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South Africa Profile (A Brief History)

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

South Africa, officially the Republic of South Africa is located at the southernmost part of Africa, with a population just above 59 million people it is Africa’s sixth most populous nation. South Africa has three cities that serve as capitals: executive Pretoria, judicial Bloemfontein, and legislative Cape Town. South Africa’s population is comprised of 80% Black African ancestry divided among a variety of ethnic groups and the remaining population is of European and Asian ancestry.

Early history of South Africa

South Africa contains some of the oldest archaeological and human-fossil sites in the world. Archaeologists have recovered extensive fossil remains from a series of caves in the Gauteng Province. These findings suggest that various hominid species existed in South Africa from about three million years ago and leading up to modern humans, Homo sapiens, having been found to roam South Africa roughly 170,000 years ago.

Bantu Expansion

The Bantu expansion refers to the migrations of the original Bantu speaking group of migrants roughly about 3,500 years ago, from West Africa into Sub-Saharan Africa. In the process the Bantu speaking settlers displaced or absorbed the inhabitants of Central Africa. The primary evidence of expansion lies in the linguistic core of the Bantu languages, which comprises of languages originating from Cameroon and Nigeria, West Africa.

The expansion is believed to have taken place between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago into two main waves, the first proceeding directly east towards East-Africa, and the second and largest went south along the African coast towards Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and as far south as South Africa.

Kingdom of Mapungubwe

By the 11th century large scale powerful Bantu-speaking states began to emerge, one of the first was the Kingdom of Mapungubwe sometime between 1075 – 1220 AD. The kingdom was likely divided into a three-tiered hierarchy with commoners inhabiting low-lying sites, district leaders occupying small hilltops, and the capital at Mapungubwe hill as the supreme authority. Life in Mapungubwe was centered on family and farming.

Kingdom of Zimbabwe

Roughly around the collapse of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, around 1000 AD, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe grew to a powerful city-state located in modern-day Zimbabwe. The rulers of Zimbabwe brought stonemasonry traditions of the Mapungubwe and constructed elaborate stone buildings and walls. Just like the Mapungubwe they also had a three-tiered class structure. The Kingdom gained wealth by taxing other rulers throughout the region. The Kingdom at its height had over 150 tributaries, becoming much larger than their predecessors. The Kingdom was the dominant ivory and mined minerals like gold, copper, and iron.

Mutapa Empire

Established roughly around 1400 AD, the Kingdom overtook the Kingdom of Zimbabwe and became a vast empire that covered territories from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, through South Africa. The empire had a well-trained army but grew rapidly by inviting other states to join the empire and offered membership to its Great Council of the Empire if they did not resist. The empire had an agricultural economy at its core with mining operations that fueled trade and the empires wealth. By 1450 the empire divided into smaller Kingdoms.

Mthethwa Empire

The Mthethwa Empire was a South Africa state that arose in the 18th century, their ancestral origins dates back 700 years to the Nguni tribes of the Great Lakes in Central Africa. The kingdom consisted of 30 Nguni Chiefdoms, lineages, and clans. The Nguni tribes formed a confederacy of tribes including the Zulu clan with the Mthethwa clan dominating.

Zulu Empire

The Zulu Clan would grow into an empire that would dominate much of South Africa. The Kingdom was led by Shaka Zulu, a prominent military officer in the Mthethwa Empire. Under Shaka’s leadership the Zulu Nation developed into a well-trained military power and quickly began assimilating other smaller clans under its control through other might or patronage.

Xhosa Kingdom

The Xhosa were part of the South African Nguni migration which slowly moved south from the region of the Great Lakes sometime during the 16ht century. The Xhosa had occupied much of the Southernmost part of South Africa and were the first Kingdoms to encounter European traders and eventually the first to fight colonization by Dutch and British invasions.

Colonialization of South Africa

Dutch merchants were the initial colonizers of South Africa in the late 17th century. Jan Van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company established a merchant station at the Cape of Good Hope, modern-day Cape Town in 1652. The Dutch would expand Cape Town eastward which ushered in a series of wars with the Xhosa people, the Dutch and Xhosa would fight for the next century for control of South Africa. In Dutch controlled territories the settlers would import thousands of slaves from Indonesia, Madagascar, and other parts of eastern Africa to work in the growing colony.

Following the Napoleonic Wars in 1806 the Dutch colony was fully occupied by Great Britain and became part of the British Empire. The British would continue the Dutch wars against the locals and fully colonize South Africa by 1902 leaving a trail of blood with over two million South Africans dead. After World War I the Union of South Africa was formed and became a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. South Africa gained its full sovereignty with the Balfour Declaration 1926 and the Statute of Westminster 1931. It would be governed by a constitutional monarch, with the Crown being represented by a governor-general. That Union would come to an end with the enactment of the constitution of 1961 by which it became a republic and left the British Commonwealth, only whites could vote.

Apartheid South Africa

In 1948, the National Party was elected to power. It strengthened the racial segregation begun under the Dutch and British colonial rule by creating three races and developed rights and limitations for each. The white minority which was less than 20% controlled the vastly larger black majority. Whites would enjoy the highest standard of living in all of Africa while the black majority remained disadvantage by almost every standard, including income, education, housing, and life expectancy.

Despite opposition from within the country and outside the country, the government legislated for a continuation of apartheid with violence becoming widespread with anti-apartheid organizations such as the African National Congress, the Azanian People’s Organization, and the Pan-Africanist Congress carrying our warfare and urban sabotage against the federal government. Apartheid became increasingly controversial and several countries began to boycott business with the South African government and eventually international sanctions with be placed on South Africa, and divestment of holdings by foreign investors.

The economic pressure on the South African Government would eventually lead to the National Party government lifting the ban on the African National Congress and other political organizations in 1990. That year it also released political prisoner Nelson Mandela from prison after serving 27 years. South Africa held its first free election which included the entire population in 1994 which the ANC won by an overwhelming majority, electing Nelson Mandela as President.

Economy of South Africa

Until recently South Africa’s 444 billion-dollar GDP had been Africa’s largest economy, but it is now second to Nigeria’s 668 billion-dollar GDP.


South Africa is the world’s largest producer and exporter of gold, platinum, chrome, and manganese, the second largest palladium producer and the fourth largest producer of diamonds. It produces 80% of the world’s platinum and 60% of the world’s coal. The mining industry represents nearly 26% of GDP and employs 25% of the workforce.


The services sector which represents 60% of GDP and employs 70% of the workforce, includes finance, real estate, and business services. The South African stock market also has one of the largest market capitalizations in the world and ranks 20th in the world.


Agriculture represents the smallest portion of GDP at 2% and employs about 5% of the workforce. South Africa is one of the smallest agricultural industries in Africa. The agricultural industry is market driven therefore produces commodities on demand. South Africa is the worlds sixth largest producer of wine and Africa’s largest producer of corn and sugar.