History & Politics

Legal racial segregation

South Africa's history and politics are complex and dominated by the country's harrowing journey to end apartheid.

Apartheid – legal racial segregation enforced by the National Party government of South Africa between 1948 and 1993 – curtailed rights of black people, who were in the majority, in order to maintain minority rule by white people.

An important uprising

Hector Peterson Memorial, by Albinfo at de.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

In Soweto (1976), a student uprising took place which would eventually help end white minority rule. 20,000 students took part in the protest and over 170 lost their lives. A famous photograph of a father carrying his dead child (Hector Peterson) was unveiled as a memorial by Nelson Mandela in 1992. This photo became an emblem of the anti-apartheid movement. The inscription on the memorial reads: "to all young heroes and heroines of our struggle who laid down their lives for freedom, peace and democracy".

Legislation classified residents into racial groups (‘black’, ‘white’, ‘coloured’ and ‘Indian’). The government segregated education, health care and other public services, providing black people with services inferior to those of whites. Residential areas were segregated, sometimes with forced removals.

End of apartheid

Apartheid sparked resistance and violence, as well as a long trade embargo against South Africa. Uprisings and protests were met with the banning of opposition and imprisoning of anti-apartheid leaders. As unrest spread and became more violent, state organisations responded with increasing repression and state-sponsored violence.

Reforms failed to quell the mounting opposition. In 1990, President Frederik Willem de Klerk began negotiations to end apartheid, culminating in multi-racial democratic elections in 1994. These were won by the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela.

Timeline to today

Here are some key dates in South Africa's history:

c. 3 million BC: Evidence of early ancestors (Australopithecus/‘southern ape’)

c.120,000BC: Evidence of modern humans (Homo sapiens/ ‘wise man’) at several sites

The early Portuguese sailors

Although the Dutch were the first Europeans to settle in South Africa, the early Portuguese navigators pioneered the sea route around the Cape in the 1400 and 1500s, anchoring in safe harbours along the way. Though the Cape of Good Hope is more famous, Cape Agulhas is actually the southernmost point of the country. Here, Portuguese sailors discovered their compass needles were not affected by the earth’s magnetism and pointed true north, so they called this place Cabo das Agulhas, the ‘Cape of Needles’.

c.AD100: Nomadic herders move southwest into Cape territory

cAD1,000: Mpangubwe developed as South Africa’s first urban centre

1497: Vasco da Gama sails round the Cape of Good Hope on route to India

1652: Dutch East India Company sets up small settlement at Table Mountain

1806: After a number of battles with the Dutch, British seize the Cape Colony

1838: Dutch settlers (the Boers) clash with Zulus at Battle of Blood River after beginning to migrate north in numbers (known as the Great Trek)

1860s–90s: Gold and diamonds are discovered; African states come under colonial control as British defeat Xhosa and other African peoples

1899–1902: British defeat Boers in the South African War

1910: The Union of South Africa is formed under the British Commonwealth

1912: The South African Native National Congress is formed; it is renamed in 1923 as the African National Congress (ANC)

1948: The National Party comes to power with its policy of apartheid (‘apartness’)

1960: Police shoot black demonstrators at Sharpeville, near Johannesburg

1961: Denied legal or political avenues for change, the ANC forms a military wing; the country withdraws from the Commonwealth and becomes a republic

1964: Nelson Mandela is tried and sentenced to life imprisonment

1990: The new president, F.W. de Klerk releases Nelson Mandela and legalises the ANC and other opposition parties

1992: South Africa takes part in the Olympic Games, the first time since 1960

1993: Nelson Mandela and F.W.de Klerk are awarded Nobel Prize for Peace

1994: South Africa’s first universal elections result in a victory for the ANC; Nelson Mandela is sworn in as president of the country’s first multi-ethnic government

1995: South Africa hosts and wins the Rugby World Cup

1999: As the new head of the ANC, Thabo Mbeki becomes president

2008: Jacob Zuma becomes president as the ANC wins the general election

2010: South Africa hosts the World Cup football tournament, the first time the competition has been held on the African continent