Africa was certainly not the most popular colonial destination for the European powers in the 17th century. Only some African harbours were under their control, used mostly as slave markets or entrepots for the ships that sailed between Europe and India.
There was, however, a single exception. The territory surrounding the Cape of Good Hope in the South was settled by a group of Dutch immigrants in the 17th century. Their main occupation was farming, and that was how they called themselves: the Boers (“farmers” in Dutch). Years of fight against the black-skinned tribes inhabiting the area fostered an exceptional sense of solidarity among the Boers, and a one of uniqueness, too. They began to consider themselves the chosen ones. They soon became the most powerful ethnic group in the area, enslaved the locals and made them work at their farms. Their presence in the Cape Colony was of no great significance for the Netherlands, so the Dutch authorities granted them self-government. The Boer authorities were located in Kaapstad (Dutch for Cape Town).
This steady state was ended by the revolutionary wave that flooded Europe in the end of the 18th century. The Netherlands were conquered by the French army in 1795. In response, Britain, France’s main enemy, seized the Dutch overseas territories, including the Cape Colony. The Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1814, signed after the Netherlands regained independence, confirmed the British rule of the territory.
British settlers, then, to the Boers’ discomfort, started to migrate to the new colony. Slavery had already been abolished in the UK by then, which made the Boers feel even more uncomfortable. They were not the masters of their land any more, and their self-government was limited by the British. Finally, in 1834, slavery was abolished in the entire British Empire. The Boers, whose farms could not exist without slave labour, decided to leave the Cape Colony. Led by Andries Pretorius, they embarked on the Groot Trek, the Great March. They moved East and, having beaten several local tribes, founded two new republics: Natalia and Orange (Oranje). When the former was seized by the British in 1840s, its citizens moved north and founded another one, called Transvaal. Of course, only the Boers could enjoy all the civic rights in the new republics. The Black were, again, enslaved and forced to work at the farms.
At first, the British were not interested in seizing the remote republics of Transvaal and Orange. This changed, however, in 1870, when diamond fields were discovered in the Orange Free State. Foreign explorers rushed to the western part of the country, and the Orange authorities, unable to control that, gave their consent to the British annexation of the region. In 1875, the British took over the Suez Canal Company, then established an informal control over the Egyptian government and a formal protectorate over Sudan. Suggestions that the UK could try to establish a range of colonies from Cape in the South of Africa to Cairo in the North were expressed for the first time. Soon after that, in 1877, a war broke out between the Boers of Transvaal and the neighbouring tribal state of the Swazis. The British decided to benefit from that and successfully attacked Transvaal. Then, they moved on to attack the Zulus. In 1880, once the Zululand was conquered by the Brits, the Boers in Transvaal started their fight. The British army suffered heavy losses and was defeated by the Boer Kommandos, using better camouflage and less tight battle formations. The Boers were given autonomy in 1881, and full independence in 1884. Paul Kruger, a leading figure in the war, was elected president. The British army, following the defeat, decided to give up its legendary red uniforms and introduce the less visible khaki-colour ones. The word commando was introduced into the English language.
It was not long after Kruger signed the independence treaty with the British that the rich gold reefs were discovered in Witwatersrand, in western Transvaal. The Boers, however, were not interested in them, as their main occupation was farming (and, of course, enslaving the locals). As a result, thousands of foreign prospectors, called uitlanders (outlanders) in Afrikaans, the language of the Boers, came to Transvaal to search for gold, and settled there, to the Boers’ discomfort. Meanwhile, a British entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes (the founder of De Beers, a leading diamond company until today) initiated the British conquest of the territories lying north of the Cape Colony. Three new colonies were created: Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Still in the 1880s, the British established their rule in Kenya, south-east of Sudan. Their “Cape to Cairo” plan could not, however, be accomplished, as the Germans had conquered the area between Northern Rhodesia and the British East Africa (Kenya).
Anyway, Cecil Rhodes became prime minister of the Cape Colony in 1890. His main goal was to annex the rich Witwatersrand. He intended to inspire a uitlander uprising in Transvaal, which would then be supported by an armed unit sent from the Cape Colony. The unit, led by Leander Jameson, marched into Transvaal on 29 December 1895, but was soon captured by the Boer soldiers. The failure of the Jameson raid forced Rhodes to stand down as PM. The British, however, did not give up in their struggle to annex the Boer republic. They started to concentrate their army at the borders. In 1899, Kruger demanded that the military units be withdrawn. When the British refused, he declared war on Britain. The Boer units, supplied partly by the Germans, using high-quality German weapons and supported by the Orange Free State, attacked the Cape Colony. After a few major victories, they were beaten at the battle of Paardeberg in February 1900 and withdrew to Transvaal. There, they changed their tactics from an open war to guerrilla. The Kommandos would trap the British units in ambushes and then run away. This worked quite well for the Boers, and the Brits were suffering heavy losses. They took radical measures to deal with the problem. Wherever the Boer Kommandos were causing troubles, the civilians were put into concentration camps and kept there, in very difficult conditions. Such camps had previously been used in the American civil war in 1860s, or in Cuba in 1890s. Horatio Kitchener, the British commander-in-chief, also ordered his soldiers to build a blockhouse system so that the Boer warriors could not penetrate the country so easily.
Finally, in 1902, the Boers gave up. Four years later, Transvaal and Orange became British colonies. In 1910, the Cape Colony, Transvaal, Orange, and Natalia all became parts of the newly formed Union of South Africa, a British dominion. Louis Botha, one of the Boer commanders, was elected president. The Boers, who dominated the politics of the new country, implemented a race-segregation policy, later called the Apartheid.
In 1961, the Union of South Africa changed its name into the Republic of South Africa and, unlike Canada or Australia, dropped the British dominion status. The Apartheid was there to stay, as we know today, for much longer.