Culture and History

E Pluribus Unum

South Africa's population of 47 million is a complex cultural salad consisting of 38 million black Africans (Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga and Venda), 4.2 million so-called coloureds, 1.2 million Indians and Asians, and 4.3 million white Europeans (mainly of Dutch, British, German and French origin). For so much of South Africa's past these groups just haven't been able to live together peacefully. Instead there have been constant struggles over land, power and resources. With a past so often characterized by division, ethnic conflict and struggle, modern post-apartheid South Africa's coming together as a single nation (the self-styled Rainbow Nation), with a common purpose aiming at unity and diversity, has been remarkable.

Truly the Rainbow Nation

South Africa's most famous statesman Nelson Mandela is from the Eastern Cape's Transkei area. He is a Xhosa, just one tribe in a country that has 11 official languages. This makes for a complex racial, cultural and linguistic make-up, which needs some explaining. So (deep breath) here goes:

Population: 44,344,136 (when I last counted! No, actually, according to the CIA factbook):

  • African/Black - 75.2%
    Although the majority of the population is African or black, it is neither culturally nor linguistically homogenous and, aside from Afrikaans and English, South Africa has nine other official languages: Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. These belong to the different tribes, although Xhosa and Zulu are probably those that you will hear most about on your travels.
  • White - 13.6%
    The white population descends largely from the colonial immigrants of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries - Dutch, German, French Huguenot and British. Linguistically whites are generally divided into Afrikaans and English-speaking groups.
  • Coloured - 8.6%
    The label "coloured" is a controversial one, but still largely used for the people of mixed race descended from slaves brought in from the East and central Africa, the indigenous Hottentots and Bushmen and indigenous African blacks and whites. The majority speak Afrikaans.
  • Indian/Asian - 2.6%
    Asians mostly arrived from India, brought in by the British to work the sugar cane plantations of KZN. There is also a large Chinese immigrant population.

About two-thirds of South Africans are Christian, mainly Protestant. They belong to a variety of churches, including many that combine Christian and traditional African beliefs. Many non-Christians espouse these traditional beliefs. Other significant religions are Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.

Homo Sapiens

Some 3 million years ago, ape-like hominids traversed the great plains of Southern Africa. These were gradually replaced by homo erectus (1 million years ago); and homo erectus gave way to homo sapiens - or modern man - about 100,000 years ago. South Africa is consequently a treasure horde of exciting anthro-archaeological discoveries. In caves in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal, human remains have been found that are more than 100,000 years old, making them, if dating is correct, the oldest in the world. To put this in perspective, these individuals would have died 60,000 years before humans had even set eyes on Europe or Asia.

These early Bushmen were the first people known to have lived in the southern tip of Africa. They were skilled hunter-gatherers, much like the San people of more recent history. Their striking rock paintings and engravings are found throughout the country and are so numerous that they make up the largest stone art collection in the world.

The San and Khoikhoi tribes were the first to migrate all the way down to the Cape about 2,000 years ago. The San people were still hunter-gatherers and ranged away from the coast inland. The Khoikhoi, however, were pastoral and favoured more watery areas along the southeastern and westerly coasts. This meant that they were the first to encounter migrants arriving by sea in the late 16th century. And this was not necessarily a blessing.

Further up-country in the northeast and eastern regions (now Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu Natal), hundreds of years before the arrival of the first Europeans, African tribes started migrating south. They brought with them Iron Age culture and sophisticated-for-the-time socio-political systems. Mapungubwe on the northern border of modern South Africa is the remains of a large trading settlement that flourished in the 12th century and pre-dates (to the satisfaction of South Africans!) the more famous civilization of Great Zimbabwe over the border. Amazingly, artifacts from as far off as China have been discovered at Mapungubwe.

Homo Insciens!

Mossel Bay marks the first recorded meeting point of Europeans and Africans on Southern African soil. Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias landed here on February 3rd 1488 after a great storm swept him straight past the Cape of Good Hope. He originally christened the cape "Cabo das Tormentas" or "Cape of Storms", but it was later renamed when it was found to unlock the route to the east. A few years later another legendary Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, named modern-day Durban "Rio de Natal" or "Christmas River" when he reached it on Christmas Day 1497. Much later in 1835 it was renamed Durban after the then Cape Colony Governor, Sir Benjamin Durban, although the city's original name remains in the province title, KwaZulu Natal (which, I suppose, translates rather oxymoronically as Christmas Zulus).

The Portuguese had always preferred the coast of Mozambique and established settlements there. There was little competition in the region until the end of the 16th century when the British and the Dutch began to challenge them along their trade routes. The Cape became a useful midway pitstop for scurvy-ridden ships' crews. Cape Town was originally the product of later Dutch expansion when Jans van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape with 90 men, not to colonize the area, but to establish a proper staging post for ships en route to the east. Once they had arrived, it was only a short time before the Khoikhoi tribes were effectively wiped out. They were hunted down and shot; or fell prey to disease (particularly smallpox); or they were assimilated into settler society, predominantly as slaves.

Gradually, an influx of newcomers from Germany and France, often fleeing oppression in their home countries, came to settle. Soon slaves were brought in, mainly from Madagascar and Indonesia, and many often married Dutch settlers whose descendents became known as the Cape Coloureds and Cape Malays.

Over time the Khoi-san (this term includes the few remaining people from the original tribes) also mixed with both their European overseers and with the imported slaves to further complicate the base-mix of what is today's multifarious Coloured population. Interestingly, a significant number of the offspring from white and slave unions were absorbed into the white Afrikaans-speaking population.

The British might never have been involved in South Africa had it not been for Napoleon. But, when he occupied the Netherlands in 1795 during the Napoleonic Wars, the British retaliated and took the Cape. Four years later they (very sportingly) handed it back before snatching it again in 1806 to control the Far East trade routes and prevent the diminutive French emperor from getting there first. The colony would remain in British hands for more than a century until the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910.


Soweto's Chris Hani Hospital is the biggest in the world.

Increasingly disgruntled at British rule in the Cape Colony, in 1835 several groups of Boers (Dutch farmers) decided to trek off into the interior to search for new land and independence. The first voortrekkers (pioneers) came to a halt near present-day Bloemfontein where they established the first of several Boer republics, the Orange Free State. Later, in 1869, when the Boers found diamonds in Kimberley, the British quickly stepped in (not quite so sportingly) to grab the land for themselves. Prospectors, such as Cecil Rhodes, mining magnate and founder of De Beers, followed hot on their heels, bringing with them slaves to work the mines that would earn them fortunes.

The Boers found themselves sidelined, poor farmers who shared no part in the big mining ventures going on. British attempts to anglicise them and impose English as the official language in schools and workplaces unsurprisingly went down like a lead balloon. Soon several Afrikaner nationalist organisations would spring up with the Afrikaans language as their symbol of nationhood.

During the period up to the end of British rule, there would be an awful lot of blood spilled on all sides. It is rather complicated, but essentially all skirmishes and battles were over land. In brief, both the British and the Boers fought the Xhosa (in frontier country along what is now the Eastern Cape); and they both fought the Zulus (famously in the battles of Blood River for the Boers and Isandhlwana/Rorke's Drift for the Brits); and finally they fought each other (The Anglo-Boer Wars). Meanwhile the Zulus, under the leadership of the fearsome Shaka Zulu, fought, well. just about everyone as part of the leader's massive military expansion of the Zulu kingdom.

Following the Anglo-Boer wars, the British focused their attention on rebuilding the country. South Africa's mines were soon producing one-third of the world's annual gold and thousands of Chinese migrants were brought into the country. This move was to undercut any resistance from blacks and coloureds who were still marginalized and suffering under harsh taxes and reduced wages. Meanwhile, plans for the union of South Africa were moving along slowly and, after years of negotiation, colonies (British) and republics (Boer) were brought together as the Union of South Africa in 1909. The Union remained British territory, but with home-rule for Afrikaners. General Louis Botha headed up the first government. English and Dutch were now both official languages and only whites could be elected into Parliament. Despite constituting 75% of the population, black Africans were granted few rights in the Union. Legislation was introduced restricting black ownership of land to a mere 7% of the country - an issue that would become a cornerstone of later white Nationalist governments.

Being closely tied to the Empire, the First World War saw South Africans fight on the side of the British king. They fought German troops in German South-West Africa (Namibia) and German East Africa (Tanzania). With the outbreak of the Second World War, the country was in a quandary. Should South Africa be constitutionally obliged to support Britain against Nazi Germany? Prime Minister Barry Herzog, leader of the pro-Afrikaner Nationalist party, thought not. After furious debate, Jan Smuts - Field Marshall of the British army, a member of Winston Churchill's War Cabinet and the only person to sign both charters that ended the World Wars, and also those that began the League of Nations and the United Nations - was elected instead. In total, of the 334,000 men who volunteered to fight (one third were black or coloured), nearly 9,000 were killed in action.

After the war, internal political struggles in the largely poor and disgruntled Afrikaner classes, would lead to Smuts's defeat in the 1948 elections. The resurgent Nationalist Party gained office and set about formalising pre-existing colonial policies of racial separation. They would also expand this idea considerably, soon creating apartheid, literally "separateness", which was basically a system of legitimised racism and white nationalism. Eventually these policies would lead to the geo-political isolation of South Africa. Trade sanctions were imposed, sporting links ended, tourism severely curtailed etc.

Finally, increasing pressure from home (armed struggle by the militarised wing of the ANC, a rebellion amongst Afrikaner and English-speaking youths, as well as a revolt within the ruling Nationalist Party), abroad (the Anti-Apartheid Movement) and from the international political community (imposing economic and cultural sanctions), that apartheid began to crumble. First, President F.W. de Klerk un-banned the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress and, on 2nd February 1990, released Nelson Mandela from prison. The transition to democracy was under way. In a referendum on the issue in 1992, the white electorate voted 68% in favour of dismantling apartheid. In the first multi-racial elections in 1994, the ANC won by a landslide, Nelson Mandela became President, and two years on in 1996, the first genuine multi-racial parliament enacted a new Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Following the end of apartheid the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 1995 under Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It operated by allowing victims of the apartheid regime to tell their stories and the perpetrators to confess their guilt publicly and in front of the committee. Many policemen, soldiers and ordinary citizens offered full confessions in return for amnesty.

In June 1999 the presidency passed into the hands of Thabo Mbeki and as I write in 2008 it is almost now his turn to stand down too. The post-apartheid years have not been free from problems (particularly those of AIDS and violent crime) but overall this has been an era of great political stability. And since the opening up of the country, tourism has gone from strength to strength as more and more Europeans overcome their misgivings about visiting the country and avail themselves of the wealth of landscapes, people, food, wines, animals, flowers, deserts, sea, beach and culture that the country has to offer.

Afrikaners, Boers and Voortrekkers

Afrikaners are white South Africans descended from Dutch and later French Huguenot and German settlers. These ancestors settled in the Cape of Good Hope from 1652 when the Dutch East India Company first established a small supply post on this seemingly available and remote peninsula - a convenient half-way point on the journey to the Indonesian colonies.

Boer is the Afrikaans (and originally Dutch) word for farmer used in English to refer to white Afrikaans-speakers in general, though these days this can be seen as a derogatory term (so don't use it).

Voortrekker Sreet runs through dozens of towns across the country. The word refers to pioneer Boer farmers who lived on the Cape Colony's eastern frontier but, sick of the overcrowding and anglicisation of what is now the Eastern Cape, migrated north into the interior.

Some 12,000 of them made the move to escape British colonial rule during the mid-1800s and became known as the Voortrekkers or forerunners of the Great Trek.

The Orange Free State

The Orange Free State (today's Free State) was the result of the Great Trek, an independent country established by the Boers to distinguish themselves from the British in 1854 alongside Natalia (in modern-day KZN) and Transvaal (from Gauteng north). Britain annexed the Boer states following the Boer Wars of 1880 - 1881 and 1899 - 1902.

Who was this Rhodes character?

You can't travel far in South Africa without coming across the name Cecil Rhodes, so here is a little information about him to arm yourself with.

A key player in South Africa's colonial history, Cecil John Rhodes was an Englishman who made his fortune in diamond mining and fought for the expansion of the British Empire at all costs with visions of British colonies stretching from the Cape to Cairo.

R = Rhodesia. Modern-day Zimbabwe and Zambia were former colonies developed by Rhodes and the British South Africa Company for their mining potential and named Southern and Northern Rhodesia in his honour.

H = Hertfordshire. Where he was born, in England in 1853. A sickly child, he was sent to South Africa in 1870 to farm cotton with his brother in Natal, before later moving into diamond mining and politics. Not necessarily the obvious remedy for a sickly child!

O = Oxford. He returned home in 1873 to attend Oxford University but took some years to complete his education there, so busy was he with his South African exploits. Today, money from his will funds the Rhodes scholarships for students from former British colonies, Germany and the U.S. (of which Bill Clinton was one).

D = Diamonds. Prospecting around Kimberley made him financially independent by 19. By 35 he controlled 90% of the world's production of diamonds through the De Beers mining company.

E = Elections. Rhodes was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1895 when he resigned after implication in the Jameson Raid (1895-96), which aimed to overthrow Paul Kruger's government in the Boer Republic of Transvaal.

S = Siege. During the South African/Anglo-Boer War, Boer troops besieged Kimberley for 124 days, with Rhodes in it. Towards the end, with the expectation that bombardments would worsen, Rhodes ordered the townsfolk into the diamond mine shafts for protection. Rhodes never saw the end of the war, dying in Cape Town in 1902.

For more information on Rhodes visit the Rhodes Cottage Museum at 246 Main Rd, Muizenberg. It's the humble home where he died and is free to visit Tues - Sun, 10am - 1pm and 2pm - 5pm.


Afrikaans emerged originally from the Dutch spoken by the Cape's first settlers. From the late 17th century their Netherlands Dutch began to change in pronunciation and vocabulary adopting new words from indigenous African languages as well as Portuguese and Malay from imported slave labourers. New French Huguenot and German settlers soon spoke the creolised Cape Dutch and it became recognised as its own language by the 19th century, though Afrikaans and Dutch are still - more or less - mutually intelligible today.

Frontier Country

Boer and Zulu war history pervades much of the country's cultural background, but the Eastern Cape was also the scene of violent cultural clashes where British and Boer settlers collided with the resident Xhosa. The Eastern Cape was an area of rich grazing land, ripe for colonial expansion, but the Great Fish River that fed it also divided it, becoming a bitterly fought over frontier. Over almost a century, from 1779 - 1878, nine frontier wars were fought and today the region is littered with old forts and buildings of historical interest. Grahamstown itself has more than 70 heritage sites and its Albany Museum makes a good starting point for avid history hunters.

The Battle of Blood River

The British were by no means the only ones to clash with the Zulus - the Boers had been at it for ages. During the Great Trek of the mid-1800s, while many headed north west, thousands of Boer farmers came east of the Drakensberg to present-day KZN. The struggle for land once again led to war and in December 1838, on the banks of the Blood River, 10 - 20,000 Zulu impi attacked some 470 Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius (hence the capital Pretoria). Remarkably, thanks to their rifles and strong laager or wagon-ring defensive position, not a single Boer lost his life, while some 3,000 Zulus were killed.

The Battle of Isandhlwana and the Zulu Wars

Tension between the British and Zulu kingdoms and an unmet ultimatum sparked the Zulu Wars of 1879. On January 22 some 25,000 Zulu warriors attacked and slaughtered 1,300 British troops encamped at Isandhlwana, killing fleeing survivors at nearby Fugitive's Drift. On the same day another Zulu force attacked a British magazine and field hospital at Rorke's Drift where the "heroic hundred" fought off 4,000 Zulu warriors for 12 hours, losing 17 men and earning 11 Victoria Crosses.

A tour of the battlefields is a must and most years there is a re-enactment at Isandhlwana on the Saturday nearest to January 22nd with a major event every five years. Check details with Isandlwana Lodge.

The Anglo-Boer Wars - a very potted history

The British and the Boers just never seemed to hit it off, finally settling centuries of strife in two wars. It was the discovery of gold and the explosive growth of Johannesburg that was their final undoing.

British colonial expansion and the annexation of the Transvaal sparked the first Boer War or War of Independence, when the Boers revolted, defeating the British at the Battle of Majuba Hill in February 1881 after three months of confrontation. The Second Boer War or South African War was to be a far more bloody affair.

The Transvaal became autonomous and the strongly pro-Afrikaaner Paul Kruger the leader of this impoverished but strongly independent state. The discovery of a huge gold field in the Witwatersrand (the "Rand") south of Pretoria, changed its fortunes overnight. Hoards of British outsiders or "uitlanders" descended on the Transvaal and Johannesburg was born. To prevent their inevitable insurgence on Transvaal politics the British were denied voting rights. British gold mine owners complained bitterly of unfair taxation and overpriced black labour and tension grew to bursting point after a failed coup attempt backed by Cape Colony premier Cecil Rhodes.

Aware that the British were lining up for war Kruger made the first move and, allied with the Orange Free State, declared war on Britain in 1899. Some 500,000 British soldiers faced 65,000 Boers with black soldiers recruited by both sides in a war that dragged on until 1902 and was fought right across the country.

The Boers adopted a style of guerrilla warfare that made them almost impossible to defeat and it was only through a scorched earth policy and the first concentration camps that the British finally ground them down. Some 24,000 Boer women and children and 14,000 black and coloured people died in appalling conditions in the camps, which decades later would stamp their mark on history during World War Two.

Paul Kruger had it right when he reputedly said his countrymen should cry rather than rejoice at the discovery of gold in the Transvaal, as it would "cause our land to be soaked in blood".

Shaka Zulu

Shaka was a Zulu king and Shaka's Rock, so the story goes, is a rock from which he made his warriors jump to show bravery… or threw prisoners to the sharks (depending on what you read). Whatever he did there, he was certainly central to fomenting a still-thriving Zulu culture.

Born the illegitimate son of the clan's chief in 1787, he developed into a formidable warrior and became ruler when his father died in 1816. Honing his military skills, Shaka expanded the Zulu kingdom and identity to include more than 100,000 people with almost half of those recruited into the army.

Through wars with neighbouring tribes the Zulu kingdom grew to cover a large area stretching north to the Mozambique border, west to the Drakensberg and south to the Wild Coast (pretty much modern-day KZN). Shaka welcomed British farmers and sent emissaries to Britain, but was assassinated at the height of his power in 1828 and succeeded by his half-brother. Tensions between the British and Zulus led to the Zulu wars of the 1870s.

Robben Island and Nelson Mandela

For almost 400 years Robben Island, a small barren patch of land 12km out from Cape Town's harbour, was a place of exile and punishment. During the apartheid years it became renowned for the institutional brutality inflicted on its inmates, including one Nelson Mandela.

Born in a tiny village in the Eastern Cape's Transkei on July 18th 1918, Nelson Mandela is today a living icon, the ultimate symbol of South Africa's oppressed black majority during the apartheid years. He trained originally as a lawyer. Helping found the African National Congress Youth League in the 1940s, he later became the ANC's deputy president, advocating non-violent resistance to apartheid. The party was banned following the massacre in 1960 of a group of peaceful black demonstrators in Sharpeville and Mandela went underground to form a new convention.

The MK military wing of the ANC was born and under Mandela's leadership made armed attacks on the government. Mandela was eventually jailed for life for sabotage. He was released on February 11th 1990 after almost two decades imprisoned in a small cell on Robben Island.

In the multiracial elections of 1994, Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa, and served until 1999. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside F.W. De Klerk. Today he lives in his birthplace in the Transkei.

Trips to the Robben Island museum give a taste of this remarkable history. They last 3.5hrs including the transfer to the island, a visit to the maximum-security prison and guided tour of the island by an ex-political prisoner.

Prices: Tickets cost R150 for adults and R75 for children (4 - 17 year-olds) and can be bought at the tourist information offices or from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront.

Tel: 021-409-5100 or 021-413-4200


Apartheid literally means "separateness" in Afrikaans and refers to the former government policy of totally segregating minority whites from the other races in South Africa. Introduced in 1948 (although some segregation laws were already in place) this system survived almost half a century, dividing South Africans into racial groups that delineated their economic, social and political rights. The system defined three groups, 'Whites', 'Blacks' and 'Coloureds'. This last group were further sub-divided according to a whole series of complicated regulations, which meant that those of Chinese descent had more rights than those of Indian for example. Determination of which group you were supposed to belong to was often a simple question of which group you looked like you belonged to. A white person was defined as "in appearance obviously a white person or generally accepted as a white person.'' A person could not be considered white if one of his or her parents were non-white. A black person would be of or accepted as a member of an African tribe or race, and a coloured person is one that is not black or white.

Under the National Party's apartheid system, interracial marriages and even relationships were quickly outlawed. Blacks and whites were appointed separate beaches, schools, ambulances, buses and even drinking fountains and park benches. Blacks had at all times to carry much-hated pass books, their movements strictly controlled.

In 1951, the Bantu Authorities Act established the "homelands'' or Bantustans. These were independent states to which each African was assigned by the government according to the record of origin (which was frequently inaccurate). Political rights, including voting, held by an African were restricted to the designated homeland. The idea was that they would be citizens of the homeland, losing their citizenship in South Africa. From 1976 to 1981, four of these independent homelands were created (Bophuthatswana, Transkei, Ciskei and Venda), denationalizing nine million South Africans. Africans living in the homelands needed passports to enter South Africa: aliens in their own country.

Internationally condemned as unjust and racist the apartheid system met instant resistance from within from the ANC or African National Congress (led, for a period by Nelson Mandela) which fought for a non-racist and democratic society. But apartheid survived a remarkably long time, becoming ever more brutal in its suppression of black opposition despite international sanctions designed to force change. The state strictly controlled the press and violently quashed any form of protest.

In 1960 police killed 69 people and wounded 178 when they fired on a black demonstration against the pass laws. Sixteen years later, on June 16th 1976, police opened fire on students in Soweto, protesting against enforced Afrikaans teaching. By the end of the day 566 children were dead.

Eventually, though, the pressure broke through and the system was finally dismantled by President F.W. de Klerk in 1990.

The Name Game

One problem with a country of so many different languages is that different places have different names. This can become quite a navigational challenge, particularly as road sign-makers are struggling to keep up with the law-makers who since the first democratic elections in 1994 have been reclaiming their heritage and busily giving towns new African names. Generally, road maps will have both names on but here are a few to get you started:

Firstly the old pre-election provinces themselves:

  • Transvaal = North-West Province, Mpumalanga, Limpopo (was Northern Province for a while too) and Gauteng (a Sesotho word meaning "at the gold")
  • Cape Province = Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape.
  • Orange Free State = Free State.
  • Natal = KwaZulu Natal.

Renamed towns are generally concentrated in the north and particularly include those named after Afrikaner historical figures, so:

  • Pietersburg = Polokwane
  • Louis Trichardt = Makhado
  • Potgietersrust = Mokopane
  • Warmbaths = Bela-Bela
  • Nylstroom = Modimolle

You may also hear new references and African colloquial names for major cities like:

  • Nelson Mandela Metropole = Port Elizabeth and East London
  • eKapa = Cape Town
  • eGoli = Johannesburg (meaning "place of gold")
  • eThekwini = Durban (meaning "in the bay", although there was notable controversy when respected Zulu linguists insisted it meant "the one-testicled one" referring to the shape of the bay).