South Africa was first ‘discovered’ by the Europeans in 1487 by Bartholomeu Dias of Portugal. He was followed by the Dutch then the British, each muscling out or subjugating the native population a little further. Colonialism was eventually taken to extremes, with the white minority enforcing the inhumane system of Apartheid on the black majority. It lasted a long and predictably damaging time, triggering decades of increasingly violent activism. The internal uprising – brutally quashed with callous efficiency - was crucially re-enforced by sanctions from countries around the world.
The combined pressure and increasing isolation heaped on South Africa eventually broke the system. The dismantling of Apartheid officially began in 1990 after negotiations between President FW De Klerk and the African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, still in jail at the time on Robben Island.
The first historic one-man-one-vote elections in 1994 swept the ANC to power and Mandela became the country's iconic president. Mandela earned enormous international respect for leading South Africa into democracy with a message of forgiveness and reconciliation. The fears of white citizens that there would be blood in their rich suburban streets saw a stream of skilled but scared people abandon the country. Their fears proved largely unfounded, although the damage done by Apartheid is far from resolved.
Today South Africa’s financial systems are among the most sophisticated in the world and its constitution is hailed as one of the most liberal. The biggest problem left by Apartheid’s legacy is the lack of decent infrastructure for the majority of the population, with a mostly poor education system, no real healthcare system except for private healthcare schemes and massive unemployment with a population never trained for the information era.
While a black middle class is emerging, there is a vast disparity between the elite rich and the massive poor population. Racial tension is giving way to equally violent flare-ups now rooted in poverty and inequality.
Since Mandela’s retirement the political stage has lacked strong leadership, with his successor Thabo Mbeki doing little to combat the twin ravages of violent crime and an AIDS pandemic. ANC leader Jacob Zuma was elected in April 2009 in a presidency so far more noteworthy for Zuma's headline-hitting personal life than for effective governance.
Despite the problems, most South Africans still have optimism and an enthusiastic desire to make the country to live up to its promise as the Rainbow Nation.