Rainbow Nation – that is how the state on the southern edge of Africa is called. The name is based on the many different ethnicities that live there together rather peacefully. Today, the country is about to become an appealing multi-cultural society, but South Africa’s past was marked by a system of injustice and oppression: apartheid.
In general, apartheid is an inoffensive Afrikaans word meaning detachment or separation. Yet, as a term denoting the decade-long segregation in South Africa, it has long lost its innocence. The word apartheid represents the systematic oppression of the non-white population, comprising about 41 million people, by a minority of 4 million whites.
Over the course of the 20th century, more and more laws were introduced that enabled the white minority to ruthlessly exploit and suppress the black majority. Only after many years of protests and opposition, change became apparent in the 1980s. Whites and blacks stopped constantly fighting each other and increasingly engaged in discussions to build a new South Africa. It was a fine line between war and peace, but the South African miracle of peaceful change eventually occurred. Nelson Mandela was the charismatic leader guiding the country into a new era. In 1994, he became the first black president of South Africa.
Apartheid describes the policy of consequent racial segregation that started as early as 1910 with the first legislations of the newly founded South African Union. Thus, with the introduction of the 1911 "Mines and Work Act", blacks were obliged to only do dirty work. The "Native Land Act" of 1913 allocated special settlement areas to black people and prohibited them from purchasing property outside of these areas. Fuelled by a number of strikes by black miners, apartheid reached its peak after the Second World War. In 1944, black radicals founded the "African Youth League", a youth organisation of the "African National Congress" (ANC). "Africa is the land of the black" was their motto. The founding fathers were Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. At the same time, white nationalists stoked fears of a "swaart gevaar", a black threat, and declared themselves the leaders of the supposedly endangered South Africa. In 1948, the racist National Party won the elections with these policies and ultimately turned South Africa into a state of white injustice.
From 1948 onwards, public life was marked by strict segregation that was enforced by massive policy powers. The segregation aimed at ensuring the rights and privileges of the white population and at providing cheap black labour. The introduction of so-called homelands (officially independent tribal areas of the blacks) like Transkei, Ciskei, Venda and KwaZulu was supposed to bring racial segregation to perfection. By establishing these huge ghettos, where only black people were allowed to live, the South African government tried to completely abdicate from its political, economic and social responsibility.
Any opposition towards the system of apartheid was considered a criminal offence, and the South African government fought down any resistance. On June 16th, 1976, the situation escalated. In Soweto, a township southwest of Johannesburg, black students peacefully demonstrated against the replacement of English by Afrikaans as teaching language. The police fired at the children. 600 people died during the massacre, about a quarter of them children. The images of dying youths went around the world. The events of Soweto caused worldwide outrage, and in South Africa revolts against apartheid turned into a civil war. South Africa was internationally ostracised and isolated by UN sanctions, which over the decades changed the white minority’s attitude towards general, democratic elections.
Over the course of the 1980s, the South African government faced increasing domestic and external pressure. The end to the system of apartheid was unstoppable. However, the reforms of president Pieter Willem Botha, who came to power after the Soweto uprising and remained in office until 1989, were not very extensive.
By the mid-1980s, the charismatic leader of the black population, Nelson Mandela, had already been imprisoned for more than 20 years. All over the world people called for his release. By the early 1990s, the white government had to give in to international pressure. Mandela was set free and immediately became a leading political figure. When the white minority government and president Frederik Willem de Klerk enforced a reform programme in 1992, the participation in government of the black majority was inevitable.
After the first free elections for all South Africans, on May 10th, 1994, Nelson Mandela became the state’s first black president. In 1999, Thabo Mbeki succeeded him as head of government. Officially, apartheid was abolished in 1994. However, many South African governments to come will have to deal with its massive social consequences.
© Text: Wolfgang Neumann-Bechstein, Planet Wissen