Early history

  • The earliest known human habitation in South Africa dates back to around 2 million years ago, with the discovery of hominin fossils in the Cradle of Humankind. The San people, who are believed to be the descendants of these early human inhabitants, have lived in the region for tens of thousands of years.

European colonisation

  • 1652: Dutch settlers establish a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope, marking the beginning of the European colonisation of South Africa. The Dutch come in tow with slaves from Madagascar, Indonesia, and India to work on the farms.

  • 1795: The British take control of the Cape of Good Hope, marking the beginning of British rule in South Africa. The British establish a system of segregation, with the Dutch settlers (known as Afrikaners) given more rights and privileges than the indigenous peoples and slaves.

  • 1830s and 1840s: Afrikaners begin a series of migrations away from British rule known as the Great Trek. These migrants establish independent states in the interior of South Africa.

  • 1867: Diamonds are discovered in the interior of South Africa, leading to the beginning of the mineral revolution. The discovery of gold soon follows, and South Africa becomes one of the world's biggest producers of gold and diamonds.

  • 1877: The Transvaal Boer republic is forcibly annexed by the British.

  • 1880–1881: The Transvaal Boers attempt to take the land back from the British, resulting in the first Anglo-Boer War. The Transvaal Boers ultimately declare victory, regaining independence and renaming the area the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (South African Republic).

  • 1899–1902: The Second Anglo-Boer War is fought between the British Empire and two Boer republics (the Orange Free State and the South African Republic) over control of the region. The British emerge victorious.

  • 1910: The Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal and Orange Free State are consolidated into one nation: the Union of South Africa, a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. 

  • 1911: The Mines and Works Act passes and codifies the racial segregation already present in South African society. The Act requires that all miners and other workers are divided into separate categories based on race, with white workers receiving the best jobs and highest wages.

  • 1913: The Natives Land Act passes, delegating less than 10 percent of available land to black South Africans, who make up 80 percent of the population at the time. Despite being a much smaller group, the country's white population is allocated the majority of the land (80 to 90 percent).

  • 1914–1918: During World War I, South Africa is automatically tied to the Allies in fighting against Germany due to its status as a British colony. Out of a population of 6 million, 250,000 South Africans volunteer to join the war and 7,000 are killed.

  • 1939–1945: Throughout World War II, the British Navy used numerous South African ports strategically. 334,000 South Africans volunteer to fight abroad, suffering a casualty of 9,000.

Apartheid Era

  • 1948: The National Party (NP), an Afrikaner nationalist party, comes to power in South Africa and implements a system of apartheid ("apartness"), which institutionalises racial segregation and discrimination. Under apartheid, black South Africans are denied fundamental political and civil rights, and forced to live in separate, underfunded areas known as townships.

  • 1950s: An anti-apartheid sentiment quietly brews in the country as certain political groups, including the African National Congress (ANC), begin to plan and execute protest and resistance operations.

  • 1952: The Pass Laws Act is instituted, requiring all black South Africans over 16 to carry a pass (known as a 'dompas') with them at all times. The pass system is used to restrict movement and segregate the nation.

  • 1952: Future president Nelson Mandela, a member of the ANC, is chosen as the leader of the group's Defiance Campaign, a plan to protest against six unjust laws under apartheid. Mandela and 19 others are arrested and sentenced to nine months of hard labour for their role in the campaign.

  • 1956: A massive police round-up takes place across the country, during which Mandela is captured and called to the 1956 Treason Trial. After a lengthy trial, he and others are acquitted in 1961.

  • 1960: A referendum is held to determine whether the Union of South Africa should withdraw from the British Commonwealth. The population votes for independence, and the Republic of South Africa is formed as a fully autonomous nation.

  • 1960s: The anti-apartheid movement gains momentum globally, as the United Nations issues a 1962 resolution condemning apartheid and calling for trade sanctions on South Africa. In 1963 an additional resolution is passed, calling for a voluntary arms embargo on the country.

  • 1960: Police fire at a crowd protesting against pass laws, killing 69 and injuring 180 unarmed citizens in what would become known as the Sharpeville Massacre.

  • 1961: In the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre, and with the government still refusing to take action to end apartheid, the ANC establishes a paramilitary wing known as Umkhonto weSizwe, or MK. After launching bomb attacks against government infrastructure, MK is declared a terrorist organisation by the government and banned. Despite this, the group does not disband.

  • 1962: MK leadership is captured at their headquarters, and the group goes somewhat dormant for the next decade. In the same year, Mandela returns to South Africa from a secret trip abroad. He's arrested at a police roadblock and charged with inciting strike action and leaving the country without a permit. He is sentenced to five years of imprisonment.

  • 1963: Mandela and 10 others charged with sabotage face the possibility of receiving the death penalty in what becomes known as the Rivonia Trial. In 1964, most of the accused, including Mandela, are sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island.

  • 1976: Students lead protests against the forced Afrikaans language policies in schools. Known as the Soweto Uprisings, the protests turn violent as police try to control the crowd. At least 176 die as a result,  including 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. A picture of the dying Pieterson being carried to the hospital becomes a symbol of the resistance. As further protests and more government crackdowns occur, MK re-establishes itself with more members, more support and better military training.

  • 1977: The UN's arms embargo against South Africa becomes compulsory, and a voluntary oil embargo is also declared.

  • 1980s and 1990s: Internal and international pressure leads to the gradual dismantling of apartheid.

  • 1990: Nelson Mandela is released from prison after 27 years and is elected ANC president in 1991.

  • 1994: Negotiations between the ANC and the National Party lead to the first democratic elections, with the ANC claiming a resounding victory.


  • 1994: Mandela takes office and begins implementing the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to address the social and economic inequalities created by apartheid.

  • 1995: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), chaired by Desmond Tutu, is established to investigate human rights abuses committed during the apartheid era.

  • 1996: South Africa adopts a new constitution, guaranteeing a wide range of individual rights and freedoms for all, including freedom of speech and religion.

  • 1997: The economy begins to grow, driven by the development of new industries and an influx of foreign investment.

  • 1999: Thabo Mbeki succeeds Mandela as president and continues many of the policies initiated by his predecessor, including the RDP and the TRC.

  • 2000–2008: The country faces several challenges, including high crime rates, widespread poverty, failing electricity infrastructure and increasing income inequality, while Mbeki's presidency is marked by controversy, including allegations of corruption and a highly criticised response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

  • 2009: Jacob Zuma becomes president after winning the ANC's presidential election.

  • 2010: South Africa hosts the successful 2010 FIFA World Cup, showcasing the country's infrastructure and unity to the world.

  • 20102017: The country experiences steady economic growth but also faces persistent social and economic challenges, including high levels of unemployment and inequality. Zuma's presidency is also marred by corruption scandals, leading to calls for his resignation and a decline in public trust in the government.

  • 2018: Zuma resigns as president and is succeeded by Cyril Ramaphosa. Under Ramaphosa's leadership, the government takes steps to address corruption and boost the economy, but many challenges remain.

  • 2020: The Covid-19 pandemic hits South Africa, with significant economic and social impacts. Over the next few years, 4 million cases of Covid-19 are confirmed and over 100,000 die.

  • 2023: Facing increasing blackouts, Ramaphosa declares a state of disaster in an effort to expedite the response to South Africa's energy crisis.

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