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Discuss in brief economy and polity of South African civilization

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Course Code: MHI-101
Assignment Code: MHI-101/AST/ TMA/2023-24

July 2023 Session/ January 2024 Session Students

The history of South Africa is marked by a rich tapestry of civilizations and cultures, each contributing to the region’s economic and political landscape. From the early hunter-gatherer societies of the San people to the sophisticated kingdoms of Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe, South Africa’s economy and polity have undergone significant transformations over the centuries. This brief account examines the economic and political structures of South African civilizations, focusing on the pre-colonial period, the impact of European colonization, and the development of modern South Africa.

Early Societies and Economies

The earliest inhabitants of South Africa were the San people, known for their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They lived in small, mobile bands and relied on hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants for sustenance. The San economy was characterized by a deep knowledge of the environment, sustainable resource use, and a lack of formal political structures.

The arrival of the Khoikhoi around 2000 years ago introduced pastoralism to the region. The Khoikhoi, also known as Khoekhoe or Khoi, were herders who managed livestock such as cattle and sheep. Their economy was based on the trade of livestock products, such as meat, milk, and hides. The Khoikhoi established more permanent settlements and developed social hierarchies based on wealth and livestock ownership.

Discuss in brief economy and polity of South African civilization

The Rise of Complex Societies

Around the first millennium CE, Bantu-speaking peoples began migrating into South Africa from the north, bringing with them advanced agricultural techniques and ironworking skills. These migrations led to the development of more complex and hierarchical societies.

One of the most notable early civilizations was the Kingdom of Mapungubwe (circa 1075-1220 CE). Located in the Limpopo Valley, Mapungubwe was a thriving trade center. The economy was based on agriculture, livestock farming, and extensive trade networks that connected the region to the Swahili Coast, India, and China. Archaeological findings, such as gold artifacts and imported glass beads, attest to Mapungubwe’s wealth and sophistication. The political structure was hierarchical, with a king who resided on a hilltop, symbolizing his elevated status and control over the surrounding lands.

Discuss in brief economy and polity of South African civilization

Great Zimbabwe and the Mutapa Empire

Following the decline of Mapungubwe, the center of power shifted north to the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, which flourished from the 11th to the 15th century. Great Zimbabwe, the capital, is renowned for its impressive stone architecture, including the Great Enclosure and the Conical Tower. The economy was based on cattle herding, agriculture, and trade in gold and ivory. Like Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe was part of extensive trade networks that spanned the Indian Ocean.

The Mutapa Empire (circa 1450-1629) succeeded Great Zimbabwe and continued its economic practices. The Mutapa rulers controlled vast territories and trade routes, facilitating the exchange of gold and other resources with Portuguese traders. The political system was highly centralized, with the Mutapa (king) wielding significant authority over his subjects and vassal states.

Discuss in brief economy and polity of South African civilization

European Colonization and Economic Exploitation

The arrival of European colonizers in the late 15th century profoundly impacted South Africa’s economy and polity. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach South Africa, but it was the Dutch who established a permanent settlement at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) set up a supply station to support ships traveling between Europe and Asia.

The establishment of the Cape Colony led to significant changes in the local economy and social structures. The Dutch introduced commercial agriculture, vineyards, and orchards, utilizing both European settlers and enslaved laborers imported from other parts of Africa, Indonesia, and India. The indigenous Khoikhoi people were dispossessed of their land and subjected to harsh labor conditions.

In the 19th century, the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886) transformed South Africa into a major mining hub. The mining industry attracted a large influx of European immigrants and necessitated the development of infrastructure such as railways and ports. The economy became increasingly dependent on mineral extraction, leading to the rise of powerful mining magnates and companies.

Discuss in brief economy and polity of South African civilization

Apartheid and Modern Economy

The establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 marked the beginning of formalized racial segregation policies, which culminated in the apartheid system (1948-1994). Under apartheid, the economy was characterized by racial discrimination, with significant disparities in wealth, education, and employment opportunities. The political system excluded non-whites from meaningful participation, concentrating power in the hands of the white minority.

The end of apartheid in 1994 and the establishment of a democratic South Africa brought significant political and economic changes. The African National Congress (ANC) became the dominant political party, and Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president. The new government focused on redressing the economic inequalities of the past through policies such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and land reform.

Discuss in brief economy and polity of South African civilization

Today, South Africa has a mixed economy with well-developed infrastructure and sectors such as mining, agriculture, manufacturing, and services. However, the country continues to grapple with challenges such as high unemployment, poverty, and economic inequality. The political landscape is marked by efforts to address these issues through inclusive growth and social justice initiatives.


The economy and polity of South African civilization have evolved significantly over the centuries, shaped by indigenous practices, external trade, and the profound impact of European colonization. From the early hunter-gatherer societies and the rise of complex kingdoms to the exploitation of colonialism and the struggle for democracy, South Africa’s history is a testament to resilience and adaptation. The transition to a democratic society in the post-apartheid era represents a new chapter in South Africa’s ongoing journey toward economic and social equity.

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Discuss in brief economy and polity of South African civilization

Discuss in brief economy and polity of South African civilization