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Apartheid in South Africa: beginning and end

Updated on April 28, 2015

The year 1950 marked a step backwards in the path to global racial equality. On 27th April the government of South Africa passed the Group Areas Act into law, thus institutionalising the policy of Apartheid that was advocated by the National Party that had formed the government since 1948.

A selection of signs at the Apartheid Museum
A selection of signs at the Apartheid Museum

What is meant by Apartheid?

Apartheid is an Afrikaans word that can be translated as “separate-hood”, by which was meant that the different races that constituted the population of South Africa would be forced to integrate as little as possible. The whites who ran the National Party preferred the term “separate development”, but there was little intention that any race other than the white one would do much developing.

Instituting Apartheid

Under the direction of Prime Minister Daniel Malan, the three racial groups of Whites, Blacks and Coloureds (meaning people of mixed race) would be forced to live in separate areas, with neighbourhoods reserved with each racial group. As might be imagined, this soon meant that the rich whites would have the best houses and facilities, with the blacks and coloureds consigned to sub-standard housing on the margins of the cities.

A second act, the Separate Amenities Act, was passed in 1953 to make the division even more pronounced. This required all sorts of services to be reserved for the sole use of whites, including shops, transport, beaches, and even park benches. Again, the minority white population was always accorded the best facilities with the majority blacks always being made aware of their inferior status.

Another Act, the 1956 Separate Representation of Voters Act, virtually disenfranchised all non-whites and ensured that their only purpose in society was to work as servants of white people and as the manual workforce in the farms and factories owned by their white masters.

"Murder at Sharpeville" - a painting by Godgrey Rubens
"Murder at Sharpeville" - a painting by Godgrey Rubens

The struggle for freedom

The opposition to Apartheid took a long time to bear fruit in South Africa. The protest movements of black activists were met with savage repression, most notably at Sharpeville on 21st March 1960 when 69 people, including women and children, were killed by armed police officers.

Underground opposition movements were founded, including the African National Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement, but activists were regularly arrested and imprisoned. However, prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo made plans for how they would eventually defeat Apartheid and form a government that had room for all the racial groups in South Africa.

Support for the cause grew rapidly during the 1960s and 70s in western countries, with the National Party coming under increasing scrutiny and various sanctions being imposed on South Africa.

Particularly noteworthy were bans on South African sports teams from international competition unless they were racially integrated. The country was not allowed to compete at the Olympic Games from 1964 to 1988, for example, but some international sporting bodies were ambivalent and more accepting of South African participation during the Apartheid era.

One event that drew close attention to Apartheid in sport was the “D’Oliveira affair” of 1968. Basil D’Oliveira (1931-2011) was a mixed-race cricketer who was born in South Africa but immigrated to the United Kingdom and became a British citizen in 1964. He was selected to play for the England tour to South Africa in 1968-9 despite it being made known by the South Africans (led by Prime Minister John Vorster) that he would not be welcome. The affair escalated into a worldwide boycott of South African cricket that lasted until 1991.

F W de Klerk and Nelson Mandela
F W de Klerk and Nelson Mandela

The end of Apartheid

Worldwide pressure, coupled with largely peaceful internal demonstrations, eventually persuaded white South Africans that Apartheid could not be maintained and that majority rule would have to be conceded.

Credit for the peaceful transfer of power is due to two men in particular, namely President F W de Klerk and the leader of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela. De Klerk realised that Apartheid was a thing of the past, and that it could not be justified morally or in any other way.

The move that caught the world’s attention as marking the beginning of the end of Apartheid was the release from prison in 1990 of Nelson Mandela after 27 years in captivity. He was immediately recognised as the leader of the black community and he was clearly the person most suited to conduct the negotiations that culminated in the 1994 election of a new government. More than 20 million black South Africans cast their votes, which swept Mandela into power as the country’s first black President.

The stain of Apartheid has therefore been lifted from South Africa which, although it still has many problems to solve, has now been restored to the world community of nations.


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    • The Indexer profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      3 years ago from UK

      I find the "God's will" aspect fascinating. Presumably this has to do with what has been called the "Hamitic heritage" - the idea that Noah cursed his son Ham and the assumption that Ham was the ancestor of all the black races on Earth.

      It is of course complete nonsense, but people in the past did believe this and held that this "fact" justified the enslavement of black people by whites.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      Excellent, objective description of Apartheid. Difficult to comprehend the arrogance of the white leaders of the National Party since 1948 (and obviously since the beginning) - their obstinate belief in Apartheid, justified with their interpretation of 'God's will'.

      Personally I grew up in total ignorance. I felt sorry for the blacks, I thanked God because I was not black, but all the time with the idea that the situation was according to God's will. (I was very religious those years, drugged by the Word delivered to me by leaders who were just as ignorant as I.... all of us so blind and deaf in our comfortable, religious bubble.) The tragic events at Sharpville made me realize that I was living in a fool's paradise, indoctrinated by an inhuman and ungodly government.

      Today, 20 years after the end of Apartheid, all South Africans still suffer its consequences. Some suffer in luxury, without realizing how badly effected they are, while most suffer in unfortunate circumstances.

      The consequences: Incompetent, ineffective governing, fraud, corruption, nepotism, serious crimes, poverty, unemployment, racism, xenophobia... the list is long!

      Excellent hub about Apartheid :)


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