The Union of South Africa (Unie van Zuid-Afrika in Dutch, or Unie van Suid-Afrika in Afrikaans) is the historic predecessor to the present-day Republic of South Africa, located at the southernmost region of Africa, with a long coastline that stretches more than 1,553 miles (2,500 kilometers) and along two oceans (the South Atlantic and the Indian). It came into being on May 31, 1910, with the unification of four previously separate British colonies: Cape Colony, Natal Colony, Transvaal Colony and Orange River Colony. It included the territories formerly part of the Boer republics annexed in 1902, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. In 1961, it occupied 789,700 square miles (2,045,320 km²) of land and had an estimated population of 18,216,000.
Owing to disagreements over where the Union’s capital should be, a compromise was reached in which every province would be dealt a share of the benefits of the capital: the administration would be seated in Pretoria (Transvaal), Parliament would be in Cape Town (Cape Province), the Appellate Division would be in Bloemfontein (Orange Free State). Bloemfontein and Pietermaritzburg (Natal) were given financial compensation.
Following the First World War, the Union of South Africa was granted the administration of the German South West Africa colony as a League of Nations mandate and it became treated in most respects as if it were another province of the Union, but never was formally annexed.
The Union of South Africa was a dominion of the British Empire, and became sovereign on December 11, 1931. It was governed under a form of constitutional monarchy, with the Crown represented by a governor-general. The Union came to an end when the 1961 constitution was enacted. On May 31, 1961, the country became a republic and left the Commonwealth, under the new name Republic of South Africa.
Unlike Canada and Australia, the Union of South Africa was a unitary state, rather than a federation, with each colony’s parliaments being abolished and replaced with provincial councils. A bicameral parliament was created, consisting of a House of Assembly and Senate, and its members were elected mostly by the country’s white minority. During the course of the Union the franchise changed on several occasions always to suit the needs of the government of the day. Parliamentary supremacy was a convention of the constitution, inherited from the United Kingdom; save for procedural safeguards in respect of the entrenched sections of franchise and language, the courts were unable to intervene in Parliament’s decisions.
An entrenched clause in the Constitution mentioned Dutch and English as official languages of the Union, but the meaning of Dutch was changed by the Official Languages of the Union Act, 1925 to include both Dutch and Afrikaans.
The name of South Africa is derived from the country’s geographic location at the southern tip of Africa. Upon formation, the country was named the Union of South Africa in English, reflecting its origin from the unification of four formerly separate British colonies. Since 1961, the long form name in English has been the “Republic of South Africa”. In Dutch the country was named Republiek van Zuid-Afrika, replaced in 1983 by the Afrikaans Republiek van Suid-Afrika. Since 1994, the Republic has had an official name in each of its 11 official languages.
Mzansi, derived from the Xhosa noun umzantsi meaning “south”, is a colloquial name for South Africa, while some Pan-Africanist political parties prefer the term Azania.
South Africa contains some of the oldest archaeological and human fossil sites in the world. Extensive fossil remains have been recovered from a series of caves in Gauteng Province. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been termed the Cradle of Humankind. The sites include Sterkfontein, which is one of the richest hominin fossil sites in the world. Other sites include Swartkrans, Gondolin Cave Kromdraai, Coopers Cave and Malapa. The first hominin fossil discovered in Africa, the Taung Child was found near Taung in 1924. Further hominin remains have been recovered from the sites of Makapansgat in Limpopo, Cornelia and Florisbad in the Free State, Border Cave in KwaZulu-Natal, Klasies River Mouth in eastern Cape and Pinnacle Point, Elandsfontein and Die Kelders Cave in Western Cape.
These sites suggest that various hominid species existed in South Africa from about three million years ago starting with Australopithecus africanus. These were succeeded by various species, including Australopithecus sediba, Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo rhodesiensis, Homo helmei, Homo naledi and modern humans, Homo sapiens. Modern humans have inhabited Southern Africa for at least 170,000 years.
Settlements of Bantu-speaking peoples, who were iron-using agriculturists and herdsmen, were already present south of the Limpopo River (now the northern border with Botswana and Zimbabwe) by the 4th or 5th century CE. They displaced, conquered and absorbed the original Khoisan speakers, the Khoikhoi and San peoples. The Bantu slowly moved south. The earliest ironworks in modern-day KwaZulu-Natal Province are believed to date from around 1050. The southernmost group was the Xhosa people, whose language incorporates certain linguistic traits from the earlier Khoisan people. The Xhosa reached the Great Fish River, in today’s Eastern Cape Province. As they migrated, these larger Iron Age populations displaced or assimilated earlier peoples. In Mpumalanga, several stone circles have been found along with the stone arrangement that has been named Adam’s Calendar.
At the time of the first European contact, the dominant ethnic group were Bantu-speaking peoples who had migrated from other parts of Africa about one thousand years before. The two major historic groups were the Xhosa and Zulu peoples.
In 1487, the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias led the first European voyage to land in southern Africa. On December 4, he landed at Walfisch Bay (now known as Walvis Bay in present-day Namibia). This was south of the furthest point reached in 1485 by his predecessor, the Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão (Cape Cross, north of the bay). Dias continued down the western coast of southern Africa. After January 8, 1488, prevented by storms from proceeding along the coast, he sailed out of sight of land and passed the southernmost point of Africa without seeing it. He reached as far up the eastern coast of Africa as, what he called, Rio do Infante, probably the present-day Groot River, in May 1488, but on his return he saw the Cape, which he first named Cabo das Tormentas (Cape of Storms). His King, John II, renamed the point Cabo da Boa Esperança, or Cape of Good Hope, as it led to the riches of the East Indies. Dias’ feat of navigation was later immortalized in Luís de Camões’ Portuguese epic poem, The Lusiads (1572).
By the early 17th century, Portugal’s maritime power was starting to decline, and English and Dutch merchants competed to oust Lisbon from its lucrative monopoly on the spice trade. Representatives of the British East India Company did call sporadically at the Cape in search of provisions as early as 1601, but later came to favor Ascension Island and St. Helena as alternative ports of refuge. Dutch interest was aroused after 1647, when two employees of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) were shipwrecked there for several months. The sailors were able to survive by obtaining fresh water and meat from the natives. They also sowed vegetables in the fertile soil. Upon their return to Holland they reported favorably on the Cape’s potential as a “warehouse and garden” for provisions to stock passing ships for long voyages.
In 1652, a century and a half after the discovery of the Cape sea route, Jan van Riebeeck established a victualing station at the Cape of Good Hope, at what would become Cape Town, on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. In time, the Cape become home to a large population of vrijlieden, also known as vrijburgers (free citizens), former Company employees who stayed in Dutch territories overseas after serving their contracts. Dutch traders also imported thousands of slaves to the fledgling colony from Indonesia, Madagascar, and parts of eastern Africa. Some of the earliest mixed race communities in the country were later formed through unions between vrijburgers, their slaves, and various indigenous peoples. This led to the development of a new ethnic group, the Cape Coloureds, most of whom adopted the Dutch language and Christian faith.
The eastward expansion of Dutch colonists ushered in a series of wars with the southwesterly migrating Xhosa tribe, as both sides competed for the pastureland necessary to graze their cattle near the Great Fish River. Vrijburgers who became independent farmers on the frontier were known as Boers, with some adopting semi-nomadic lifestyles being denoted as trekboers. The Boers formed loose militias, which they termed commandos, and forged alliances with Khoisan groups to repel Xhosa raids. Both sides launched bloody but inconclusive offensives, and sporadic violence, often accompanied by livestock theft, remained common for several decades.
Great Britain occupied Cape Town between 1795 and 1803 to prevent it from falling under the control of the French First Republic, which had invaded the Low Countries. Despite briefly returning to Dutch rule under the Batavian Republic in 1803, the Cape was occupied again by the British in 1806. Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it was formally ceded to Great Britain and became an integral part of the British Empire. British immigration to South Africa began around 1818, subsequently culminating in the arrival of the 1820 Settlers. The new colonists were induced to settle for a variety of reasons, namely to increase the size of the European workforce and to bolster frontier regions against Xhosa incursions.
In the first two decades of the 19th century, the Zulu people grew in power and expanded their territory under their leader, Shaka. Shaka’s warfare led indirectly to the Mfecane (“crushing”) that devastated and depopulated the inland plateau in the early 1820s. An offshoot of the Zulu, the Matabele people created a larger empire that included large parts of the highveld under their king Mzilikazi.
During the early 1800s, many Dutch settlers departed from the Cape Colony, where they had been subjected to British control. They migrated to the future Natal, Orange Free State, and Transvaal regions. The Boers founded the Boer Republics: the South African Republic (now Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West provinces) and the Orange Free State (Free State).
Sir George Grey, the Governor of Cape Colony from 1854 to 1861, decided that unifying the states of southern Africa would be mutually beneficial. The stated reasons were that he believed that political divisions between the white-controlled states “weakened them against the natives”, threatened an ethnic divide between British and Boer, and left the Cape vulnerable to interference from other European powers. He believed that a united “South African Federation”, under British control, would resolve all three of these concerns.
His idea was greeted with cautious optimism in southern Africa; the Orange Free State agreed to the idea in principle and the Transvaal may also eventually have agreed. However, he was overruled by the British Colonial Office which ordered him to desist from his plans. His refusal to abandon the idea eventually led to him being recalled.
The discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1884 in the interior started the Mineral Revolution and increased economic growth and immigration. This intensified British efforts to gain control over the indigenous peoples. The struggle to control these important economic resources was a factor in relations between Europeans and the indigenous population and also between the Boers and the British.
In the 1870s, the London Colonial Office, under Secretary for the Colonies Lord Carnarvon, decided to apply a system of Confederation onto southern Africa. On this occasion however, it was largely rejected by southern Africans, primarily due to its very bad timing. The various component states of southern Africa were still simmering after the last bout of British expansion, and inter-state tensions were high. The Orange Free State this time refused to even discuss the idea, and Prime Minister John Molteno of the Cape Colony called the idea badly informed and irresponsible. In addition, many local leaders resented the way it was imposed from outside without understanding of local issues. The Confederation model was also correctly seen as unsuitable for the disparate entities of southern Africa, with their wildly different sizes, economies and political systems.
The Molteno Unification Plan in 1877, put forward by the Cape government as a more feasible unitary alternative to confederation, largely anticipated the final act of Union in 1909. A crucial difference was that the Cape’s liberal constitution and multiracial franchise were to be extended to the other states of the union. These smaller states would gradually accede to the much larger Cape Colony through a system of treaties, whilst simultaneously gaining elected seats in the Cape parliament. The entire process would be locally driven, with Britain’s role restricted to policing any set-backs. While subsequently acknowledged to be more viable, this model was rejected at the time by London. At the other extreme, another powerful Cape politician at the time, Saul Solomon, proposed an extremely loose system of federation, with the component states preserving their very different constitutions and systems of franchise.
Lord Carnarvon rejected the (more informed) local plans for unification, as he wished to have the process brought to a conclusion before the end of his tenure and, having little experience of southern Africa, he preferred to enforce the more familiar model of confederation used in Canada. He pushed ahead with his Confederation plan, which unraveled as predicted, leaving a string of destructive wars across southern Africa. These conflicts eventually fed into the first and second Anglo-Boer Wars, with far-reaching consequences for the subcontinent.
In 1874, Sir Henry Bartle Frere was sent to South Africa as High Commissioner for the British Empire to bring such plans into being. Among the obstacles were the presence of the independent states of the South African Republic and the Kingdom of Zululand and its army. The Anglo-Zulu War was fought in 1879 between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. The Zulu nation spectacularly defeated the British at the Battle of Isandlwana. Eventually though the war was lost resulting in the end of the Zulu nation’s independence. The Boer Republics successfully resisted British encroachments during the First Boer War (1880–1881) using guerrilla warfare tactics, which were well suited to local conditions.
The inhospitable coast of what is now the Republic of Namibia remained uncolonized up until the end of the 19th century. From 1874, the leaders of several indigenous peoples, notably Maharero of the Herero nation, approached the Cape Parliament to the south. Anticipating invasion by a European power and already suffering Portuguese encroachment from the north and Afrikaner encroachment from the south, these leaders approached the Cape Colony government to discuss the possibility of accession and the political representation it would entail. Accession to the Cape Colony, a self-governing state with a system of multi-racial franchise and legal protection for traditional land rights, was at the time considered marginally preferable to annexation by Portugal or Germany.
In response, the Cape Parliament appointed a special Commission under William Palgrave, to travel to the territory between the Orange and Cunene rivers and to confer with these leaders regarding accession to the Cape. In the negotiations with the Palgrave Commission, some indigenous nations such as the Damara and the Herero responded positively (in October 1876), while other reactions were mixed. Discussions regarding the magisterial structure for the area’s political integration into the Cape dragged on until, from 1876, it was blocked by Britain. Britain relented, insofar as allowing the Cape to incorporate Walvis Bay, which was brought under the magisterial district of Cape Town, but when the Germans established a protectorate over the area in 1884, South West Africa was predominantly autonomous. South West Africa became a German colony, except for Walvis Bay and the Offshore Islands which remained part of the Cape, outside of German control.
After gold was discovered in the 1880s, thousands of British men flocked to the gold mines of the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. The newly arrived miners were needed for the mines but were distrusted by the politically dominant Afrikaners, who called them uitlanders and imposed heavy taxes and very limited civil rights, with no right to vote. The British, jealous of the gold and diamond mines and highly protective of its people, demanded reforms, which were rejected. A small-scale private British effort to overthrow Transvaal’s President Paul Kruger, the Jameson Raid of 1895, was a fiasco, and presaged full-scale conflict as diplomatic efforts all failed.
The Second Boer War started on October 11, 1899, and ended on May 31, 1902, as Great Britain was aided by its Cape Colony, Colony of Natal and some native African allies. The British war effort was further supported by volunteers from across the Empire. All other nations were neutral, but public opinion in them was largely hostile to Britain. Inside Britain and its Empire there also was a significant Opposition to the Second Boer War because of the atrocities and military failures.
The British were overconfident and under-prepared. Prime Minister Salisbury and his top officials, especially colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain, ignored the repeated warnings of military advisers that the Boers were well prepared, well armed, and fighting for their homes in a very difficult terrain. The Boers struck first, besieging Ladysmith, Kimberly, and Mafeking in early 1900, and winning important battles at Colenso, Magersfontein and Stormberg. Staggered, the British fought back, relieved its besieged cities, and prepared to invade first the Orange Free State, and then Transvaal in late 1900.
The Boers refused to surrender or negotiate, and reverted to guerrilla warfare. After two years of hard fighting, Britain, using over 400,000 soldiers systematically destroyed the resistance, raising worldwide complaints about brutality. The Boers were fighting for their homes and families, who provided them with food and hiding places. The British solution was to forcefully relocate all the Boer civilians into heavily guarded concentration camps, where about 28,000 died of disease. Then it systematically blocked off and tracked down the highly mobile Boer combat units. The battles were small operations; most of the dead were victims of disease. The war ended in victory for the British and the annexation of both republics, which became the Transvaal Colony and the Orange River Colony.
At the close of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902, the four colonies were for the first time under a common flag, and the most significant obstacle which had prevented previous plans at unification had been removed. Hence the long-standing desire of many colonial administrators to establish a unified structure became feasible.
The matter of trade tariffs had been a long-standing source of conflict between the various political units of Southern Africa. Essentially at the heart of the crisis lay the fact that the Transvaal was a landlocked economic hub that resented its dependence on its neighbors, as well as the costs it was incurring through rail and harbor customs.
The Cape Colony was heavily dependent upon customs as a source of tax revenue and subsequently was directly competing with both Natal and Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). At the time of unification the bulk of cargo destined for the Witwatersrand area entered through Lourenço Marques (now Maputo in Mozambique) owing largely to the relative distance and the ZARs policy of reducing its dependence on the British Empire. The South African Customs Union came into existence in 1906, but various problems existed with the arrangements particularly because the Transvaal was insistent on dominating the Union.
Eight years after the end of the Second Boer War and after four years of negotiation, an act of the British Parliament (the South Africa Act 1909) granted nominal independence, while creating the Union of South Africa on May 31, 1910. The Union was a dominion that included the former territories of the Cape and Natal colonies, as well as the republics of Orange Free State and Transvaal. After Unification, the South African Customs Union continued to exist including the other British territories (the Protectorates and Rhodesia).
The Natives’ Land Act of 1913 severely restricted the ownership of land by blacks; at that stage natives controlled only 7% of the country. The amount of land reserved for indigenous peoples was later marginally increased.
Following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the Union of South Africa occupied and annexed the German colony of German South West Africa. With the establishment of the League of Nations and cessation of the war, South Africa obtained a Class C Mandate to administer South West Africa “under the laws of the mandatory (South Africa) as integral portions of its territory”. Subsequently, the Union of South Africa generally regarded South West Africa as a fifth province, although this was never an official status.
With the creation of the United Nations, the Union applied for the incorporation of South West Africa, but its application was rejected by the U.N., which invited South Africa to prepare a Trusteeship agreement instead. This invitation was in turn rejected by the Union, which subsequently did not modify the administration of South West Africa and continued to adhere to the original mandate. This caused a complex set of legal wranglings that were not finalized when the Union was replaced with the Republic of South Africa. In 1949, the Union passed a law bringing South West Africa into closer association with it including giving South West Africa representation in the South African parliament.
Walvis Bay, which is now in Namibia, was originally a part of the Union of South Africa as it was a part of the Cape Colony at the time of Unification. In 1921, Walvis Bay was integrated with the Class C Mandate over South West Africa for the rest of the Union’s duration and for part of the Republic era.
In 1922, the colony of Southern Rhodesia had a chance (ultimately rejected) to join the Union through a referendum. The referendum resulted from the fact that by 1920 British South Africa Company rule in Southern Rhodesia was no longer practical with many favoring some form of “responsible government”. Some favored responsible government within Southern Rhodesia while others (especially in Matabeleland) favored membership in the Union of South Africa. Politician Sir Charles Coghlan claimed that such membership with the Union would make Southern Rhodesia the “Ulster of South Africa”.
Prior to the referendum, representatives of Southern Rhodesia visited Cape Town where the Prime Minister of South Africa, Jan Smuts, eventually offered terms he considered reasonable and which the United Kingdom government found acceptable. Although opinion among the United Kingdom government, the South African government and the British South Africa Company favored the union option (and none tried to interfere in the referendum), when the referendum was held the results saw 59.4% in favor of responsible government for a separate colony and 40.6% in favor of joining the Union of South Africa.
In December 1931, The Statute of Westminster passed by the Imperial Parliament making the Union fully sovereign from the United Kingdom. The Statute repealed the Colonial Laws Validity Act and implemented the Balfour Declaration 1926, had a profound impact on the constitutional structure and status of the Union. The most notable effect was that the South African Parliament was released from many restrictions concerning the handling of the so-called “native question”. It abolished the last powers of the British Government on the Union of South Africa. However the repeal was not sufficient to enable the South African Parliament to ignore the entrenched clauses of its constitution (the South Africa Act) which led to the colored-vote constitutional crisis of the 1950s wherein the right of coloreds to vote in the main South African Parliament was removed and replaced with a separate, segregated, and largely powerless assembly.
In 1934, the South African Party and National Party merged to form the United Party, seeking reconciliation between Afrikaners and English-speaking “Whites”. In 1939, the party split over the entry of the Union into World War II as an ally of the United Kingdom, a move which the National Party followers strongly opposed.
In 1948, the National Party was elected to power. It strengthened the racial segregation begun under Dutch and British colonial rule. The Nationalist Government classified all peoples into three races and developed rights and limitations for each. The white minority (less than 20%) controlled the vastly larger black majority. The legally institutionalized segregation became known as apartheid. While whites enjoyed the highest standard of living in all of Africa, comparable to First World Western nations, the black majority remained disadvantaged by almost every standard, including income, education, housing, and life expectancy. The Freedom Charter, adopted in 1955 by the Congress Alliance, demanded a non-racial society and an end to discrimination.
Most English-speaking whites in South Africa supported the United Party of Jan Smuts, which favored close relations with the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, rather than the Afrikaans-speaking Nationalists, many of whom held anti-British sentiments, and were opposed to South Africa’s entry into the Second World War. Some extremist Nationalist organisations, like the Ossewa Brandwag, openly supported Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
Many opposed moves to make the country a republic, voting “no” in the October 5, 1960, referendum, but due to the much larger number of Afrikaans-speaking voters, the referendum passed, leading to the establishment of a republic on May 31, 1961. Queen Elizabeth II was stripped of the title Queen of South Africa, and the last Governor-General, namely Charles Robberts Swart, became State President. As a concession to the Westminster system, the presidency remained parliamentary appointed and virtually powerless until P. W. Botha’s Constitution Act of 1983, which eliminated the office of Prime Minister and instated a near-unique “strong presidency” responsible to parliament. Pressured by other Commonwealth of Nations countries, the Afrikaner-dominated government withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961, and rejoined it only in 1994.
Before South Africa was united in 1910, each part of South African issued their own stamps:
- British Bechuanaland (1885–1895)
- Cape of Good Hope (1853–1904)
- Griqualand West (1874–1879)
- Natal (1857–1909)
- New Republic (1886–1887)
- Orange Free State (1868–1897)
- Orange River Colony (1900–1909)
- South African Republic (1869–1877 and 1882–1897)
- Stellaland (1884–1885)
- Transvaal (1877–1880 and 1900–1909)
- Zululand (1888–1896)
During the Second Boer War, some cities issued their own stamps:
- Lydenburg (1900)
- Mafeking (1900)
- Pietersburg (1901)
- Rustenburg (1900)
- Schweizer Renecke (1900)
- Volksrust (1902)
- Vryburg (1899–1900)
- Wolmaransstad (1900)
The first stamp of the Union of South Africa was a 2 ½ pence definitive issued on November 4, 1910, which portrayed the monarch King George V and the arms of the four British colonies which formed the Union: Cape Colony, Natal, Orange River Colony and Transvaal. Most South African stamps released between 1926 and 1951 were issued in pairs. One would be inscribed SOUTH AFRICA while the other was inscribed either SUIDAFRIKA or SUID-AFRIKA. The final stamps of the Union were part of a set of 13 definitives issues on February 14, 1961 (Scott #241-253). The first of the Republic of South Africa, inscribed REPUBLIC OF SOUTH AFRICA / REPUBLIEK VAN SUID-AFRIKA, were released on May 31, 1961 (Scott #254-266).
The Scott catalogue assigns major numbers to the pairs of stamps as they are most commonly collected in this form. Thus Scott #23 refers to two ½ penny dark green and black typographed stamps, perforated 14½ x 14, each portraying a springbok. Scott #23a is the single with the Union’s name inscribed in English, while #23b is the listing for a single stamp bearing the Afrikaans inscription SUIDAFRIKA. This stamp was redrawn and reissued in 1930, printed using the photogravure method and perforated 15 x 14; a further reissue was done in 1936, also using photogravure and perforated 15 x 14. This time, the center was in more of a gray than black color, there were differences in the shading and number of lines in the background, but most significantly, the Afrikaans inscription had attained a hyphen: SUID-AFRIKCA. The easiest way to tell the earlier typographed stamps from the later photogravure ones on this denomination is by examining the “R” in AFRICA or AFRIKA. The leg of the “R” ends in a straight line on the 1930 and 1936 versions while it is a curved line on the 1926 stamp.
The springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) is a medium-sized antelope found mainly in southern and southwestern Africa. The sole member of the genus Antidorcas, this bovid was first described by the German zoologist Eberhard August Wilhelm von Zimmermann in 1780. Three subspecies are identified. A slender, long-legged antelope, the springbok reaches 28 to 34 inches (71 to 86 centimeters) at the shoulder and weighs between 60 and 93 pounds (27 and 42 kilograms). Both sexes have a pair of black, 14- to 20-inch (35- to 50-cm) long horns that curve backward. The springbok is characterized by a white face, a dark stripe running from the eyes to the mouth, a light brown coat marked by a reddish-brown stripe that runs from the upper foreleg to the buttocks across the flanks, and a white rump flap.
Active mainly at dawn and dusk, springbok form harems (mixed-sex herds). In earlier times, springbok of the Kalahari desert and Karoo would migrate in large numbers across the countryside, a practice known as trekbokken. A feature unique to the springbok is pronking, in which the springbok performs multiple leaps into the air, up to 6.6 feet (2 meters) above the ground, in a stiff-legged posture, with the back bowed and the white flap lifted. Primarily a browser, the springbok feeds on shrubs and succulents; this antelope can live without drinking water for years, meeting its requirements through eating succulent vegetation. Breeding takes place year-round, and peaks in the rainy season, when forage is most abundant. A single calf is born after a five- to six-month-long pregnancy; weaning occurs at nearly six months of age, and the calf leaves its mother a few months later.
Springbok inhabit the dry areas of south and southwestern Africa. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) classifies the springbok as a Least Concern species. There are no major threats to the long-term survival of the species; the springbok, in fact, is one of the few antelope species considered to have an expanding population. They are popular game animals, and are valued for their meat and skin.
The common name “springbok” comes from the Afrikaans words spring (“jump”) and bok (“antelope” or “goat”); the first recorded use of the name dates to 1775. The scientific name of the springbok is Antidorcas marsupialis; anti is Greek for “opposite”, and dorcas for “gazelle” —identifying that the animal is not a gazelle. The specific epithet marsupialis comes from the Latin marsupium (“pocket”); it refers to a pocket-like skin flap which extends along the midline of the back from the tail. In fact, it is this physical feature that distinguishes the springbok from true gazelles.
The springbok has been a national symbol of South Africa since the white minority rule in the 20th century. It was adopted as a nickname or mascot by several South African sports teams, most famously by the national rugby union team and is the national animal of South Africa. Even after the decline of apartheid, Nelson Mandela intervened to keep the name of the animal for the reconciliation of rugby fans, the majority of whom were whites. The cap badge of The Royal Canadian Dragoons has featured a springbok since 1913; a reference to the unit’s involvement in the Second Boer War.