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Understanding Modern South African History

Updated on September 19, 2015
Frederik de Klerk with Nelson Mandela - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 1992
Frederik de Klerk with Nelson Mandela - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 1992 | Source

Why My Interest In Modern South African History?

South Africa is a vibrant country with a long deep history going back thousands of years. However, it is the events of the past couple of hundred years have seen many events take place that have shaped that part of the world and beyond for years to come.

Similar to my hub on The Cold War and The Berlin Wall, this lens has been triggered by my desire to understand more about the recent past of this country and how I have learned aspects of that history. As with that other lens, I was just 6 years old when the momentous event occurred which was Nelson Mandela being freed from Prison after 27 years on 11th February 1990. Being of that age, I don't remember this happening. Even moving forward 5 years to the famous Springbok win in the Rugby World Cup, whilst I remember watching the tournament as a young England fan, I didn't really understand the historical significance when Mandela strode on to the pitch in a Green and Gold Springbok jersey. It was only really in 2000 when I was fortunate to visit this great country that the impacts of years of Apartheid and a county rebuilding itself started to become apparent to me. Even today the impacts can be felt in an often split society.

I read "A Long Walk To Freedom" shortly after this trip and whilst my interest waned a little in following years, it was piqued again with the releases of the film "Invictus" and, as explained in my Cold War lens, my receiving of an Amazon Kindle as a gift suddenly saw an explosion in my reading and absorption of information.

In years to come it may seem that the recent history of South Africa was a side note to what was going on elsewhere in the world with the risk of mutually assured destruction. However, for those that lived through it, it was a major event and one that is of great interest. This lens won't necessarily answer your questions but will look to review the books/films that I have studied to understand more about this subject so that if you too have an interest, you can follow my lead.

Long Walk To Freedom - Nelson Mandela

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

I first read Nelson Mandela's autobiography shortly after returning from a holiday in South Africa in 2000. Like many people I knew a bit about this great man such as he was South Africa's first democratically elected President and he'd spent quite some time in Prison but beyond that I was a little unsure.

Certain aspects of the book stuck in my mind but now, 13 years later and with more "world experience" behind me, I decided to re-read the book when I received my Amazon Kindle as a birthday gift. I think it was probably the high level of media interest in the health of Nelson Mandela that triggered the thought to read the book again, along with the influences of the book and film below, but I am glad I did.

Autobiographies can be a little bit of a lottery when you choose to read them. Some are staid with too much detail, others gloss over vast parts of the life and leave you wanting more. I think in this case the balance is quite right. There are lots of references to the various people that he knew and met, and sometimes this does go a bit too in depth, but he has met a lot of important people in his life that have driven him to the position he is in today.

Born in the veld in 1918, it is hard to believe that a boy who grew up fighting with sticks and tending cattle grew to the position he arrived at. I think it is also fascinating when you realise that he was born at the end of WW1, an event that seems so far away. Growing up in a country where apartheid (extreme segregation based upon race) was law, he found his chances severely hampered but still rose up to become a successful lawyer. During his 20's he started to become involved with the African National Congress (ANC) and this was to shape his life. As he became more involved the government clamped down more and more and he was key in the formation of a paramilitary wing of the party called Umkhonto we Sizwe and spread the cause of the ANC throughout Africa.

The authorities eventually caught up with him and in 1964 he, along with several others was imprisoned, going on to spend 27yrs of his life behind bars. It is interesting to read as the regime slowly starts to ease for Mandela and his cohorts over their time and whilst conditions were never great, you can still see now the pride he has in small victories over the guards.

He was finally released from prison in 1990 and just 4yrs later was elected President following the first fully open elections in the country.It is at this stage that the book ends but that doesn't mean the story ended there.

Whilst well respected the world over now, there is no denying that Nelson Mandela was also a controversial character during the middle of the last century in South Africa. Whilst today he is viewed as a freedom fighter, many saw him as a terrorist and he does try to explain his actions and the reasons for them. He also tries to distance himself from ever being too heavily influenced by the communist party whilst acknowledging that many of his friends and colleagues were members. At the end of the day I cannot even start to imagine what it would have been like to live through the Apartheid years as a Black Man as I neither lived in the country at the time and I am White. However, through this book you start to get a feel for the indignities afforded a man like Mandela and can sympathise fully with them.

This book is extremely well written, as one would imagine from a man of his stature, At many times I really struggled to put it down, not ideal as it is 784 pages long so takes a little while!

If you have any interest at all in modern South African history then this book is a MUST read. Even if you are not interested in South Africa per se, it is a great read about a monumental leader in recent times and I am sure that I will re-visit again in the future, especially if I am fortunate to visit the country again.



In many ways I am surprised that this film was made and was a success. That is not to say that it isn't a fascinating story or that the film was bad, in fact it is the complete opposite. However, given that the film centres around the sport of Rugby and the World Cup, neither of which are particularly big in the US, it leads to slight surprise.

Released in 2009 and directed by Clint Eastwood, it stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as the Springboks Captain, Francois Pienaar. As I mention in the introduction to this hub, I do remember the 1995 Rugby World Cup held in South Africa, indeed it is one of the earlier sporting events that stick in my memory. However, my memories are centred more on things such as the powerful runs of Jonah Lomu or Rob Andrews' drop goal for England v Australia to win at the death in the Quarter Finals. I was less aware of the sub-plot going on behind the scenes that this film attempts to capture.

Rugby has always been seen as the sport of the White Man in South Africa and when Nelson Mandela's ANC came to power in 1994, many thought that this would signal a change in the make up of the team with their famous Green and Gold shirts, emblazoned with the Springbok badge. However, Mandela saw the team, and the upcoming World Cup as a way to try to unite his new, free nation. Despite poor results in the build up to the tournament, South Africa denied the odds to win the event on home soil, with the iconic image of Mandela, wearing the Springbok jersey of captain Pienaar sticking in people's minds for years to come. In many ways you would think the story had been made up for Hollywood but the truth of the matter is this actually happened.

This is now a go-to film of mine, partly because the story hits home for a rugby fan who has been to the country, but also because in my opinion it is really well made. Morgan Freeman is an inspired choice as Nelson Mandela, especially as he passes (in my opinion!) a very similar likeness. Matt Damon plays the part of Pienaar well but I do struggle a little more here, probably more to do with the fact that I know so well what Pienaar actually looks like as he is still a pundit on UK TV when showing matches. I think one of my favourite comments in on the extras where Springbok Chester Williams (the only Coloured player in that 1995 squad) is talking and say how Damon told him he had been boxing, running and doing weights to get fit for the role to which Williams responds, "Why didn't you just play some rugby?"

The film really shows off some of the best parts of South Africa and is beautifully shot. There are a couple of parts where I feel it goes a little over dramatic for cinematic impact, such as when it builds up that a van is chasing Mandela and his guards down, just for it to transpire to be a newspaper delivery truck, but I can live with this.

If you have never seen or even heard of this movie then I really suggest watching the trailer clip below and then look to buy or rent the movie. The question does remain, did Nelson Mandela's desire for the team and World Cup to unify the nation come true. I think it would be too simplistic to say this is true as even today there is a big gap between the rich and poor, often still separated down race lines, but it definitely helped an this movie does a great job of capturing this.

Playing The Enemy - John Carlin

Playing the Enemy
Playing the Enemy

In many places this book is described as the book behind the film Invictus. Whilst it is true that the film-makers spent some time speaking with John Carlin and there are definite links, I think that it goes further than that and sells this book short as a simple story tell.

Unlike "A Long Walk To Freedom" that comes to a close around the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South African President, this book picks up after this point, whilst also going back in time to focus on key players in South Africa in the time after the elections. It would be a lie to say that Mandela was elected and the country became a peaceful place. For many they had only ever known strict policies due to Apartheid and it is unsurprising that there was pent up anger and fear on both sides.

However, at the same time a World Cup was coming to the country and the Springboks had a chance (albeit small!) of making history. That they managed this was a miracle and this book follows it's way there.

I think what I liked most was how it started to stay away from the main players and look at others and the impacts felt in other parts of the country and this is why I feel it goes beyond what you see in the film. It looks at life in villages and towns across the lands, telling stories of riots, imprisonments and even deaths as people struggled against the ruling parties.

It has now been a couple of years since I last read this book and writing this lens has inspired me to put it on my list to read again sooner rather than later as I would really recommend to you too!


South Africa: History in an Hour - Anthony Holmes

It was Christmas Eve and I had just finished my previous book but, knowing that I was likely to receive books as presents, I didn't really want to start anything too in depth which is when I came across the 1hr series of books. As I had been wanting to read a general synopsis of South African, this book seemed perfect so I downloaded to my kindle.

As the title suggest, this is not a long book and probably took me less than the advertised hour (and I'm not the World's fastest reader!) but at just 99p I have no issue with this. The book briefly steps through each of the major drivers behind the South Africa we see today. Once the book moved on to the time of Nelson Mandela and the fall of Apartheid then a lot of the events were known to me via the books above. However, it was nice to see them in a concise chronological order. Also of interest to me were the earlier parts of the history through the original settlers to the Voortrekkers and the Boer Wars. Especially of interest to me having visited the magnificent Voortrekker memorial on my trip in 2000.

Overall if you have a short amount of time and would like to learn more about this subject then this book is perfect and I will definitely be checking out some more of the 1hr series on other historical events that I want an introduction to before considering further in depth reading.

Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend - Christo Brand

Doing Life with Mandela
Doing Life with Mandela

When you read accounts of Nelson Mandela's long time in prison, you will often read of the friendships between himself and the others imprisoned with him such as Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki or Ahmed Kathrada. Most stories of his warders talk of harsh Afrikaaners, steeped in apartheid.

However, as he says himself, this wasn't always the case with some warders being kindly and making life a little easier where they could. One such warder was Christo Brand who was first posted to Robben Island as an 18yr old to guard over Mandela, now 60, and his colleagues. Brand had grown up in a rural area and whilst divisions between black and white still existed, they were less apparent in his childhood than perhaps in the cities. He was posted to look after these men, catergorised as the most dangerous in South Africa, and found them instead to be kindly and well educated.

Brand took risks such as allowing Mandela the opportunity to handle his baby grand-daughter, even without his wife WInnie being aware as this was massively against the rules and this started to create a bond between the men. When Brand's posting to Robben Island came to an end, he soon found himself tasked with looking after the same men again as they were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland where they stayed in a rooftop suite of cells that sounded to often be like a social club with Brand joining in with games of tennis and even doing shopping for the prisoners.

When I first started reading the book I found it a slow starter as Brand explained his upbringing and how he ended up in the Prison Service. However, once he started getting in to how he came to get to know Mandela and his comrades, especially after they were transferred to the mainland, it was a fascinating read. I have to admit that as I was reading the book I was sometimes doubtful of the accuracy of Brand's accounts. Were some of his memories enhanced to make him come across better? This didn't detract from the read and seeing the images and documents at the end of the book, couple with reading I have done since suggests that there really was a true friendship between the men, even if boundaries had to exist. The flow of writing is not always natural with repeating statements but then Brand is not a professional writer, he is a prison guard who now works for the Robben Island trust, however the book is still a fascinating read and I would recommend to anyone reading this hub as it really does give a different insight.

By US CIA (The World Factbook) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By US CIA (The World Factbook) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What Next?

South African history is a fascinating subject and one that I have really enjoyed delving in to, however, I have only scratched the surface with the books that I have read, focusing on the recent past. There are many other facets I would love to explore and understand more about the past of this country such as those below. If you have any suggestions on top books to read or subjects to consider then please leave them in the comments as I would love to find out more.

  • Boer Wars - To fully understand how South Africa became the divided country is was for much of the 20th century, you need to understand how it ended up in that place. One key event was the Boer Wars, ironically between different groups of settlers. I know of some films and TV shows based around this time, and one of the famous battles leads to the name of one of the most famous football stands in the world (The Kop at Liverpool, named for the Battle of Spion Kop), but beyond that I know little.
  • The Voortrekkers - One of the places I really remember visiting in 2000 was the Voortrekker memorial near Pretoria. I saw it on TV during the Football World Cup held in South Africa in 2010 but still to this days don't fully understand what it represents
  • The Traditional Inhabitants Of South Africa - Nelson Mandela touches on some of the history of various tribes in South Africa such as the Xhosa but I would like to know a bit more about how these tribes developed and grew and where the divisions still lay today.

South African history is a wide ranging subject so I would love to hear about your thoughts and suggestions on this topic and what I could read next to broaden my horizons.

Your Suggestions/Comments

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    • MarleMac profile image


      5 years ago from South Africa

      Very informative lens! Well done!

      As a South African living through the story, there is obviously many more facets to keep in mind from everyone's perspectives and that is what makes us a Rainbow Nation. Still LOTS of work to be done by everyone though! We've just got to keep at it!

      Madiba helped us to show the world that it CAN be done! Peace, Harmony, Expansion...

      A great man with an amazing life task. He did it. So proud of South Africa!

    • LouisaDembul profile image


      5 years ago

      My friends are going to South Africa for work for a few months. Will show them this informative lens.

    • LouisaDembul profile image


      5 years ago

      My friends are going to South Africa for work for a few months. Will show them this informative lens.

    • rob-hemphill profile image

      Rob Hemphill 

      5 years ago from Ireland

      Excellent lens! You have to marvel at the way South Africa has changed, and we only hope it continues in a peaceful way, especially after Mandela.


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