Although only around 10 per cent of the South African population speak English, it is understood by most people in urban areas and is spoken on television. This is because South Africa was a former colony of the British Empire, and was a member of the Commonwealth until 1961. 


South Africa’s early Dutch-speaking settlers became known as Afrikaners, or Boers. When Britain took possession of the Dutch colony in 1806, the Afrikaners moved further into African tribe territory, where they forcibly founded the independent republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. In the 1870s, Britain applied a confederation system in southern Africa that was completely unsuitable as disparate entities of the region were of different sizes, economies and political systems. The result was a series of destructive wars. 

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When diamonds and gold were discovered in the region, conflict between Britain and the self-governing Afrikaner colonies became inevitable. In the Boer War of 1899, many Africans and non-Europeans from other parts of the British Empire got involved. Among them was Mahatma Gandhi, then living in South Africa, who served as a volunteer for the British. The black population fought on both sides and had to pay the heaviest price in the war and its aftermath.


In 1902, the Afrikaners surrendered and in 1910 the Union of South Africa saw the incorporation of their former republics into one self-governing dominion of the British Empire. A prime minister headed a coalition representing the white Afrikaner and English-speaking communities. Dutch —or Afrikaans— and English were the official languages. By 1931, the UK Parliament could no longer legislate, but everything was left in white hands.

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In 1948 an alliance between the National Party and the Afrikaner Party led to a white South African national election victory. The campaign was ultra-conservative and anti-British. The Union Jack was removed as a cultural symbol in 1957, UK currency was replaced by the Rand, and a referendum saw South Africa become a republic in 1961. Apartheid was a means to keep power from black South Africans while also distancing South Africa from the rest of the world. Although the UN suspended South Africa from its General Assembly in 1974, the longevity of apartheid required some degree of complicity from Western governments. In the 1980s, for example, while British prime minister Margaret Thatcher offered diplomatic protection to South African anti-apartheid activists living in London, she opposed sanctions against the country, because this, she believed, would violate free market economics.