South Africa is a country of diverse culture and origin with an important role in the history and development of the African continent.
History of South Africa
Around AD 500, the Bantu-speaking people conquered various tribes and expanded their influence in the region. These people were able to displace or absorb the other tribes because they knew how to grow their own crops and take care of their herds, and were able to use iron as tools.
The first contact with the outside world came in 1487, when Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias reached the southern tip of the African continent. However, it was not until 1652 that the a permanent station at Cape of Good Hope was set up by the Dutch East India Company. A colonial society known as Cape Town was built in the area with the help of slaves from places as far as Indonesia and India.
The earliest settlers were mostly Dutch, Flemish and Germans and they were collectively known as the Boers. The Boers had occasional conflicts with the native Xhosa and Zulu people, but a major war broke out between the Boers and the British when diamonds and gold were discovered in the 19th century. Apart from the mineral wealth, the British was eyeing for Cape Town for its strategic location between South Asian and Europe. At the end, the British won and Cape Town became a British colony.
In the 20th century, independent movements emerged. The Union of South Africa was created as a solution but the government established 3 classes of racial stratification: white, coloured and black, each with its own rights and restrictions.
The Union was granted independence by the United Kingdom in 1931 but the racial segregation policies (known as Apartheid) remained. However, other countries began to oppose the concept of racial inequality and more and more nations boycotted South Africa politically and economically. Internally, the government was faced by increasingly violent resistance and protests and the situation worsened with the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and other opposition leaders.
Finally, in 1990, the government gradually lifted the ban and began the process of dismantling Apartheid. In 1994, South Africa held its first ever universal election and the African National Congress (ANC) won a landslide victory and remain as the major political party in office ever since.
Since the end of Apartheid, the country has rejoined the world stage and played a major role in mediating conflicts between African countries and is often seen as the leader in the African Union. The South African National Defence Force (SANDF), established in the same year, has become a major peacekeeping force in Africa.
Geography And Climate
South Africa has a unique landscape: in the east, it is a lush subtropical forest; in the southwest, it has a mediterreanian climate (which is great for the winery industry) and in the northwest, an avid dessert. The interior is a flat plateau known as the Highveld and where the country's largest city Johannesburg is located.
But there is one thing consistent throughout the country: the wind. Wind is especially strong around the Cape of Good Hope and often caused shipwrecks in the old days.
The country has a temperate climate but the weather varies widely through the country given the difference of terrain in the region. In general, temperature ranges from (8 â 18 C (45 â 65F) in the winter and 16 â 28 C (60 â 80 F) in the summer.
The South African constitution recognizes 11 official languages, including 2 languages with European Origin (Afrikaans and English). The most-spoken languages are home are Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans according to the 2001 National Census, which was held every 10 years. English is only spoken in 8% of household but remains to be the most important language in commerce and academia.
Almost 80% South Africans are Christians and the African Indigenous Churches represent the largest of the Christian groups. Many traditional South African also practice the indigenous religious practices at home.
Economics And Society
South Africa has developed into a financial and transportation hub for the African continent. The biggest city, Johannesburg, has 8.8 million people, following by Cape Town and Durban. Cape Town is a culturally rich city and important tourist destination.
However, outside the big cities, poverty is prevalent. Income inequality is significant and about a quarter of the population is unemployed. Other social issues in the country include crime and HIV.
A United Nations survey has ranked South Africa to be 2nd for murder and 1st for assaults and rapes per capital. The spread of AIDS is another significant challenge the country is facing: it is believed that up to 30% South African pregnant women are HIV infected (2005 data), leaving millions of orphans and HIV-inflicted children.
South Africa's most popular sports are soccer, rugby and cricket. The 2010 FIFA World Cup was held in South Africa and it is the first time for the tournament to be held in the African continent.
South African Foods
South Africa has a very diversified food culture, but if we have to describe what makes a "South African" foods, it is generally heavily meat-based and is often cooked in the form of barbecues. Since the country has developed into a major wine producer, wine has often become part of the local cuisine.
Having said that, please bear in mind that the majority of South African are very poor and many cannot afford this type of meat-based luxury.
South African Music
South African singers have great talents in blending their culture in unique musical styles. For example, many musicians who used to sing in Afrikaans or English during the apartheid is now presenting the songs in their own traditional African languages. Classical music is also performed with African flavors. South Africa is the home to many prominent jazz musicians, including Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba, Jonas Gwangwa, and Jonathan Butler.
* Photographs courtesy of Wiki Commons