South Africa, the southernmost country on the African continent, is rich in history and diversity. With 11 official languages and three capital cities, the country has only recently begun the process of becoming a more unified whole. In recent history, the existence of apartheid and racial discrimination led to the emergence of some of the world’s most notable individuals, such as Nelson Mandela. Other recent history includes the bloody and difficult Boer War, from which there are still a number of historical and commemorative sites across the country.
South Africa is home to some of the oldest archaeological and human fossil remains in the world, and as such, makes for a fantastic visit for any history enthusiast. On top of this, it is the most UNESCO World Heritage decorated country in Africa. Here’s our pick of 10 of their best historical sites.
District Six was a once lively, multicultural area of Cape Town unitl it was declared a white only area during Apartheid. It is now a barren landscape and an evocative reminder of the country’s divided history. There’s not much to see in District Six itself today, but to understand the true tragedy of the time the nearby District Six Museum is jammed packed full of information.
Telling the story of those who lived through this time, visitors can explore how a neighbourhood which was once an outstanding example of communities co-existing and flourishing became a terrible story of Apartheid in practice. Other exhibitions include one specifically looking at local and international football, focusing on apartheid and its effects on the sport and the lives of the people that played the beautiful game.
The Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town is the oldest surviving colonial building in South Africa and the current seat of the military in the Cape. Visitors can either explore the Castle of Good Hope independently or join one of the many tours which uncover the Castle’s extensive history including a fascinating (if slightly creepy) visit to a dungeon.
There are also a number of exhibitions, including the Castle Military Museum exploring past battles and wars, the William Ferh Collection of period paintings and furniture, and a replica of the original Castle Forge.
The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg chronicles the history of apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for human rights which ended this regime of racial segregation.
Through its twenty-two exhibition areas, comprising original artefacts, information panels and multimedia presentations including films, the Apartheid Museum provides an in-depth insight into life under the apartheid regime. It also looks at the gradual campaign against the apartheid and the struggle for equal rights led by Nelson Mandela, the country’s eventual president.
Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa was a notorious prison, best known for its internment of political prisoners during South African apartheid. Its most famous prisoner – prisoner 466/64 – was Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist who would later become the country’s president. Today, Robben Island is a UNESCO World Heritage historic site and a museum.
In addition to touring the maximum security prison buildings, the tour includes a 45 minute guided bus ride around the island and interaction with a former Robben Island prisoner. A visit to Robben Island provides a fascinating insight into the island’s history and that of South Africa. There are also exhibits at the Nelson Mandela Gateway museum, worth seeing, especially if you can’t make it to the Island.
Isandlwana Battlefield in South Africa was the site of the Battle of Isandlwana during the Anglo-Zulu Wars. The Anglo-Zulu Wars were in part an attempt by the British to repress the Zulu army so as to pave the way for the creation of a Confederation of South Africa which united all of the colonial entities into one unit.
Today, memorials and markers show the points at Isandlwana Battlefield where British soldiers fell. There is also a small Isandlwana Battlefield museum at the visitor centre. A visit to Isandlwana Battlefield is usually coupled with one to nearby Rorke’s Drift, particularly as the two are connected by road.
Rorke’s Drift in South Africa was the site of a famous battle during the Anglo-Zulu Wars in which 139 British soldiers fiercely and successfully defended the area and their garrison against between four and five thousand Zulu Warriors.
Today, there is a British memorial at Rorke’s Drift, where visitors can tour the battlefield and view the visitor centre. Most visitors also take the opportunity to visit the nearby Isandlwana Battlefield.
The Nelson Mandela Museum at the Bhunga Building chronicles the life of South Africa’s iconic former president and his struggle for democracy and the end of the apartheid regime.
There are actually three locations of the Nelson Mandela Museum in the Eastern Cape, of which the Bhunga Building forms one. At the Bhunga Building, visitors can learn about Nelson Mandela’s past in his own words through extracts of his autobiography, ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’. It also houses gifts given to Nelson Mandela when he was president.
The Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, South Africa commemorates the exodus of the Boers – Voortrekkers meaning pioneers – from the Cape Colony from 1835 and 1854.
The Voortrekker Monument is comprised of a vast granite structure surrounded by 64 ox-wagons – a symbol of Voortrekker practices – and is flanked by numerous statues of historic figures such as Boer leader Piet Retief. Inside the Voortrekker Monument is its large Hall of Heroes housing a historical frieze depicting the history of the Trek and a museum of Voortrekker history.
The Anglo-Boer War Museum, also known as the War Museum of the Boer Republics, in Bloemfontein, South Africa is one of the country’s most comprehensive museums about the Second Anglo-Boer War.
The museum chronicles the events leading up to the war, the course of the war and its aftermath. One of its most moving exhibits is that relating to concentration camps. The Second Anglo-Boer War is notorious for being the first war in which such camps were used, a strategy spearheaded by Lord Herbert Kitchener. The museum is next to the Women’s Memorial, which commemorates those who perished in these camps.
Majuba Hill in South Africa was the final battlefield of the First Anglo-Boer War. Sometimes known as the Transvaal War, the First Anglo-Boer War was an approximately year-long conflict in which the Boers rejected British annexation of the Transvaal region of South Africa.
Approximately 400 British soldiers, made up of the 58th Regiment and the 92nd Highlanders and led by Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, had occupied Majuba Hill in early 1881. On 27 February 1881 at the Boers defeated the British in battle, effectively ending the war. Colley himself had been killed together with almost half of the force.