South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Unit 1. Introduction

The history of the complex and changing interaction between different peoples in South Africa, as in the United States, has been influenced by factors such as race, class, gender, culture, and ideology. While it may be tempting to try to understand South African history in purely racial terms, it is not that simple. It also involves the lives and actions of individuals. Their personal stories not only illustrate that the classification of racial identities by the apartheid system was crude, unrealistic, and cruel; they also point to the creativity of their resistance, survival, or accommodation to racial oppression and economic exploitation.

South Africa’s diversity has also been shaped by its geography, geology, and natural environment. This country that is twice the size of Texas has tremendously rich deposits of gold, diamonds, coal, uranium and other rare metals. Numerous rivers, including the Limpopo, Vaal, Caledon, and Garipe (Orange), crisscross a high, dry plateau—the veld, Dutch for field or plain. Across the veld, which comprises two-thirds of the country, are areas of variable rainfall and grassland flora. The southeast and southwest corners of the country are composed of well-watered coastal plains that are separated from the interior by escarpments such as the Drakensberg Mountains. The climate varies from warm temperate across much of the country to Mediterranean, subtropical, and desert.

The diverse geography and climate of the region proved an ideal laboratory for the evolution of humankind. Early hominids likely began here (or in the Rift Valley of East Africa) around 3.5 million years ago, and homo sapiens around 100,000 years ago. The environment of South Africa played a central role not only in human evolution, but also in human settlement. In a climate of variable rainfall it was crucial for people to develop flexible, mixed economies. In the drier western half of the country, most of which receives less than 50 cm. per year of rainfall, communities tended to avoid settlement in grasslands and congregated on well-defended hilltops. The fertile, rain-soaked southeast region attracted a larger population than the west. Relatively few people initially settled the subtropical northeast lowlands; rampant disease such as African sleeping sickness (caused by the tsetse fly) and malaria (carried by mosquitoes) made living conditions difficult for settlers.

Over the centuries, African societies underwent important social and cultural transformations. Khoisan and Bantu-speaking people have been described respectively as hunter-gatherers and pastoralists (Khoisan) and agro-herders (Bantu speakers), but the reality was often much more complex, with a blending of different ways of life. The tens of thousands of cave paintings and petroglyphs by San-speaking people in southern Africa are among the largest treasure of humankind’s heritage. Social life in Nguni and Sotho-Tswana societies centered on the family in the village or homestead. Women’s farming and domestic work was important to the overall health and wealth of the family. The centrality of women was represented by the importance attached to bride wealth (lobola [Nguni] or mohadi [Sotho-Tswana]), where the groom transfers wealth in the form of cattle (today cash is also used) to his prospective in-laws in exchange for the right to marry their daughter.
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH