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The history of South Africa, like any nation's, depends heavily on who is telling the tale. Under the apartheid regime, children were taught that in the 19th century, when the first pioneering Voortrekkers (predominantly Afrikaans-speaking farmers) made their way north from the Cape Peninsula, and black tribes were making their way south from central Africa, southern Africa was a vast, undiscovered wilderness. Blacks and whites thus conveniently met on land that belonged to no one, and if the natives would not move aside for the trinkets and oxen on offer, everyone simply rolled up their sleeves and had an honest fight -- which the whites, who believed they enjoyed the special protection of the Lord, almost always won. Of course, for those who pursued the truth rather than a nationalistic version of it, the past was infinitely more complex -- not least because so little of it was recorded.

From Apes To Artists -- Some of the world's oldest hominid remains have been found in South Africa, mostly in the valley dubbed the Cradle of Humankind, easily accessed from Johannesburg in Gauteng -- ironic, really, if you think that, prior to the 1990s, evolution was a banned topic in South African schools. These suggest that humanity's earliest relatives were born here more than 4 million years ago; if your ancestral origins are of interest, make sure you also visit the Origins Centre in Johannesburg, where you can apply for a DNA test to trace your origins. Much of the Centre is focused on the fascinating spiritual life of the San hunter-gatherers (or Bushmen, as they were dubbed by Europeans), the closest living relatives of Stone Age man. A few small family units of San still survive in the Kalahari Desert, but the most arresting evidence of their long sojourn in southern Africa are the many rock paintings they used to record events dating as far back as 30,000 years and as recently as the 19th century. The best places to see these paintings are in caves and rockfaces of the Cederberg, in the Western Cape, and the Drakensberg, in Kwazulu-Natal.

From these paintings, we can deduce that Bantu-speaking Iron Age settlers were living in South Africa long before the arrival of the white colonizers. Dark-skinned and technologically more sophisticated than the San, they started crossing the Limpopo about 2,000 years ago, and over the centuries, four main groups of migrants settled in South Africa: the Nguni-speaking group (including the Zulu and Xhosa), followed by the Tsonga, Sotho-Tswana, and Venda speakers. Iron Age trading centers were developed around copper and iron mines, such as those in and around Phalaborwa: The remains of one such center can be seen at the Masorini complex in Kruger National Park.

By the 13th century, most of South Africa's eastern flank was occupied by these African people, while the San remained concentrated in the west. In Botswana, a small number of the latter were introduced to the concept of sheep- and cattle-keeping. These agrarian groups migrated south and called themselves the KhoiKhoi (men of men), to differentiate themselves from their San relatives. It was with these indigenous people that the first seafarers came into contact. The KhoiKhoi saw themselves as a superior bunch, and it must have been infuriating to be called Hottentots by the Dutch (a term sometimes used to denigrate the Cape Coloured group, and still considered degrading today).

The Colonization Of The Cape -- When spice was as precious as gold, the bravest men in Europe were the Portuguese crew who set off with Bartholomieu Dias in 1487 to drop off the edge of the world and find an alternative trade route to the Indies. Dias rounded the Cape, which he named Tormentoso (Stormy Cape), after his fleet of three tiny ships battled storms for 3 days before he tracked back to what is today known as Mossel Bay. Suffering from acute scurvy, his men forced him to turn back soon after this.

It was 10 years before another group was foolhardy enough to follow in their footsteps. Vasco da Gama sailed past what had been renamed the Cape of Good Hope, rounding the lush coast of what is now called the Garden Route, as well as the East Coast, which he named Natal, and sailed all the way to India.

The Portuguese opened the sea route to the East, but it was the Dutch who took advantage of the strategic port at the tip of Africa. In 1652 (30 years after the first English settled in the United States), Jan van Riebeeck, who had been caught cooking the books of the Dutch East India Company in Malaysia, was sent to open a refreshment station as penance. The idea was not to colonize the Cape, but simply to create a halfway house for trading ships. Van Riebeeck was given strict instructions to trade with the natives and in no way enslave them. Inevitably, relations soured -- the climate and beauty of the Cape led members of the crew and soldiers to settle permanently on the land, with little recompense for the KhoiKhoi. To prevent the KhoiKhoi from seeking revenge, van Riebeeck attempted to create a boundary along the Liesbeeck River by planting a bitter-almond hedge -- the remains of this hedge still grow today in Kirstenbosch, the national botanical gardens. This, together with the advantage of firepower and the introduction of hard liquor, reduced the KhoiKhoi to no more than a nuisance. Those who didn't toe the line were imprisoned on Robben Island, and by the beginning of the 18th century, the remaining KhoiKhoi were reduced to virtual slavery by disease and drink. Over the years, their genes slowly mingled with those of slaves and burghers to create a new underclass, later known as the Cape Coloureds.

In 1666, the foundation stones were laid for the Castle of Good Hope, the oldest surviving building in South Africa, and still more elements were added to the melting pot of Cape culture. Van Riebeeck persuaded the company to allow the import of slaves from the Dutch East Indies; this was followed by the arrival of the French Huguenots in 1668. Fleeing religious persecution, these Protestants increased the size of the colony by 15% and brought with them the ability to cultivate wine. The glorious results of their input are still thriving in the valley of Franschhoek (French corner), augmenting the efforts of Simon van der Stel, second governor to the Cape, who planted the first vines in the shadow of what is still one of the most beautiful Cape Dutch homes and wine estates, Groot Constantia. Van der Stel also established Stellenbosch, lining the village streets with oak trees and Cape Dutch buildings, making this the most historic of the Winelands towns.

The British entered the picture in 1795, taking control of the Cape when the Dutch East India Company was liquidated. In 1803, they handed it back to the Dutch for 3 years, after which they were to rule the Cape for 155 years.

One of their first tasks was to silence the "savages" on the Eastern Frontier -- these were the Xhosa, part of the Nguni-speaking people who migrated south from central Africa. Essential to the plan was the creation of a buffer zone of English settlers. Between 1820 and 1824, the British offloaded thousands of penniless artisans and out-of-work soldiers in Port Elizabeth, in what is now the Eastern Cape; issued them basic implements, tents, and seeds; and sent them off to farm the land (much of it totally unsuitable for agriculture) and deal with the Xhosa. English-settler towns, such as Grahamstown, which has some fine examples of Victorian colonial architecture, were established, but at great cost. Four frontier wars decimated numbers on both sides, but it was the extraordinary cattle-killing incident that crippled the Xhosa: In 1856, a young girl, Nongqawuse, prophesied that if the Xhosa killed all their cattle and destroyed their crops, their dead ancestors would rise and help vanquish the settlers. Needless to say, this did not occur, and while four more wars were to follow, the Xhosa's might was effectively broken by this mass sacrifice. Today the Eastern Cape is still the stronghold of the Xhosa, many of whom still live a traditional lifestyle along the Wild Coast. The province is the birthplace of their most famous son, Nelson Mandela, who now resides there in humble surrounds. Massive tracts of failed farmland in the Eastern Cape have, since the advent of tourism, been rehabilitated and restocked with wildlife, forming the Eastern Cape game reserves, popular because they are near the Garden Route and malaria free.

The Rise Of The Zulu & Afrikaner Conflicts -- At the turn of the 19th century, the Zulus, the Nguni group that settled on the East Coast in what is now called KwaZulu-Natal, were growing increasingly combative, as their survival depended on absorbing neighbors to gain control of pasturage. A young warrior named Shaka, who took total despotic control of the Zulus in 1818, raised this to an art form. In addition to arming his new regiments with the short stabbing spear, Shaka was a great military tactician and devised a strategy known as the "horns of the bull," whereby highly disciplined formations of warriors outflanked and eventually engulfed the enemy. Shaka used this tactic to great effect on tribes in the region, and by the middle of the decade, the Zulus had formed a centralized military state with a 40,000-man army. In a movement called Mfecane, or "Forced Migrations," huge areas of the country were cleared. The Zulus either killed or absorbed people; many fled, creating new kingdoms such as Swaziland and Lesotho. In 1828, Shaka's two brothers killed him, and one, Dingaan, succeeded him as king.

On the Cape, British interference in labor relations and oppression of the "kitchen Dutch" language infuriated many of the Dutch settlers, by now referred to as Afrikaners (of Africa), and, later, Boers (farmers). The abolition of slavery in 1834 was the last straw. Afrikaners objected to "not so much their freedom," as one wrote, "as their being placed on an equal footing with Christians, contrary to the laws of God and the natural distinction of race."

Some 15,000 people (10% of the Afrikaners at the Cape) set off on what is known as the Great Trek and became known as the Voortrekkers, or "first movers." They found large tracts of unoccupied land that, unbeknownst to them, had been cleared by the recent Mfecane. It wasn't long before they clashed with the mighty Zulu nation, whom they defeated in 1838 at the Battle of Blood River. A century later, this miraculous victory was to be the greatest inspiration for Afrikaner nationalism, and a monument was built to glorify the battle. Today the Voortrekker Monument is a place of pilgrimage for Afrikaner nationalists and can be seen from most places in Pretoria.

The Voortrekkers' victory was, however, short lived. The British, not satisfied with the Cape's coast, annexed Natal in 1845. Once again, the Voortrekkers headed over the mountains with their ox-wagons, looking for freedom from the British. They founded two republics: the Orange Free State (with similar boundaries to what is now the Free State) and the South African Republic or Transvaal (now Gauteng, the North-West, Mpumalanga, and the Northern Province). This time the British left them alone, focusing their attention on places of more interest than a remote outpost with only 250,000 settlers. Needless to say, the 1867 discovery of diamonds in the Orange Free State and, 19 years later, gold in the Transvaal, was to change this attitude dramatically.

Getting Rich & Staying Poor -- In both the diamond and the gold fields, a step-by-step amalgamation of individual claims was finally necessitated by the expense of the mining process. In Kimberley, Cecil John Rhodes -- an ambitious young man who was to become obsessed with the cause of British imperial expansion -- masterminded the creation of De Beers Consolidated, the mining house that, to this day, controls the diamond-mining industry in southern Africa. (The discovery of diamonds was also the start of the labor-discrimination practices that were to set the precedent for the gold mines and the ensuing apartheid years.) The mining of gold did not result in the same monopoly, and the Chamber of Mines, established in 1887, went some way to regulate the competition.

Paul Kruger, president of the South African Republic, became a spoke in the wheel, however. A survivor of the Great Trek and a Calvinist preacher (his home in Pretoria, a museum today, is directly opposite his church), Kruger did not intend to make things easy for the mostly British entrepreneurs who controlled the gold mines. He created no real infrastructure to aid them, and uitlanders (foreigners) were not allowed to vote. Britain, in turn, wanted to amalgamate the South African colonies to consolidate their power in southern Africa. British forces had already attempted to annex the Transvaal in 1877, just after the discovery of diamonds, but they had underestimated Paul Kruger; in 1881, after losing the first Anglo-Boer war, they restored the Boer republics' independence. In 1899, when the British demanded full rights for the uitlanders, Kruger invaded the coastal colonies.

At first, the second Anglo-Boer War went well for the Boers, who used hitherto-unheard-of guerilla warfare tactics, but the British commander Lord Kitchener soon found their Achilles' heel. Close to 28,000 Boer women and children died in Kitchener's concentration camps -- the first of their kind -- and his scorched-earth policy, whereby the Boer farms were systematically razed to the ground, broke the Boer spirit. Ultimately, Britain would pit nearly half a million men against 88,000 Boers. In 1902, the Boer republics became part of the Empire -- the Afrikaner nationalism that was to sweep the country in the next century was fueled by the resentments of a nation deeply wounded and struggling to escape the yoke of British imperialism.

Oppression & Resistance -- The years following this defeat were hard on those at the bottom of the ladder. Afrikaners, many of whom had lost their farms and families, streamed to the cities, where they competed with blacks for unskilled jobs on equal terms and were derogatively referred to as the "poor whites." It is worth noting here that black South Africans had also suffered immense losses during the Anglo-Boer War (including the loss of some 14,000 in the concentration camps), but in later years, when Afrikaner fortunes turned, this was neither recognized nor compensated. With the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the country joined the British Commonwealth of Nations and participated in World War I and World War II. Back home, loyalties were divided, and many Afrikaners were bitter about forging allegiances with a country they had so recently been at war with. In 1934, a new "purified" National Party (NP) was established, offering a voice for the "poor white" Afrikaners. Under the leadership of Dr. D. F. Malan, another preacher who swore he would liberate the Afrikaners from their economic oppression, the NP won the 1948 election by a narrow margin -- 46 years of white minority rule were to follow before internal and international pressure would finally buckle the NP's resolve.

One of the first laws that created the segregationist policy named apartheid (literally, "separateness") was the Population Registration Act, in which everyone was slotted into an appropriate race group. This caused great division among those of mixed descent, now to become a new "race". One of the most infamous classification tests was the pencil test, whereby a pencil was stuck into the hair of a person of uncertain racial heritage. If the pencil dropped, the person was "white"; if not, they were classified "coloured." In this way, entire communities and families were torn apart. This new group, dubbed the coloureds, enjoyed slightly more privileges than their black counterparts -- a better standard of housing, schooling, and job opportunities -- an overture to their white ancestors. Interracial sexual relations, previously illicit, were now illegal, and the Group Areas Act ensured that families would never mingle on the streets. The act required the destruction and relocation of total suburbs too, almost none of which were white.

Perhaps the most iniquitous new law was the Bantu Education Act that ensured that black South Africans would have a second-rate education, given that they were to be providers of semi-skilled labor, and never to challenge the better-educated white South Africans for jobs. During this time, the majority of English speakers condemned the policies of what came to be known as the Afrikaner NP (as did certain Afrikaners); but because they continued to dominate business in South Africa, the maintenance of a cheap labor pool was in their interests, and life was generally too comfortable for most to actually do anything other than engage in robust debate over dinner tables.

By the mid-20th century, blacks outnumbered whites in the urban areas but resided "unseen" in townships outside the cities. Their movements were restricted by pass laws; they were barred from trade union activities, deprived of any political rights, and prohibited from procuring land outside their reserves or homelands. Homelands were small tracts of land, comprising a shameful 13% of the country, where the so-called ethnically distinct black South African "tribes" (at that time, 42% of the population) were forced to live. This effectively divided the black majority into tribal minorities.

The African Nationalist Congress Party (ANC) was formed by representatives of the major African organizations in 1912, but it was only in 1934 that it was to find the inspired leadership of Anton Lembede, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Nelson Mandela, who formed the ANC Youth League in that year. The ANC's hitherto passive resistance tactics were met with forceful suppression in 1960 when police fired on unarmed demonstrators in Sharpeville, killing 67 and wounding 200. It was a major turning point for South Africa, sparking violent opposition within and ostracism in world affairs.

In 1963, police captured the underground leaders of the ANC -- including the Black Pimpernel, Nelson Mandela, who was by now commander-in-chief of their armed wing, UmkhontoWe Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). In what came to be known as the Rivonia Trial, Mandela and nine other leaders received life sentences for treason and were incarcerated on Robben Island. The imprisonment of key figures effectively silenced the opposition within the country for some time and allowed the NP to further entrench its segregationist policies. But it wasn't all clear sailing: Hendrik Verwoerd, the cabinet minister for Bantu Affairs under Malan and the man named the "architect of apartheid," was stabbed to death one morning in the House of Assembly -- strangely, not for political reasons; the murderer insisted that a tapeworm had ordered him to do it. In 1966, B. J. Vorster became the new NP leader. He was to push for the independence of Verwoerd's black homelands, which would effectively deprive black people of their South African citizenship, and enforce the use of Afrikaans as a language medium in all schools. Ironically, the latter triggered the backlash that would end Afrikaner dominance.

South Africa Goes Into Labor -- On June 16, 1976, thousands of black schoolchildren in Soweto took to the streets to demonstrate against this new law, which, for the many non-Afrikaans speakers, would render schooling incomprehensible. The police opened fire, killing, among others, 12-year-old Hector Pieterson (you can see the photograph that shocked the world, taken minutes after, in the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto), and chaos ensued, with unrest spreading throughout the country. The youth, disillusioned by their parents' implicit compliance with apartheid laws, burned schools, libraries, and shebeens, the informal liquor outlets that provided an opiate to the dispossessed. Many arrests followed, including that of black-consciousness leader Steve Biko in the Eastern Cape, who became the 46th political prisoner to die during police interrogation. Young activists fled the country and joined ANC military training camps. The ANC, led by Oliver Tambo, called for international sanctions -- the world responded with economic, cultural, and sports boycotts, and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the strongest campaigners for sanctions. The new NP premier, P. W. Botha, or, as he came to be known, die Groot Krokodil (the Big Crocodile), simply wagged his finger and declared South Africa capable of going it alone despite increasing pressure -- in the words of Allen Boesak, addressing the launch of the United Democratic Front, the students of Soweto wanted all their rights, they wanted them here, and they wanted them now. The crocodile's bite proved as bad as his bark, and his response was to pour troops into townships. In 1986, he declared a state of emergency, giving his security forces power to persecute the opposition, and silencing the internal press.

The overwhelming majority of white South Africans enjoyed an excellent standard of living, a state of supreme comfort that made it difficult to challenge the status quo. Many believed the state propaganda that blacks were innately inferior, or remained blissfully ignorant of the extent of the human rights violations; still others found their compassion silenced by fear. Ignorant or numbed, most white South Africans waited for what seemed to be the inevitable civil war, until 1989, when a ministerial rebellion forced the intransigent Botha to resign, and new leader F. W. de Klerk stepped in. By now, the economy was in serious trouble -- the cost of maintaining apartheid had bled the coffers dry, the Chase Manhattan Bank had refused to roll over its loan, and sanctions and trade-union action had brought the country's economy to a virtual standstill. Mindful of these overwhelming odds, de Klerk unbanned the ANC, the PAC, the Communist Party, and 33 other organizations in February 1990. Nelson Mandela -- imprisoned for 27 years -- was released soon thereafter.

Birth Of The "New South Africa" -- The fragile negotiations among the various political parties were to last a nerve-racking 4 years. During this time, right-wingers threatened civil war, while many in the townships lived it. Zulu nationalists, of the Inkatha party, waged a low-level war against ANC supporters that claimed the lives of thousands. Eyewitness accounts were given of security force involvement in this black-on-black violence, with training and supplies provided to Inkatha forces by the South African Defence Force. In 1993, Chris Hani, the popular ANC youth leader, was assassinated. South Africa held its breath as Mandela pleaded on nationwide television for peace -- by this time, there was no doubt about who was leading the country.

On April 27, 1994, Nelson Mandela cast his first vote at the age of 76, and on May 10, he was inaugurated as South Africa's first democratically elected president. Despite 18 opposition parties, the ANC took 63% of the vote and was dominant in all but two provinces -- the Western Cape voted NP, and KwaZulu-Natal went to Buthelezi's Zulu-based Inkatha (IFP) Party. Jubilation reigned, but the hangover was bad. The economy was in dire straits, with double-digit inflation, gross foreign exchange down to less than 3 weeks of imports, and a budget deficit of 6.8% of GDP. Of an estimated 38 million people, at least 6 million were unemployed and 9 million destitute. Ten million had no access to running water, and 20 million no electricity. The ANC had to launch a program of "nation-building," attempting to unify what the NP had spent a fortune dividing. Wealth had to be redistributed without hampering the ailing economy, and a government debt of almost R350 billion ($52 billion) repaid.

Still, after 300 years of white domination, South Africa entered the new millennium with what is widely regarded as the world's most progressive constitution, and its murky history was finally held up for close inspection by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first of its kind in the world. South African sports heroes, barred from competing internationally for 2 decades, added to the nation's growing pride, winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995 (a movie about the events surrounding this, directed by Clint Eastwood, will be released in 2010) and its first gold Olympic medals in 1996. Augmenting these ideological and sporting achievements were those that have happened on a grassroots level: 1999, when the ANC won the second democratic elections with a landslide victory of 66.03% of the vote, saw a change in ANC leadership style, with new president Thabo Mbeki centralizing power and promising to focus on delivery rather than reconciliation. The fiscal discipline the ANC pursued resulted in a robust economic outlook, and by late 2000, 6 years after the first democratic election, more than one million houses had been completed, 412 new telephone lines installed, 127 clinics built, and 917,220 hectares (2,265,533 acres) of land handed over to new black owners. Some 37,396 households had benefited from land redistribution, and water supply had increased from 62,249 recipients in 1995 to a whopping 6,495,205. Black-owned business grew, and an estimated four million blacks comprised half of the top earners in the country. But with unemployment estimated at between 30% and 40%, the concomitant rise in crime was hardly surprising. The specter of AIDS was also stalking South Africa, and by 2000, it would find itself with the highest HIV-positive population in the world. Equally distressing was the continued divide between black and white incomes, reinforcing South Africa's strange mix of first- and third-world elements, and prompting Mbeki's controversial "two nations" speech in which he stated that "the failure to achieve real nation-building was entrenching the existence of two separate nations, one white and affluent, and the other black and poor."

But the man who kick-started the concept of an African Renaissance became hamstrung by corruption (much of it shrouded in the secrecy surrounding the arms deal he oversaw in the 1990s) and political infighting. Mbeki's Oxford-don demeanor and his inner circle -- members of a New Establishment of black intellectuals, industrialists, and professionals, many of them millionaires who benefited from the government's Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policies -- never sat well with the vast majority of South Africans. Into the gap marched the irrepressibly populist former deputy president, Jacob Zuma, whom Mbeki sacked in 2005 after Zuma's main business confidante and associate was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 15 years in jail. Encouraged by the ANC's two powerful alliance partners -- the trade union federation, COSATU, and the South African Communist Party, which now represents the traditional social democrat wing -- Zuma has doggedly pursued the ultimate prize, despite facing his own serious corruption investigation and being dragged through a rape trial in 2006.

Mbeki's favorite rhetorical question, "Will the center hold?," written by Yeats, one of Mbeki's favorite poets, was finally answered in 2008, when the ANC, having chosen Jacob Zuma as their president, effectively fired Mbeki, and the splinter party COPE was launched soon thereafter. With Zuma taking over as president in the 2009 elections, which the ANC won by a nearly 70% majority, a new era is ushered in.

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