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South Africa's Heritage

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South African Flag

The South African flag is the only six-colored national flag in the world. The central design of the flag, beginning at the flag-pole in a V form and flowing into a single horizontal band to the outer edge of the fly, symbolizes the convergence of diverse elements within South African society, taking the road ahead in unity.

The country of South Africa came into being through the 1910 Act of Union that united two British colonies and two independent republics into the Union of South Africa. Well before then, with the establishment of the first colonial settlement, South Africa became a society officially divided into colonizer and native, white and nonwhite, citizen and subject, employed and indentured, free and slave. The result was a fragmented national identity symbolized and implemented by the white minority government's policy of racial separation. Since the first nonracial elections in 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has attempted to overcome this legacy and create unified national loyalties on the basis of equal legal status and an equitable allocation of resources.

For important and relevant information that has not made it into these paragaphs, we encourage you to refer to the list of source links at the bottom of this page.

Origins Of The Rainbow Nation

Emeritus Desmond Tutu first used this phrase to capture the multicultural nature of South Africa.

African Groups and Clans

Archeological evident indicates that the first modern inhabitants of South Africa were the hunter-gatherer San ("bushman") and the Khoi ("Hottentot") peoples, who herded livestock. Bantu-speaking clans that were the ancestors of the Nguni (today's Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, and Ndebele peoples) and Tswana-Sotho language groups (today's Basuto, Tswana, and Sepedi) migrated down from east Africa as early as the eleventh century (archeological evidence recently confirmed this through pottery specimens). By the time the first Europeans had arrived an integration of San and Khoi had created another cultural group, the Khoisan.

European Settlers

The first European settlers in South Africa came on the scene in the mid 17th century. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) established a permanent settlement in what is now Cape Town’s Table Bay. The intent was to have a secure base where ships headed for Asia could shelter and restock supplies. Most of the VOC expedition planned to ultimately return to Europe. But strained relations with the neighboring Khoisan, led the VOC to release a group of settlement employees from their contracts and encouraged them to establish farms from which they could then sell produce and meat to the VOC. Not only did this establish permanent residents in the region, it marked the beginning of European expansion and the importation of slaves and indentured servants from Asia.


The Dutch port workers, turned farmers, continued to expand into the rugged hinterlands of the north and east, living a semi nomadic pastoralist lifestyle, similar to that of the American pioneers and the African Khoisan they were displacing. They were the Trekboers or Wandering Farmers, later shortened to Boers. German, French and British adventurers soon joined Boers in the hinterland. They eventually became more settled and established communities across the region. Unlike many of the European settlers in other parts of Africa, the Boers no longer connected themselves to their European heritage. A new language and cultural identity evolved – the Afrikaner. A large component of this culture was the idea of racial superiority. After several violent wars, skirmishes, political clashes and the establishment of independent rule, Afrikaners held the most political power in the country.


Beginning in 1948, the white elected National Party government officially implemented a policy of apartheid (an Afrikaans term for the state of being apart). The policy put all South Africans into three racial categories: Bantu (black African), white, or Coloured (of mixed race). A fourth category, Asian (Indians and Pakistanis), was added later. The system of apartheid was enforced by a series of laws passed in the 1950s: the Group Areas Act of 1950 assigned races to different residential and business sections in urban areas, and the Land Acts of 1954 and 1955 restricted nonwhite residence to specific areas. These laws further restricted the already limited right of black Africans to own land, entrenching the white minority's control of over 80 percent of South African land. In addition, other laws prohibited most social contacts between the races; enforced the segregation of public facilities and the separation of educational standards; created race-specific job categories; restricted the powers of nonwhite unions; and curbed nonwhite participation in government. Implementation and enforcement of apartheid was accompanied by tremendous suppression of opposition, censorship and government condoned violence.

Beginning of Unity

As antiapartheid pressure mounted within and outside South Africa, the South African government, led by President F. W. de Klerk, began to dismantle the apartheid system in the early 1990s. The year 1990 brought a National Party government dedicated to reform and also saw the legalization of formerly banned black congresses and the release of imprisoned black leaders. In 1994 the country's constitution was rewritten and free general elections were held for the first time in its history. With the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa's first black president, the last vestiges of the apartheid system were finally outlawed.

Note: Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk were jointly awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize "for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa"

Truth & Reconciliation

Following the 1994 elections, focus turned to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Under the dictum of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "Without forgiveness there is no future, but without confession there can be no forgiveness" South Africa began the process of healing. The commission operated by allowing victims to tell their stories and the perpetrators to confess their guilt without fear of prosecution. The telling of these stories offered some catharsis to the people and communities shattered by their past.

Sharing Stories Of Growth

South Africa is a nation on a journey of self discovery. It is reinventing itself, determined to realize the dreams of a united nation with opportunity for all, regardless of background, heritage, religion or color. South Africa offers travelers a rare chance to experience a country that is rebuilding itself after a profound change. The country’s political history is so young that those who lived through it are still there to tell the tales. The stories of South Africa’s people, the story of the country as a whole, are ones of growth and hope.

Information Sources:
South African History Online
Stanford University Student Article
African Encyclopedia

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