Introducing South African Plants—The Cape Floral Kingdom

David Conrad's History of South Africa

David Conrad|September 28, 2011|Blog Post

If you are anything like me, exploring a country means not only appreciating its aesthetics, but also getting to the core of how its people and culture have shaped its history. And, the amazing part of Zegrahm’s upcoming expedition to South Africa is that we’ll see its rich history come to life. Our journey is punctuated by encounters with the local people—enjoying their food, language, and customs—and visits to some of the country’s most historically significant places.

Acknowledged as a cradle of the human species, South Africa is also regarded as the source of human creative art. This fascinating fact is based on several findings that attest to the time-depth of South Africa’s cultural history. Imagine the discovery of 75,000 year-old snail shells drilled with holes, indicating they were meant to be strung as a necklace; paintings on flat stones by San people that, in some cases, may be 26,000 years old; and cave paintings dating to around 10,000 BC. The San, who were mainly hunter-gatherers, and the culturally similar Khoikhoi, who were mostly pastoralists, were the only indigenous inhabitants of South Africa’s western Cape. The eastern Cape, south of the Limpopo River, was home to Bantu-speaking black African cultures including, among several others, Zulu in the north and Xhosa in the south. 

In the mid-seventeenth century, South Africa’s human history changed drastically as the Cape became a station for re-supplying Dutch ships bound for the East Indies. A colony of Dutch farmers (eventually known as “Boers”) was established, and they were joined by smaller populations of English, Scandinavian, and French settlers. To produce commodities cheaply enough to make a profit, they all acquired slave labor from West Africa, the East Indies, and local Khoisan groups. 

The language of Dutch seamen and elements of other European settlers’ vocabulary mixed with local African languages and those of imported slaves, gradually developed into the Afrikaans language of today. The scarcity of white women within the European community led to the mixing of white settlers with nonwhite slaves and indigenous folk, producing a class of “Cape Colored” people who became a major population group also known as “Griqua.”

By 1805 the Cape was under British control, and the rest of the nineteenth century saw conflicts of varying intensity between antagonists competing for land, cattle, and political power. Boer slave owners fought against British abolitionism, and both Boer and Griqua skirmished with Xhosa and other Bantu farming and cattle-herding populations. Several great African leaders emerged using armies to establish their own states. Three of the most talented and successful of these were Shaka, the famous Zulu leader, Moshoeshoe, who founded what eventually became Lesotho, and Mzilikazi, who became king of a Zulu group called Ndebele. Conflict between British and Boer settlers led to the latter’s “Great Trek” northward across the Orange and Vaal rivers, and establishment of two independent Afrikaner republics, the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Nearby, in a disputed region called Griqualand West, diamonds were discovered, and in 1871 the British joined the northward movement by annexing that territory.

Success in the diamond fields led to vast wealth for Cecil Rhodes who became Prime Minister of the Cape in 1890 and influenced events that led to the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Despite the Boers’ military defeat, Afrikaner nationalism gained strength until the Nationalist Party was voted into office by a white electorate in 1948 and apartheid became official government policy. Opposition by the African National Congress (ANC) evolved into increasingly militant resistance with the appearance of a new generation of black leaders led by Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Nelson Mandela, many of whom were imprisoned in the mid-1960s. Decades of vicious white nationalist oppression ended when Mandela gained his freedom and in 1994 became president of an ANC-led Government of National Unity. 

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