South Africa’s experience in its struggle for independence is a bit different from that of any other African nation. In 1910 four territories had come together to form the Union of South Africa: the British territories of Cape Colony and Natal and the former Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, which had been defeated in the recent Boer War and brought under British rule. The new Union of South Africa was a white-ruled nation with dominion status. Although linked to Great Britain in foreign affairs, the dominion ruled itself internally as it saw fit.
Relying on its resources of gold, diamonds, and cheap labor, South Africa experienced an industrial revolution in the early 1900s. Its industrialization was based on the labor of black Africans, who vastly outnumbered whites. Even so, blacks were excluded almost totally from the benefits of South Africa’s economic success.
Apartheid. Before World War II, English-speaking whites had dominated the government. By custom, whites and nonwhites were segregated socially. Over time, an unofficial system of separate public facilities for whites and nonwhites developed. Moreover, nonwhites were given few educational opportunities and were kept out of better jobs. Since 1911 employment opportunities for the nonwhite populations had been restricted by law to low-paying manual labor. In addition, the Land Act of 1913 and subsequent amendments restricted Africans, who made up approximately 75 percent of the population, to only 10 percent of the land. Then in 1948, the National Party, which was dominated by the white, Afrikaans-speaking descendants of the original Dutch settlers, came to power in South Africa. The Afrikaners quickly transformed this unofficial system of social segregation and economic exploitation into government policy.
This policy became known as apartheid-the Afrikaans word for apartness. It consisted of a number of laws that separated the races in every aspect of life. These laws were a way to legally establish white supremacy in the country. One law called for all people to be classified by race: Bantu (black), Colored (mixed race), Asian, or White. Another law established where each of the four races could live. A third law banned intermarriage between the races. A fourth required all nonwhites to carry an identity pass when traveling outside their designated areas. Other laws established different pay scales for whites and nonwhites.
Apartheid also involved the founding of separate tribal states, known as homelands or Bantustans, for Africans. After a brief period of self-government, these homelands would become completely independent. Afrikaner leaders cited the homelands program to support their claim that the intent of apartheid was that each race would prosper if developed separately. However, the homelands were located in the most barren areas of the country and had few natural resources. Even after independence, the homelands would remain completely dependent on South Africa.
Protests against apartheid. Some organizations had fought racial discrimination in South Africa long before apartheid was established. The African National Congress (ANC)-the best-known antiapartheid group-was founded in 1912. In the 1950s, the ANC launched a campaign of civil disobedience in which ANC members openly violated apartheid laws. The response of the South African government to this campaign of civil disobedience was swift and brutal. In 1960 police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in the town of Sharpeville, leaving more than 60 dead and hundreds wounded. As world opinion condemned the Sharpeville massacre, in 1961 Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, one of the primary architects of apartheid, decided to proclaim South Africa a republic and to withdraw from the British Commonwealth.
After Sharpeville some ANC leaders, the black lawyer Nelson Mandela among them, felt that in self-defense they would have to confront violence with violence. In response the government banned the ANC in 1960. Then in 1962, Mandela and other ANC leaders were arrested. Charged with treason and found guilty, they all received life jail terms.
Despite the ban and the loss of its leaders, the ANC continued to operate, primarily from bases outside South Africa. In addition, Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko, and other black leaders continued to speak out against the repressive apartheid laws. Some, such as Biko, paid with their lives. An increasing number of white South Africans, too, became involved in the antiapartheid movement. Helen Suzman, for example, used her position as a member of parliament to criticize the government’s policies. However, hers was very much a lone voice in the legislature.
In the meantime, the government proceeded with its policy of repression. In 1976, schoolchildren in Soweto, a black township near Johannesburg, marched peacefully in protest against a new law enforcing the use of Afrikaans in all South African schools. They were met by police who opened fire, killing many. Over the next months, outraged Africans rioted all over the country. About 600 people, most of them black, were killed in the violence. After the Soweto riots, many in South Africa were no longer willing to wait peacefully for change.
In the 1980s, faced with growing protests both inside South Africa and from abroad, the South African government began to retreat from its strict apartheid policies. Constitutional reforms gave some political voice to Colored and Asian South Africans. Black Africans, however, were still denied any political participation, and civil strife continued. Meanwhile, the international community imposed economic sanctions on South Africa, pressuring the country to change its racist policies.
A change of direction. In September 1989, the pace of change in South Africa quickened with the election of F. W. de Klerk as president. De Klerk lifted a 30-year ban on antiapartheid rallies and legalized the ANC and other banned organizations. He also ordered the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990. In a speech at Capetown celebrating his freedom, Mandela repeated the words he had spoken during his trial:
“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 see realized. But . . . if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
De Klerk expressed the hope that Mandela and other opposition leaders would meet with him to discuss ways to build a new South Africa. The promise of reform, however, did not end the violence and dissension. A fight for leadership of the black population erupted between the ANC and the largely Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, led by Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi. This fight resulted in the deaths of thousands of black South Africans in the 15 months following the legalization of the ANC. Moreover, not all whites supported de Klerk. Many Afrikaners left de Klerk’s National Party and joined the much more right wing Conservatives.
Despite all these challenges, however, in 1994 South Africa held its first all-race elections. Nelson Mandela was elected by an overwhelming majority as the new president of a multiracial South Africa. Pursuing conciliatory policies, Mandela called on people to “heal the wounds of the past.” As South Africa moved toward the end of the century, a new era of partnership and cooperation seemed to have replaced the dark era of apartheid.