Background and context
South Africa, today known as the Republic of South Africa (or RSA), lies at the southern tip of the continent, bordered by Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Mozambique to the north. Encompassing the tiny Kingdom of Lesotho, the country is 1,2 million square kilometers in size and spans the continent, from the Atlantic ocean on the west coast to the Indian ocean on the east. (It is known as Suid-Afrika or Die Republiek van Suid-Afrika in Afrikaans, ** in isiXhosa, ***)
Formerly divided into four provinces (the Cape of Good Hope, the Orange Free State, the Transvaal, and Natal) and a number of ethnically based "homelands", the country was re-divided into nine provinces in 1993. They are the Western Cape, the Northern Cape, the Eastern Cape, the Free State, Kwazulu/Natal, Gauteng, the Northern Province, Northwest and Mpumalanga. The capital cities are Cape Town (legislative) and Pretoria (administrative).
The seat of some of the earliest human development in Africa, the region was settled by African peoples over the course of many centuries. The inhabitants included hunter-gatherer communities (e.g. the San or Xan) and herders and farmers (e.g. the Khoi, Sotho, Tswana, Zulu and Xhosa). These constituted tribal states, each with its own distinctive and rich visual and oral culture, including a vibrant performance heritage, despite the fact that none of the tribes had an orthography and therefore have left no written literature or history.
The Portuguese discovery of the sea route around the Cape of Storms (later the Cape of Good Hope) in the fifteenth century led to the first Dutch settlement in 1652 and a century and a half later the British annexation of the Cape (1814) and Natal (1843). The subsequent colonial expansion into the interior by farmers, missionaries, civil servants and troops extended British control over the outreaches of the Cape Province and Natal, while rebellious Dutch farmers trekked inland to escape the British influence founded the independent republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. In a century punctuated by military clashes between the European settlers and the African farmers, the latter gradually had to retreat to border areas to retain their autonomy, or else had to adapt to the encroaching capitalist life by becoming paid workers, often on their ancestral lands.
The discovery of diamonds in Hopetown (1867) and gold on the Witwatersrand (1886) accelerated the process of assimilation. The interior was immediately overrun by speculators, diggers, businessmen and - inevitably - politicians and imperialists from across the globe. Rapid urbanization, mechanization and more aggressive exploitation of labour followed, as did a myriad of secondary industries and Organisations. The evolving capitalist society also brought the touring theatre companies and entertainers from Britain and the Continent in its wake, a factor of crucial importance for the way theatre and the theatrical system were to evolve over the next century.
A direct result of this imperialism was the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. An international cause célêbre in which the world rallied to support the "gallant little republics" of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in their struggle against the might of Britain, the war was to become an important theme in Afrikaner and South African literature.
In 1910 the country was granted home rule as the Union of South Africa, with a Westminster-style democratic parliament. In 1961 it became the Republic of South Africa and seceded from the British Commonwealth - to which it only returned in 1995.
The compromise reached created a parliament which was predominantly for Europeans (Whites) in much of the country with the so-called "Coloureds" and some blacks being excepted in regions such as the Cape Province. Thus individuals of African and Asian descent were treated as second class citizens, as they were in all British colonies. As the new century dawned, there also came a growing sense of injustice and a clear drive towards resistance among the non-European population. Symptomatic of this was the founding, in 1912, of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC, later simply to become the African National Congress or ANC), which was to go on to become one of the more prominent voices of opposition, in conjunction with a number of similar Organisations founded during the course of the century.
Meanwhile Afrikaner cultural nationalism, a fully fledged drive to political, social and economic empowerment, stimulated the fight for the autonomy for Afrikaners (i.e. speakers of Afrikaans). This culminated in the 1948 victory by the National Party, a party which was to rule the country for the next 42 years and was to devise and implement the notorious laws and policies which have become known as "apartheid" (i.e. "separateness"). Apartheid thinking was to dominate all aspects of life, including the arts and culture of the sub-continent for decades.
The initial resistance to racism and discrimination tended to be predominantly peaceful, but between 1960 and 1976 a series of bloody confrontations between the protesters and the police (e.g. at Cato Manor, Sharpeville, Langa and Soweto), changed everything irrevocably. Affected by the post-war winds of change blowing over the rest of Africa, the struggle for liberation - backed up by international boycotts and pressure - became militant, while white resistance to change hardened into ever increasing political and social oppression. Between 1960 and 1990 this struggle was to inform every social, cultural and economic act, and give direction to the arts and artists of the country.
In 1990 the situation changed radically when President F.W. de Klerk committed the National Party to negotiations by unbanning all political parties and eventually releasing all political detainees. This paved the way for discussions between all parties, the formation of the interim Government of National Unity and, in 1994, the first democratic elections and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the new republic's first State President.
Infrastructure and economy
Today South Africa is perhaps the most highly industrialized country in Africa as well as one of the most productive agricultural centres on the continent. Sociologically it is a mixture of underdevelopment (particularly in certain rural areas) and highly developed urbanization, with the major cities constantly growing, western-style metropoles characterized by high-rise buildings, high-density living and technological sophistication. The recent removal of the apartheid laws restricting free movement, has led to an unchecked increase in the urbanization process, leading to a major housing crisis and the development of vast squatter communities on the outskirts of all cities. The latter communities are reputed to contain almost seven million people.
As a legacy of the colonial and apartheid eras, every city and virtually every major town can boast well-equipped cultural amenities: e.g. theatres, galleries, museums, libraries. The country has twenty-one major universities - a number with excellent international reputations, eight influential scientific research councils, fifteen technikons and a hundred and twenty three technical colleges. The education, health and social welfare systems too are based on British models and worked excellently within the limits set for them under the previous government. However, for most of the century the amenities were provided for and built in areas reserved exclusively for the white population, with a fraction of the state funds being allocated for the black population. The effect has been catastrophic in most cases and rectifying these imbalances is a major priority of - and a major headache for - the new government.
Population statistics and languages
The current population numbers over 40 million, speaking eleven languages (Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, siSwati, Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana, siSwati, Tshvenda and Xitsonga). In the 1910 Union constitution English and Dutch (from 1925 Afrikaans, the locally developed version of Dutch) were declared the official languages of the country, with all other languages seen as regional languages, but the new (post-1990) interim constitution recognizes all eleven as official languages, though English tends to serve as the lingua franca. This poses unique problems for the public broadcaster (the South African Broadcasting Corporation - SABC) and other such institutions.
This rich cultural mix has impacted heavily on the range of cultural expression in the country, particularly since 1970. In this period the restrictions of apartheid slowly lifted, African art forms have begun to receive academic and artistic recognition, and African artists have gained confidence and exposure. As a result, crossover art forms and styles have become more and more prominent, and multicultural and multilingual expression, eschewing the old European forms and conventions, has become the norm rather than the exception, leading to the creation of uniquely South African forms and styles.
The terms South African and Southern African
South African usually refers to anything belonging to or arising from the geographical region defined above. Of course there is a problem with an itinerant and multicultural cultural activity such as theatre - fior when does a production become "South African"? (When there is an South African cast? When the play is put on in South Africa? etc.)
Southern African is often used to include South Africa but to also indicate a slightly broader geographic and cultural area, including namibia, lesotho, mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi etc.
For more information
On tourism etc. http://www.southafrica.net/sat/content/en/za/home
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