By 1600 all of what is now South Africa has been settled by indigenous Africans. European encroachment begins in 1652 when the Dutch establish a settlement at the Cape of Good Hope on the southwestern tip of Africa to resupply Dutch East Indies Company ships travelling between Holland and Asia. The indigenous Khoikhoi people are driven into the interior and their lands occupied by European farmers (the Boer), who use African and Asian slave labourers to work the land.
In the 18th Century the Boer play a key role in the expansion of the settlement, travelling inland to violently displace the indigenous Africans and establish largely self-ruled farming communities. By the end of the century the settlement numbers nearly 20,000 Europeans and almost 25,000 slaves.
The British seize control of the Cape settlement in 1795. Wanting the settlement to remain as small as possible, they fix its boundaries, reign in the Boer and attempt to curb further expansion. In 1807 the British Parliament orders an end to British participation in the slave trade across the world. The order unsettles the Boer, who are further antagonised when the British attempt to temper the racial discrimination that has grown in the settlement. In 1833 the British Parliament outlaws slavery throughout the British Empire.
By 1836 many Boer have had enough and embark on the Great Trek into the interior to establish communities free from British rule. About 6,000 Boer make the journey. They tend to bypass areas with large African populations but violent conflict is unavoidable.
The Boer form two republics, the South African Republic (the Transvaal) in 1852 and Orange Free State in 1854. The republics are built on racist precepts. Africans are excluded from the vote and from owning land and there is no racial equality before the law. By the end of the 1860s there are about 50,000 whites living in the republics.
In the mid-19th Century Indian workers are brought to South Africa to work on sugar estates. Many stay on to form a small but closely-knit community. Under apartheid they will be called "Asians".
The discovery of vast mineral riches in the late 19th Century launches a period of rapid industrialisation. When the gold and diamond mines come to rely on a ready supply of cheap black African labour the British take steps to ensure that the labour supply remains inexpensive and plentiful.
Most of the African peoples of the region are conquered in a series of campaigns in the 1870s and 1880s. Their lands are confiscated and given to white settlers. Following forced relocation to designated rural "homelands", the Africans are taxed so that they have to work. Discriminatory laws are introduced to control movement. Migrant workers are forced to live in urban ghettos far removed from their homelands, to which they send their meagre savings. Travel is not possible without a pass.
The discovery of minerals is also critical to the outbreak of Boer War of 1899-1902, as British subjects flock to the goldfields around Johannesburg in the South African Republic but are denied any political power by the increasingly chauvinistic Boer. The Boer preempt an expected British invasion by declaring war in October 1899. The British are ruthless in their subjugation of the Boer, who after an initial defeat resort to guerrilla tactics. Peace finally comes on 21 May 1902. While the Boer republics are incorporated into the British Empire, the question of voting rights for Africans is left hanging.
Meanwhile in Britain, a new government opts for a long-term political settlement to the conflict in South Africa. The result is the formation on 31 May 1910 of the Union of South Africa, a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. Black Africans have limited voting rights and are prevented from holding skilled jobs in the mining industry. The Natives Land Act (1913) restricts the land that Africans can own to 7.5% of the country's landmass (the amount is later increased to 13%).
Two very different nationalist movements emerge following the formation of the Union. The white Afrikaner nationalist movement has its roots in Boer chauvinism and is represented by the National Party, formed in January 1914. The black nationalist movement is led primarily by the African National Congress (ANC), formed in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress and renamed in 1923.
The Afrikaner nationalist movement grows in popularity over the next 30 years, playing on Afrikaner resentment of the British business class that controls most of South Africa's economy and fear of the black majority. In 1934 South Africa becomes a sovereign state within the British Empire. In 1948 the National Party wins the all-white general election. The party has campaigned on a promise to introduce a system of "apartheid" to totally separate the races. Discrimination against blacks, "coloureds" and Asians will be codified and extended.
Opposition to the apartheid system by the black majority is ruthlessly suppressed. The apartheid system receives increasing support from the white electorate. The National Party will remain in power until 1994.