, white South Africans have the impression that they live in a young country. Although the land has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, it is quite common to hear that a 19C church, for example, is considered “very old”. This shows that the concept of a South African nation where all citizens share the same history has yet to be achieved. In a country defined by its geography – the South of Africa – History is often represented in ethnic, rather than national terms. The “Rainbow Nation”, as symbolised by the South African flag, is a beautiful ideal that is waiting to arise from the ashes of a tormented past.

From Prehistory to the arrival of Europeans

San and Khoi

In the beginning, southern Africa was populated by:

- the San, hunter-gatherers also known as Bochimans or Bushmen

- and herders, who call themselves Khoikhoi (“men of men”), and who may have been in contact with East African peoples living along the Nile. They have been dubbed Hottentots, from the German hotteren-totteren, to stutter.

These early South Africans, today known as Khoisan, had copper-brown skin, almond-shaped eyes, curly hair and a quite short stature (about 1m 55cm).

The culture of the Khoisan changed as they came into contact with Bantous in the 3C. These darker-skinned tribes from the north introduced their cattle-breeding techniques and the use of iron.

The arrival of Europeans

At the end of the 15C, Portuguese navigators sought to reach India by sailing down the coast of Africa. In the early months of 1488, Bartolomeu Dias travelled as far as the Indian Ocean by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. A dozen years later, Vasco de Gama succeeded in reaching India. The Portuguese made it a habit to stop at the Cape to take on fresh water and supplies. Initial contact was made with the local population, but relations soon soured. In 1510, Francisco de Almeida, first viceroy of Portuguese India, and his crew were attacked and killed by Khoikhoi after the sailors raided a village cattle herd.

The next Europeans to take up trade with India were the Dutch, who established themselves on the Cape in 1652. Working for the Dutch East India Company, or VOC (Verrenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), Jan Van Riebeeck built a fort at Cape Town and made Table Bay an advantageous way station on the route between the Netherlands and the East Indies. Van Riebeeck’s dealings with the Hottentots quickly turned adversarial. In 1658, he ordered the planting of a wild almond hedge along the western slope of Table Mountain as a prickly border separating European and indigenous zones.

Early colonisation

Extension of the colony

In 1657, the VOC authorised citizens, or “free burghers”, to set up farms on Company lands. Their “freedom” was constrained, however, as they could only sell their produce to the Company; trade with Hottentots or passing ships was forbidden. Yet over time rules became less strict, and dozens of Dutch settlers moved to the east and north of the Cape, establishing the town of Stellenbosch.

In 1681, Dutch farmers began to bring slaves from Asia and Madagascar to work their farms.

Arrival of the Huguenots

At the end of the 17C, there were about a thousand burghers living in the colony, and the Van der Stel governors, first the father then the son, oversaw an economic boom. They also sent an appeal to 200 French Huguenots who were living in exile in Holland following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. These fervent Calvinists were generally skilled craftsmen, clever tradesmen or experienced winegrowers. Within the space of a few generations, families named De Villiers, Du Toit, or Du Plessis had forgotten their French ways and thoroughly assimilated Dutch culture.


In addition to slave labourers, the Dutch brought in Muslim chiefs who had proved uncooperative in their native lands of Malaysia and Java. These Muslims came to the Cape with their families and were able to keep their culture and religion alive, and even spread their faith among the mixed-raced population. These families were the founders of the Muslim community still on the Cape today.

Trek Boers

After a time, agriculture alone could not provide a living for the growing number of families arriving from Holland and also Germany throughout the 18C. Eager to be free of the East India Company and its rules and taxation, migratory livestock herders moved their families farther and farther east. These travelling farmers, descendents of the first Dutch pioneers, were known as Trek Boers. Communities were ruled through the authority of Dominees, or predikants, pastors who served these largely illiterate flocks. This gave rise to the identity of the Boer nationalists: an authoritarian society, suspicious of State intervention, believing in the absolute superiority of the white race and sharing the conviction that they were God’s chosen people.

The roots of apartheid

Referring to their own literal interpretation of the Bible, the Dutch assimilated people “of colour” to the Canaanites of the Old Testament. Marriage between the daughters of Canaan and Israelite sons was banned. This indicates that the Dutch themselves identified with the biblical Israelites. Their fundamentalist stance was the basis for the prohibition on “mixed” marriages up until the 20C and was also the grounding argument advanced by apartheid apologists. In practice, however, many Dutch colonists, especially those without families, fathered children with Hottentot women. The illegitimate offspring were doomed to slavery unless they were accepted by their mother’s clan.

Crossing colour lines

Khoisan and other indigenous people had begun mixing with colonists when Asian and Malagasy slaves arrived with their cultures. Marriages between colonists and Asians of Christian faith were tolerated for a time, but these, too, were soon prohibited. Children of inter-cultural unions fled to avoid enslavement, and some found refuge in Hottentot communities, which they integrated. Other run-aways joined them, fleeing the threat of the branding iron and mutilation that followed failed attempts at escape. Thus the Cape became home to generations of mixed-race, Afrikaner-speaking people, who were later classified as “coloured” by the racist regime in 1948.

Arrival of the English and conflict with the Xhosa (late 18C to mid-19C)

The Xhosa

The Xhosa, or “red people” are part of the Nguni ethno-linguistic group that also includes the Matabele, Swazi and Zulus. Their slow migration southwards from central Africa began in the first centuries of the Christian era. Advancing a few kilometres per year, the Xhosa had reached Great Fish River by the end of the 17C, preceding the Europeans by several decades. This semi-nomadic, pastoral tribe had no concept of land ownership. The first contacts with Trek Boers were simple bartering exchanges. But as both groups continued to expand to new territory, conflicts over grazing land broke out, leading in 1779 to the first of the Xhosa Wars, also known as the Cape Frontier Wars. A series of eight more wars would follow until 1897.

The English arrival

At the end of the 18C, the Dutch East India Company was rife with rivalry and faced with stiff competition from the English and the French. It went bankrupt in 1794. Following the French occupation of the Seven Provinces of the Netherlands, the Prince of Orange was in exile in London. He encouraged the British to send forces to the Cape, in order to prevent the French from seizing control of the strategic route to India. The Cape in 1795 was in the midst of upheaval. The Boers sought to strengthen their autonomy and remove the few restraints that kept them from all-out war with the Hottentots by proclaiming the Vrijburghers (“free citizens”) Republic in Graaff-Reinet and Swellendam. Upon their arrival, the British troops quickly quashed that initiative.

After years of de facto British rule, the colony was ceded outright by the Netherlands to the British crown in 1814. The population of the colony at the time included 25,000 Europeans, 30,000 slaves and 20,000 Hottentots. In 1820, the British brought 5,000 settlers to live in the eastern part of the territory bordering Xhosa lands. They founded Grahamstown and established garrisons along one side of the Fish River. Many of the settlers would eventually return to the cities, leaving the countryside, and the mounting tensions with the Xhosa, to the soldiers and the Boers.

From the fifth to the final frontier war

In 1817, the Xhosa were living in overcrowded conditions east of the Fish River, and civil unrest among them resulted. When colonial authorities interfered in a matter concerning stolen cattle, violent conflict erupted.

A prophet-leader named Maqana Nxele emerged and promised “to turn bullets into water”. In 1819, he led 10,000 warriors in an assault on Grahamstown, which was barely able to repulse the attack, but succeeded thanks to superior artillery and support from a Khoikhoi group led by Jan Boesak.

Hostilities grew more violent in 1834, when raids and counter-raids known in contemporary South Africa as the Sixth War of Dispossession left 7,000 people of all races homeless.

By 1852, the Eighth War had resulted in significant losses for the Xhosa, whose territories were annexed. Restrictive laws forced them to use special “passes” for travelling outside permitted zones. Under these conditions, the nomadic cattle herders suffered terrible hardship. Tragically, mass starvation followed an 1857 prophecy that the whites would return to the sea if the Xhosa slaughtered their cattle and destroyed their crops.

In 1879, the Ninth and final of the wars was the last, failed attempt of the Xhosa to regain control of their customary lands.

Conflict between Boers and the English

Missionaries and emancipation

In the early 19C, English missionaries from the London Missionary Society worked to convert the Hottentots and other native Africans and also to abolish slavery. They received support from the government in London, who viewed the missionary effort as a potential lever to use against the Boers.

A circuit court was created in 1810 by Governor Cradock, to enforce regulations aimed at ameliorating the treatment of non-white servants. The Boers, who felt they were the chosen people, were indignant and infuriated by this measure. Occasionally, Hottentot slaves attacked their masters, and Boer posses would carry out punitive expeditions. Finally, the white settlers entered into open rebellion against the colonial government. Five such rebels were sentenced to death by hanging by the new British court.

Slavery was definitively abolished in 1833, releasing about 30,000 people from forced servitude. The Boers felt both affronted and cheated. Although the law provided for compensation to slave owners, they were required to travel to London to make their claims.

The Great Trek (1835-1839)

Chafing under British authority, and convinced that they had a divine mission, the Boers left the Cape Colony in 1835 for the northeast. The Great Trek continued for four years, ultimately involving 14,000 Boers. After crossing the Orange River, some Trekkers continued to the Transvaal, while others emigrated eastward towards the Natal area.

But these territories were already occupied, and hostilities between the settlers and the African population flared up. In 1833, at Thaba’Nchu near Bloemfontein, Boers with firearms battled Ndebele warriors (a branch of the Zulu) with spears and arrows. Four hundred tribesmen were killed, and two settlers.

The Kingdom of the Zulus

Boers and Zulus in conflict

The Trekkers reached the Tugela River in 1837, thus arriving at the border of the Zulu Kingdom. Sixty settlers, led by Piet Retief, met with King Dingaan in his kraal in 1838, intending to negotiate for land. The unarmed men were murdered and Dingaan left their bodies out for vultures before sending his troops out to attack the settlers’ camps at the base of Drakensberg. Three hundred Trekkers and 200 mixed-race servants perished at Bloukrans.

The Battle of Blood River

The Zulu warriors were more interested in capturing cattle than in military victories, and did not attack other Trekker camps. The survivors joined together under the leadership of Andries Pretorius. They created a commando force of 468 men and 57 wagons to challenge Dingaan’s army near Ncome River, in Natal. The battle’s name comes from the transformation of the Ncome into a river of blood. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 Zulus lost their lives; only two Afrikaners died. The Battle of Blood River was a turning point for the Boers and established the Afrikaners in the north of Natal and the Transvaal.

British and Zulus in conflict

After Blood River, Dignaan sought exile in Swaziland, where he was murdered. Mpande, who had made peace with the Afrikaners, took his place for the next thirty years. At his death in 1872, his son Cetshwayo tried to rebuild the Zulu army. But the discovery of gold mines in the Transvaal in 1871 stoked British ambition to control the whole region. They annexed the Transvaal in 1877 and in January 1879, invaded Zululand.

The Zulu army marked several early victories, at Isandlwana and Hlobane in particular. But with their superior arms, British troops won the day in 1879 at Ulundi. Zululand was incorporated and Cetshwayo’s power diminished steadily until his death in 1884.

The fall of the Boer republics

British annexation of Natal

The Boers felt that their victory at Blood River was evidence of their holy alliance, and established the Natalia Republic, with Pietermaritzburg as its capital. But the British, mindful of past Boer rebellions, did not welcome the foundation of an independent state so close to the ocean. Natal was annexed in 1843.

The second Trek

Determined to live independently of colonial rule and what they saw as unacceptable racial egalitarianism, the Boers decided to backtrack across the Drakensberg to the territories beyond the Vaal and Orange rivers. By 1850, there were more than 10,000 of them in Orange and more than 20,000 in the Transvaal. Families settled in the vast territories than had been emptied out by the mfecane. These “farmers’ republics” were very loose organisations: no taxes were levied and the only really authorities were private militias known as kommandos.

Indians in South Africa

The abolition of slavery and the nature of relations with the black population led to a severe labour shortage for the white farmers of Natal, who had begun planting sugar cane in the 1850s. Sugar cane is profitable when many low-paid workers are available. Indian workers were enticed to sign contracts to come to South Africa, and between 1860 and 1866, 6,500 of them arrived in Natal. The sugar trade skyrocketed. Immigration stalled during an economic depression then picked up again in 1886, with the arrival of 30,000 more Indian nationals. Many of these workers stayed and were joined by their families. Faithful to their traditions, and opposed to marriage outside their own community, the Indian population remained a stable element in South Africa throughout the 20C.

The diamond rush

1867 was a significant turning point for South Africa. The first diamond was discovered in Hopetown in the Northern Cape Province.

Prospectors dug a giant hole, and the town of Kimberly sprung up next to it. Although it took four to six weeks to travel from Cape Town to Kimberly, thousands came from around the country and the world to hunt for diamonds in the region. Kimberley became the second-largest city in the country. Theoretically part of the Orange Free State, the colony was annexed by Britain in 1871.

The economic boom was unprecedented. In ten years, the colony’s revenues were multiplied by five. Huge fortunes were created. Young Cecil John Rhodes, newly arrived from England, built up colossal wealth and established De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. He bought up his rivals and used his money to support imperialist policies that matched his private interests with those of the Crown. He launched a campaign to take over the territories north of Limpopo, carving out the eponymous state of Rhodesia.

Invasion of the Transvaal by the British

In 1877, taking advantage of the unstable situation created by a difficult battle against an uprising of indigenous people, British troops invaded the Transvaal with the goal of annexation. The Boers, disheartened, waited three years before they found their leaders: Paul Kruger, Andries Pretorius and General Piet Joubert.

The first Boer War

A provisional government was formed, the kommandos went into action and in 1880 the Boers, led by Piet Joubert, surrounded the British garrisons. In 1881, colonial troops suffered a harsh defeat at the Battle of Amajuba. Once again, the Boers were convinced that God was on their side and president Paul Kruger, elected three years earlier, supported this belief by gaining recognition for the South African Republic (Transvaal or ZAR - Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek) from London.

The gold boom

In 1886, George Harrison discovered the Witwatersrand gold deposits, which make up 40% of the world’s gold reserves. To exploit the vast mine, technology, low-cost labour and energy and capital investment were required. All these needs were met. In six years, Johannesburg, a city that seemed to spring up overnight, drew nearly 100,000 white settlers, most of whom arrived directly from Europe.

The Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) and its consequences

Xenophobia directed against the English and the Jews in particular and Uitlanders (foreigners) in general developed among the Boers, who felt they were being left behind in the great race for wealth.

However, Cecil Rhodes, who had become the prime minister of the Cape Colony in 1890, adopted a series of measures that were favourable to the Boers, in order to obtain the cooperation of president Kruger. Nonetheless, Kruger sought to strengthen ties with Germany, which had a presence in the South-West Africa.

Rhodes decided to take a firmer hand. He organised an unsuccessful raid on Johannesburg. This defeat, as well as illness and the fact that his mistress, Princess Radziwill, had financially ruined him, led Rhodes to resign in 1896.

The Anglo-Boer war

The war against the Boers broke out on October 11th 1899. After a series of victories, the united troops of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic, Under General Louis Botha, were forced to retreat following the siege of Ladysmith.

Despite their German guns and French canon, the 80,000 Boers could not overwhelm the 450,000 soldiers from the four corners of the British Empire who arrived in South Africa steadily for three years. The defeated Boer army broke up into smaller commando groups that continued to harass the British army for two more years.

General Kitchener decided that a scorched-earth policy was the only way to solve the problem of the commando raids. Boer farms and harvests were systematically burned. Women, children and mixed-raced servants were interned behind barbed-wire enclosures – the 20C’s first concentration camps. Famine, epidemics and harsh treatment caused the deaths of 30,000 whites and 20,000 blacks.

Paul Kruger, defeated at last, went into exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1904. Peace negotiations between the English and the Boers were resolved on May 31st 1902 in Pretoria. The Boers were left economically depleted and immensely bitter.

Creation of the Union of South Africa

After the war, the British tired to make amends with moderate Afrikaners, including generals Botha, Hertzog and Smuts, to build a country that would be favourable to British interests. Blacks were excluded from all negotiations. In 1910 the Union of South Africa was created out of four provinces: the Cape, Natal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. In the Transvaal and Natal provinces, black and mixed-race Africans were allowed no political role; in the Cape and Natal, their situation was slightly better.

The population of the Union of South Africa in 1911 (estimated): 4 million blacks, 1.3 million whites, 500,000 mixed-race individuals and 150,000 Indians.

The first World War

Tensions ran high around the outbreak of the first World War. A majority of Boers supported Germany, whereas the British saw an opportunity to extend their colonial reach to German South-West Africa – the future states of Namibia and Tanganyika. A pro-German insurrection within the army was quickly crushed. In 1916, the Union sent a contingent of troops to fight alongside the Allies. Twelve thousand soldiers were lost in the war, but the South-West came under the Union’s administration though a UN mandate.

The road to apartheid

Strangers in their own land

From and economic viewpoint, the Anglo-Boer war resulted in a serious labour shortage in the mines. When 50,000 Chinese workers were brought in, the racist hostility of white miners forced the repatriation of many of the immigrants.

The colour barrier

To protect the white work force, a 1911 governmental decree established a “Colour Bar”, which reserved qualified positions for whites. But mine owners were interested in employing more black Africans, who were paid lower salaries. White discontent grew insurrectional by 1920, and the strike they organised was violently repressed.

The government of Jan Smuts took note: the 1923 Native Urban Areas Act prohibited blacks from residing in urban zones and forced them to carry a pass whenever they travelled from home. Africans were thus confined to segregated districts on the outskirts of towns.

Creation of the ANC

This new measure added further weight to the Native Land Act of 1913, which effectively reserved 90% of the land for white ownership. Such repressive measures led to the creation of organised résistance movements. The South African National Congress (SANCC) first met in Bloemfontein in 1912. The party, which would become the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923, set an initial goal of overcoming the divisions between African peoples (Xhosa and Fingo, Zulu and Tong, etc).

Racial segregation entrenched

The decade of 1920-1930 was marked by the multiplication of racist laws, based on the principle of “Afrikanerdom” which maintained that Afrikaner-speaking whites were naturally superior.

In 1934, the National Party allied with the pro-British Jan Smuts, and the coalition voted to remove coloured voters in the Cape from the common roll onto a separate roll and to require that they elect white representatives only.

Resistance was limited. The black liberation movement was more involved with trade unions than with political parties. At the approach of the second World War, the ANC had only 4,000 members.

The second World War: nationalists divided

At the end of the 1930s, South Africa had emerged from the depression and was in a period of unprecedented prosperity. So economic hardship on unemployment could hardly be an explanation for the growing attraction of Afrikaners to Nazism. Ossewa-Brandwag (“Oxwagon Sentinel” or OB), a nationalist movement inspired by the Nazis, and other paramilitary groups paraded in the streets, insulted Jews and openly expressed their admiration for Hitler.

However, when the time came to choose sides in the war, the nationalists could not agree. Among Afrikaners, Jan Smuts was in favour of joining with the Commonwealth, Hertzog called for neutrality and Daniel Malan was plainly pro-German. Jan Smuts had the last word and South Africa declared war on Germany in 1939. But pro-Nazis remained active as saboteurs. The government ordered the internment of OB activists who overtly supported Hitler. Daniel Malan tempered his enthusiasm for Germany after the Battle of Stalingrad. Meanwhile, the South African Army fought valiantly in Northern Africa and Italy, and took part in the Normandy landing.

Separation of races

Having pulled out of the pro-German camp just in time, Daniel Malan was able to stay on the political scene after the war and he managed to sway some English-speaking voters. He campaigned on the separation of races, using pseudo-scientific rhetoric and biblical verse. With the help of theologians and friends from Stellenbosch University, he gave a public accounting of the apartheid concept, and won the 1948 elections.

Three racial categories

As soon as he took up his post as prime minister, Malan ordered a prohibition on marriage between whites and members of other racial groups, as well as sexual relations between persons of different “races”. Three categories were defined: native (later called Bantu), white and mixed-race (or coloured). Indians were a separate category, Chinese were considered coloured and Japanese were assimilated with whites. Apartheid became more precise as time passed.

Dozens of racial laws

Dozens of laws and decrees circumscribed the strict separation of races in public life. Stations, shops, park benches, buses, schools, hospitals, cemeteries, hotels, restaurants, prisons, public toilets were specifically segregated. In the case of doubt, individuals were subjected to humiliating racial tests to determine their group.

The era of resistance

From trade unions to armed struggle

ANC youth were mobilising politically well before apartheid became a legislative reality. As early as 1942, the party’s Youth League rejected their elders’ cautious approach and elected three activists at the head of their own organisation. These young leaders would later become major figures in South African history: Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela.

In 1949, the youthful members took power with the ANC. The party signed agreements with the South African Indian Congress and the South African Communist Party (SAPC). The coalition did not call for violent acts, but for civil disobedience, strikes and boycotts.

A law passed in 1950 by Malan’s government prohibited Communism. “Communism” was broadly defined as any scheme that aimed “at bringing about any political, industrial, social, or economic change within the Union by the promotion of disturbance or disorder” or that encouraged “feelings of hostility between the European and the non-European races of the Union the consequences of which are calculated to further disorder.”

The Freedom Charter

As repression against ethnic groups and progressive whites grew worse, anti-apartheid movements came together in a meeting held on June 26th 1955 and adopted the Freedom Charter for a democratic, non-racial South Africa. The authorities broke up the meeting on the second day and arrested the leaders for treason. But their trial became a public tribune that showed the world the true face of apartheid.

Sharpeville Massacre

In the 1960s, the ANC, like many other national liberation movements, vacillated between activist nationalism and international socialism. In 1958, Robert Sobukwe parted ways with Nelson Mandela and created the Pan African Congress (PAC), an anti-communist movement opposed to multiracial cooperation. PAC organised a protest against the pass laws in Sharpeville on March 21st, 1960. Sixty-nine of the protesters, including women and children, were killed when police fired on the crowd.

South Africa leaves the Commonwealth

Hendrik Verwoerd, former pro-Nazi and minister of native affairs under the Malan administration, was appointed prime minister in 1958. In that position, he helped to implement the Nationalist Party’s apartheid policy by increasing the autonomy of the “reserves” or homelands, which came to be known under the pejorative name of “Bantustans”. To further these goals, the Union of South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961 and became the Republic of South Africa.

Spear of the Nation

The government used the strikes and protests following the Sharpeville killings as a pretext for declaring a state of emergency. The ANC and the PAC were declared illegal. Robert Sobukwe was jailed and Nelson Mandela went underground to create Umkhonto weSizwe, (also known as MK), “Spear of the Nation”, the military wing of the ANC.

Repressive measures multiplied. Capital punishment was applied in cases of sabotage, activists could be held for months without a hearing and torture became commonplace.

Bantustans and repression

Mandela jailed

In 1961 Nelson Mandela undertook an international tour of non-aligned nations and national liberation movements.

The following year, back in South Africa, he was betrayed and arrested as he travelled near Howick in Natal province. Within a few months, all of the ANC’s military command had also been arrested.

At the end of the trial that opened in October 1963 in Pretoria, the ANC leaders Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu were sentenced to life in prison. They were jailed on Robben Island, off the coast of the Cape.

Independent Bantustans

John Balthazar Vorster, prime minister as of 1966, granted independence to the Bantustans of Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, while KwaZulu kept its “autonomous” status. These territories became home to 75% of the population, although they represent only 13% of the surface area.

Millions were forced to leave areas reserved for whites. In Cape Town, the neighbourhood known as District Six, home to a mixed-race population, was demolished. In Durban, Indians were pushed out of the city centre and in Johannesburg non-whites were expelled from Sophiatown. But many of these displaced people still had to work in town, so they came to live on the urban margins, in townships or squatters’ camps from which they were regularly driven out.

Diplomacy and heart transplants

The South African government in power took political advantage wherever possible, for example by publicising the world’s first heart transplant, carried out by Dr. Christian Barnard in 1968. They also sponsored Zulu musical groups who toured and performed abroad.

But the internal situation was ever more repressive, as marked by the murder of Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement who died in police detention in 1977.

Defender of the free world

Vorster liked to present himself as the defender of the free world at a time when the Soviet Union and Cuba had established bases in Angola and Mozambique. He opened diplomatic channels with Malawi and was welcomed in Ivory Coast in 1974. South Africa also enjoyed excellent diplomatic relations and close military cooperation with France and Israel.

Blood in the townships

In 1976, school children from Johannesburg’s South West Township, Soweto, led an uprising by refusing to study Afrikaans. The repression took a terrible toll, leaving hundreds dead and thousands in jail.

Public protests grew more radical, and sometimes spiralled out of control. On occasion, local gangs used the struggle against apartheid to further their own territorial claims. Kangaroo courts executed so-called traitors.

Inkatha against the ANC

In the Natal townships, violence raged between the forces of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a movement of democratic forces under the ANC whose members were mainly Xhosa, and the Zulu movement Inkatha, created in 1975 by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a traditional chief descended from Zulu kings and president of the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly. The movement claimed two million members in the 1980s, and came to a de facto agreement with some of the most conservative elements of the white leadership. Pretoria skilfully played the two groups against each other and their rivalry led to bloodshed. In the decade preceding Nelson Mandela’s election, more than 10,000 Africans died in this conflict.

The foundations of power shaken

The terrible events of the 1970s and 80s had a barely discernable effect on the authorities in power. Pieter Botha, who succeeded Vorster, was viewed as a “moderate”.

Secret proposals

In 1982, Mandela and his companions left Robben Island for a prison on the continent. 1985 was the year of Botha’s «Crossing the Rubicon» speech, in which he stated «we must engage in positive action in the months and years that lie ahead.»

Secret meeting were held with Nelson Mandela in which he was offered freedom in exchange for a call to renounce all violence. Mandela refused to negotiate as long as he was still held prisoner.

1980s: Violence outside the country

Although some apartheid restrictions were relaxed in South Africa, the national army was engaged in combat with the Cubans in Angola, fought against the Namibian liberation movement, organised operations in Mozambique, bombed ANC camps in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. South African secret service agents attacked ANC representatives and offices abroad. In Paris, Dulcie September was shot five times and killed by an unidentified assailant as she collected the ANC’s morning mail at the office.

An effective boycott

During the same decade, economic sanctions were hitting South Africa hard. The Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, called for striking out at South Africa’s economic interests and isolating the country internationally.

Some ANC and PAC activists who had received heavy sentences were released from prison with pardons as of 1988.

The government signed a treaty with Angola and Cuba, and Namibian independence was admitted.

The end of the racist regime

Frederik De Klerk became prime minister in 1989, and ushered in a new era of reform. One year later, the ban on the ANC and the Communist Party was lifted.

Mandela liberated

Nelson Mandela was freed on February 11th 1990, in the midst of renewed conflict between the ANC and Inkatha. In the months following his release, Mandela spoke out against armed struggle and became the government’s key interlocutor in negotiating the future of the country. In 1991-92, South Africa’s apartheid laws were abolished. The nation was welcomed back into international organisations and admitted to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Economic sanctions were lifted.

And yet, blacks still did not have voting rights. Two years of negotiations, marked by extreme violence culminating the assassination of Communist Party leader Chris Hani in 1993, would pass before «one man, one vote» became a reality and the Bantustans were dismantled.

Within months, the first democratic elections were organised. In April 1994 the ANC became the country’s majority party, with 62.6% of votes cast. Nelson Mandela was elected president of the Republic by the Parliament on April 27th. Today the date is the national holiday, Freedom Day. The new flag was adopted the same day, as well as the new national anthem, Sikelel’iStem. It is a hybrid song combining an ANC rallying song and the former anthem «Die Stem van Suid-Afrika» (The Call of South Africa). The new South Africa was born.

The Mbeki era

Elected in 1999 and against in 2004 by a wide majority, Thabo Mbeki served as president until 2008. A technocrat whose style distanced him from the much-loved Mandela, he sought to remain in touch with the needs of the country’s needy population while reassuring the business world. He resigned in September 2008, and since May 2009 Jacob Zuma has been at the head of he nation.

Today, South Africa has succeeded in the difficult task of consolidating a peaceful transition. On a sadder note, HIV/AIDS claims 1,000 victims daily, ethnic tensions still pose a problem and the ANC leadership is subject to infighting.

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