South Africa History

History of South Africa - Contents

Early History

The oldest evidence in the world documenting the emergence of humankind has been found in South Africa; fossils of the earliest hominids (Australopithecus africanus ) date back at least 2.5 million years, and remains linked to modern Homo sapiens date back more than 50,000 years. Roughly 20,000 years ago, South Africa, still in the grip of the world’s last Ice Age, was occupied by people now known as San. Remnants of San communities still survive today as so-called Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert. The San, who developed their society over thousands of years in isolation, speak a language that includes unique “click” consonants, are smaller statured, and have lighter skin pigmentation than the Bantu speakers who later moved into southern Africa. However, older notions that such differences indicate that San are a distinct “race” of people have now been discredited and replaced by arguments that all the black inhabitants of South Africa are closely related, sharing a common gene pool, and that any physical differences among them can be attributed to geographical distribution and extent of contact rather than to race.

San obtained a livelihood from often difficult environments by gathering edible plants, berries, and shellfish; by hunting game; and by fishing. Gathering was primarily the task of women, who provided approximately 80 percent of the foodstuffs consumed by the
hunter-gatherer communities. Men hunted, made tools and weapons from wood and stone, produced clothing from animal hides, and fashioned a remarkable array of musical instruments. San also created vast numbers of rock paintings – South Africa contains the bulk of the world’s prehistoric art still extant – which express an extraordinary esthetic sensibility and document San hunting techniques and religious beliefs. The rock paintings also demonstrate that considerable interaction took place among hunter-gatherer communities throughout southern Africa.

The primary social unit among the San was the nuclear family. Families joined together to form hunter-gatherer bands of about twenty to fifty people. Men and women had equal status in these groups and there was no development of a hereditary chiefship, although the male head of the main family usually took a leading role in decision making. Such bands moved about the countryside seeking foodstuffs, sometimes remaining for long periods in particularly productive environments, sometimes splitting apart and joining other groups when food was scarce. Because they made such limited demands on their environment, San managed to provide a living for themselves for thousands of years. Population numbers did remain small, however, and settlement was generally sparse.

Approximately 2,500 years ago, some San in the northern parts of present-day Botswana acquired fat-tailed sheep and long-horned cattle, perhaps through trade with people from the north and the east, and became pastoralists. Their descendants, called “Hottentots” by early Dutch settlers, are now more accurately termed Khoikhoi, “men of men,” or Khoi, in their own language. Although Europeans often considered San and Khoikhoi distinct races culturally and physically, scholars now think they are essentially the same people, distinguished only by their occupations. Differences in size – Khoikhoi are generally taller than San – are now attributed to the greater protein intake of pastoralists. Moreover, occupational status could often change in an individual’s lifetime: San hunter-gatherers who found a particularly well-watered and fertile area might well acquire livestock through trade, settle down, and become relatively sedentary Khoikhoi pastoralists; pastoralists in times of drought or other ecological disaster might turn to hunting and gathering to survive.
Because the southern Cape is fertile and well-watered, many Khoikhoi settled along the coast between the Orange River and the Great Fish River. With the greater and more regular supplies of food that they derived from their herds, Khoikhoi lived in larger settlements than those of the San, often numbering several hundred people in a single community. Still, as pastoralists, Khoikhoi moved with the seasons among coasts, valleys, and mountains in search of pastureland. Such movement contributed to the fissiparous nature of Khoikhoi society, in which groups of people, usually in patrilineally related clans, periodically broke away and formed their own communities. The larger size of Khoikhoi communities as compared with those of the San did, however, lead to the development of more hierarchical political structures. A Khoikhoi group was generally presided over by a khoeque (rich man). The khoeque was not an autocrat, but rather could only exercise power in consultation with other male elders.

The Khoikhoi engaged in extensive trade with other peoples in southern Africa. In exchange for their sheep and cattle, they acquired copper from the north and iron from Bantu-speaking Africans in the east and fashioned these metals into tools, weapons, and ornaments. They also acquired dagga (cannabis) from the coast of what is modern-day Mozambique, cultivated it themselves, and traded it for other goods. With San, too, they bartered sheep and cattle products for game and hides.

By 1600 most of the Khoikhoi, numbering perhaps 50,000 people, lived along the southwest coast of the Cape. Most San, their numbers practically impossible to determine, lived in drier areas west of the 400-millimeter rainfall line (the limit for cultivation), including present-day Northern Cape province, Botswana, Namibia, and southern Angola.

Arrival of Bantu-Speaking Africans

Bantu-speaking Africans, whose descendants make up the overwhelming majority of the present-day inhabitants of South Africa, had moved south of the Limpopo River by about 1,500 years ago. Farmers who combined knowledge of cattle-keeping and slash-and-burn (swidden) cultivation with expertise in metal-working, the Bantu speakers came from West Central Africa north of the Congo River near present-day Cameroon. Historians and archaeologists now argue that this movement took place not in any single great migration but rather in a slow southward shift of people throughout sub-Saharan Africa that resulted from the gradual drying up of the Sahara beginning about 8,000 years ago. The southward movement involved not the conquering hordes previously imagined but rather a moving frontier of farmers seeking new fields and pastures who interacted with pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, sometimes trading, sometimes incorporating people in client relationships, sometimes fighting for access to the same crucial resources. The farmers settled throughout southern Africa east of the 400-millimeter rainfall line and as far as the southwestern limits of cropping along the Great Kei River.

The Bantu-speaking farmers chose to minimise risks rather than to maximise production in their use of the environment. They kept large herds of cattle and invested these animals with great material and symbolic value. Cattle provided a means to acquire and to display considerable wealth, and they were used for significant social and political transactions, such as bridewealth compensation (lobola ) and tribute demands. Cattle were also valued for their milk and for their hides, but they were seldom killed for their meat except on ceremonial occasions. Hunting of game continued to provide a major source of protein, while additional supplies came from domesticated goats and sheep. Bantu speakers also cultivated a range of indigenous crops, including millet, sorghum, beans, and melons along with other grains and vegetables. Those close to the sea collected shellfish and fished. By utilising such a great range of food sources, the farmers spread their risks in a difficult ecological system constantly subject to drought, disease and crop failure.

Still, the accumulation of large herds and the cultivation of extensive fields produced greater concentrations of population and considerably more stratification among Bantu speakers than among their San and Khoikhoi neighbours. Archaeologists have found evidence of settlements established more than 1,400 years ago comprising several thousand people each. Toutswe, in eastern Botswana, consisted of a series of communities built on large flat-topped hills with fields cultivated below and cattle pastured locally. The residents smelted iron and engaged in extensive trade with people as far east as the Indian Ocean. Similar large communities emerged at least 1,000 years ago just south of the Limpopo River where Bambandyanalo and then Mapungubwe arose as significant early states (both situated at the intersection of the present-day borders of Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa). Cultivating extensive fields and holding large numbers of cattle, the residents of these states also produced finely worked gold and copper ornaments, hunted for ivory, and engaged in extensive long-distance trade. They were generally presided over by chiefs who held considerable – although never total – power; elders always had to be consulted about major decisions. Compared with the smaller-scale communities of San and Khoikhoi, the Bantu-speaking societies were marked by greater degrees of stratification: of old over young, men over women, rich over poor and chiefs over commoners.

There were, however, significant differences between the settlement patterns and the degree of political centralisation established by Bantu speakers who settled inland and by those who lived closer to the coast. The inland Bantu speakers, termed Sotho-Tswana on the basis of their dialects, concentrated in greater numbers around water sources and trading towns. By the late sixteenth century, a series of powerful hereditary chiefs ruled over the society known as the Rolong, whose capital was Taung. The capital and several other towns, centres of cultivation and livestock raising as well as major trading communities, had populations of 15,000 to 20,000. By contrast, the Bantu-speakers termed Nguni, who settled on the coastal plains between the Highveld and the Indian Ocean, lived in much smaller communities and had less hierarchical political structures. Moving their cattle often in search of fresh pastureland, they lived in small communities scattered across the countryside. In many cases, a community identified itself on the basis of descent from some ancestral founder, as did the Zulu and the Xhosa. Such communities could sometimes grow to a few thousand people, as did the Xhosa, the Mpondo, the Mthethwa, and others, but they were usually far smaller.

By 1600 all of what is now South Africa had been settled: by Khoisan peoples in the west and the southwest, by Sotho-Tswana in the Highveld, and by Nguni along the coastal plains. Portuguese travelers and sailors shipwrecked along the coast in the seventeenth century reported seeing great concentrations of people living in apparent prosperity.

Origins of Settlement

Portuguese mariners explored the west coast of Africa throughout the latter half of the fifteenth century. Two ships under Bartholomeu Dias eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and traveled more than 600 kilometers along the southwestern coast. In 1497 an expedition under Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape, sailed up the east African coast to the Arab port of Malindi (in present-day Kenya), and then crossed the Indian Ocean to India, thereby opening up a way for Europeans to gain direct access to the spices of the East without having to go through Arab middlemen. The Portuguese dominated this trade route throughout the sixteenth century. They built forts and supply stations along the west and east African coasts, but they did not build south of present-day Angola and Mozambique because of the treacherous currents along the southern coast. At the end of the sixteenth century and in the early seventeenth century, English and Dutch merchants challenged the Portuguese monopoly in West Africa and Asia and saw the Cape peninsula as a source of fresh water, meat, and timber for masts, all of which they could obtain through trade with the local Khoikhoi. The English government refused its mariners’ requests that it annex land there and establish a base, but in 1652 the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie–VOC) established a supply station in Table Bay on the Cape peninsula, instructing its station commander, Jan van Riebeeck, and his eighty company employees to build a fort and to obtain supplies of foodstuffs for the Dutch fleets.

Establishing a Slave Economy

The VOC’s directors intended that the settlement at Table Bay should amount to no more than a small supply station able largely to pay for itself. European settlement was to be limited to VOC employees only, and their numbers were to be kept as small as possible. Company ships could stop to take on water, to get supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables grown by VOC employees, and to trade for fresh meat and milk from the local Khoikhoi. The Khoikhoi were also expected to supply the labor needs of the settlement–building wharves and warehouses, putting up offices, and laying out roads. Within its first half decade, however, the Cape Colony was growing in ways unforeseen at its establishment. Most Khoikhoi chose not to labor for the Dutch because of low wages and harsh conditions; and, although ready initially to trade with the Dutch, they became increasingly unwilling to sell their farm products at the prices offered by the VOC. As a result, three processes were set in motion in the 1650s that were to produce a rapidly expanding, racially stratified society. First, the VOC decided to import slaves to meet local labor needs, and it maintained that policy for more than 100 years. Second, the VOC decided to free some of its employees from their contracts and to allow them to establish farms of their own to supply the Dutch fleets, thereby giving rise to a local settler population. Third, to supply the needs of the fleets as well as of the growing local population, the Dutch expanded ever farther into the lands of the Khoikhoi, engaging in a series of wars that, together with the effects of imported diseases, decimated the indigenous population.

Van Riebeeck had concluded within two months of the establishment of the Cape settlement that slave labor would be needed for the hardest and dirtiest work. Some thought was given to enslaving Khoikhoi men, but the idea was rejected on the grounds that such a policy would be both costly and dangerous. With a European population that did not exceed 200 during the settlement’s first five years, war against neighbors numbering more than 20,000 would have been foolhardy. Moreover, the Dutch feared that Khoikhoi people, if enslaved, could always escape into the local community, whereas foreigners would find it much more difficult to elude their “masters.”

Between 1652 and 1657, a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to obtain men from the Dutch East Indies and from Mauritius. In 1658, however, the VOC landed two shiploads of slaves at the Cape, one containing more than 200 people brought from Dahomey (later Benin), the second with almost 200 people, most of them children, captured from a Portuguese slaver off the coast of Angola. Except for a few individuals, these were to be the only slaves ever brought to the Cape from West Africa. Thereafter, all the slaves imported into the Cape until the British stopped the trade in 1807 were from East Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, and South and Southeast Asia. Large numbers were brought from India, Ceylon, and the Indonesian archipelago. Prisoners from other countries in the VOC’s empire were also enslaved. The slave population, which exceeded that of the European settlers until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, was overwhelmingly male and was thus dependent on constant imports of new slaves to maintain and to augment its size.

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