Often referred to as the Rainbow Nation, South Africa has a heterogeneous population which reflects its rich and sometimes turbulent history. The country has been known as a centre for gold and ivory trading since as long ago as 12,000 AD, with established trade routes to both India and China. By the mid-1600s, it had become a useful staging post for Dutch traders working the spice route between the Netherlands and the Far East. The arrival of the British in significant numbers towards the end of the 18th century initiated a gradual reduction of Dutch influence in the region, as the newcomers established themselves as the dominant mercantile power and began to assume a larger role in local politics and business.

Path To Independence

Increasingly dissatisfied with British rule in the Cape Colony, many Boers elected to follow the Trekboers, or “wandering farmers”, who had gone before them into the interior, culminating in 1835 when a number of groups moved beyond the colony’s frontier in what has become known as the Great Trek. Yet more European immigration came in the late 1800s with the discovery of large gold and diamond deposits, which had the effect of further marginalising indigenous communities and increasing tension between the various groups of more recent settlers. The competing interests of South Africa’s diverse population made the 19th century one of conflict, both between domestic ethnic groups as well as between the Boers and the British. Britain’s attempt to forcefully annex the Transvaal Boer republic in order to create a federation of states under its rule led to two Anglo-Boer wars between 1880 and 1902, the British victory in which brought about the Union of South Africa as an imperial dominion in 1910.


The competing settler groups had long denied South Africa’s indigenous population a role in political and economic affairs, but this arrangement was not formalised until 1948, when the National Party came to power and implemented a system of racial segregation. Apartheid established white minority rule at the expense of the black majority, which was denied voting rights and access to skilled jobs, faced significant obstacles in acquiring land and was also barred from the military.

Opposition to apartheid within the coloured and black community grew throughout the second half of the 20th century, coalescing around the African National Congress (ANC). By the 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement had developed into widespread civil unrest, while pressure from the international community came in the form of boycotts and sanctions, including a voluntary international oil embargo introduced by the UN. By the close of the decade, the pressure on the South African government had become unstoppable, and the release of Nelson Mandela after nearly 30 years of incarceration signalled the beginning of the nation’s move towards full democracy. In 1992, a national referendum saw some 68% of the white electorate voting in favour of dismantling apartheid through negotiations.

In 1994 the first multi-racial elections were held, which resulted in a new ANC-led government and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president. The end of apartheid ended South Africa’s diplomatic and economic isolation, and allowed the country to take its place on the world stage as one of the continent’s leading powers – a widely celebrated manifestation of which was its hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Government Structure

South Africa is a constitutional democracy and has a three-tier system with government at the central, provincial and local levels. The constitution is the supreme law of the land. The bi-cameral parliament is made up of a 400-seat National Assembly (lower house) and the 90-seat National Council of Provinces (upper house).

The National Assembly is responsible for electing the president. Executive leadership lies with the president, who is elected by the assembly, which, in turn, is elected by a system of proportional representation. Both the president and members of parliament serve five-year terms, with the president being allowed a maximum of two terms.

The last presidential election was held in 2009 with the upcoming election scheduled for 2014. Having only served one term, current President Jacob Zuma is eligible for re-election, and following the ANC conference in 2012, Zuma was selected as the party’s candidate for the next ballot.

The judiciary operates as an independent branch of the government and also includes elected members at the central, provincial and local levels. As well as the central government, there are nine provincial governments that administer Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North-West provinces. The provincial governments operate with autonomy regarding local matters. The 2014 election will also determine the make-up of the provincial legislature in each province.

Functions of government, meanwhile, are separated between regions. Cape Town is the legislative capital and is where parliament sits. Pretoria is the executive capital, where the government administration is housed, while the Constitutional Court of South Africa is based in Bloemfontein.

Governing Party

The ANC has a long history in South Africa. Once considered a terrorist organisation, the party was central to the fight to end apartheid. The party’s roster is filled with key figures of the country’s modern history, including Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Desmond Tutu, all of who played major roles in the lead-up to the historical events of 1990 and 1994.

The role of the ANC in calling for the end of apartheid left the organisation in pole position following the general elections in 1994, in which party representative Nelson Mandela easily won the presidency. In the intervening years, the ANC has maintained its hold on the country’s executive and legislature. The most recent election in 2009 saw the transition of former President Thabo Mbeki to current President Jacob Zuma, who received 65.9% of the vote in 2009 – an improvement from the 62.6% that Nelson Mandela received in 1994. The ANC currently holds 264 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly, which is the house of parliament responsible for electing the country’s president.

Opposition Parties

The largest opposition party is the Democratic Alliance (DA), which has seen its influence increase steadily over the years. The party received 1.7% of the vote during the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. That number rose to 16.6% during the 2009 election. Helen Zille, the premier of the Western Cape, is the current leader of the party. The DA’s predecessor was the left-leaning Progressive Party, which served as a visible platform during the 1960s and 1970s for the party’s sole representative in parliament to oppose apartheid. Currently, the DA holds the second-largest share of seats in the assembly with 67, followed by Congress of the People with 30 seats, and Inkatha Freedom Party with 18. No other party holds more than five seats in the assembly.

New political parties have recently arrived on the scene hoping to capitalise on the desire for an alternative to the ANC. The most prominent of these in the media is the Economic Freedom Fighters group, a far-left party that targets a range of left-leaning objectives, including mine nationalisation, protectionist policies, land expropriation and free basic services. The head of the party is Julius Malema, a former leader of the ANC Youth League who was suspended from the party for five years following charges of bringing the party into disrepute.

A more moderate alternative to the ANC was launched in February 2013, under the banner of the Agang Party. Former World Bank managing director and anti-apartheid activist, Mamphela Ramphele, heads the party, which has listed a number of general aims as the basis of its policy platform. These include reforming the electoral system, restructuring the national economy and building a modern education system.

Foreign Relations

One of South Africa’s most prominent achievements over the past 20 years has been its diplomatic heft, both on the continent and as a representative of the continent. In recent years, it has racked up a string of notable achievements, including joining the G20 group and the BRICS bloc, and hosting the World Cup. The country benefits from strong ties with a number of major global powers. China is its single largest trading partner, and key Chinese leaders including former President Hu Jintao and current President Xi Jinping have made several bilateral visits to the country in recent years as investment and export volumes between the two have increased. The latter made his first foreign trip as president of China to South Africa in March 2013 and has stated the importance of relations between the two nations on multiple occasions. Furthermore, in recent years large Chinese investments have been made into infrastructure, energy and mining, as well as the auto industry in South Africa.

Other high-level figures have come through Pretoria recently as well. In June 2013, US President Barak Obama made an official visit to South Africa to meet with leaders in efforts to boost trade volumes beyond the current level of $22bn. This visit comes two years after President Zuma’s official visit to the US that resulted in improved economic and educational ties. The UK, which has one of the largest shares of foreign investment stock in South Africa, also enjoys close historical ties with the country.

South Africa also remains an active leader in the African Union and the UN, where it was a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council until January 2013, when its two-year term from 2011-12 expired. The country’s representatives remain active on several committees, including the economic, peacekeeping, peace building, sustainable development, and human rights committees.

Bric Nation

South Africa’s inclusion within the Brazil, Russia, India, China acronym of BRIC – now BRICS, in recognition of South Africa’s membership – highlights the country’s role as a visible diplomatic player in the global arena. The fifth annual BRICS summit was held in Durban, South Africa in March 2013. Delegates from all five countries were all present at the summit, which was declared a success by attendees. The meetings ended with several strategic objectives announced, with delegates stating that they would be seeking to start a new development bank at some point in the near future. In addition, the contingent reserve arrangement (CRA) was also announced with a start amount of $100bn, and leaders were optimistic that this figure would rise in the near future. The CRA is intended to promote financial stability among BRICS nations and also aims to ease short-term liquidity issues. Another outcome of the event was the announcement of both a BRICS Think Tanks Council and a BRICS Business Council. Both councils have the goal of bringing together similar bodies inside the BRICS nations to promote networking and cooperation within the bloc. All five BRICS member nations were represented by their heads of state as President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, President Xi Jinping of China and President Zuma of South Africa all attended the event.

Development & Employment

The latest figures from the World Bank indicate that South Africa spends just under 6% of GDP on education, which is up slightly from just over 5% in 2003. Though the trend is positive, the effort to improve education standards remains a top priority.

An initiative to improve textbooks reached 11m learners and 24,000 schools, according to the Ministry of Education. Further, ensuring an adequate workforce of quality teachers for schools is a priority as 14,000 new teachers are expected to enter the system by 2014. In 2011, some 10,370 qualified teachers finished their university programmes, an increase of 74.5% since 2008, according to government figures. These statistics also show that bursaries have seen a dramatic increase since 2007, rising from R100m ($10m) to R1.7bn ($170m) in 2012. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme provided R200m ($20m) to assist students with outstanding loans to allow them to further their education. Adult education has been a target as well. The Kha Ri Gude Mass Literacy Campaign, which specifically targets adults, enrolled 665,246 people in classes during 2012. From 2008 to 2011 the campaign enrolled more than 2.2m adults.

South Africa continues to see high structural unemployment, with conservative estimates of 25.1% of 2013, though this is down from an all-time high of 31.2% in 2003, according to government estimates. Given the prevalence of the grey economy, some outside estimates place that number as high as 40% with much of the unemployment remaining along racial lines. As a result, ensuring graduates have access to vocational training is increasingly crucial and the government has taken a number of steps to try and spur job creation. HIV/AIDS: Achievements in the fight against HIV/AIDS has garnered significant attention in South Africa over the years, with concrete progress increasingly being made. Crucially, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS has stabilised in recent years. In 2007 South Africa ranked 1st in the world in HIV/AIDS cases with 5.7m people living with the disease, while in 2013 that figure had declined slightly to 5.6m. Though the number remains high, the number of new cases has dramatically slowed. Since President Zuma’s inauguration in 2009, South Africa has run the largest anti-retroviral (ARV) programme in the world. Although treatment efforts are now beginning pay off, around 10% of South Africans still live with the disease, according to the government’s own statistics.

Land Ownership

Redressing historical inequality has been one of the most challenging objectives of South Africa’s successive post-apartheid governments. Dozens of reforms and initiatives have sought to tackle the issue in various ways, with varying degrees of success, but the stubbornly persistent gap in income and mobility among citizens has proven difficult to close. Policies range from land redistribution – although on a far different scale and scope than what neighbouring Zimbabwe had attempted years earlier – to affirmative action through Black Economic Empowerment (see Economy chapter). As a result of these policies, there has been greater diversity in the country’s upper income segments, but the effects of this still have yet to trickle down to the economy as a whole.

Mining Protests

Beginning on August 10, 2012 the world witnessed a series of protests at the Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg. The dispute originated over wages and became a focus of international news outlets when the demonstrations turned violent. Clashes involving the police, miners, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and mine security forces resulted in the death of 44 people. The protests lasted for several weeks before a deal was reached between the miners and Lonmin. that included a 22% rise in wages The Marikana incidents set off a series of protests across the mining sector in South Africa and highlighted frustration over working conditions and wage levels in the sector. Looking ahead, future concerns may arise as several mines were operating at a loss even before the wages were raised.


Though legally equal, women in South Africa struggle to play a larger role in society. Of school-aged girls, nearly one in four are reported to have HIV/AIDS, compared to less than 10% of school-aged boys, which is an issue that garnered significant negative international media attention in 2013. Teenage pregnancy is also an issue, with state hospitals claiming to have encountered over 90,000 cases in 2012. These girls are often excluded from school, putting them at a further disadvantage. The Global Gender Index has a more positive outlook, ranking South Africa 16th out of 135 countries. Only Lesotho (14th) had a better ranking in Africa. The index takes into account political empowerment, health and education.


Crime, a side effect of high levels of poverty, continues to be a difficult issue facing the country’s leaders. Security has become a headline-grabbing concern, and while the sensationalism often outweighs the reality of the situation, the cost of violent crime and petty theft continues to take a toll on the quality of life in South Africa.

For the year ending in March 2012, South Africa reported 65,000 cases of rape or a rate of 127.6 per 100,000 women. This number has risen for the first time in several years. Though the murder rate remains high at 30.9 per 100,000 people in 2012, that number has been cut in half since 1994 when the rate was at 64.9. The South African police force has combated the problem of crime by increasing the number of detectives, the size of the special investigation teams and also through improved training programmes for officers. This effort has led to higher arrest rates and an overall fall in crime.


South Africa is a country where context is crucial. Crime, corruption, poverty, health care and employment continue to be challenges facing the nation, but there has been action taken regarding most of these issues and some areas have seen real progress. And in spite of its domestic challenges, South Africa has done well on the global stage in recent years, with a number of high-profile successes, including entrance into the BRICS bloc of nations and the hosting of the World Cup.

While the tangible impact of these achievements is debatable, it has nonetheless brought with it an improved international image. South Africa has the resources and solid institutions to tackle large domestic problems, but only time will tell if the rate of growth the country has seen over the past two decades will be sustained in the coming years.