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South Africa

Life Under Apartheid

In 1910, the South African (British) colonies of Cape, Natal, Transvaal and the Orange Free State were united under the flag of the Union of South Africa. Afrikaners (the descendants of the original Dutch settlers) retained a voice in the new government and began working hard to deny black South Africans any rights in the new government. New laws supporting racial segregation, known as apartheid (apartness) in Afrikaans, prevented black South Africans from holding certain jobs, attending certain schools, and even limited where they could live, shop, and travel and eventually stripped them of their very citizenship.

In 1948, apartheid became official policy when the Afrikaners gained a majority in parliament. Under apartheid South Africans were divided into four racial groups: Whites, Asians, Coloureds, and Blacks. The whites were descendants of the European settlers. Asians were anyone who came from Asia, most often from the British colony of India or China. Coloureds were people of mixed racial backgrounds. Blacks were those who belonged to one of South Africa's indigenous tribes.

As you might have guessed, whites were at the top and received the best opportunities for jobs, education, and housing. The Asian and Coloureds had fewer rights than the whites, but more than the blacks. They lived in segregated neighborhoods and attended segregated schools. The blacks were at the bottom of the social ladder and not only had to live in poor segregated areas and attend poor segregated schools, but also received the worst health care and jobs.

​Even though segregation existed before 1948, it became even stricter after the National Party came to power. The areas in which non-whites could leave shrank. The urban areas became designated for "whites only" residences and businesses. Under the Group Areas Act of 1950, Asians and Coloureds lived in segregated neighborhoods.

During apartheid, many blacks found work on white-owned mines, farms, or as servants. In the cities blacks had to live in separate areas called townships. These townships were little more than slums with no running water and tiny houses made of scraps of wood and metal.

The South African government had set up such a rigid system of separation among the races that it would have been very difficult for police to keep people out of areas that they did not belong in. Therefore, everyone was issued passes that told police where you lived, worked, and what racial group you belonged to. If you were caught without your pass or in the wrong area, you could be arrested.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, law after law was passed that banned any interaction between whites and non-whites except in an employer-employee relationship. Like in the United States, drinking fountains, buses, neighborhoods, schools, restaurants, hotels, and park benches were all segregated or reserved for "whites only". However, unlike in the United States, South Africa stripped blacks of citizenship and tried to push them out (literally) of the country.

Life on the Bantustan

The white Afrikaners knew that the indigenous Africans outnumbered whites by more than 4 to 1. If they were allowed to vote in South Africa, the whites would lose their power. So, laws were passed that allowed blacks, Asians, and coloureds to elect only white representatives. 

To make matters worse, apartheid came up with a plan to deny black South Africans their political rights as well. Once black South Africans were denied citizenship, they were no longer South Africans and the white Afrikaners could justify passing laws against illegal aliens, rather than its own people.

The most extreme act of Apartheid was the Homeland Act of 1951, which created reservations for each African ehtnic group usually far from the wealthy urban centers where whites lived. These homelands were often on the least productive agricultural lands and contained few natural resources for blacks to earn a living on.

Blacks in the homelands often worked as subsistence farmers or working as "farm hands" on white-owned farms for long hours and very low pay. Many black men were forced to work in mines for extremely low wages. Striking was illegal.

Some blacks were given special permission to work in white owned businesses or homes, almost always in low wage, low skilled jobs such as maids, janitors, and waiters. To keep control of the system, blacks had to carry passes that allowed them to be in a particular city for up to 72 hours at a time. Those without their proper papers could face arrest.

The Bantu Education Act of 1953 created separate schools for black children that intentionally kept the standards low. Black children were trained to work in service jobs, nothing more.

Soweto Burning

In 1976, there was a new law that made Afrikaans (the language spoken mainly by whites) the only language allowed in schools. Students around the country walked out of their classes to protest the new law. This protest turned into a full scale national rebellion within days when police fired shots against 10,000 school children in the township of Soweto. The attack left 23 people dead. As word spread, the protests grew in size and became more violent. Soon South Africa was in a state of chaos.

In the 1970s and 1980s, The United Nations stepped up the pressure on South Africa to end apartheid. Member countries of the UN used economic sanctions such as placing an embargo (ban on trade) on certain South African products. South African athletes were even banned from attending international events such as the Olympics and Cricket World Cup. South Africa dropped out of the British Commonwealth after the other former colonies criticized it for its racial segregation.

​ The more South Africa's government responded with violence, the more isolated it became with the international community. By the 1990s these efforts began to have an effect on South Africa's leaders. South Africa's new president, F.W. de Klerk began repealing or taking back, some of apartheids harshest laws. De Klerk even ordered the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners.

Anti Apartheid Protest in Durban, South Africa. 1949
Qwaqwa Homeland
"It is accepted government policy that the Bantu (native) are only temporarily residents in the European (white) areas of the Republic for as long as they offer their labour there. As soon as they become, for one reason or another, no longer fit for work or superfluous in the labour market, they are expected to return to their country of origins or the territory of the nations unit where they fit ethnically if they were not born in their homeland."


(The Department of Bantu Administration and Administration 1957)
Mandela: Freedom Fighter

Nelson Mandela wasn’t just a guy who protested things he saw as wrong and got thrown in prison for it. He started out by getting a law degree in 1942 and became a political activist eight years later in 1950 when he fought relentlessly against the troubles and unfairness of apartheid, which had overtaken South Africa by then. Two years after beginning his political career, he was elected to the office of deputy president of the ANC, or African National Congress-- an organization dedicated to overturning the racist laws being promoted by the government. This gave Mandela a more effective and powerful platform in his efforts to eradicate apartheid. Influenced by Indian freedom fighter Mohandas Gandhi, the ANC began protesting apartheid with boycotts and marches. However, the government reacted to their passive resistance by beating and arresting protesters

Over the next ten years the ANC led by Nelson Mandela led many protest marches and gave many passionate speeches criticizing South Africa's white leaders. Mandela slowly gave up hope that non-violence could bring an end to racial segregation and police brutality and began using guerrilla warfare and sabotage to achieve the goals of the anti-apartheid resistance.  Before long, Mandela was getting attention for his efforts to end apartheid. But he was also receiving attention from groups that didn’t like what he was trying to do. He was tried for treason by the Afrikaans majority, but he was acquitted of those charges at the end of the trial. But that wasn’t the end of his legal troubles. In 1962, he was caught planning some organized bombings against sites that were being oppressive. The CIA arrested him and he was sentenced to five years of hard labor.

While Mandela sat in prison, he had a lot of time to think. He continued to be politically active and work on the things that he believed in. He was given the offer of his freedom in exchange for renouncing his position many times over the next two decades, but he refused. Instead, he stayed in prison where he continued to gain popularity as one of the nation’s most formidable and charismatic political activists.

After being in prison for 23 years, Mandela began corresponding with the South African Minister of Justice at the time – Kobie Coetsee. Since this was before Twitter, Facebook and Myspace, the two exchanged letters – the handwritten kind that took days to reach a person through the mail. They discussed ideas for ending apartheid. Soon after they began exchanging letters, Mandela was allowed to leave prison for a short time so he could have surgery.

The Release of Mandela

In 1990, the Afrikaaner government gave Nelson Mandela his freedom due to international pressure and pressure from groups inside the country. Once he was free, he was appointed to the presidency of the ANC, which was a huge step in his journey to becoming president of the nation. As president of the ANC, Mandela’s first order of official business was to call for a cease to all violence in the country.

Achieving the Dream: Ending Apartheid

After four years of post-prison activism, Mandela put his name in the proverbial hat to run for president of South Africa. The year was 1994 and the oppressive Afrikaans government gave in to public pressure to hold free elections for the office of president. Once the election was all said and done, Mandela was elected as the first black and freely elected president of South Africa.

Despite being considered a terrorist by his own country and being thrown in prison for more than two decades, Nelson Mandela is one of the most inspirational figures in world history. After reading about his determination and perseverance, what excuse do you have for not getting off the couch to fight for something you believe in?


"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner."


-Nelson Mandela 
South Africa Reconciles

Many whites wondered whether they would now be victims of discrimination. Many whites feared they would lose their jobs or wealth if blacks decided to get revenge for years of racial discrimination. Some whites fled to the United States and Europe. Nelson Mandela feared that if all of the whites left and took their wealth with them this would cause the South African economy to collapse.


Mandela, in his presidential acceptance speech, shocked many whites by opening his speech not with talk of the black struggle, but the white one! Mandela acknowledged that Afrikaners had been abused by the British. However, Mandela went on; it was time to put the past behind and start a new age of racial harmony. Mandela and other black leaders urged South Africans to forgive and forget the evils done by apartheid. 


The Truth and Reconciliation Committee was set up so that the victims of apartheid could share their stories. Each case of human rights abuse would be tried individually. Those who asked for amnesty (forgiveness) could apply for it. At one such meeting one woman described the murder of her son by the old Secret Police:

"Facing them, a Black woman speaks of her first-born son who resisted the apartheid regime in the uprising of 1985. She describes his birth and how he was named and speaks proudly of his performance at school. Then she tells of the night the security police smashed down the door and dragged him away and about how an anonymous policeman sent for her some days later to come to the mortuary. In horrifying detail, she describes the bruised and almost unrecognizable corpse, riddled with 19 bullet wounds, that had been her son...The remembrance overwhelms her and affects both panel and audience. Some weep quietly while she struggles with her grief. "I do not know if I can forgive," she says. "I must know who did this to my son. When I see the face of the one who killed him, and he tells me why, then perhaps I can forgive."



Listen to the story as it happened @ NPR



Nelson Mandela and South African President F.W. deKlerk jointly recieve the 1993 Nobel Award for Peace
"put behind us all the pain and division of apartheid with all the violence which has ravaged (destroyed) our communities in its (apartheid) name. "

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