South Africa: Historical Overview                                      


For more in depth history of South Africa navigate your way through different time periods here (scroll to Southern Africa and click the down arrow to start)!


4th Century 
Africans from the north of the continent migrated south joining the indigenous San and Khoikhoi people in what is now known as South Africa. Today, the descendants of these migrants are often referred to as Bantu in South Africa. 

Portuguese navigator Bartholomeu Dias is the first European to travel round the southern tip of Africa.

Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama lands on Natal coast. 

Dutch traders landed at the southern tip of modern day South Africa and established a stopover point on the spice route between the Netherlands and the East, founding the city of Cape Town.

After the British seized the Cape of Good Hope area in 1806, many of the Dutch settlers (the Boers) trekked north to found their own republics.

The discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886) spurred wealth and immigration and intensified the subjugation of the native inhabitants.

The Boers resisted British encroachments but were defeated in the Boer War (1899-1902). However, the British and the Afrikaners, as the Boers became known, ruled together under the Union of South Africa.

The National Party was voted into power and instituted a policy of apartheid - the separation on the basis of race.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu
(photo) is a South African cleric and activist who rose toworldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid. In 1984, Tutu became the second South African to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Tutu was the first black South African Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is currently the chairman of The Elders.

Tutu is vocal in his defense of human rights and uses his high profile to campaign for the oppressed. Tutu also campaigns to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, homophobia, poverty and racism. He received the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2005, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

The first multi-racial elections in 1994 brought an end to apartheid and ushered in black majority rule under the African National Congress
(ANC). Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (photo) was elected president of South Africa and held office from 1994 to 1999.

Before his presidency, Mandela was an anti-apartheid activist, and the leader of the African National Congress' (ANC) armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe. The South African courts convicted him on charges of sabotage, as well as other crimes committed while he led the movement against apartheid. In accordance with his conviction, Mandela served 27 years in prison, spending many of these years on Robben Island. Following his release from prison in February 1990, Mandela supported reconciliation and negotiation, and helped lead the transition towards multi-racial democracy in South Africa.

Since the end of apartheid, many have frequently praised Mandela, including former opponents. In South Africa he is often known as Madiba, an honorary title adopted by elders of Mandela's clan. The title has come to be synonymous with Nelson Mandela. Mandela has received more than 250 awards over four decades, most notably the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

ANC infighting came to a head in September 2008 after President Thabo Mbeki resigned. Kgalema Motlanthe, the party's General-Secretary, succeeded as interim president. In May 2009, Jacob Zuma became president. In November 2009, the United Nations General Assembly announced that Mandela's birthday, July 18, is to be known as “Mandela Day” marking his contribution to world freedom. (See “Holidays” section for details on Mandela Day.)


As a result of all of these cultural influences, what does South Africa look like today?