“”When the white man came to our country, he had the Bible and we had the land. The white man said to us, "Let us pray". After the prayer, the white man had the land, and we had the Bible.
|—South African proverb.|
The Republic of South Africa is a country located at the southernmost tip of Africa. About 80% of its population is of Bantu ancestry, which encompasses a variety of ethnic groups and languages. Nine of these Bantu languages have official status. The remaining 20% of the country's population are of European, Asian, or multiracial descent. The country also boasts the world's only neo-modal national anthem (beginning and ending in different keys), as well as the world's most unpronounceable national motto: "!ke e:/xarra//k," which contains three different "clicks" when spoken. It's a Khoisan phrase meaning "diverse people unite".
South Africa contains some of the oldest archaeological human remains, which is only to be expected based on its location. During the Middle Ages, Bantu peoples from Central Africa migrated southwards to displace many of the original inhabitants of South Africa. Even later, South Africa was extensively colonized by the Netherlands. Those colonies were later occupied and then annexed by the British Empire during the Napoleonic Wars. The Dutch colonists, called Boers, decided that they rather wouldn't like to live under British rule, so they left the South African coastline to move further north and establish their own republics. During the Scramble for Africa, the British started hungering for more conquests in South Africa. They attacked and annexed the Zulu, then moved on to conquer the Boer republics in the early Twentieth Century. The British united its colony with the new conquests to create the Union of South Africa. The Empire then granted South Africa de facto independence in 1909 as a dominion.
As South Africa became more autonomous, the Boers rose in prominence to seize control of the country's domestic affairs. They instituted the infamous apartheid regime to deny black South Africans both civil rights and basic dignity. During the later Twentieth Century, the black majority sought to claim more rights from the dominant white minority, with this struggle playing a large role in the country's recent history and politics. After a long and often violent struggle by the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid activists, the South African government finally started to cave. Genuinely democratic elections took place in 1994, and the new government reformed South Africa into the multiracial democracy it is today.
Of course, racists and white nationalists aren't fans of South Africa's new direction. Many of them now attempt to portray South Africa's crime problem as an actual attempt at "white genocide". This false narrative, based on the South African farm attacks narrative, has unfortunately taken hold in right-wing circles across the West, to the point where even United States president Donald Trump has tweeted about it.
South Africa has some extremely old human remains. The Taung Skull Fossil Site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it features in its many archaeological caves traces of human occupation and evolution dating back some 3.3 million years. Remains of earlier hominids can also be found there, with the earliest dating back about 4.5 million years. The Taung Skull, which was found in that site, is considered "the most important anthropological fossil of the Twentieth Century" by Dean Falk, a specialist in human brain evolution. It's a notable relic of Australopithecus africanus, a transitional species between humans and earlier apes.
Much later in history, starting around 1,000 BCE, Bantu-speaking peoples from the Congo region in Africa migrated southwards towards the southern part of Africa. This event, called the Bantu expansion, started influencing the development of South Africa as early as 300 CE. Bantu peoples mingled with or displaced previous residents of South Africa, including the Khoisan and San peoples.
Rise of the Zulu
One of the major consequences of Bantu migration was the rise of the Zulu culture group and state. By 1818, the Zulu created a very powerful kingdom under their leader Shaka. The rise of the Zulu had a significantly disruptive impact on the other peoples of South Africa.
Shaka Zulu was a military genius, and his innovations turned the Zulu into a dominant regional power. His armies discarded the long, spindly throwing spear in favor of a heavy-bladed, short-shafted stabbing spear. The Zulu also started bartering with European colonists for obsolete rifles and other firearms, which the Zulu then used to great effect to achieve victory in the early phase of the Anglo-Zulu War.
The Zulu also introduced a harsh military training regimen somewhat reminiscent of what Sparta had. Zulu warriors drilled relentlessly. Shaka hardened the feet of his troops by having them stamp thorny tree and bush branches flat, and sent them on forced marches covering more than fifty miles a day. Finally, Shaka simplified Zulu battle dress to make it less cumbersome and invented the iconic Zulu "buffalo horns" pincer movement. As military historian Jon Guttman writes,
“”Combined with Shaka's "buffalo horns" attack formation for surrounding and annihilating enemy forces, the Zulu combination of iklwa and shield—similar to the Roman legionaries' use of gladius and scutum—was devastating. By the time of Shaka's assassination in 1828, it had made the Zulu kingdom the greatest power in southern Africa and a force to be reckoned with, even against Britain's modern army in 1879.
With their military power, the Zulu wreaked havoc across South Africa. This led to a period of strife called the "Mfecane", as other African peoples first tried to resist and then had to flee Zulu expansionism. This period upheaval and war claimed an estimated one to two million lives. It did not, however, leave South Africa's landscape completely barren of people. That idea is the result of a great exaggeration and frankly doesn't even make sense considering that the Zulus were aiming to conquer the land and settle it.
The world stage had changed dramatically by the time of the Seventeenth Century, and both the British Empire and the Netherlands began seeking useful ports to extend the range of their navies into the Indian Ocean. Dutch interest towards South Africa peaked in 1647 when some Dutch crewmen were stranded in the region but survived by receiving meat and water from some generous Africans.
Of course, we all know that no good deed ever, ever, goes unpunished. Just a few years later, in 1652, the Dutch East India Company took control of what is now Cape Town to establish a safe port for their trade ships. As often happens in cases like these, having a large number of merchant sailors stationed for long periods of time in one location created a demand for other service industries, leading to an even larger influx of workers to fill that demand. Many of these people chose to stay in South Africa even after their contracts expired, leading to a fairly large permanent white population in South Africa.
As also tends to happen in situations like these, the expanding European population led to a need for more land on which to live. Starting in the 1700s, Dutch farmers ventured eastward on their own initiative to shoot black people and seize their farms. The Dutch East India Company, for its part, became concerned about the unauthorized migration of Dutch colonists because it became increasingly difficult to exercise any authority over them. Rather than try to stop the encroachments, the Company decided to simply send administrators after the colonists to keep them out of trouble. In this fashion, the Dutch Cape Colony rapidly expanded past its original limits.
Africans eventually started to fiercely resist Dutch expansion. The First Frontier War started in 1779 when the Xhosa and the Dutch clashed over cattle farming. War continued almost non-stop until the British takeover.
British colonial era
During the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, France occupied the Netherlands and hoped to do the same to Dutch colonies. To prevent that from happening, the British Empire launched a naval invasion of Cape Town which resulted in the swift conquest of the entire Dutch Cape Colony. After the French wars ended, the British formally annexed the colony and went to great pains to settle large numbers of British colonists there. The formerly Dutch colonists, meanwhile, became known as the "Boers". That name is derived from the Dutch and Afrikaans word for "farmer".
Of course, the two groups of white people in the Cape Colony didn't quite get along. Tensions escalated as the British abolished slavery, which the Boer colonists had relied upon to make their farms more profitable. Enraged at the apparent attack on their livelihoods, the Boer slave-owners decided that they'd rather flee through hundreds of miles of African wilderness than grant black people the basic dignity of being acknowledged as people. Thus began the Great Trek, an event which saw thousands of Boers pack up their belongings and move towards the interior of the African continent. The British sort of shrugged their shoulders at this development, and the Boers proceeded to establish a series of independent pseudo-republics.
South Africa was at peace for a little while, but then the Boer republics messed everything up by discovering a shitload of gold and diamonds in their territory during the 1860s. The British Empire saw £££££ and immediately started lusting after everyone else's land in the region. In 1878, the British issued an ultimatum to the nearby Zulu offering them the choice between submission or war. The Zulu, naturally, chose war. British arrogance at the outset of hostilities helped the Zulus win a major victory at the Battle of Isandlwana despite having greatly inferior military technology. Despite the initial setback, the British rallied and later won the war, annexing the Zulus as a result. The former Zulu kingdom became part of the Colony of Natal.
With the Zulu dealt with, the British turned their attention to the Boer republics. The Boer Wars followed, in which the British used concentration camps against Boer civilians. After winning the wars, the British annexed the Orange Free State as the Orange River Colony, and turned the South African Republic into the Transvaal Colony. Almost 28,000 people died in the concentration camps during the wars.
Hoping to calm tensions in the region after the war, the British made it clear that they desired to unite the Boers with the existing British colonies of Cape and Natal and grant the resulting colonial federation dominion status like Canada and Australia. In 1909, this became reality with the South Africa Act, which created the Union of South Africa and established its government.
Between 1948 and 1994 South Africa was controlled by a nasty group of white supremacists known as the National Party. That apartheid entailed the dehumanization and humiliation of millions upon millions of black South Africans is well-known. What fewer people realize is that during those dark days the South African government was enabled and supported by many Christians. The Dutch Reformed Church (known by its Afrikaans initials, NGK) and the government were as friendly as Batman and Robin; the first apartheid Prime Minister (DF Malan) was actually an ordained minister, John Vorster (PM 1966 to 1978) was a sibling of the moderator of the church, and membership in the NGK was mandatory if you wanted to get anywhere in politics/civil service.
The clerics provided theological, biblically-based justifications for segregation, and the politicians ensured that policies aligned well with the arch-conservative stance of the church. So, if you were a white, penis-toting, straight, Afrikaans-speaking person, apartheid was pretty damn peachy. For everyone else, it sucked. The NGK's influence insured that life in South Africa was almost as boring as the first Star Trek movie. TV wasn't allowed until 1976, even the softest-core porn (hosiery advertisements, Emmanuelle, anything which showed nipple for even a second) was banned, sex ed didn't exist, abortion was illegal and being gay could land you in jail. Media which showed interracial relationships and black actors in positions of power were restricted. Sundays were especially pitiful, with most stores and cinemas closed.
The winds of change
Thanks to the work of people like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, apartheid was dismantled from 1990 to 1993 in a series of negotiations, and the first all-race elections, which were won by the African National Congress, were held in 1994. Many of the compromises struck during this time are still in place, such as having 11 official languages and a national anthem that is the bastard offspring of "Nkosi Sikilel' iAfrica" (God Bless Africa) and "Die Stem van Suid-Afrika" (The Call of South Africa). The anthem itself is a mixture of Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English.
The country has its own currency, the South African Rand (sign: R; code: ZAR). It was the 18th most traded currency worldwide in 2013, right behind the South Korean Won; one Rand is currently worth about a U.S. dime. The Kruggerand is named after it.
Trevor Noah, the successor of Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show, is from South Africa and was in fact "born a crime" as a result of a relationship of a white Swiss man and a black Xhosa woman during apartheid.
Unfortunately, the more recent SA leaders, such as former president and the second president of the post-apartheid South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, were HIV denialists. Perhaps more sickeningly, certain segments of the country's population, largely as a result of the influence of "tribal doctors" and "spiritual healers," spread rumors that one could rid themselves of AIDS through measures such as "eating a lot of vegetables such as garlic and African potatoes," having sex with a virgin, male circumcision, and other assorted woo. In fact, "African vegetables rather than anti-HIV medication" was the official line touted by Mbeki's Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Mbeki notably banned antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals, which is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of atleast 330,000 people.
Even more interesting is the case of the 4th president, Jacob Zuma, who resigned on Valentines Day of 2018. Zuma's stance on HIV was that a shower after sex provided ample protection. Though after a sordid encounter with an HIV-positive woman, who happened to be his best friend's daughter, he may or may not
be living in denial have changed his views. He only has a primary school education, and as a result of the history of traditional African lifestyles currently has three wives, although he has been married five times, and is currently engaged to wife number six.
ANC will probably retain enough votes, which isn't saying much when your opposition are bog-standard neoliberals who are still seen as too white (the DA) and Julius Malema (the EFF).
South Africa struggles with murder and have on of the highest homicide rates in the world. Cape Town is the 11th most violent city in the world.
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