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Brief History

Online Catalogue | Introducing Southern Africa |  Brief History

A Brief History of Southern Africa

The Southern African subcontinent is one of the most ancient regions on Earth, with rock formations in South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains dating back over 4 billion years. It is also one of the first places on Earth where life was to develop, as evidenced by the discovery of 3 billion year-old microscopic fossilized bacteria in the Barbeton Mountains on South Africa's border with Swaziland. From single cell organisms, through the great Dinosaurs, to the mammals of today, Southern Africa has been host to every form of life that has dominated our planet.


The human species also has ancient roots in the region, going back some 3.3 million years. Extensive archaeological evidence of Australopithecus africanus, the oldest of our direct Hominid ancestors, has been uncovered in the so-called 'Cradle of Humankind' outside Johannesburg, as well as elsewhere in the region. Ever since the world's first specimen of Homo Sapiens Sapiens was to emerge from 'Border Cave' in Kwazulu-Natal's Lebombo Mountains 120,000 years ago, the region has been host to an amazing diversity of tribes and ethnic groups. For 118,000 years it was the preserve of stone-age hunter-gatherers, the so-called San bushmen, who have left us an amazing heritage of rock art and stone implements.


Then, some 2,000 years ago, the San in northern Botswana came into contact with iron-age, pastoralist Bantu tribes who were migrating south through the continent. These San learned their iron-smelting and agricultural techniques, and ventured forth to conquer the southern reaches of Africa as the Khoikhoi (Hottentots as the first Europeans were to call them). By 500 AD the Bantu tribes themselves were to push further south, establishing settlements in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and the northern part of South Africa.


The 12th to 15th centuries were dominated by the highly developed Great Zimbabwe civilization in the north, and the Khoikhoi in the south. In 1488 Bartholomew Dias was to round the Cape of Good Hope, heralding yet another era in the region's history. The first permanent Dutch settlers arrived in Cape Town with Jan Van Riebeek in 1652, and were to remain largely restricted to this south-western corner of the region until the early 19th century, when the 'great trek' sent them into the largely unexplored hinterland. At the same time, a mighty Zulu empire was being carved out by the warrior-king Shaka in the north-east of the region; the collision of these two great military forces sent shock waves through the subcontinent, the effects of which are felt to this day.


The next century was to be characterized by explosive conflict and warfare as various European powers struggled with each other and local groups for control of the region. Towards the end of the 19th century German settlers established themselves in present-day Namibia, while Portuguese were settling in Mozambique and Angola, and South African settlers and British colonials were moving into Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia).


The last 100 years have been characterized by racial conflict as the Bantu majority across the region sought to throw off the oppressive yoke of colonialism and white-minority rule. The region's most recent era was heralded in by the appointment, in 1994, of Nelson Mandela as South Africa's first democratically elected leader. Every indication is that this will be Southern Africa's most peaceful and prosperous period in over 500 years.

Online Catalogue | Introducing Southern Africa |  Brief History