South Africa: History, Facts & Cultures

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

South Africa has a long and complicated history that has a major impact on the nation today. In this lesson, we're going to explore the history of South Africa and see how that defined the population who call this region home.

South Africa

For better or worse, some places end up becoming global crossroads. People traveling from one place to another meet up, pass through, interact, and contribute to these places. There are several notable crossroads in the world, and one of these has been the southern tip of Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. Now the nation of South Africa, this global crossroads has represented an intersection of global cultures for centuries. The result is a complex and often troubled national history, but also an enduring legacy as a place where the world comes together.


The story of South Africa begins long, long ago. Archeologists estimate that the first anatomically modern humans to settle in South Africa arrived around 125,000 years ago, making this one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world. The first settlers were believed to have been the direct ancestors of modern San and Khoikhoi peoples, ethnic groups who still live in South Africa today. By the 4th century BCE, Bantu-speaking ethnic groups had migrated together from central Africa as well.

By the European Middle Ages, roughly 1000 CE, South Africa was home to nomadic hunter-gatherers, peaceful farmers, warring tribes, and bordered by African kingdoms to the north. African craftspeople worked in gold, iron, and other metals, and merchants along the region's east coast negotiated trade along the Indian Ocean.

Southern Africa was full of diverse societies

European Colonialism

In the late 15th century, Portuguese explorers journeying to find a sea route to Asia made it to the southern tip of the African coastline. In 1497, Portuguese ships under the command of Vasco da Gama became the first to round what we call the Cape of Good Hope and cross from the Atlantic to Indian Ocean.

The Portuguese passed along the South African coast, but their interest was in the Indian Ocean, which was making them extremely rich. The Dutch government, anxious to get involved in Asian trade, started sending its own ships along the African coast, but decided that it needed a resupply station along the way. To that end, they sent a private company called the Dutch East India Company to found a fort at the very tip of southern Africa. That fort, founded by Jan van Riebeeck, would become known as Cape Town.

British Colonialism

The British were latecomers to the new fad of global empire, but when they got involved they did so with a passion. In the late 18th century, the British intervened in Dutch/French wars by seizing Cape Town. In 1815, the Dutch city was officially transferred to Britain and became reorganized as Britain's Cape Colony. Several Dutch farmers, known as Boers, left at this point and marched inland in what is remembered as the Great Trek. These settlers, or Voortrekkers, founded their own independent republics away from the coast, including Transvaal, the Orange Free State, and Natal.

By this point, what is now South Africa was home to numerous African groups, a large Dutch population, a new English population, and was gaining the attention of the rising Zulu Empire from southeast Africa. As the 19th century progressed, these groups would all come into more frequent contact. The Voortrekkers/Boers fought against the Zulu, the Zulu fought with other African tribes, and the English fought against the Dutch. Perhaps the most famous of these conflicts were the Boer Wars of the mid-late 19th century, fought between the British Empire and Dutch Boers for control of the region. By 1910, Britain managed to unite the various colonies/republics of Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal, and Orange Free State into a single British territory known as the Union of South Africa.

The Voortrekkers are important figures in South African history and identity

The Republic of South Africa

South Africa remained within the British Empire until after World War II, when many of Britain's imperial holdings were decolonized. South Africa formally left the Empire in 1961, although it remained within the British Commonwealth. The new nation transformed itself into a republic, guided by its own constitution and elected offices.

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