South Africa has been the economic powerhouse of the southern region of Africa for the better part of the 21st century as it has large slices of the cakes of African trade, tourism, entertainment, etc. However, being a country famed for its economic affluence and multicultural reception has not always been its plight.
Hopefully by now you have read our article on why The Rainbow Nation ought to be your next travel destination, (seriously, book that flight). To supplement your understanding of the people and culture, this article aims to give you brief oversight into South Africa’s rich and concurrently dispirited history.
Taking it back to the greatness of the ancestors, it has been widely documented that between the 4th and 17th centuries, indigenous cultures thrived unapologetically within Mzansi. The Khoisan were the predominant indigenous people of the region, comprised of the San who were hunters well versed in foraging and the Khoikhoi who bore an inbred instinct for the care of cattle and sheep. Eventually though, the Khoisan were joined by the Zulus and the Xhosas who were Bantus emigrated from North and East Africa, and many other tribes still.
Fun fact: did you know that a teenaged Khoisan boy can tell which plants are safe to eat and which herbs can be used to treat diseases in both humans and animals?
The largest concentration of Zulus in South Africa is apparently in the province of KwaZulu Natal. As a matter of fact, the Zulus as a tribe were practically invincible during the reign of Shaka Zulu in the early 1800s who alone built an empire with a formidable army trained in the best military techniques available at that time. His reign though was short because he was deemed unfit to rule by those around him who believed his authority to be heavily entrenched in irrationality. So, he was assassinated, but we digress.
Fun fact: did you know that Shaka Zulu forced his warriors to walk around barefoot so that the supple skin on the soles of their feet could harden enough for them to become agile during battle? We’ve all tripped unnecessarily in sandals and slippers, so we can understand why.
Many tribes inclusive of the Zulus and Xhosas have strong beliefs about certain milestones that happen in a person’s life. These milestones include birth, puberty, marriage and death. This list is not exhaustive across all South African tribes, neither is there a uniform set of traditions regarding them. However, the one common thing amongst most of the tribes is the premarital exchange commonly referred to as ‘Lobola’ or ‘Lobolo’. Interestingly, this practice spreads beyond borders and can be seen in other countries such as Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Zambia. In a nutshell, Lobola is essentially a “Bride Price” that is paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s. It is similar to the concept of dowry in the western world, but the medium of exchange can either be cows, (as it had been for years before the introduction of nominal currency) or cash. Conspiracy theories have been evoked that put this practice down to making it seem as though a woman is being ‘bought’ or ‘auctioned off’ which enables a sense of entitlement to her individuality by her groom. In as much as that cannot be discredited given the fact that during the years of the practice’s inception the patriarchy had been normal for the majority of the world, Lobola has it’s own merit to it too.
Advocates of the practice say that it is done in good faith to thank the parents of the bride for adroitly raising a daughter able enough to rear her own family some day. Prices are typically set to how well-mannered or educated a bride is today, however, back then it was a little bit less calculated and would mostly depend on the status of the family that the groom’s intended ranked in society, among other things. The payment was heralded by negotiations that allowed members of the family who have never met each other to come together in union to discuss the necessary requirements for the engagement to take place and cement a foundation for a clear line of communication for the extended family.
Stepping away from the rich history of our Southern African forefathers, modern day South African architecture can be seen to bear a heavy resemblance to that of the Dutch. This is no surprise as it was the Dutch who first laid claim to the vastness of the land in the 1600s before subsequently engaging in a colony rush over it with the British over the next couple hundred years.
After this tug of war between the British and the Dutch, we can begin to talk about the gruesome shadow of apartheid that looms over South African history in the 1900s. Apartheid refers to a policy or system of segregation and/or discrimination on the grounds of race. This policy was officially adopted in the nation in 1948 when the National Party (NP) took power. The sufferings of many South Africans on the basis of their skin colour from then on till the country’s independence is widely known. For example, black South Africans could not freely walk around at certain hours or in certain neighbourhoods without a passbook to classify them at all times. Failure to produce one when asked for by the authorities would result in imprisonment or fines.
In the pits of its influence, the system of apartheid saw freedom fighters such as South Africa’s hero, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela imprisoned for his work in the struggle on the infamous Robben Island. However, in his absence, his second wife Winnie Mandela took up the mantle to fight for her husband’s freedom and that of every other South African until his release in 1990. By 1991, following uprising after uprising and police brutality counts, talks of peace and diversity in political parties began that opened up the way for South Africa to finally gain independence in 1994 with Nelson Mandela as its leader.
Discussions in truth and open reconciliatory efforts between the different races and classes of people in the nation from then on until today have allowed the country to earn its name as The Rainbow Nation.