South Africa is a nation at the Southern tip of Africa. It is one of the most economically prosperous countries in Africa, and has abundant precious mineral resources, including diamonds, gold, chromium and platinum.
The first European settlers were the Dutch, who established a waystation for passing ships in the Cape, which soon developed into a colony. In the years that followed it changed hands a few times until 1820 when the Cape's status as a British colony was finalised. As a result of this, a group of descendants from the Dutch and later French Hugenot settlers who called themselves the Voortrekkers left the Cape Colony to establish the republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal in the hinterland, after which they became known as the Boers. Numerous wars were fought between the black African, British and Boer inhabitants of the region, culminating in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). The peace deal signed after the end of that conflict resulted in the creation of the Union of South Africa on May 31, 1910. Self-governing status was granted in 1931.
South Africa's history as an independent nation was dominated by racial conflict and apartheid somewhat similar in character to American Jim Crow Laws. Whites, Blacks, Coloured (mixed race) and Indians were physically divided and given different legal status. From 1910 to 1948, segregationist laws were enacted, but the intensity was increased with the creation of apartheid in 1948. In response to the harsher segregation under apartheid, a number of black movements began to adopt a more radical approach, including the bombing of civilian infrastructure. One such movement, the African National Congress (founded 1912), lead most prominently by Nelson Mandela until his imprisonment, was the most prominent of the groups pushing for the end of apartheid. Bishop Desmond Tutu was also instrumental in the struggle to end apartheid, most notably in supporting international sanctions, both economics and in social areas like sport, which helped end the practice. Inkatha, a Zulu movement was also instrumental in the struggle.
Beginning in the 1980s, the ruling white National Party began to show signs of moderation as a result of intense international pressure. Much of the so-called "petty apartheid" laws, such as those which prohibited mixed marriages, were repealed, and Coloured and Indian voters were given greater political representation. This sparked a battle within the National Party between those who advocated reform (the "verligte" members), and those who advocated an even harsher regime (the "verkrampte" members). This intensified after President PW Botha resigned following a stroke, with the "verligte" members winning in the end and nominating one of their own, FW de Klerk, for the 1989 election - which he duly won.
In de Klerk's first speech as president in February 1990 he immediately announced the unbanning of all political parties and the imminent release of Nelson Mandela. The speech created a controversy which led to the holding of a national referendum on continuing apartheid, in which white South Africans voted overwhelmingly to end it.
From 1990 to 1993 a series of negotiations between all parties were held as part of the CODESA (COngress for a DEmocratic South Africa) talks, leading eventually to the country's first free elections in April 1994. Nelson Mandela's ANC won a landslide victory, ushering him in as South Africa's first black president.
Mandela declined to run for a second term, and in 1999 his successor, Thabo Mbeki, was elected to the office of president. He remains the president today, having been elected to a second term in 2004.
Reconcillation in the wake of the end of apartheid has been proceeding in South Africa, but the nation remains plagued by poverty, crime, grievances dating to the pre-apartheid period, and AIDS, an area in which South Africa's political leadership has lagged behind the world in addressing despite the fact that South Africa is particularly acutely impacted by the epidemic.