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The History of South Africa Part I

Updated on August 6, 2017

Topic 1. General overview

  • The most important feature of South African history which makes it an immensely interesting and rewarding region to study is the great variety of people (who are these people?) leading very different kinds of lives. Therefore, the history of these African communities has been dominated by :
  • The movements of various groups of people
  • The reaction of one community (group) upon another
  • The story of how different groups either accepted or were forced to accept changes.
  • In most cases every group tried to maintain its traditional way of life. For example:

i. The San fought hard for the survival of their nomadic (hunter-gatherer)existence ii.The Bantu fought hard to defend their land

iii. The Boers in their trek (1830s) away from the Cape demonstrated their burning desire to retain a way of life established over a period of two hundred years.

• Despite this fight for the retention of traditional ways of life and territory, there has always been a mixing between the different racial groups and from this exchange of cultures, there developed a growth of South African civilization. What does this mean?

• Thus, different ways of living, ideas of government and administration, and modern scientific and technological knowledge have crossed barriers of color and shown that people can adopt a culture different from the one into which they are born.

• Beyond the movements of people and the effect they had on each other, South African history focuses on:

- The setting up of African states in the 19th century and how after the discovery of precious minerals in the interior, these African states were undermined /eclipsed/ overshadowed by the increased power of the European communities.

- The different methods of African resistances to European control.

- How apartheid policy strengthened white domination in the region and African reaction to apartheid policy through the careers of major African leaders such as Lithuli, Mandela and Sobukwe.

Sources of South African History

• A variety of sources have greatly assisted in compiling the history of South Africa. The most important ones are:

  1. Oral histories; this has provided a way to learn about the South African past from people with first hand knowledge of historical events or their own experiences, which in themselves form the raw data/materials of history.
  • Historians and other people find out about the lives of ordinary people through spoken stories. Oral histories provides important historical evidence about people, especially minority or marginalized groups (old people, uneducated people, women, children, etc) who were excluded from mainstream histories (written histories).
  • A good example of this oral history is the “praise poem” from indigenous South African culture, which predates European contact, and tells us about leaders and events in the time before and during the history writing of white settlers in South Africa.

2. Archaeological evidence, that is the remains of stone tools, bones, sticks, shelters and fire places found in campsites. These kind of materials have been particularly well preserved in some caves and rock shelters along the southern coast of the Cape. The interpretation of these archaeological remains have provided valuable information for the reconstruction of South African history 3. Paintings, there are paintings made by the San on the walls of their rock shelters. These depict people as well as animals, tools, weapons and other objects. Many fine examples of rock art are to be found in Drankensberg mountains of South Africa and parts of Lesotho as well as in the hills and rock shelters of Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.

4. Written records of early European travelers, traders, missionaries and colonists who came at the Cape from the 17th century onward. Their writings often provide useful descriptions about peoples' life ways.

5.There is evidence of the ways of life of the San’s descendants. Those few who still live a hunting and gathering existence, especially in the remoter desert regions of Botswana, have recent years been intensively studied by anthropologists. These studies of modern hunter-gatherer communities can tell the historians much about how their ancestors probably lived many hundreds of years ago.

Brief Historiography of South Africa

  • Many books written by Colonial historians and Anthropologists have been published on the history of South Africa. However, most of these suffers from a number of fundamental weaknesses:
  • They were mainly written through the eyes of the white men. These authors were preoccupied with the history of Europeans in South Africa as seen by Europeans and ignored the contributions of Africans to the total history of the country.
  • Due to the official policy of apartheid based on the fiction of the superiority of the white race, the vast majority of these books are biased against Africans and other non-white .
  • While most books on the history of South Africa tells us a great deal about events in South Africa since white settlement, they tells us little about African societies and states both before and since the coming of the whites. Thus, for most part, Africans are simply mentioned in connection with fiction with whites. To authors of such books,
  • The African was merely a passive character who was incapable of initiating change and development or influencing policy, thus, making history.

• It was against these serious weaknesses that Nationalist Historians found it important to review and re-write the history of South Africa so as to overcome the weaknesses by portraying developments among Africans and other non-white societies and by emphasizing the roles of Africans as well as that of the whites, in the development of South Africa.

• Generally, Nationalist Historians who reviewed South African History have attempted to break away from the European approach which was common to colonial historians, that is, Africans were inferior and incapable of initiating their own development.

– The emphasis of Nationalist Historians became the history of the majority black population of South Africa. As far as possible, attempts have been made to interpret South African historical events in African perspective.

Topic 2. South Africa before foreign intrusion

  • Archaeological evidence suggests that South Africa was inhabited by man many years ago. Between half a million and two million years ago, the country was already peopled by early man. These early men are called australopithecine (Southern apes) , the specie from which modern man descended.
  • – The Australopithecine are said to have had a small brain size, a huge lower jaw with large molars (teeth used for crushing food). In most cases they used born implements.
  • – As man became more advanced, so also his culture and implements for cutting, defense, hunting, and even for digging up roots for food became more and more efficient as they were more refined.
  • During the late stone age when tools were widely in use, this long process of change, adaptation, and advancement led to the emergence of a group of people similar to the present Bushmen of the Kalahari desert. These people lived by hunting, fishing and gathering.

The peopling of South Africa, their economy, social formations and political organization

  1. The Bushmen
  • These are said to have been the earliest inhabitants of South Africa. In South Africa, they are known by various names:
  • Europeans calls them Bushmen ( a name first given to them by the Boers who referred to them as Bosjesmannes, that is “men of the bush

– The Xhosa call them the “Twa

– The Sotho call them the “Roa

– The Hottentots call them the “San” or “Saan

  • The Bushmen’s early occupation of the country is partly proved by numerous relics (remains) of their stone tools, rock paintings and sculpture, all these are found in places like Damaraland, the Orange Free States (OFS), the Transvaal and Transkei

Physical characteristics of the Bushmen

  • They are short and yellow or brown skinned
  • Their language is characterized by the use of “clicks”, that is, it has click sounds
  • They are generally hospitable and peaceful although they hate intrusion by strangers into their privacy and their hunting grounds, for they are great hunters. Any intruders are attacked with poisonous arrows.
  • The hair is weak in growth, in age it becomes grey
  • A hollowed back and protruding stomach are frequent characteristics of their figure
  • The amount of fat under the skin in both sexes is remarkably small; hence the skin is as dry as leather and falls into strong folds around the stomach and at the joints.



  • Although the Bushmen had only simple tools, the early Bushmen had no major difficult in getting food. They lived on wild animals , wild roots, fruits, locust, wild honey, caterpillars, etc.
  • They supplemented their rich diet with fish which they caught in numerous rivers such as the Kei, Vaal, Tsomo and Tugele.
  • They did not grow food crops and they kept no domestic animals except the dog, which they used for hunting.
  • They did not engage in pottery or basketry making. In order to store/ keep their food and water, they used ostrich egg shells.
  • They owned little properties collectively, there was no individualism, for example, hunted wild animals were shared among themselves.
  • They did not posses iron tools as they lacked iron technology. Their weapons were made up of woods, stone and animal and fish bones.
  • In order to survive and have enough food, the Bushmen have developed a division of labor based on gender. Women perform the food gathering and men perform the hunting

Social and political organization

  • The kind of life the San lived did not encourage a high degree of social and political organization. –As there was plenty of land and people lived by hunting and gathering, the Bushmen lived a predominantlynomadic life .
  • –They moved from one place to another looking for animals to hunt depending on weather.
  • –They lived in caves or temporary shelters made up of grasses or bushes
  • The San were very good at rock paintings and stone carvings.
  • Animals were represented in paintings on rocks, stone and ostrich egg shells as well as walls of caves
  1. They made their paints out of animal fats and vegetable dyes and applied it with sticks or feathers .
  2. The most common colors were red, orange, yellow and brown.
  3. Among the later paintings, the largest antelope, the eland occurs most frequently. It is believed that this was a sacred animal
  4. They lived in small family groups of about 12 to a maximum of 30 people.
  5. It was common for girls of seven (7) or eight (8) years to be married to boys of 14 or 15 years. vi.Boys underwent initiation which included a test of their skills as hunters. Polygamy (one man with more than one wife ) was widely practiced


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