The Republic of South Africa is a country situated at the southern tip of Africa. It is bordered by Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe to the north, and Mozambique and Swaziland to the north and west. It also completely surrounds the country of Lesotho, and has coastlines on the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

The country covers 1,222,081 sq km, and has a legislative capital and port at Cape Town. The administrative capital is Pretoria, and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital. South Africa's main mountain range is the Drakensberg Mountains. Table Mountain overlooks Table Bay on the Cape of Good Hope. The Limpopo and Orange are the main rivers. Part of the Kalahari Desert lies in the country, and the Kruger National Park is also here. South Africa is about twice the size of France or Texas, but only about 10% of the land is arable, as the country is so dry.

The country's population in December 2003 was 45,919,200. South Africa is the world's largest producer of gold, and also has large reserves of platinum, diamonds, and uranium. English and Afrikaans are both official languages, as are 9 African languages, including Xhosa, Zulu, and Sesotho.

South African politics was dominated by the apartheid system of racial discrimination between 1948 and 1994, when free elections took place under a majority-rule constitution. The African National Congress (ANC) under Nelson Mandela won a landslide victory, amid scenes of violence. Since then, multiracial politics have continued, and Mandela was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki in June 1999. The country faces a huge HIV crisis with 5m people carrying the virus in October, 2003. There are hopes that the rate of infection may be slowing, however.

South African history

Evidence shows that Khoisan hunter-gatherers were among the earliest human beings, and some converted to herding animals a few hundred years BC. Agriculture and Iron Age technology followed, and gained a firm foothold in the Transvaal by 500 AD, and in the Transkei by 1000.

Cattle-herding, mining, and hunting led to the flourishing of African states in the Transvaal by c1500, and in Natal by c1800. Dutch settlers colonised the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, and were reinforced by French Huguenots after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685.

The Cape Colony fought several frontier wars with the Khoisan and Xhosa tribes, expanding its territory, but the British captured it from the Dutch in 1795-1803, and finally in 1806.

The Boer War

After the British abolished slavery in 1833, angry Dutch farmers known as Boers left the Cape and trekked to Natal where they won a battle against the Zulus at Blood River in 1838. Britain conquered Natal in 1843, but allowed Boer independent states in the Transvaal and Orange Free State from 1852-1854 onwards.

Britain annexed the Transvaal in 1877, but the Boers rebelled successfully in 1881. Diamonds and gold were discovered at Kimberley and the Transvaal in the 1870s and 1880s, leading to the immigration of British uitlanders. The region's new wealth led to the founding of Johannesburg in 1887, and the mining magnate Cecil Rhodes became prime minister of Cape Colony in 1890. Rhodes tried to seize the Transvaal in the abortive "Jameson Raid", and this failure led to war between the British and uitlanders against the Boers, starting in 1899. The Boers lost the war and their independence, but the Treaty of Vareeniging in 1902 guaranteed their rights as whites over all blacks.

In 1910 the South African colonies were united under a British governor general in Pretoria. A prime minister represented white voters, and from 1931 politicians would also appoint the governor general.

1914 to the 1961 republic

War with Germany began in 1914, and South Africa conquered German South-West Africa (now Namibia) in 1915. A "colour bar" was enforced to keep black workers out of skilled jobs. South Africa became an autonomous British dominion in 1931, and the National Party began to develop its ideas of racial segregation. When the party came to power in 1948, it enacted its apartheid policies against Africans, Indians and "coloured" (mixed race) people. The ANC launched a campaign of defiance in 1952, and in 1960 police shot and killed 56 demonstrators in Sharpeville. Reaction around the world was one of outrage, and South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961, becoming a republic.

Isolation and reform

Amidst worldwide condemnation, South Africa's apartheid policies continued. The country continued military interventions in Angola and in Namibia, now illegally occupied after a UN mandate ran out in 1966. Independence for Namibia finally came in 1988.

The Soweto riots in 1976 led to more bloodshed, and the election of P.W. Botha in 1978 meant a tough stance on apartheid. Rioting continued in the face of a new constitution raising Botha to the office of president, but granting no relief to the black community. A state of emergency was declared between 1985 and 1988. 1989 saw Botha step down as National Party leader in favour of F.W. de Klerk.

ANC leader Nelson Mandela was finally released in 1990, paving the way for constitutional reform. The ANC won a landslide election victory in 1994, and Truth and Reconciliation Commission was appointed in 1995 to investigate apartheid-era human rights abuses.

The Hutchinson Encyclopedia, Helicon Publishing Ltd, 1996
Chronicle of the World, Chronicle Communications Ltd, London, 1989

Many thanks to StrawberryFrog for his advice and help.