The Colonization of South Africa: A Greatly Disputed Land

The colonization of South Africa played host to a number of colonial powers and many different peoples who struggled against European rule.

Jun 18, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

colonization of south africa


The history of colonialism in South Africa is a long and violent tale, filled with many groups of people trying to emerge victorious in a land rich with resources and reasons to fight. For centuries, Europeans and Africans struggled against each other. But it wasn’t just the clash of two ethnic groups. African tribes, as well as European countries, fought against each other in South Africa, while many peoples sought independence and freedom from colonial control or control by other tribes. With no subtlety at all, colonization stamped its bloody footprint on South Africa, leaving in its wake a country troubled by legacies of the past.


Colonization of South Africa: The Arrival of the Dutch

A Dutch ship entering Table Bay, via South African History Online


In the late 15th century, it was the Portuguese who first rounded the southern tip of Africa. Vasco Da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias were the two Portuguese captains who explored the Southern African coastlines while searching for an easy way to access trade ports in the Indian Ocean. It would be another 50 years before any Europeans would attempt to establish a permanent settlement in South Africa. However, the colonization of South Africa did not start with the Portuguese. It started with the Dutch.


Logo of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), via Leo Printing


In 1652, the Dutch East India Company (VOC / Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) decided to establish a refueling station at the Cape. A small expedition under the command of Jan van Riebeeck was ordered to carry out this task. They settled on the Cape Peninsula between Table Bay and Table Mountain, founding Cape Town. The settlement grew quickly as Dutch farmers arrived to work the land. These Dutch farmers were joined by other farmers from Europe, including many from Germany and France.


Portrait of Jan van Riebeeck by unknown artist, c. 1660, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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Along with these farmers, known as “free burghers,” the VOC imported tens of thousands of enslaved people from India, Indonesia, East Africa, Mauritius, and Madagascar and set them to work building the town and working on the farms. In 1666, the Dutch began construction on Good Hope Castle. It took 13 years to build and is today the oldest building in South Africa.


The new arrivals to the Cape, however, weren’t the only people living there. The Cape was also home to the Khoi-Khoi and the San, nomadic pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, respectively. At first, Jan van Riebeeck traded with these indigenous peoples, but tensions rose over various incidents, including cattle theft, and the Khoi-Khoi and the San slowly migrated away from the settlement. Some were subsumed into the local population, while many others perished during the smallpox epidemic of 1713.


Nevertheless, a significant amount of race-mixing between the Europeans, the enslaved people, and the Khoi-San resulted in the designation of ethnic groups known as the Cape Malays and Cape Coloureds. Today, these ethnic groups are designated as Coloured (as opposed to “Black,” which is used to describe people of Bantu descent). One of the governors of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, was of mixed-race descent.


A scene from the film Krotoa, 2017, via


*It is important to note that “Coloured” is not an offensive term in South Africa, while “Bantu” used outside of academic circles can be considered offensive. “Bantu” is used to describe the ethnolinguistic group of peoples native to sub-Saharan Africa. This is also not to be confused with the Khoi-San, which is a different ethnic group and represents the oldest ethnolinguistic group in Southern Africa. It can be argued in South Africa that the term “Black” also includes the Khoi-San. This creates a quandary among academics who struggle to find non-offensive terms while needing to distinguish between the ethnic groups. 


By the late 18th century, the Dutch had sent four expeditions to map the interior of South Africa. Initial contact with the Xhosa people was peaceful, but issues of cattle theft led to conflict between the Dutch and the Xhosa.


The British Arrive

Dutch colonists (Boers, or more precisely, in this instance, “Voortrekkers”) prepare their wagons before leaving the Cape Colony. Painted by James E. McConnell (1903-1995), via Facing History


As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, the Netherlands became known as the Batavian Republic and was closely allied to France. In 1795, the British seized the Cape Colony after the Battle of Muizenberg. Eight years later, the colony was given back to the Dutch but seized again by the British in 1806 after the Battle of Blaauwberg.


Although they allowed the Dutch colonists to keep their laws, the British outlawed the use of the Dutch language. The anglicization of the Cape Colony was met with resistance by many of the Dutch colonists, known as Boers, and many decided to leave in a series of migrations to the interior in what became known as the Great Trek.


For the British, there was little interest in expanding into the interior, as their main goal was to preserve Cape Town as a refreshment station on the long journey to and from the rich trading ports in India.


Subsequent discoveries and conflicts, however,  would change the nature of British  colonization in South Africa. To the north of the Cape Colony, the arid Kalahari was navigated by William Oswell and the famed David Livingstone in 1849. British colonists began to found small towns along the Orange River and elsewhere where there were resources. The discovery of diamonds in 1864 would lead to a boom in population, especially around the town of Kimberley, where a huge diamond mine was excavated, known today as the Big Hole.


The Griquas

Adam Kok III (1811 – 1875), the leader of the Griqua people. Photo by P. Morozow, from Western Cape Archives, via the Daily Maverick


The Dutch colonists weren’t the only people to flee the Cape Colony. Coloured people, many of them formerly enslaved, would lead an exodus north under the leadership of formerly enslaved Adam Kok. Around 1800, many of these people came together and began emigrating, being joined by Khoi-San people and white renegades. Eventually, this group of people became known as the Griquas.


These emigrants crossed the Orange River and founded Griqualand, but the process lasted generations, being led by Adam Kok, his son, Adam Kok II, and Adam Kok II’s son, Adam Kok III.


Zulu Expansion

Statue of Shaka Zulu in the Zulu capital of Ulundi, from Joao Silva, via the New York Times


While the British were concerned with governing the Cape Colony, in the northeast of the country, in what is now called KwaZulu/Natal, the Zulu Empire was undergoing a massive expansion that played an important part in a series of events known in Sotho as the Difeqane (forced migration/scattering) and in Zulu as the Mfecane (the Crushing). Many theories abound as to what the factors were that contributed to this event, but the end results were violence, mass killings, and upheaval.


From 1818 to 1828, the Zulu Kingdom sprang into existence, amalgamating certain clans, driving away others, and enslaving and killing the less fortunate. Under King Shaka Zulu, the Zulu impis (regiments) were ruthless in their conquest and created a powerful political entity that would come to blows with the Boers as well as the British.


The Creation of the Boer Republics

South Africa in 1899. British possession and lands under British control are denoted in blue, while the Boer republics are in orange; via Herefordshire Light Infantry Museum


Following the exodus of Boers from the Cape Colony and from British rule, the Voortrekkers (Boers) established their own independent nations despite conflict with the Zulus. The murder of Voortrekker leader Piet Retief and the ensuing Battle of Blood River were major events in the series of conflicts between the Boers and the Zulus.


The South African Republic, also known as the Transvaal Republic or simply the Transvaal, was founded in 1852 in the far northeast of South Africa, while to the south, the Orange Free State was created out of the Orange River Sovereignty which belonged to Britain. The area was enforced by a British military presence which withdrew during the Crimean War, and the land was subsequently claimed by the Boers. The Orange Free State would fight and lose a war against the Basotho people of what is now the country of Lesotho.


Another Boer republic known as Natalia was also created in 1839 but was annexed by Britain in 1844 after a brief war. With the Cape Colony and the Natal Colony having a strong military presence, the British had two significant footholds in South Africa from where they could put pressure on the African and Boer nations.


The Anglo-Zulu War

The Battle of Isandlwana was a disaster for the British and left over a thousand British soldiers dead. Painting by Charles Edwin Fripp, c. 1885, via the National Army Museum, London


In the late 19th century, the British tried to create a federation out of all the South African republics, tribal lands, colonies, and African kingdoms. This idea was based on the successful British North America Act of 1867, which had created a Canadian federation.


The first stumbling block proved to be the death knell for the idea. An ultimatum sent to Zulu King Cetshwayo was rejected, and the Anglo-Zulu War broke out between the Zulu Kingdom and the British Empire.


Unprepared, the British suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana, but a day later, they won the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, where a small force of 150 men managed to defend a mission station against many thousands of Zulus. On July 4, 1879, the Battle of Ulundi ended the Anglo-Zulu War, and the Zulus capitulated.


It became clear, however, that the factions in South Africa were far too violent for any sort of attempt at federalization to work.


British Annexations & The First Anglo-Boer War

The Battle of Majuba Hill by Richard Knötel. The bright red jackets of the British proved to be a liability in the surrounding landscape as they made the British easy targets. The white cross-straps across their chests didn’t help either; via British Battles


Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, the British attempted to annex various parts of South Africa, including the South African Republic in 1877. This led to a series of small battles in 1881 known as the First Anglo-Boer War. The Boers were tougher than the British had expected, and the Boer victory at Majuba Hill forced the British to accept the independence of the South African Republic.


The Battle of Majuba Hill saw around 450 Boers defend a koppie (hill) against a force of 400 British soldiers. The British suffered 92 dead, including the commander, Major General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, while the Boers only lost one man.


The battle proved that the British habit of wearing red uniforms was a liability in the African Veld. It also proved that the British would have to invest a considerable amount of resources if they were to pacify the Boer Republics.



Cecil John Rhodes (1853 – 1902) was the prime minister of the Cape Colony. An ardent imperialist, he also founded the De Beers diamond company, via The Herald


In 1886, gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal. Within a decade, the Witwatersrand accounted for almost a quarter of world gold production. The fact that this industry lay within the borders of the South African Republic caused a great deal of consternation for the British Empire.


The British sought to bring the South African republic under British rule by promoting the immigration of English people into the Boer republic. When this was thought to have produced the desired demographic results, they launched the Jameson Raid in December 1895 in an attempt to generate an uprising among the English speakers in the Transvaal. The raid, led by Leander Starr Jameson, and acting on the orders of Cecil John Rhodes, was a failure, and it added to the tension between the Boer republic and the British Empire.


The final chapters in the story of the colonization of South Africa continued to be bloody affairs.


The Second Anglo-Boer War

Boers capturing British artillery at the Battle of Colenso by Fritz Neumann, via British Battles


In 1899, the British Empire went to war again with the Boer republics. This would be Britain’s first taste of modern warfare in a conflict that would stretch on through several years and see scorched earth, mass displacement, concentration camps, and many thousands of civilian deaths as Britain struggled to overcome the dogged resistance of the Boers. Under the command of Lord Kitchener, the British in the Second Anglo-Boer War committed atrocities that would shock the British public.


Despite initial victories such as the major Battle of Colenso, the Boers were defeated conventionally, but the British still struggled against guerilla commandos (the term “commando” in this sense refers to a unit of guerrilla fighters) that continued to fight. To force them to surrender, the British burnt their farms and put their women and children into concentration camps, where 26,000 perished from willful neglect and malnutrition. Despite the war only being fought between white people, over 17,000 Black people died in concentration camps too.


The Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902 saw an end to the war, and the Boer Republics were subsumed into the British Empire, which set about creating a self-governing dominion. In 1910, this dominion became known as the Union of South Africa, with Louis Botha as its first prime minister.


The Republic of South Africa

President PW Botha in 1989 accompanied by his wife, Elise, and several South African flags. This flag was used from 1928 to 1994 and is a symbol of apartheid. It is now illegal to display the old South African flag in public; via The South African


The Union persisted with close ties to Britain, with South Africa taking part in both World Wars, fighting alongside the Allies. In 1948, the National Party under DF Malan took power and enacted the racist apartheid policies that would lead to worsening relations with Britain and most of the world.


After a referendum in 1960, South Africa became a republic and withdrew from the Commonwealth, effectively severing all colonial ties to Britain. For white people, the colonial age had ended, but for Black people, the issue of racial discrimination created under colonial conditions persisted for many decades after.


The South African flag adopted in 1994 is representative of all the people and diversity within the country, via CNN


For different people, the factors vary on when and how to delineate the end of colonialism in South Africa. For many non-whites, colonialism, or at least its legacy, is still a very present part of everyday life.


Even after the 1994 election, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first Black president, the dynamics of the social constructs of colonialism continue to this day much the same way as they do in the United States despite the abolition of legal precedents for racism.


The history of South Africa is long, bloody, and complex, with many groups of people struggling against each other or simply just struggling to survive and find a place where they feel they have agency.


The legacy of the colonization of South Africa is sure to continue for some time to come.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.