History of South Africa in the apartheid era

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A segregated beach, in apartheid South Africa, 1982. Blacks were only allowed on the left side of the boundary
A segregated beach, in apartheid South Africa, 1982. Blacks were only allowed on the left side of the boundary
"Apartheid" redirects here. For other uses of the term "apartheid," see Apartheid outside South Africa.

Apartheid, which means "separateness" in Afrikaans, was a social system enforced by white minority governments in twentieth-century South Africa. Under apartheid, the black majority was segregated, and was denied political and economic rights equal to those of whites. The history of South Africa in the apartheid era covers the period of South African history from 1948, when the formal legal framework for apartheid was created, to 1990–94, when the apartheid legal code was dismantled and the first free elections were held. Although many important events occurred during this period, apartheid was the central theme around which most of the historical issues of twentieth-century (post World War II) South Africa revolved.


Creation of apartheid


For a discussion of the period of history leading up to apartheid, see History of South Africa.

The first recorded use of the word "apartheid" (International Phonetic Alphabet [əˈpɑː(r)teɪt] or [-taɪt] in English and [aˈpartheid] in Afrikaans) was in 1917 during a speech by Jan Smuts, who became Prime Minister of South Africa in 1919. In some ways apartheid was an extension of the segregationist laws implemented by previous white minority governments. Examples include the 1913 Land Act and the various workplace "colour bars". These laws were required to comply with the peace treaty signed between the Boer republics and the British Empire at the end of the second Anglo-Boer war. However, by the end of the Second World War, the enforcement of these laws had been lessened by the United Party government of Jan Smuts. This culminated in the 1948 report of the Fagan Commission, which was set up by the government to investigate changes to the system. The report recommended that segregation in the cities be gradually ended, thus also ending the migrant labour system whereby the permanent home of Black South Africans was in distant rural "reserves". Prime Minister Smuts was in favour of the findings of the Commission, stating that: "The idea that natives must all be removed and confined in their kraals is in my opinion, the greatest nonsense I have ever heard."

In response to the Fagan Commission, the National Party convened its own commission known as the Sauer Commission. The findings of this commission were almost the exact opposite of those of the Fagan Commission, as it recommended that not only should segregation continue, but it should be made even stricter, and implemented in all spheres of social and economic life. It recommended the concept of "apartheid", in which the races were to be completely separated as much as possible.

Legal system created

In the run-up to the 1948 elections, the NP campaigned on its policy of apartheid. The NP was voted in, in coalition with the Afrikaner Party (AP), under Protestant cleric Daniel François Malan's leadership. The National Party won the national election of 1948, narrowly defeating Smuts' United Party (though losing the popular vote). It immediately began implementing stricter racial segregation policies, creating the system of apartheid.

Apartheid, long a reality of life, became institutionalised under Malan. Within short order, legislation was passed prohibiting mixed marriages, making interracial sex illegal, classifying every individual by race, and establishing a classification board to rule in questionable cases. The notorious Group Areas Act of 1950 set aside desirable city properties for whites, while banishing non-whites into the townships. The Separate Amenities Act created, among other things, separate beaches, buses, hospitals, schools, and even park benches. The existing pass laws were further strengthened: Blacks and Coloureds were compelled to carry identity documents at all times and were prohibited from remaining in towns, or even visiting them, without specific permission. Mixed couples were not allowed to live together, or even to visit each other, in the town where only one of them worked, and children had to remain in rural areas.

J.G. Strijdom, who succeeded Malan as Prime Minister, moved to strip coloureds and blacks of what little remaining voting rights they had. The previous government had first introduced the Separate Representation of Voters Bill in parliament in 1951. However, its validity was challenged by a group of four voters[1], who were supported by the United Party. The Cape Supreme Court upheld the act, but the Appeal Court upheld the appeal and found the act to be invalid. This was because a two-thirds majority in a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament was needed in order to change the entrenched clauses of the Constitution. The government then introduced the High Court of Parliament Bill, which gave parliament the power to overrule decisions of the court. This too was declared invalid by both the Cape Supreme Court and the Appeal Court. In 1955 the Strijdom government increased the number of judges in the Appeal Court from five to eleven, and appointed pro-Nationalist judges to fill the new places. In the same year they introduced the Senate Act, which increased the senate from 49 seats to 89. Adjustments were made such that the NP controlled 77 of these seats. Finally, in a joint sitting of parliament, the Separate Representation of Voters act was passed in 1956, which removed coloureds from the common voters' roll in the Cape, and established a separate voters' roll for them.

The principal apartheid laws were as follows:

The apartheid system

Apartheid in South Africa from day to day

Apartheid was implemented by the law. The following restrictions were not only social but were strictly enforced by law:

  • Non-whites were excluded from national government and were unable to vote except in elections for segregated bodies.
  • Non-whites were not allowed to run businesses or professional practices in any areas designated as being for whites only. Although this was theoretically a prohibition applied symmetrically to blacks and whites, every significant metropolis and practically every significant shopping and business district was in a white area.
  • Black and white transport and civil facilities were segregated.
  • Blacks (except for a few who had "Section 10" rights), who comprised over 60% of the population, were excluded from living or working in white areas, unless they had a pass. Whites required passes in black areas.
    • A pass was only issued to someone who had approved work; spouses and children had to be left behind in the non-white area.
    • A pass was issued for one magisterial district confining the holder to that area only.
    • Being without a valid pass made a person subject to immediate arrest and summary trial, often followed by "deportation" to the person's "homeland". Police vans containing sjambok-wielding officers roamed the "white area" to round up the "illegal" blacks.
The interior of a black man's pass book.
The interior of a black man's pass book.

Black areas rarely had plumbing or electricity. Hospitals were segregated: the white hospitals being the match of any in the western world while black hospitals were seriously understaffed, underfunded and far too few in number to match the white hospitals. Ambulances were segregated, forcing the race of the person to be correctly identified when the ambulance was called. A "white" ambulance would not take a black to a hospital. Black ambulances typically contained little or no medical equipment.

In the 1970s each black child's education cost the state only a tenth of each white child's. Higher education was practically impossible for most blacks[2].

Trains and buses were segregated, with third-class carriages reserved for black travellers. Black buses stopped at black bus stops and white buses at white ones.

Public beaches were racially segregated, with the majority (including all of the best ones) reserved for whites[3]. Public swimming pools and libraries were racially segregated but there were practically no black pools or black libraries.

Sex and marriage between the races was prohibited.

Cinemas in white areas were not allowed to admit blacks. Restaurants and hotels were not allowed to admit blacks, except as staff.

Although trade unions for black and "Coloured" (mixed race) workers had existed since the early 20th century, it was not until the piecemeal reforms of the early 1980s that trade unions for black workers were recognised by the government, and strikes remained banned. The minimum yearly taxable income for blacks was 360 rand (30 rand a month), while the white threshold was much higher, at 750 rand (62.5 rand per month).

Apartheid pervaded South African culture, as well as the law. The perception of non-white South Africans as second-class citizens was reinforced in many media, and the lack of opportunities for the races to mix in a social setting entrenched attitudes of superiority which some whites held.

The "homeland" system

A rural area in Ciskei, one of the apartheid-era "homelands"
A rural area in Ciskei, one of the apartheid-era "homelands"

One explanation used by apologists for apartheid is that once apartheid had been implemented, the segregated class of blacks and mixed peoples were no longer citizens of South Africa; rather, they were recognised as citizens of the nominally independent "homelands". As non-citizens, they merely worked in South Africa as holders of temporary work permits.

The South African government attempted to divide the internationally recognised state of South Africa into a number of statelets, the so-called "constellation of states". Some eighty-seven percent of the land was reserved for whites and coloureds, and Indians. About thirteen percent of the land was divided into ten fragmented "homelands" for Blacks (60% of the population) which were given "independence". Once the homelands were granted "independence", those who were designated as belonging to such a homeland had their South African citizenship cancelled, and replaced with homeland citizenship. These people would now have passports instead of passbooks. Those remaining part of the "autonomous" homelands also had their South African citizenship circumscribed, and remained less than South African[4]. The South African government attempted to draw an equivalence between their view of black "citizens" of the "homelands" and the European Union and the United States view of illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe and Latin America, respectively.

Where South Africa differed from other countries is that while other countries were dismantling discriminatory legislation and were becoming more open on issues of race, South Africa was constructing a labyrinth of discriminatory racial legislation. That white South Africans considered the implementation of apartheid necessary may have been motivated by demographics; as a minority that was shrinking as a percentage of the total population, there was widespread unease at the thought of being swamped by the black majority, and of losing their identity through intermarriage if that were permitted.

Forced Removals

During the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, the government implemented a policy of 'resettlement', to force non-whites to move to government-specified areas. It is estimated that over three and a half million people were forced, through this policy, to resettle during that period. The victims of these forced removals included:

  • Labour tenants on white-owned farms
  • The inhabitants of the so-called 'black spots', areas of African-owned land surrounded by white farms
  • The families of workers living in townships close to the homelands
  • 'Surplus people' from urban areas, including thousands of people from the Western Cape (which was declared a 'Coloured Labour Preference Area') who were moved to the Transkei and Ciskei homelands.

The most well-publicised forced removals of the 1950s occurred in Johannesburg, where 60 000 people were moved to the new township of Soweto (an acronym for South Western Township). Despite the heavy influx of people into the township, Soweto was situated far from the city centre and the all-important work places, and contained few amenities.

Until 1955, Sophiatown had been one of the few urban areas where blacks were allowed to own land, and was slowly developing into an entirely multiracial settlement. As industry in Johannesburg grew, Sophiatown became the home of a rapidly expanding African workforce, as it was convenient and close to town. It could also boast the only swimming pool for African children in Johannesburg[5]. It was, however, one of the oldest black settlements in Johannesburg, and held an almost symbolic importance for the fifty thousand Africans it contained, both in terms of its sheer vibrance and its unique culture. Unfortunately this also merited an untimely removal as far as the government was concerned, which, despite a vigorous ANC protest campaign and worldwide publicity, was duly begun on 9 February 1955 under the Western Areas Removal Scheme. In the early hours, heavily armed police entered Sophiatown to force residents out of their homes and load their belongings onto government trucks. The residents were taken to a large tract of land, thirteen miles from the city centre, known as Meadowlands (now part of Soweto), that the government had purchased in 1953. Sophiatown was destroyed by bulldozers, and a new white suburb named Triomf (Triumph) was built in its place. This tragic pattern of forced removal and destruction was to repeat itself over the next few years, and was not limited to people of African descent. Forced removals from areas like Cato Manor (Mkhumbane) in Durban, and District Six in Cape Town, where 55 000 coloured and Indian people were forced to move to new townships on the Cape Flats, were carried out under the Group Areas Act of 1950. Ultimately, nearly 600 000 coloured, Indian and Chinese people, and a further 40 000 white people, were moved in terms of the Group Areas Act.

Black, White, Indian, and "coloured"

Blacks, Indians, and "Coloured" people were often treated quite poorly
Blacks, Indians, and "Coloured" people were often treated quite poorly
Main article: Coloured

The population was classified into four groups: black, white, Indian, and "coloured". (The terms were legally supposed to be capitalised.) The coloured group included people of mixed Bantu, Khoisan, and European descent (with some Malay or Indian ancestry, especially in the Western Cape) together with some racially "pure" Khoisans. The Apartheid bureaucracy devised complex (and often arbitrary) criteria at the time that the Population Registration Act was implemented to determine who was coloured. Minor officials would administer tests such as the pencil test (testing the curliness of hair) to determine if someone should be categorised coloured or black, or coloured or white. Other tests included looking inside the person's mouth to determine the "blueness" of the gums. Different members of the same family found themselves in different race groups. Further tests determined membership of the various sub-racial groups of the coloureds. By and large, coloureds do not much like the term coloured, but it continues to be used in the post-apartheid area for lack of a satisfactory alternative. The expressions 'so-called coloured' (Afrikaans sogenaamde Kleurlinge) and 'brown people' (bruin mense) have acquired a wide usage in recent years.

Discriminated against by apartheid, coloureds were as a matter of state policy forced to live in segregated townships — in some cases leaving homes their families had occupied for generations — and received an inferior education, though better than that provided to black South Africans. They played an important role in the struggle against apartheid: for example the African Political Organisation established in 1902 had an exclusively coloured membership.

During most of the era of legally formalised apartheid, from about 1950 to 1983, voting rights were essentially denied to coloureds in the same way that they were denied to blacks (see Coloured). In 1983, the Constitution was reformed to allow the coloured and Asian minorities a limited participation in separate and subordinate Houses in a tricameral Parliament, a development which enjoyed limited support. The theory was that the coloured minority could be allowed limited rights, but the black majority were to become citizens of independent homelands. These separate arrangements continued until the abolition of apartheid.

Apartheid in international law

South African apartheid was condemned internationally as unjust and racist. In 1973 the General Assembly of the United Nations agreed on the text of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The immediate intention of the Convention was to provide a formal legal framework within which member states could apply sanctions to press the South African government to change its policies. However, the Convention was phrased in general terms, with the express intention of prohibiting any other state from adopting analogous policies. The Convention came into force in 1976.

Article II of the Convention defines apartheid as follows:

For the purpose of the present Convention, the term "the crime of apartheid", which shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa, shall apply to the following inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them:

(a) Denial to a member or members of a racial group or groups of the right to life and liberty of person
(i) By murder of members of a racial group or groups;
(ii) By the infliction upon the members of a racial group or groups of serious bodily or mental harm, by the infringement of their freedom or dignity, or by subjecting them to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
(iii) By arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment of the members of a racial group or groups;
(b) Deliberate imposition on a racial group or groups of living conditions calculated to cause its or their physical destruction in whole or in part;
(c) Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to work, the right to form recognised trade unions, the right to education, the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association;
(d) Any measures including legislative measures, designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups, the prohibition of mixed marriages among members of various racial groups, the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or groups or to members thereof;
(e) Exploitation of the labour of the members of a racial group or groups, in particular by submitting them to forced labour;
(f) Persecution of organisations and persons, by depriving them of fundamental rights and freedoms, because they oppose apartheid.

The crime was also defined in the formation of the International Criminal Court:

"The crime of apartheid" means inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1, committed in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime[6]


The ANC and the Pan African Congress

These developments pushed the hitherto relatively conservative ANC into action. In 1949, they developed an agenda that for the first time advocated open resistance in the form of strikes, acts of public disobedience, and protest marches. These continued throughout the 1950s and resulted in occasional violent clashes. In June 1955, at a congress held near Kliptown, near Johannesburg, a number of organizations, including the Indian Congress and the ANC, adopted a Freedom Charter. This articulated a vision of a non-racial democratic state and is still central to the ANC's vision of a new South Africa.

The Sharpeville Massacre

South African police officers standing over people killed in the Sharpeville Massacre
South African police officers standing over people killed in the Sharpeville Massacre

In 1959, a group of disenchanted ANC members, seeking to sever all ties with white government, broke away to form the more militant Pan African Congress. First on the PAC's agenda was a series of nationwide demonstrations against the hated pass laws. On 21 March 1960, black people congregated in Sharpeville, a township near Vereeniging, to demonstrate against the requirement for blacks to carry identity cards (under the Pass Law). Estimates of the size of the crowd vary wildly, from as low as 300 to as high as 20,000.[7] The crowd converged on the local police station, singing and offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their pass books. A group of about 300 police opened fire on the demonstrators, killing 69 and injuring 186. All the victims were black, and most of them had been shot in the back. The crowd was unarmed; many witnesses stated that the crowd was not violent, but Colonel J. Pienaar, the senior police officer in charge on the day, said, "Hordes of natives surrounded the police station. My car was struck with a stone. If they do these things they must learn their lesson the hard way." The event became known as the Sharpeville Massacre. In its aftermath the government banned the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

The event led to a great change in the ANC tactics, switching from non-violent means to violent means. Although their units detonated bombs in government buildings over the next years, the ANC and PAC were not a military threat to the state, which had a monopoly of modern weapons.

Resistance goes underground

The accused in the Rivonia Trial.
The accused in the Rivonia Trial.

To many domestic and international onlookers, the struggle had crossed a crucial line at Sharpeville, and there could no longer be any doubt about the nature of the white regime. In the wake of the shooting, a massive stay-away from work was organised and demonstrations continued.

Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd declared a state of emergency, giving security forces the right to detain people without trial. Over 18,000 demonstrators were arrested, including much of the ANC and PAC leadership, and both organisations were banned. As activists continued to be arrested, the ANC and PAC began a campaign of sabotage through the armed wings of their organisations, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, MK) and Poqo ("Pure" or "Alone"), respectively. In July 1963, members of the ANC underground movement, including Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathadra and Dennis Goldberg, were arrested.

Together with ANC leader Nelson Mandela, who had already been arrested on other charges, they were tried for treason at the widely publicised Rivonia Trial. In June 1964, Mandela and seven others were sentenced to life imprisonment. Oliver Tambo, another member of the ANC leadership, managed to escape South Africa and was to lead the ANC in exile for another 30 years.

"I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." —Nelson Mandela, 20 April 1964, Rivonia Trial.

The trial was condemned by the United Nations Security Council, and was a major force in the introduction of international sanctions against the South African government. With the ANC, PAC and South African Communist Party banned, and Mandela and his fellow leaders in jail or exile, South Africa entered some of its most troubled times. Apartheid legislation was increasingly enforced, and the walls between the races were built even higher, culminating in the creation of separate Homelands for blacks. In 1966, Verwoerd was stabbed to death, but his policies continued under B.J. Vorster and later P.W. Botha.

Famous photograph of the Soweto Riots showing a scholar carrying the body of Hector Pieterson, one of the first casualties .
Famous photograph of the Soweto Riots showing a scholar carrying the body of Hector Pieterson, one of the first casualties .

The Black Consciousness Movement, and the Soweto Riots

During the 1970s, resistance again gained force, first channelled through trade unions and strikes, and then spearheaded by the South African Students' Organisation under the charismatic leadership of Steve Biko. Biko, a medical student, was the main force behind the growth of South Africa's Black Consciousness Movement, which stressed the need for psychological liberation, black pride, and non-violent opposition to apartheid[8].

In 1974 the government issued the Afrikaans Medium Decree which forced all schools to use the Afrikaans language when teaching blacks mathematics, social sciences, geography and history at the secondary school level. Punt Janson, the Deputy Minister of Bantu Education was quoted as saying: "I have not consulted the African people on the language issue and I'm not going to. An African might find that 'the big boss' only spoke Afrikaans or only spoke English. It would be to his advantage to know both languages."

The policy was deeply unpopular, since Afrikaans was regarded as the language of the oppressor. On 30 April 1976, children at Orlando West Junior School in Soweto went on strike, refusing to go to school. Their rebellion spread to other schools in Soweto. The students organised a mass rally for 16 June 1976, which turned violent — police responded with bullets to stones thrown by children. Hector Pieterson, aged 12, was one of the first of 566 children who died at the hands of the police. (The first child to be shot by the police was Hastings Ndlovu, aged 15.) The incident triggered widespread violence throughout South Africa, which claimed further lives.

In September 1977, Steve Biko was arrested. Unidentified security police beat him until he lapsed into a coma; he went without medical treatment for three days and finally died in Pretoria. At the subsequent inquest, the magistrate ruled that no one was to blame, although the South African Medical Association eventually took action against the doctors who had failed to treat Biko. South Africa was never to be the same again. A generation of young blacks committed themselves to a revolutionary struggle against apartheid under the catchphrase of "liberation before education", and the black communities were politicised.

White resistance

While the vast majority of white South Africans benefited from the apartheid system, a substantial minority opposed it. In parliamentary elections during the 1970s and 1980s between 15% and 20% of white voters voted for the liberal Progressive Party, whose MP Helen Suzman provided for many years the only Parliamentary opposition to apartheid. Suzman's critics argue that she did not achieve any notable political successes, but helped to shore up claims by the Nationalists that internal, public criticism of apartheid was permitted. Suzman's supporters point to her use of her parliamentary privileges to help the poorest and most disempowered South Africans in any way she could.

The electoral system in South Africa was managed in a fashion that made it impossible for white opposition parties to win elections. In the watershed election of 1948 in which the National Party won power and the mandate to radically alter the social and political landscape of South Africa, the opposition United Party (UP) won about 100 000 more votes than the Nationalists. However, due to the first past the post parliamentary election system in place, the National Party won five more seats than the UP. Gerrymandering in subsequent elections gave rural constituencies (which were pro-Nationalist and thinly populated) equal weighting with liberal, more populous, urban constituencies, ensuring that the National Party maintained a majority in Parliament.

Non-violent resistance to apartheid came from the Black Sash, an organisation of white women formed in 1955 to oppose the removal of Coloured (mixed-race) voters from the Cape Province voters' roll. Covert resistance was expressed by banned organisations like the largely white South African Communist Party, whose leader Joe Slovo was also Chief of Staff of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Cultural opposition to apartheid came from internationally known writers like Breyten Breytenbach and Alan Paton (who founded the Liberal Party of South Africa) and clerics like Dr Beyers Naudé.

International relations

Main article: Foreign relations of South Africa

South Africa officially took possession of South-West Africa after it was conquered from the Germans during World War I. Following the war, the Treaty of Versailles declared the territory to be a League of Nations Mandate under South African administration. South Africa formally excluded Walvis Bay from the mandate and annexed it as an enclave. The Mandate was supposed to become a United Nations Trust Territory when League of Nations Mandates were transferred to the United Nations following World War II, but the Union of South Africa refused to agree to allow the territory to begin the transition to independence. Instead it was treated as a de facto 'fifth province' of the Union. The South African government turned this mandate arrangement into a military occupation, and extended apartheid to South-West Africa. The South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) was founded, along with a number of other groups, to resist the occupation. There was a protracted struggle between South Africa and guerillas fighting for independence. Namibia did not become independent until 1990.

In 1960, tensions came to a head in the Sharpeville Massacre. Soon thereafter, Verwoerd announced a referendum on whether the country should sever links with the British monarchy and become a republic instead. In order to secure a majority in favour, Verwoerd lowered the voting age for whites to 18 and included whites in South West Africa on the voter's roll. The referendum on 5 October that year asked whites "Do you support a republic for the Union?" — 52 per cent voted 'Yes'.

As a consequence of this change of status, South Africa needed to reapply for continued membership of the Commonwealth, with which it had privileged trade links, but when it became clear that African and Asian member states would oppose it due to the apartheid policies being enforced, South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth on 31 May 1961, the day that the Republic came into existence.

Miners reading the newspaper after a riot in a mine on the Witwatersrand was brutally suppressed.
Miners reading the newspaper after a riot in a mine on the Witwatersrand was brutally suppressed.

On November 6, 1962, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 1761, condemning South African apartheid policies. On August 7, 1963 the United Nations Security Council established a voluntary arms embargo against South Africa. Following the Soweto uprising in 1976, and its brutal suppression by the apartheid regime, the arms embargo was made mandatory by the UN Security Council on November 4, 1977 and South Africa became increasingly isolated internationally. Numerous conferences were held and the United Nations passed resolutions condemning South Africa, including the World Conference Against Racism in 1978 and 1983. A significant divestment movement started, pressuring investors to refuse to invest in South African companies or companies that did business with South Africa. South African sports teams were barred from participation in international events, and South African culture and tourism were boycotted.

By 1980, South Africa was the only country in Africa with a white government and a constitution discriminating against the majority of its citizens. As international opinion turned decisively against the apartheid regime, the government and most of the white population increasingly saw the country as a bastion besieged by communism, atheism, and black anarchy. Considerable effort was put into circumventing sanctions, and the government even collaborated with Israel in developing nuclear weapons, which have since been destroyed.

Negotiating majority rule with the ANC was not considered an option, at least publicly, which left the government to defend the country against external and internal threats through sheer military might. A siege mentality developed among whites, and although many realised that a civil war against the black majority could not be won, they preferred this to "giving in" to political reform. Brutal police and military actions seemed entirely justifiable. Paradoxically, the international sanctions that cut whites off from the rest of the world enabled black leaders to develop sophisticated political skills, as those in exile forged ties with regional and world leaders.

The term 'front-line states' referred to the countries in Southern Africa geographically close to South Africa. Although the front-line states were all opposed to apartheid, many were economically dependent on South Africa. Thus, in 1980 they formed the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC). The aim of SADCC was to promote economic development in the region and to reduce dependence on South Africa. Furthermore, many SADCC members also allowed the exiled ANC and PAC to establish bases in their countries.

South Africa's policy of 'destabilisation' aimed to combat SADCC support of the ANC and PAC, by destroying their bases, weakening support for these organisations, and hindering social economic development in SADCC countries. Destabilisation included:

  • Support for anti-government guerrilla groups such as UNITA in Angola and RENAMO in Mozambique
  • South African Defence Force (SADF; now the South African National Defence Force; SANDF) hit-squad raids into front-line states. Bombing raids were also conducted into neighbouring states.
  • A full-scale invasion of Angola: this was partly in support of UNITA, but was also an attempt to strike at SWAPO bases.
  • Targeting of exiled ANC leaders abroad: Joe Slovo's wife Ruth First was killed by a parcel bomb in Maputo, and 'death squads' of the Civil Co-operation Bureau and the Directorate of Military Intelligence attempted to carry out assassinations on ANC targets in Brussels, Paris and Stockholm, as well as burglaries and bombings in London.

The project met with much 'success'[9], in Angola and Mozambique hundreds of thousands were killed in bitter civil wars, food production ceased in large areas, millions were made homeless, and thousands were maimed in landmine accidents. All of South Africa's white males were liable for national service and thousands fled into exile to avoid conscription. Many more were scarred mentally and physically by their participation in vicious struggles in the region, or in the townships. In 1984 Mozambican president Samora Machel signed the Nkomati Accord with South Africa's president P W Botha, in an attempt to rebuild Mozambique's economy. Although South Africa agreed to cease supporting anti-government forces, their support of RENAMO continued. In 1986 President Machel himself was killed in an air crash in mountainous terrain near the South African border after returning from a meeting in Zambia. South Africa was suspected of sabotaging Machel's aircraft. On December 21, 1988 UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, was killed on flight Pan Am 103 en route to the signing ceremony in New York, whereby South Africa was to cede control of Namibia to the UN, after over a decade of defiance of Security Council Resolution 435. Some also suspect South African involvement in the PA 103 sabotage.


The National Party government implemented, alongside apartheid, a program of social conservatism. Certain edgy movies, gambling and other vices were totally banned. Printed or filmed pornography ( of even the mildest variety) was banned and possession of such was punishable by incarceration.

Television was not introduced until 1976 because it was viewed as immoral by the authorities. Even after the introduction of TV, broadcasting was initially restricted to a few hours a day.

Sunday, as the Sabbath, was considered holy. Cinemas, liquor stores and most other businesses were forbidden from operating from Saturday afternoon until Sunday morning. Abortion and sex education were also restricted. Abortion was legal however in cases of rape or if the mother's life was in any way threatened.

State security

Towards the end of the 1970s, the government became increasingly preoccupied with security. The South African media had always been supportive of the regime, the Afrikaans-language press particularly so. However, after the Soweto riots, the government began to impose more formal measures of censorship to protect its interests.

Things changed even more with the coming to power of Prime Minister and later State President P.W. Botha. Under Botha, while the government began reforming apartheid, the state security apparatus grew even more. As states of emergency prompted by violence continued intermittently throughout the 1980s, the government became increasingly dominated by Botha's circle of generals of police chiefs.

Botha's years in power were marked by numerous military interventions in the states bordering South Africa and by an extensive military and political campaign to eliminate SWAPO in Namibia. Within South Africa, vigorous police action and strict enforcement of security legislation resulted in hundreds of arrests and bannings and an effective end to the ANC's stepped-up campaign of sabotage in the 1970s.

HIV/AIDS epidemic

Amidst this turmoil, an even darker shadow began to move across South Africa. In 1982, the first recorded death from HIV occurred in the country. Within a decade, the number of recorded AIDS cases had risen to over 1,000, and by the mid-1990s, it had reached 10,000. Yet, these officially recorded cases were only the tip of the iceberg, with some estimates placing the actual number of HIV-positive cases at close to one million in 1995. Fuelled by the entrenched migrant labour system at South Africa's mines, AIDS is estimated to have been spreading at the explosive rate of over 500 new cases per day.

In the late 1980s, the South African Chamber of Mines began an education campaign to try and stem the rise of cases. But without a change in the underlying conditions of mine workers, a major factor contributing to the epidemic, success could hardly be expected. Long periods away from home under bleak conditions and a few days leave a month were the apartheid-induced realities of the life thousands of miners and other labourers worked. Compounding the problem was the fact that as of the mid-1990s, many health officials were still focused more on the incidence of tuberculosis than HIV.

As South Africa began to take its first tenuous steps to dismantle the walls of apartheid, HIV lay waiting to explode like a ticking time bomb.

Winds of change

White settlement was concentrated in only a few areas of South Africa.
White settlement was concentrated in only a few areas of South Africa.
Police in Alexandra Township, 1985.
Police in Alexandra Township, 1985.

The most violent time of the 1980s were 198588, when the P.W. Botha government embarked on a savage campaign to eliminate opposition. For three years police and soldiers patrolled South African towns in armed vehicles, destroying black squatter camps and detaining, abusing and killing thousands of blacks and coloureds. Rigid censorship laws tried to conceal the events by banning media and newspaper coverage.

In the early 1980s, the white government began to admit the need for change, due to a combination of internal violence, international condemnation, and changing demographics — whites constituted only 16% of the total population and dropping, in comparison to 20% fifty years earlier. Recognising the inevitability of change, P.W. Botha told white South Africans to "adapt or die". In 1984 some reforms were introduced. Many of the apartheid laws were repealed, including the pass laws. A new constitution was introduced, which gave limited representation to certain non-whites, although not to the black majority. But Botha stopped short of full reform, and many blacks as well as the international community felt that the changes were only cosmetic. Protests and resistance continued full force, as South Africa became increasingly polarised and fragmented and unrest was widespread. A white backlash also arose, giving rise to a number of neo-Nazi paramilitary groups, notably the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), lead by Eugène Terre'Blanche. The opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) was also formed at this time. With a broad coalition of members, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Reverend Allan Boesak, it called for the government to abandon its proposed reforms, and instead to abolish apartheid and eliminate the homelands.

International pressures also increased, as economic sanctions began to dig in harder, and the value of the rand collapsed. In 1985, the government declared a state of emergency, which was to stay in effect for the next five years. The media was censored, and by 1988, 30,000 people had been detained without trial and thousands tortured.

In 1986, President Botha announced to parliament that South Africa had "outgrown" apartheid. The government began a series of minor reforms in the direction of racial equality, while maintaining an iron grip on the media and all anti-apartheid demonstrations. The police entered the townships and Homelands in this time to violently suppress any protests, killing many protesters in the process which caused even larger protests. As the security situation in South Africa continued to deteriorate, many white South Africans fled the country as refugees. On February 13, 1989, an ailing Botha, under pressure from the US and Britain, resigned and was succeeded later that year by FW de Klerk. At his opening address to parliament in February 1990, De Klerk announced that he would repeal discriminatory laws and lift the ban on the ANC, the PAC, and the Communist Party. Media restrictions were lifted, and De Klerk released political prisoners not guilty of common-law crimes. On 11 February 1990, 27 years after he had first been incarcerated, Nelson Mandela walked out of the grounds of Victor Verster Prison a free man.

Crossroads township, 1990.
Crossroads township, 1990.

Having been forced by the UN Security Council to end its long-standing military occupation in Namibia, South Africa had to relinquish control of the disputed territory, and it officially became an independent state on 21 March 1990.

From 1990 to 1991, the legal apparatus of apartheid was abolished. A referendum in March 1992, the last whites-only vote held in South Africa, overwhelmingly gave the government authority to negotiate a new constitution with the ANC and other groups.

In December 1991, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) began negotiations on the formation of a multiracial transitional government and a new constitution extending political rights to all groups. Months of wrangling finally produced a compromise and an election date, although at considerable human cost. Political violence exploded across the country during this time, particularly in the wake of the assassination of Chris Hani, the popular leader of South Africa's Communist Party. It is now known that elements within the police and army contributed to this violence. There have also been claims that high-ranking government officials and politicians ordered, or at least condoned, massacres.

Newly elected President Nelson Mandela addressing the crowd from a balcony of the Town Hall in Pretoria on 10 May 1994 during his inauguration.
Newly elected President Nelson Mandela addressing the crowd from a balcony of the Town Hall in Pretoria on 10 May 1994 during his inauguration.

In 1993, a draft constitution was published, guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion, access to adequate housing and numerous other benefits, and explicitly prohibiting discrimination on almost any ground. Finally, at midnight on 2627 April 1994, the old flag was lowered, and the old (now co-official) national anthem Die Stem ("The Call") was sung, followed by the raising of the new rainbow flag and singing of the other co-official anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika ("God Bless Africa"). The election went off peacefully amidst a palpable feeling of goodwill throughout the country.

The ANC won 62.7% of the vote, less than the 66.7% that would have allowed it to rewrite the constitution. As well as deciding the national government, the election decided the provincial governments, and the ANC won in all but two provinces. The NP captured most of the white and Coloured vote and became the official opposition party.

Since then, April 27 is celebrated as a public holiday in South Africa known as Freedom Day.

See also


  1. ^  G Harris, WD Franklin, WD Collins and Edgar Deane.
  2. ^  The Separate Universities Act (1959) was aimed at forcing the 'open' universities (UCT & Wits) to accept only white students. Separate universities were established for other race groups, notably the University of Zululand for Zulu students, and UWC for coloureds.
  3. ^  White beaches were typically developed; whereas black beaches were situated in remote areas with little or no development.
  4. ^  Those that had the money to travel or emigrate out were not given full passports, instead, "travel documents" were issued.
  5. ^  Mandela, Nelson p.179.
  6. ^  http://www.preventgenocide.org/law/icc/statute/part-a.htm#2, retrieved August 20, 2005.
  7. ^  The estimate of 300 is stated at http://africanhistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa-SharpevilleMassacre-a.htm, retrieved August 20, 2005. An ANC web site states that it was 10,000: http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/misc/sharplle.html, retrieved August 20, 2005.
  8. ^  Slightly more contentious was the movement's decision to stop working with white liberals in multi-racial organisations.
  9. ^  According to a NUSAS pamphlet entitled Peacing it all together, published in 1984, the civilian death toll in the neighbouring states as a result of South African actions had far exceeded the deaths following the actions of the ANC's military wing.


  • Meredith, Martin. In the name of apartheid: South Africa in the postwar period. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
  • Meredith, Martin. The State of Africa. The Free Press, 2005.
  • Visser, Pippa. In search of history. Oxford University Press Southern Africa, 2003.
  • Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. Abacus, 1995.
  • Federal Research Division. South Africa - a country study. Library of Congress, 1996.

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