Learn About South Africa
Covering the colonial period through 1994, this article discusses the struggle by the British, Dutch Afrikaners, and Africans for the mineral-rich country of South Africa.
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
Sir Francis Drake once called the southernmost tip of Africa, where South Africa is located, "the fairest cape in all the world." This beautiful, lush land has been marked by one of the fiercest struggles for freedom and human rights in the 20th century. The eyes of the world have been on South Africa, while many people have fought to overcome unfair laws that had once forced people of different races to live apart. Now, South Africa is changing its course.
About twice the size of Texas, South Africa is located at the very bottom of Africa, and its shores are lapped by the Indian and southern Atlantic oceans. While not a huge country, South Africa has many contrasts in land and climate. Most of the country's interior is made up of velds, or plateaus. Surrounding them is a ring of highlands called the Great Escarpment. Along the coast is a narrow plateau. In the north, South Africa includes part of the Kalahari Desert. Most of South Africa is semi-arid, with warm days and cool nights. Farmers must irrigate their land because only 10% of the land is good for crops.
It is what lies underneath South Africa's land that makes it very rich — minerals, such as gold and diamonds. Producing millions of carats of diamonds a year and over 150,000 kilograms of gold, South Africa is one of the top producers of diamonds and gold in the world. It is the leading industrial country in Africa, with factories that make everything from cars and plastics to electrical equipment.
Many tourists now visit South Africa to see its cities, such as Cape Town, with its famous Table Mountain nearby. Visitors also flock to South Africa's huge wild-game parks to see lions and elephants and take in the country's great natural beauty. Although tourism in South Africa is now a billion-dollar industry, the country has not always been so popular with the international community. South Africa's long-standing policies against people of color prompted other countries to take actions, especially in the 1980s, such as embargoes and bans on South African sports teams and companies that discouraged investment and tourism.
Just after World War II, a group known as the Nationalists — whose ancestors were mainly Dutch — came to power. They believed that people of different races should be kept very far apart in their country, calling their policy "apartheid" (pronounced a-par-tate). The word means "apartness." Laws divided the South African people into four groups based on their race: whites, blacks, Asians, and people of mixed race, known as coloreds. South Africa's population is 75% black, 14% white, and 11% colored and Indian.
Under the apartheid policies, black people were forced to live in small, barren areas called "homelands" or crowd into dangerous shantytowns on the edges of cities. They were not allowed to vote, and most held low-paying jobs, if they were lucky. The government spent twelve times the money they spent on black school children on white school children.
The policies lasted for many decades, despite efforts by people who opposed apartheid, such as Nelson Mandela and his group, the African National Congress. Mandela spent 27 years in jail for his activities, but he remained dedicated to the cause of freedom. Slowly, life began to change in South Africa. In the 1980s, many countries refused to do business with South Africa. South African athletes weren't allowed to compete in the Olympics or in other athletic competitions. Finally, in 1990, South Africa's president released Nelson Mandela from jail. Mandela was elected president in 1994 and people of all races came together to draft a new constitution, which was adopted in 1996.
Today, black and white children can go to school together or live in the same neighborhood, but most whites are still far better off financially than most blacks, and the struggle to overcome the effects of apartheid and bad feelings between some blacks and whites remains. No one knows what South Africa's future course will be, but many citizens are trying to build this future together.
Ancient times: Bushmen and Hottentots were the original inhabitants. Later, tall cattle-owning Bantu peoples, such as the Xhosa and Zulus, moved in from the north.
1488: Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese explorer, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope.
1600s: Dutch settled in the Cape of Good Hope and called themselves Boers, a Dutch word meaning "farmers."
1806: Great Britain seized the Cape. Many Dutch trekked north and found two republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.
1867: Diamonds were discovered in the region.
1899–1902: The Anglo-Boer War took place between the English and the Afrikaners, who are Dutch descendants.
1910: The British, after their victory, created the Union of South Africa.
1948: The policy of apartheid (a-par-tate), or separation of the races, became official.
1951: The Group Areas Act set aside specific communities for each of the whites, Indians, Africans and those of mixed race. Blacks lost South African citizenship in a forced move into South Africa's "homelands."
1960: The African political organizations were banned.
1961: The Union became the Republic of South Africa.
1963: Leader of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela was given a life-sentence in prison for high-treason.
1990: Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison.
1991: President F. W. de Klerk announced plans to end the laws of racial separation.
1994: South Africa had the first elections in which all of its people can vote and they elected Nelson Mandela as president.
And Did You Know That...
- One of the most unusual trees in South Africa is the baobab. A baobab can live a thousand years, and is famous for its thick trunk, which can be up to 50 feet in diameter!
- The city of Johannesburg was built at the site of huge gold mines, For many years, builders built homes and neighborhoods around huge piles of dirt left over from the digging.
- You have to be careful getting out of your car when you visit South Africa's Kruger National Park. The park — which is about the size of Massachusetts — is full of animals, including lions, elephants, wildebeests, hyenas, giraffes, vultures, and other creatures.
- There are Bull sharks, Tiger sharks, and Great White sharks off all the beaches in Durban, South Africa, but it's safe to go in the water. The beaches are protected by shark net.
- A South African physician, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, performed the first open-heart surgery
- South Africa is home to one of the world's deadliest snakes, the black mamba. The venom from these 12-foot-long snakes can paralyze and kill someone in a few minutes.
Learn more about South Africa in these selected Web sites:
View and learn about the exotic animals of Kruger National Park at the Kruger Park Website.
Read about the life of Nelson Mandela. This site offers a wealth of information from his biography to letters he wrote to his wife during his 18 years in the notorious prison of Robben Island, before being moved to Pollsmoor Prison for the last nine years of his sentence.
Listen to South Africa's national anthem while you read the history of the multi-lingual song.