South Africa has a rich and varied history. Over the last few centuries this part of the continent has been invaded and colonised by African peoples moving south through Africa, and European colonisers moving north from landing points at the Cape of Good Hope. The only indigenous peoples are the San and Koi San people, commonly known as the bushmen, a group of people that now occupy the arid areas on the outskirts of the Kalahari desert in scattered and impoverished communities.

During the 19th Century groups of European settlers moved inland from the British Cape colony, founding the Orange Free State (now the province of the Free State) and the South African Republic (now loosely the province of Gauteng). These two independent states were the Boer republics, existing alongside the British colonies of Natal and the Cape.

In the same period (the early 19th Century) the Zulu nation was growing under the leadership of Shaka Zulu, the greatest Zulu king and one of the greatest military leaders of all time (see http://www.carpenoctem.tv/military/sh... for a discussion on Shaka's military innovations and tactics). Shaka grew a tribe of about 1500 people into a nation of about 250 000, by assimilating and absorbing the populations his armies conquered into the Zulu nation. The Zulu's engaged in many famous battles with the British and the Boers through especially the later part of the 19th Century. Tours of some battlefields are available in Kwa-Zulu, and one can still find 150 year old cartridges and spear tips if one looks around the veld where these battles took place - a good tour guide can make this an exciting way to see this part of South Africa.

With the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand (the Johannesburg area) at the end of the 19th Century, the inland Boer states became an altogether more attractive proposition to the British. This started what are called the Boer Wars (by the British), the English Wars (by the Boers) or the Anglo-Boer or South African Wars (by the neutrals). The Anglo-Boer wars saw the invention of guerrilla warfare (by the Boers), the first use of trenches (also the Boers), the change in the uniforms of the British army (from red to khaki...), and the development of the concept of concentration camps (by the British - the touching memorial to the cruelty and human suffering that was the product of these camps is found at the graveyard in Bloemfontein). See http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?n... for more on these concentration camps.

The British won, and by the early 20th Century the Boers and the Zulus, as well as almost every other significant grouping of people in South Africa was under British control. The British allowed the Union of South Africa a fair degree of autonomy in conducting its affairs, but, like other British colonies at the time, ensured that this colony was effectively controlled from London. This resulted in South African involvement in both the First and Second World Wars (as an interesting aside, it was the influence of South African Prime Minister and military leader Gen Jan Smuts that led to the formation of the Royal Air Force, which ultimately played such a significant role in WWII).

South Africa's history took a turn with the general election in 1948 in which the white minority voted to power the National Party. The NP led South Africa to independence from Britain in 1962 and to the development of the policy of apartheid (pronounced apart-hate, roughly translated as "separateness"). Apartheid made South Africa [in]famous in modern times. It meant that South Africa was at war with its neighbours for the latter half of the 20th century. It also created the first-world/third-world dichotomy that is South Africa today, and helped shape and mould the country's future president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (see www.anc.org.za/people/ mandela.html for bio).

Mandela was a leader of the African National Congress, an organisation which for many years held the distinction of being the least successful liberation movement in the world. Extant since 1913, the ANC achieved no success until 1994, when it was elected to power in South Africa's first democratic election. (The ANC, unsurprisingly, prefers to be described as the oldest liberation movement on the continent). The transition from white minority rule in a facist police state to an inclusive democracy in a negotiated revolution is an example to the world.

Since 1994 South Africa has returned from global isolation, and retaken its rightful position amongst the world's leading nations. In the tradition of previous leaders such as Jan Smuts (who was instrumental in forming the League of Nations, forerunner to the UN), President Mandela championed morality and humanity of expedience and personal power. His leadership united a largely divided South Africa, and gave the country hope. This was helped by sporting success, with the national soccer team, Bafana Bafana, winning the African Cup of Nations and the national rugby team, the Springboks, winning the World Cup, and by economic growth (which has been sustained for the last decade).

By the end of Mandela's five year term in office (he has been replaced by President Thabo Mbeki), South Africa had a future centered around a modern and progressive constitution (any traveller to the country must visit the Constitutional Hill complex in Johannesburg - the Constitutional Court and the Old Fort are juxtaposed to show the old and the new, South African history at a glance).

The new South Africa is a vibrant, diverse, ambitious constitutional democracy, founded and fueled on hope and determination. While there are many challenges facing the country (poverty and disease being two of these), for a traveller there are few more affordable and exciting countries to visit, inhabited by beautiful and hospitable people.