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Join us on a brief tour past the milestones in
the history of South Africa

Explore the fascinating and extraordinary history of South Africa, from its earliest inhabitants to the post apartheid era. Characterized by violence, racial differences and diversity, South Africa's history is inseparably entwined with the history of the African continent. A history of Slavery, colonization and exploitation.

A history marked by a continent wide migration of large masses of people, the upcoming of complex societies and the influx of large numbers of immigrants, that is a tribute to the people who dealt with its challenges with enthusiasm and courage.

A history of the way of life of the original inhabitants whose livelihood depended on hunting, gathering and the herding of domesticated animals, being transformed by the discovery of iron.

The subsequent vast development in terms of technology and culture together with the influx of and coexistence with other nations and races, culminating in the rise and fall of Apartheid.

Use the menu below to explore the major events in South Africa's history

This video will give you a short visual overview of the history of South Africa.

Historical background African Continent,...

Agriculture developed rapidly with the introduction of iron and its various uses, changing the landscape of African culture forever. Population growth accelerated and consequently the search for more land and living space. Slowly but surely a pattern of migration started to evolve, a pattern that eventually would develop into what is known as the Southern Migration in Africa.

This mass migration of African (Bantu) people from the Great lakes from central Africa into the Southern Africa region started around the 13th century and continued until the 18th and 19th centuries. By that time they had settled themselves across the whole of South Africa, except for the Dutch Cape Colony region.

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Map showing origination and southward migration of the black people in Southern Africa
Map showing origination and southward migration of the Black people in Africa

Prehistoric times,...

It is hard to determine the beginning of man's existence in South Africa. It is widely believed however, that it could be as far back as 2.3 million years ago when the genus Homo came into existence, or even five million years ago with the development of Hominidae (human race).

Archaeological evidence exists which indicates that Homo habilis and Homo erectus were both inhabitants of the region of southern Africa millions of years ago. Research has also shown that modern humans have been living in South Africa for at least the last 100,000 years.

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The famous fossilized scull of one of the very first ancestors of humankind, known today as Mrs. Ples. It is believed to be 2,5 million years old and was found in the Sterkfontein caves at the Cradle of Humankind area. It is on display in the Transvaal museum in Pretoria
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The famous fossilized scull called Mrs Ples which was found in the Sterkfontein caves at the Cradle of Humankind area

The San and the Khoi people,...

The San and the Khoikhoi people were the original inhabitants of South Africa. The San people are also known as Bushmen, while the Khoikhoi are often referred to as Hottentots. Even though their cultures differ significantly, together they are called the Khoisan people because of their biological similarities.

It is believed that they originated from the same gene pool as the black people, but to have developed separately due to geographical separation and other circumstances. In present day's Southern Africa they have almost become extinct with only a tiny number of descendants left, living in remote areas of the kalahari Namib deserts.

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Battle Cave, ancient dwelling-place of the San people in the Injusati valley in the Drakensberg mountains, famous for its scenes depicting the San people’s way of life and their rock art on the cave walls
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Battle Cave, ancient dwelling-place of the Bushmen (San) in the Injusati valley in the Drakensberg mountains

Origin of the black people in South Africa,...

With the development of iron tools and implements, sowing, crop-growing and reaping became a whole lot easier. As a result agriculture became one of the supporting pillars of life and survival. This resulted in a chain reaction of increased prosperity, growing population and shortage of land.

In their quest for more living space the African people started expanding their territories by a process of migration into the open spaced and very thinly populated regions of Southern Africa. Anthropologists believe that this process, called the southern migration, took place in three phases over a period of hundreds of years.

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Zulus ploughing the land like in the old days
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Zulus ploughing the land like in the old days

Settlement of the black people in South Africa,...

The Southern Migration resulted in large populations of black people settling themselves in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and all along the Southern coast of South Africa as well as in the interior.

Apart from some linguistic similarities, the diversity and dissimilarity between them in terms of culture is such, that today they are recognized as different ethnic groups.

Some of the main ethnic groups of black people emanating from the southern migration include the Nguni and Sotho speaking people, as well as the smaller Venda, Shangaan and Tsonga tribes.

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This map shows the three phases of the Southern Migration of people from central to southern Africa
Generally accepted view of the origins and spread of the Bantu people in three phases during the southern migration

Arrival of the first European discoverers,...

The first Europeans to set foot on South African soil were Bartholomeu Dias, a Portuguese seafarer and his crew who sailed around the southern tip of Africa in 1486. He gave it the name "Cabo de Boa Esperanca", Portuguese for Cape of Good Hope. This happened well after the first black tribes started moving into the country around the 12th and 13th centuries.

Nine years later fellow Portuguese seafarer Vasco da Gama made the same voyage around the Cape on his way to India. Although the Portuguese were the first Europeans to travel around the Cape, they had no intention of establishing a settlement. Their interests were more focused on India and Asia.

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A replica of the ship in which Portuguese seafarer Bartolomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa in 1486, in the Bartholomeu Dias museum in Mosselbay.
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A replica of the ship in which in which Portuguese seafarer Bartolomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa in 1486

Early European settlers,...

A century and a half had gone by since the visit of Vasco da Gama, when Dutch explorer Jan van Riebeeck arrived in Table Bay with his small fleet of 3 ships on the 6th of April 1652. He was tasked with setting up a supply station for the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.).

Initially the V.O.C. had no intention of colonizing the Cape. They changed their mind however, when granting nine company servants their freedom in 1657 together with dispensation to set up private farms in the Rondebosch region at the foot of Table Mountain.

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The first Europeans to settle in South Africa, Dutch seafarer Jan van Riebeeck and his crew, meeting the local inhabitants in the Cape, the Khoisan people
The first Europeans to settle in South Africa were the Dutch seafarer Jan van Riebeeck and his crew in 1652

The arrival of Slaves in the Cape Colony,...

Slaves were brought to the Cape from Madagascar, East Asia, India and the rest of Africa, causing a population boom in the Cape Colony.

Although they were primarily employed as servants and laborers, many of them possessed valuable skills like bricklaying and carpentry.

These skills were instrumental in speeding up development and progress in the colony. The intermingling of Europeans and slaves in that period marks the cradle of origin of the colored community in the Cape and South Africa.

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Cape Malay minstrels, many of them descendants of the Malay slaves imported by Jan van Riebeeck in 1658, having their annual street carnival with their own unique Malay music and singing
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Cape Malay minstrels, descendents of the Malay slaves imported by Jan van Riebeeck in 1658

Arrival of the French Huguenots,...

As a result of the banning of Calvinism in France in 1689 by Louis XIV, some 180 Huguenot emigrated to the Cape, where they settled in the "Olifantshoek Vallei" (today's Franschhoek valley) in the Cape.

The origins of South Africa's famous and richly diverse wine culture can be traced back to these French settlers who passed on their knowledge and love of fine wine to their descendants.

Other European settlers from Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland and Flanders also made unique contributions to the diversity of the Cape population.

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The Huguenot monument and museum in Franschhoek, in commemoration of the settlement of the French Huguenot refugees in the Cape colony in 1689.
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The Huguenot monument and museum in Franschhoek

Colonization of the Cape,...

In 1795 the Netherlands were conquered by the post-revolution Republic of France and was renamed the Batavian Republic. Prince William of Orange, Head of State of the Netherlands at the time, sought refuge in England.

The prince appealed to the British to prevent the French from taking over the Cape Colony. The British were happy to oblige and this resulted in the British take-over of the Cape, a situation many people of the Cape were not happy with.

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Entrance to the Castle of Good Hope, the oldest stone building in South Africa. The fort was built by the Dutch colonists over the period 1666 to 1679, to protect the Colony against invasion from the sea
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Entrance to the Castle of Good Hope, the oldest stone building in South Africa

1820 British Settlers,...

Unemployment was rife in Britain after the Napoleonic wars. To alleviate the problem, Lord Somerset tried to entice people to emigrate to the Cape Colony.

By getting them to settle in the eastern part of the Cape, he believed that they could also be helpful in maintaining order and peace with the Xhosa people along the border between the Sundays river and the Fish river.

In 1819 the British Government approved the emigration requests of 4000 out of 90000 applicants. On the 17th March 1820, the first British emigrants arrived via Cape Town, to set foot on South African soil at Algoa Bay, which is present day's Port Elizabeth.

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One of the beautiful beaches of Algoa bay, known as Summer Strand beach at Port Elizabeth with the Boardwalk and casino in the background
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One of the beautiful beaches of Algoa bay, known as Summerstrand beach at Port Elizabeth

Mfecane / Difaqane (Total War),...

Mfecane means "destroyed in total war" in the Zulu language, while Difaqana means "forced migration/removal" in the Sotho language. Both terms refer to the same period of wide-spread war in the early 1800s between the black tribes in Southern Africa, causing widespread devastation and loss of life.

When Shaka became king of the initially insignificant Zulu tribe, he followed his unbridled ambition for power and domination by embarking on a strategy of total war against all the other tribes, leading his Zulus on a path that led to the killing and displacing of hundreds of thousands of people across the whole of the eastern part of Southern Africa.

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Young Zulus performing a traditional Zulu warrior dance at the Shakaland museum in Zulu land
copyright © South African tourism Young Zulus performing a traditional Zulu warrior dance at the Shakaland museum in Zulu

The Great Trek,...

In 1835 a group of pioneers, called "Voortrekkers", decided to break away from the Cape Colony. They traveled by ox wagon to the interior of the country in a quest for freedom and independence. They developed their own hybrid language called Afrikaans, which was primarily based on High Dutch, but also bore elements from the German, Malay, French and black languages.

Over the course of 3 years, 12,000 "Voortrekkers" made this long and arduous journey to gain independence and to establish their own unique identity as "Afrikaners". As farming was their occupation, they were soon called "Boere", which means farmers in English, a term which their descendants still use in reference to themselves.

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Historical scene at the Voortrekker Monument museum in Pretoria, depicting the encampment of a Voortrekker family on their journey into the interior of South Africa
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Museum scene of a “Laager” (encampment) of a Voortrekker family on their journey into the interior of South Africa

Voortrekker / Zulu war,...

The most popular destination for the Voortrekkers leaving the Cape was the Natal region along the eastern coast of South Africa. However, this was Zulu territory and as the Zulus were one of the most powerful tribes in Africa at the time, this land was not for the taking.

Piet Retief and his party of 400 Voortrekkers entered into negotiations with the reigning Zulu king Dingane when they arrived in Natal after their long journey eastwards, asking the king for land where they could settle themselves.

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The Blood River monument, a replica of the fortified "Laager" (encampment) of Andries Pretorius and his men in commemoration of the battle of Blood River in 1838 between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus
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The Blood River monument, a replica of the fortified “Laager” (encampment) of Andries Pretorius and his men

Discovery of Gold and Diamonds,...

The 19th century discovery of diamonds in South Africa saw an influx of people from all over the world hoping to lay claim to a piece of this expanding and profitable industry. The same thing happened when gold was discovered in the Transvaal, specifically at Pilgrims Rest, Barberton and the Witwatersrand.

New towns sprung up everywhere to accommodate the ever increasing number of people and the urbanization of South Africa started in earnest. Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato, both prominent figures on the diamond fields of Kimberley, were also among the first to stake their claim in the gold mining boom on the Witwatersrand.

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The Big Hole of Kimberley, place of the biggest diamond rush the world has ever seen. 50,000 miners dug a hole of around 300 x 200 meters and close to 1100 meters deep
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The Big Hole of Kimberley, place of the biggest diamond rush the world has ever seen

Anglo / Zulu war,...

In the second half of the 1800's Great Britain was faced with a dilemma. They lacked sufficient control over their two colonies the Cape and Natal. At the same time they had to deal with two independent "Boer" republics and a powerful Zulu kingdom which refused to submit to British rule in Natal.

As part of British endeavors to strengthen control and consolidate power, The British High Commissioner in South Africa demanded from Zulu king Cetshwayo that he should disband and disarm his Impi's (Zulu regiments). King Cetshwayo had no intention of complying with this request and so the Anglo/Zulu war became a fact.

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The battlefield at Isandhlwana where a British force of some 1700 men armed with guns and canon, were virtually wiped out by more then 20,000 spear-wielding Zulu warriors
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The battlefield at Isandhlwana hill

Anglo / Boer wars,...

When gold and diamonds were discovered in South Africa the British became aware of the huge potential fortune that lay beyond the borders of their colonies. In 1877, in an effort to stake their claim, the British annexed the independent republic the "Boers" had founded in 1852.

Its official name was "Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek" which means "South African Republic" (not to be confused with present day's Republic of South Africa). It was also and probably better known as the Republic of Transvaal.

The annexation incensed the Boers and resulted in them confirming their independence from Great Britain on the 16th December 1880. Potchefstroom was the town were the first shots were fired, marking the start of the first Anglo/Boer war.

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Melrose House in Pretoria, where the peace treaty of Vereeniging was signed on the 31st of May 1902, ending the second Anglo-Boer war
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Melrose House in Pretoria, where the peace treaty of Vereniging was signed on the 31st of May 1902.

The Apartheid era,...

The Peace Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902 marked the end of the Anglo/Boer wars with the British emerging victorious. The black population hoped that the peace treaty would establish justice and equality for all ethnic groups after years of domination and suppression by the European population. But this was not to be

The treaty ignored the black population's right to vote, made no allowance for any black parliamentary representation and set South Africa onto an ever increasing course of racial segregation.

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Signboard on a Durban beach during the Apartheid era, speaking for it self
Signboard on a Durban beach during the Apartheid era

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