Portuguese seafarers, who pioneered the sea route to India in the late 15th century, were regular visitors to the South African coast during the early 1500s. Other Europeans followed from the late 16th century.
In 1652, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) set up a station in Table Bay (Cape Town) to provision passing ships. Trade with the Khoekhoe(n) for slaughter stock soon degenerated into raiding and warfare. Beginning in 1657, European settlers were allotted farms by the colonial authorities in the arable regions around Cape Town, where wine and wheat became the major products. In response to the colonists’ demand for labour, the VOC imported slaves from East Africa, Madagascar, and its possessions from the East Indies.
By the early 1700s, the colonists had begun to spread into the hinterland beyond the nearest mountain ranges. These relatively independent and mobile farmers (trekboers), who lived as pastoralists and hunters, were largely free from supervision by the Dutch authorities.
As they intruded further upon the land and water sources, and stepped up their demands for livestock and labour, more and more of the indigenous inhabitants were dispossessed and incorporated into the colonial economy as servants.
Diseases such as smallpox, which was introduced by the Europeans in 1713, decimated the Khoisan, contributing to the decline of their cultures. Unions across the colour line took place and a new multiracial social order evolved, based on the supremacy of European colonists. The slave population steadily increased since more labour was needed. By the mid-1700s, there were more slaves in the Cape than there were “free burghers” (European colonists). The Asian slaves were concentrated in the towns, where they formed an artisan class. They brought with them the Islamic religion, which gained adherents and significantly shaped the working-class culture of the Western Cape. Slaves of African descent were found more often on the farms of outlying districts.
In the late 1700s, the Khoisan offered far more determined resistance to colonial encroachment across the length of the colonial frontier. From the 1770s, colonists also came into contact and conflict with Bantu-speaking chiefdoms. A century of intermittent warfare ensued during which the colonists gained ascendancy, first over the Khoisan and then over the Xhosa-speaking chiefdoms to the east.
It was only in the late 1800s that the subjugation of these settled African societies became feasible. For some time, their relatively sophisticated social structure and economic systems fended off decisive disruption by incoming colonists, who lacked the necessary military superiority.
At the same time, a process of cultural change was set in motion, not least by commercial and missionary activity. In contrast to the Khoisan, the black farmers were, by and large, immune to European diseases. For this and other reasons, they were to greatly outnumber the whites in the population of white-ruled South Africa, and were able to preserve important features of their culture.
Perhaps because of population pressures, combined with the actions of slave traders in Portuguese territory on the east coast, the Zulu kingdom emerged as a highly centralised state. In the 1820s, the innovative leader Shaka established sway over a considerable area of south-east Africa and brought many chiefdoms under his dominion.
As splinter groups conquered and absorbed communities in their path, the disruption was felt as far north as central Africa. Substantial states, such as Moshoeshoe’s Lesotho and other Sotho-Tswana chiefdoms, were established, partly for reasons of defence. The Mfecane or Difaqane, as this period of disruption and state formation became known, remains the subject of much speculative debate.