South Africa Table of Contents
Since the arrival of seafaring European powers in the fifteenth century, South Africa has never been isolated in a strategic sense. The Cape of Good Hope initially served as a reprovisioning depot for Portuguese, English, and Dutch traders on their way to and from the Orient (see Southern African Societies to ca. 1600, ch. 1). After the mid-seventeenth century, southern Africa attracted Dutch and French Huguenot traders and settlers, whose troops engaged in a series of wars with indigenous Africans. In the late eighteenth century, the region was caught up in the Napoleonic wars and passed to British imperial control. An influx of Indian laborers and traders in the nineteenth century added an Asian dimension to South Africa's increasingly complex multicultural society. During the twentieth century, South Africa fought on the side of the victorious allies in the two world wars and in the Korean War; after that, it was caught up in the global strategic contest between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Despite the strong international presence over several centuries, South Africa's strategic position has been peripheral rather than central. World powers have sought access to, or control of, its remote subcontinental location and its mineral resources as a means of furthering their own global or imperial designs. Their arrivals and departures in southern Africa paralleled their countries' rise and fall in the international political and economic hierarchy.
After World War II, international interest in South Africa centered on its mineral wealth and its location along southern trade routes and lines of communication between the Eastern and the Western hemispheres. South Africa's potential international importance was nonetheless limited because domestic conditions, specifically its apartheid policies, made it the object of international scorn. Its diplomatic isolation was compounded by international embargoes and by a wide range of Western economic sanctions during the 1980s. Paradoxically, this nation with a long history of trade, with a strategic location, with overwhelming military and economic power in the region, with strong cultural roots on three continents, and with hard-earned international stature, became a pariah. Then as East-West and United States-Soviet tensions eased, southern African regional conflicts ended and domestic political reforms reduced Pretoria's isolation. In the early 1990s, South Africans negotiated a peaceful end to apartheid and began to build new ties to the region and to the rest of the international community.
Data as of May 1996