The Society

South Africa Table of Contents

SOCIETY IS STILL BEING FORMED in South Africa in the 1990s. The region's earliest cultures have long since been displaced, and most people living in South Africa today are descendants of Africans who came to the region in the first millennium A.D. These early populations did not remain in one place over the centuries, however. Instead, their settlement patterns changed as numerous small chiefdoms were thrown into upheaval by increasing conflicts over land, the arrival of European settlers after the seventeenth century, and nineteenth-century Zulu expansionism. During the twentieth century, several million South Africans were displaced by the government, especially after the country's system of apartheid (see Glossary) invalidated many of their land claims.

South Africa's turbulent social history should not obscure the fact that this region probably was home to some of the earliest humans on earth. Archaeological evidence suggests that human populations evolved in the broad region of south central and eastern Africa, perhaps as early as 2 million years ago, but at least 200,000 years ago. Fossil remains of Homo sapiens in eastern South Africa have been tentatively dated to 50,000 years ago, and other remains show evidence of iron smelting about 1,700 years ago in the area that became the northern Transvaal. The evolutionary links between the earliest inhabitants and twentieth-century African populations are not well known, but it is clear that San and Khoikhoi (also called Khoi) peoples have been in southern Africa longer than any other living population.

San hunters and gatherers and Khoikhoi herdsmen, known together as Khoisan because of cultural and linguistic similarities, were called "Bushmen" and "Hottentots" by early European settlers. Both of these terms are considered pejorative in the late twentieth century and are seldom used. Most of the nearly 3 million South Africans of mixed-race ancestry (so-called "coloureds") are descendants of Khoisan peoples and Europeans over the past three centuries.

Bantu language speakers who arrived in southern Africa from the north during the first millennium A.D. displaced or killed some Khoisan peoples they encountered, but they allowed many others to live among them peacefully. Most Bantu societies were organized into villages and chiefdoms, and their economies relied primarily on livestock and crop cultivation. Their early ethnic identities were fluid and shifted according to political and social demands. For example, the Nguni or Nguni speakers, one of the largest Bantu language groups, have been a diverse and expanding population for several centuries. When groups clashed with one another, or their communities became too large, their political identity could easily shift to emphasize their loyalty to a specific leader or descent from a specific forebear.

Historians believe that the ancestors of the Nguni-speaking Xhosa peoples were the first Bantu speakers to reach the southern tip of the continent. The Zulu, a related group of small chiefdoms, arrived soon after, and by the early nineteenth century they had evolved into a large, predatory kingdom. Zulu armies displaced or destroyed many small chiefdoms, and in the upheaval some of those who fled north probably retraced the pathways their ancestors had used centuries earlier as they moved into the region. Others were subjugated and assimilated into Zulu society, and a few--the forebears of today's Swazi and Sotho peoples--resisted Zulu advances and withdrew into mountainous regions that would later become independent nations.

European travelers and explorers visited southern Africa over the centuries and, after the mid-seventeenth century, began settling near the Cape of Good Hope. Dutch immigrants moved inland from the coast in search of farmland and independence, especially during the nineteenth century, when their migration became known as the "Great Trek." British merchants, farmers, and missionaries arrived in large numbers during the nineteenth century. Asians, including merchants and traders as well as laborers and slaves, arrived from India, China, Malaya, and the Indonesian archipelago. South Africa began to develop a multiethnic mercantile, trading, and financial class, based primarily on the country's mineral wealth after the discovery of diamonds and gold in the 1880s.

The South African War of 1899-1902, one of the Anglo-Boer Wars, hastened the process of assimilation that made South Africa one of the twentieth century's most diverse populations. After the war, East Europeans arrived in growing numbers, many of them fleeing religious or political persecution. South Africans of African descent were increasingly marginalized as the concept of racial separation became a central theme in political debate and a key factor in government strategies for economic development.

The mining industry fueled the development of the interior plateau region as the nation's industrial heartland. Agriculture was made possible in this relatively arid land scattered with rocky outcrops only by employing indigenous or imported laborers at low wages and by the extensive use of irrigation. These measures allowed rural whites to achieve living standards that would have been impossible elsewhere and contributed to the growth of flourishing urban centers. The earliest of these were Cape Town, where the relatively dry hinterland proved ideal for grain farming and vineyards, and Durban, where agricultural development centered around sugarcane, forestry, and a variety of food crops.

The government adopted elements of legally entrenched racial supremacy in the twentieth century that culminated in the legal separation of the races, or apartheid, after 1948. Some believed that apartheid would allow parallel development of all ethnic and racial groups, but it was soon clear to most South Africans and to others that apartheid was an intolerable system of racial privilege and subordination bolstered by the frequent use of force.

Until the mid-twentieth century, white South Africans' views on race were relatively consistent with those of other Western nations. But after World War II, when the rest of the world began working toward greater integration among races and nations, South Africa veered in the opposite direction. By the 1960s, white domination had become entrenched, even as colonial rule was ending in the rest of Africa and racial segregation was condemned throughout much of the world.

As a result, South Africa became increasingly marginalized within the international community. Apartheid became so repugnant to so many people worldwide that this wealthy nation faced mounting economic and political pressures to end it. South Africa's growing isolation, together with the disastrous effects of apartheid, convinced most whites that racial separation would, in the long run, not guarantee their safety or prosperity. The government began dismantling racial barriers in the early 1990s, but apartheid-era distinctions left lasting marks on South African society, and the new, multiracial government in the mid-1990s faced too many pressing needs to spend much time celebrating its country's newfound character.

Ethnic Groups and Language
Health and Welfare
Women in Society

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress