A brief history of South Africa

A look back at the great periods that built the Rainbow Nation.
A review of a people’s struggle for its rights, and a man who has become a legend.


Two men pose for me in Pretoria, in front of the Court of Justice where Mandela was convicted.

A land without nation

South Africa, populated by different tribes, is a treasure trove of resources, conducive to colonization. It was to be done by the Dutch (Boers), the English, and more modestly by 1200 French Protestants (the Huguenots, who fled religious oppression following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes* in 1685).
To exploit this new land of promise, the whites must enslave the local people, monopolize their lands and livestock. Later, the Indian, Indonesian and Malagasy populations will increase the ranks of this cheap labour force. The slave trade is in full swing, forming the foundation of the future Rainbow Nation.

Local tribal leaders are no match for the arrival of these Europeans who settle in Cape Town, first, so that the Dutch East India Company can supply water and food to their commercial vessels in India and Indonesia. The san renamed bushmen (the tribe of the film The Gods must be crazy) by the colonists, are massacred (to such an extent that today they only remain in Botswana and Namibia).

*The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 by the Sun-King Louis XIV prohibits any other religion (therefore Protestant) outside the Catholic religion.

The « Grand Trek »: the South African Far North East

Grand Trek Boers


1835 to 1840.

Wagons pulled by oxen trample the dust of the vast desert expanses, women, children, and slaves in the rear : the Afrikaners (or oxen) set out to conquer promised lands, followed by their livestock. They fled from the English in Cape Town, who had dominated them since 1806, and were outraged that they decided to abolish slavery and thus deprive them of a free labour force (40,000 people) without compensation.During this period, 30,000 Boers decided to migrate to the interior of the country in order to found a free and independent community governed by its own laws. They left to populate the lands of the African tribes, fighting the Ndébélés and the Zulus.

But Afrikaner history claims that these lands were uninhabited. And that's on this basis that the ideology of Apartheid will be built : Europeans and blacks would have arrived at the same time on the territory.Of course, this isn't true: the san people had been present in the Cape region for 15,000 years, the khoi koi (or Hottentots) 2000 years, and the Bantus since the 2nd century. The myth of the virgin land doesn't hold.

As for the interior of the lands where the oxen are headed, the zulus kings had already taken charge themselves of emptying part of the territory by waging war between tribes. There was only one type of enemy left to face : the zulus kings, who lost for lack of adequate weapons. The myth of the white man against Black Peril was born.

Grand Trek

Some ten years later, the British eventually recognized the Boer republics (the Transvaal and the Free State of Orange).

Zulus Kings versus British Empire

Guerriers zoulous

Shaka is the first South African king to have federated so many tribes around him.
 Strategist and visionary warrior, he created a real army of craft and in 4 years succeeded in conquering a territory even greater than France.


Tyrant, bloody, cruel (he had more than 7,000 men and women executed at the death of his mother, killed the old men of the defeated peoples), he nevertheless became a legendary pride for the Zulu people oppressed by the whites.
 A model of strength and rebellion.

Only the Zulu warriors « Impi ebumbu » managed to defeat the English, at the battle of Isandhlwana on January 22, 1879, thanks in particular to the tactics of the « head of the buffalo» (attacking simultaneously from the sides and the center to encircle the opponent) of former king Shaka.
The song Impi by Johnny Clegg, relates this battle, very important for the zulu people.

Hopeless battalion destined to die
Broken by the Benders of Kings
Vainglorious General and Victorian
Would cost him and eight hundred men their lives


The (old) film Zulu dawn recounts the English battle against the Zulu warriors.


Humiliated by this defeat, the British rallied to victory and captured King Cetshwayo kaMpand. They dismember the kingdom founded by Shaka by dividing it into thirteen territories.

British against Boers, on a land of gold and diamond

For 30 years, everything went pretty well between Boers and English. The latter maintain the coastal zone in order to expand their trade, and Afrikaner farmers cultivate the land. Until something awakened the British appetite: diamonds were discovered in Kimberley (1867), and gold (1886) in the Transvaal, in Dutch zones. War is inevitable. It will last 3 years. Two characters will play it : Cécile Rhodes and Paul Kruger, the same one who gave his name to the famous park. He will have to go into exile when the English win the conflict.

To sum up, both sides fought a war to share a country that did not even belong to them, and then, when the conflict was over, came to an agreement on a common enemy: blacks, 7 times as many as themselves…


The South African Union was born. Boers demand racial segregation from the British. The beginnings of Apartheid. Birth of the townships and the Job reservation act.