South Africa has a rich history, and understanding it will help understand the mindset of the people who live there today, including the ethnic conflicts common in the country, as well as the historic sites that a visitor may wish to visit.
The ancient history is largely unknown, although archeological evidence seems to indicate that humans inhabited the area from their earliest days. The history of South Africa as we know it today began roughly 2,000 years ago, when the Bantu people began migrating to the region. By 500 AD, they had an advanced culture complete with iron tools and advanced agriculture, in what is today South Africa. They mixed with the Khoisan people, eventually emerging as an important trade center, offering gold and ivory for traders from throughout Africa.
The next major event in South African history is the arrival of Europeans and the subsequent colonization of the land. At first, adventurers were turned away by the stormy weather and rocky shores of the cape area, as well as the struggles of trading with the local people. It was not until the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1652, that colonization began in full swing.
When the Dutch East India Company struggled, they released some of their employees from their contracts. These free burghers, as they were known, established farms and set the stage for the Caucasian population in South Africa. The Dutch remained in the land and gradually expanded through it until the 18th century, when they began to decline. By this time, Britain was ready to step in, seizing the Cape in 1795 and fully conquering the Dutch colony by 1806. In the 1915 Congress of Vienna, Britain was declared the sovereign ruler of the Cape Colony.
Throughout these colonial times, the indigenous people were largely scattered as disconnected tribes. This changed when the Zulu Kingdom began to expand in the early 1800s, pushing against the British and the Dutch. During this time, the descendents of the original Dutch farmers, who were now known as Boers, were dissatisfied with British rule, particularly because Britain declared all races as equal and abolished slavery. This led to a period of struggles between the three people groups, with Britain finally gaining control over the Zulu controlled lands in the late 1800s.
The Boer controlled lands were not so easy to conquer. It was not until Britain combated the Boer’s gorilla style warfare with scorched earth tactics that they came to an agreement. In 1902, the Treaty of Vereeniging placed Boer lands under British control.
With the Boer Wars ended, Britain turned her attention to the rich mines in South Africa. In 1909, Britain was able to unify their colony with the remaining republics under the Union of South Africa, under British control but with home-rule for the Afrikaners, the descendents of the original European settlers.
It was not until 1934 that South Africa gained independence from Britain, but only with white minorities as the rulers. Racial tensions were high as blacks were suppressed, refused the right to vote and unable to hold land. In 1948, the Afrikaner Party won the election on the basis of apartheid. They literally divided up the country, setting aside some land for blacks to use and some land for whites.
Under apartheid, blacks were forced into overcrowded reserves or cities, as the best lands were left for the ruling minority. A year later, the blacks began fighting back. It was not until 1960, when the whites opened fire on demonstrators, that the white supremacy issue gained international attention. Nelson Mandela rose to lead the African National Congress, a group that was championing black rights.
This led to the creation of Homelands, specific areas where blacks were confined, as the whites struggled to maintain control. Without specific permission, black people could not leave these homelands, and this further increased the racial tensions in South Africa. When Steve Biko, a black revolutionary leader, was beaten to death by white police, the black people began rising up against apartheid.
By 1991, under growing internal and external pressures, all apartheid regulations were repealed, and South Africa began to prepare for their first democratic elections where whites and blacks could vote freely. In 1993, Nelson Mandela was elected as the first black president of South Africa, and the years of struggle turned to a time of reconciliation as blacks and whites learned to live together in a unified country.
- While South Africa is a democratic republic, the Province of KwaZulu-Natal also has a monarchy with the King of the Zulu Nation ruling locally.
- There are three capital cities in South Africa: the judicial capital in Bloemfontein, the legislative capital in Cape Town and the executive capital in Pretoria.
- Because of its rich ethnic diversity, South Africa has 11 official languages.
- Swaziland is a tiny country located totally within South Africa.
- The ethnic diversity in South Africa may have caused tensions throughout its history, but it also is a source of price for modern South Africans. Many people have Asian, Indian, European and native African blood running through their veins.
- When you visit South Africa, you likely will not have to worry about the water. The country’s drinking water is rated the 3rd best in the world for safety. It is safe to drink straight out of the tap.
- South Africa is home to the world’s largest themed resort hotel, the Palace of the Lost City. It sits on a 25-hectare man-made jungle.
- South Africa’s mining industry is still going strong. They are responsible for producing 90 percent of the platinum metals and 41 percent of the gold in the entire world.
- Two of South Africa’s six Nobel Peace Prize winners live on the same street. Both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela have earned this prestigious award, and they are practically neighbors in Soweto.
- The highest commercial bungee jumping opportunity is in South Africa. Their tallest leap is 710 feet tall. Do you dare?
- Kruger National Park: Perhaps the most famous national park in Africa, this is the ideal place to take a safari and see most of the big five as well as giraffes, hyenas and even the African wild dog.
- Southern Coast – The southern coastline of South Africa has dramatic rugged cliffs lining its shores. Here you can spot whales surfacing in Hermanus or get a closer look at the rock formations lining the shore in Tsitsikamma National Park.
- Giant’s Castle Game Reserve – This national park, located in the Drakensberg mountain range, gives you the chance to see some of South Africa’s most famous mountains as well as its abundant wildlife.
- Cape Town – Rich in history and filled with modern attractions, this is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
- Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve – Look for coastal wildlife while getting sprayed by the sea at this popular natural destination.
- Winelands – South Africa not only has some of the world’s best drinking water, but also some of its best wines, which you can sample in the Franschhoek, Paarl and Stellenbosch valleys.
- Zululand – See the only monarchy in South Africa and get to know the Zulu people with a trip to this region.
- Namaqualand – If you travel to South Africa in the spring, you must visit Namaqualand, where the beauty of wildflowers makes the rugged hills come to life.
- The Palace of the Lost City – If you want to experience South African hospitality and luxury, book a stay in this resort, the largest themed resort in the world.
- Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park – If you didn’t get your fill of African wildlife at Kruger, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is another excellent place to look for the big five.
How to Get Cash
- All cities in South Africa have ATMs. If you have a card in the Cirrus network, you can get rands, the local currency, from these machines. Be prepared for the fees from your bank that are charged in international transactions. To protect yourself from potential thieves or scams, try to use ATMs located inside buildings.
- If you shop at a major retail store, you may be able to get cash back from debit or credit card purchases. Simply alert the checkout clerk that you will need to do this.
- Banks tend to have the best conversion rates if you don't use traveler’s checks or ATMs to get your cash.
- You can use your credit card at most major retailers, hotels and restaurants in South Africa. Both Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted, and you can use these cards to get a cash advance at Standard Bank or Nedbank as well.
- Traveler’s checks work well in South Africa. All banks will accept these, and you will get a refund if they are stolen. Keep in mind you will need to get them changed before you can make any purchase.
- If you face a money emergency, visit a Western Union to have money transferred to you, but be prepared for stiff fees from this service.
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