Timeline of Events in South Africa


1652: first permanent European settlement at Capetown, by the Dutch East India Company

1806: British take control of Cape Town

1810s-1820s: Zulu Mfecane (military expansion from the east coast towards the west)

1830s-1840s: "Great Trek" of Dutch Boer north of the Orange River to Transvaal and Orange Free State

1860-1866: indentured servants began to arrive from India

1869: discovery of diamonds at Kimberley near the Orange River

1879: Anglo-Zulu War

1884: discovery of gold at the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) in Transvaal

1893: Mohandas Gandhi arrived. By 1900, Indians outnumbered Europeans in Natal.

1895: Jameson Raid (initiated by Cecil Rhodes) failed to overthrow the Transvaal government.

1899-1902: Anglo-Boer War ended on May 31 with Peace of Vereeniging.

1902-1905: British Governor-General Lord Milner promoted British economic interests and white immigration as a means to thwart Boer nationalism.

1902: white mineworkers formed the Mine Workers’ Union; “coloured” residents led by Abdullah Abdurahman formed the African Political Organization

1906: Black Africans protested wage cuts, so the government began to import Chinese workers to work in the mines

1906: Bambatha Revolt in Natal suppressed, but 30 whites and some 3,000 Zulu died

1907-1908: Zulu chief Dinuzulu arrested and then acquitted for complicity in the Bambatha Revolt

1907: Boer parties won first elections in Transvaal and Orange Free State

1908: anti-British party won first elections in Cape Colony. Only in Natal did the winners support British control.

For more on this era, see Europeans in 19th Century South Africa


1910: independent Union of South Africa created with four provinces; Swaziland, Basutoland and Bechuanaland opted to remain British colonies. Dutch and English began co-official languages; blacks lost all remaining voting rights except in Cape Colony.

1910-1919: President Louis Botha, formerly a Boer leader in the Transvaal, cooperated with the British during WWI.

1912: “Defence Act” created all-white “Active Citizen Force” (militia) and disarmed blacks. Meanwhile, mission-educated Africans led by Pixley Seme founded the African National Congress

1913: “Native Land Act” created the basis for black “homelands” by limiting black land ownership to 1/14 of the country.

1913-1914: strikes by white mineworkers over loss of jobs to blacks

1914: General Jan Smuts, also a Boer leader from the Transvaal, used government troops to suppress an anti-British rebellion by Boers.

1914: Mohandas Gandhi returned to India; J. B. M. Hertzog founded the Afrikaner National Party.

1919: black African dockworkers led by Clements Kadalie formed a trade union in Cape Town; by 1928 it grew into the nationwide Industrial and Commercial Workers Union

1920-1924: President Jan Smuts, a former Boer leader from Transvaal, alienated conservative Boers by cooperating with the British mining interests

1921: white intellectuals formed the South African Communist Party

1922: Smuts used the army to suppress strikes by white mineworkers, killing 153 (4 executed). The “Apprenticeship Act” protected other white workers by setting educational requirements for apprenticeships.

1923: “Natives (Urban Areas) Act” provided for the creation of “African locations” and began the segregation of South African towns. Indian residents led by P. R. Pather and Abdulla Ismail Kajee founded the South African Indian Congress.

1924-1939: conservative Boers controlled the government (Herzog); Malan organized the Broederbund

1925: constitutional amendment made Afrikaans, instead of Dutch, an official language along with English

1929-1932: Depression seriously damaged South African export economy, especially wool

1933: Herzog and Smuts formed a coalition government

1934: Herzog and Smuts parties combined to form the Union Party. Minority British and Afrikaner ethnic parties formed. Meanwhile, the “Status of the Union Act” required the South African Parliament to ratify acts of the British Parliament before they became effective in South Africa.

1936: “Native Representation Act” ended the right of blacks in Cape Colony to hold office; henceforth blacks voted for whites who represented their interests. That year, 1/8 of all black Africans (almost all male, aged 15-50) left home to work for whites.

1938: Malan’s Purified National Party exploited the dedication of a monument to the Great Trek to gain influence among Boers.

1939: The Union Party divided on question of supporting Britain in WWII, and Hertzog left the government. By this time, black Africans had access to about 1/9 of South Africa’s land.

1939-1945: The South African economy boomed during WWII; black migration to cities for jobs increased, creating huge “squatter” camps on the outskirts (including the future Soweto).

1943-1945: The Council of Non-White Trade Unions organized boycotts and work stoppages for higher wages.

1946: After mineowners rejected a government commission’s recommendations concerning wages and working conditions, a strike by black mineworkers closed eight gold mines near Johannesburg. The government used force to end the strike, killing 12, and the African Mineworkers Union collapsed.


1947: Alan Patton, a white author, published Cry, the Beloved Country.

1948: The Afrikaner National Party won the national elections, with Magnus Malan as the first prime minister. “Whites Only” signs began to appear in South Africa.

1949: The “Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act” passed. A new generation which included Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela (all of Transkei) assumed leadership positions in the African National Congress.

1950: The “Population Registration Act” created legal classifications based on race, followed by the “Immorality Act” which criminalized interracial sexual relations. The “Group Areas Act” divided urban areas into zones by race. “Suppression of Communism Act” outlawed organizations which sought political and/or social change, and gave the justice minister the power to “ban” individuals without appeal.

1951: The “Natives Representative Council” (part of the parliament) was abolished. The native reserves were grouped into 8 (later 10) territories that became the basis for Bantustans.

1952: Passive civil disobedience to the new laws united Africans and Asians; first UN Resolution against apartheid.

1953: African labor unions and strikes were banned; “Reservation of Separate Amenities Act” legalized segregated public facilities. The “Bantu Education Act” placed all schools (including provincial and mission schools) under the authority of the national government. The “Public Safety Act” authorized the government to declare a state of emergency and rule by proclamation at any time.

1954-1958: J.G. Strijdom served as prime minister.

1954: The government’s Tomlinson Commission concluded that while apartheid was appropriate, the homelands policy could not succeed unless more land was set aside for blacks.

1955: The ANC, SAIC and other non-white organizations (plus some liberal whites) formed the “Congress of the People” and adopted the “Freedom Charter” at a huge public meeting that was broken up by police.

1956: Coloured voters in Cape Province lost the right to run for office; instead they voted for white representatives of “coloured interests.” “Riotous Assemblies Act” extended the power to restrict political activity.

1958-1966: Dr. Hendrik F. Verwoerd became the new Prime Minister (assassinated in 1966).

1959: The Pan-African Congress was founded by Robert Sobukwe when the ANC led by the Mandela-faction refused to challenge pass laws directly. The “Extension of University Education Act” segregated higher education.

1960: The PAC launched a national campaign against pass laws. Crowds deliberately destroyed their passes in an effort to get arrested and clog the system. In March, police fired on a crowd at the Sharpeville police station (near Johannesberg) and killed 67. The government used the “Unlawful Organizations Act” to ban the PAC and ANC, and after hiding for months, Mandela and other leaders were arrested.

1961-1963: ANC and PAC authorize violent resistance including bomb attacks and sabotage.

1961: In a referendum, white voters opted to leave the British Commonwealth and revise the constitution, creating the Republic of South Africa.

1963: Organization of African Unity founded at Addis Ababa. Transkei became the first “self-governing” Bantustan.

1964: “Bantu Laws Amendment Act” enabled the government to expel any black African to a Bantustan at any time. Mandela and Sisulu were convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robbens Island near Capetown. Violent resistance subsided.

1966-1978: Prime Minister J. Vorster. During these years, violent opposition declined as African leaders were killed or imprisoned. Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Basutoland (Lesotho) became independent.

1967: The “Terrorism Act” extended the power to restrict political activity. Walter Tambo became acting head of the ANC from exile in the Zambia. UN created a “Special Committee on Apartheid.”

1968: First heart transplant performed in Capetown by Dr. Christiaan Barnard. The South African Council of Churches (excluding the Dutch Reformed Church) condemned apartheid. Swaziland became independent.

1969: Stephen Biko left the National Union of South African Students to form the all-black South African Students Union. Robert Sobukwe released from prison but banned to Kimberley.

1970: Parliamentary positions representing black and coloured interests were abolished. Launch of the "black consciousness movement" by Stephen Biko and others

1971: “Bantu Homelands Constitution Act” provided for the independence of the remaining Bantustans

1972-1973: Mass labor strikes throughout South Africa.

1973: UN General Assembly declared apartheid to be a crime against humanity; OPEC imposed unsuccessful oil embargo against South Africa.

1975: The Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique became independent.

1975-76: The number of arrests of black Africans for pass law violations peaked at 381,858.

1976: The government created the South African Broadcasting Company to monopolize mass communications. The Transkei became “independent” although no other country recognized it. In April and May, a succession of demonstrations by African school students culminated in the June 16 "Soweto Massacre." The “Internal Security Act” extended the government’s power to restrict political activity.

1977: The South African Students Organization was banned; Stephen Biko died in jail and nearly 600 other people died due to government repression. The United Nations sanctioned an international arms embargo against South Africa. The moderate Union Party finally dissolved. Bophuthatswana became independent.

1977-1978: Black Africans went to military training camps in Tanzania and Angola.

1978-1990: P. W. Botha served as prime minister and began reforms aimed at reducing "petty apartheid."

1978: A group of Dutch Reformed ministers publicly criticized apartheid. End of the civil war in Rhodesia. USA replaced Great Britain as South Africa’s largest trading partner.

1979: Venda became independent. All trade unions (including black) were legalized.

1980: Robert Mugabe formed the first black government in Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia).

1981: Ciskei became independent.

1983: The United Democratic Front was founded to coordinate internal resistance to apartheid by nearly 600 different groups of all races. It endorsed the ANC’s 1955 “Freedom Charter.” It faced opposition from Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha, a Zulu ethnic organization, as well as Afrikaner nationalists like the Broederbund.

1984: Under a new constitution, "coloureds" and Asians received their own houses in parliament but were still outnumbered by the white house. Blacks remained without representation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize.

1984-1985: numerous boycotts, strikes and demonstrations; government press censorship began in November 1985. First meeting between ANC and white South African business leaders in September.

1986: Over one million dues-paying black African union members were divided into two federations (COSATU and CUSA-AZACTU). The government relaxed pass laws designed to keep rural blacks out of the cities, but continued to require passes for residents of the independent Bantustans. It also ended prohibitions against multi-racial marriage, sex and political parties. On May 16, 1986, South Africans invaded Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana to attack ANC bases. On June 12, 1986, the state of emergency became permanent. In October, the USA Congress overrode President Reagan’s veto to pass the “Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act,” imposing economic sanctions.

1987: Labor unions were legalized, although their leaders were arrested, but the UDF and thirty other organizations were banned. The violence resumed and 5,000 died between 1987-1990.

1988: In October, 97% of the black population boycotted local elections. In December, the South African army was forced to withdraw from Angola and Namibia.


1989: After Prime Minister Botha suffered a stroke, F. W. De Klerk replaced him. Within a month, he released Walter Sisulu from prison, and police did not intervene when he addressed a crowd of 70,000 in Soweto.

1990: On February 2, the ban on the ANC was lifted and on February 11, Nelson Mandela was freed from jail.

1991: Talks began on the creation of a new constitution (CODESA; i.e. Congress for a Democratic South Africa). Namibia became independent.

1992: The ANC unilaterally suspended its armed struggle; white voters chose reform by 2-1 margin in referendum.

1992-1993: armed resistance by conservative Afrikaner groups.

1993: Nelson Mandela and F. W. De Klerk share the Nobel Peace Prize

1994: The Pan African Congress suspended its armed attacks. On April 26-29, South Africa's first elections took place, and Nelson Mandela became president. South Africa regained its UN seat in October.

1995: Parliament passed the “Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act” which created a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” for South Africa.

1996: New constitution approved.