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READ: Apartheid

Legalized racism has occurred in many places and many eras. One of history’s most glaring and most recent examples was the system known as apartheid in South Africa. Keyword: was.


By Jeff Spoden
Legalized racism has occurred in many places and many eras. One of history’s most glaring and most recent examples was the system known as apartheid in South Africa. Keyword: was.

What is apartheid?

Back in the 1980s, one issue brought the world together as few had done before. Activists from every corner of the Earth, inspired by the actions of Black South Africans, demanded an end to an unjust system known as apartheid. Apartheid is an Afrikaans1 word meaning “apartness.” It was a policy of legal discrimination and segregation directed at the Black majority in South Africa.
The oppression of Black African communities, even within Africa, was nothing new. European colonial governments had placed restrictions on almost every aspect of their lives, from marriage to employment to housing. In South Africa in particular, the white minority had used their colonial authority and weaponry to control the majority population as early as the eighteenth century. Under British rule, they had passed a series of laws that gradually brought most of the land of South Africa under their control, and forced the indigenous people to become poorly paid laborers.
But after WWII, independence was in the air. Britain, France, and other European colonial powers were weakened from the devastating war against Germany. At the same time, countries all over the world that had been colonized and exploited for decades now wanted their freedom. Between 1946 and 1970, over 60 countries declared their independence from foreign rule.
Of those, 44 were in Africa! It was good timing. This passionate movement toward decolonization and self-determination was happening along with a global spirit of cooperation that emerged from the devastating effects of WWII. Many parts of the world were coming together in calls for freedom and justice. The South African Black majority, inspired by these calls and fed up with discriminatory laws, demanded equality. Of course, the powerful rarely give up anything without a fight, and the white minority in South Africa were no exception. In 1948 the National Party became the ruling political party in South Africa. Frightened by increasing Black activism and fueled by racism, they passed a series of laws to make the oppression of Black South Africans perfectly legal. This discriminatory legal system was called apartheid.
Some of these laws included:
  • Classifying all South Africans into racial categories: “white,” “black,” and “colored” (mixed race).
  • Making it illegal for people to marry across those categories, or even to have sexual relations.
  • Mandating segregation (separation of races) in schools and all public facilities.
  • Moving all Black South Africans into small areas referred to as “homelands” or Bantustans. In total, 30 million Black South Africans—over 70 percent of the population—were moved onto 13 percent of South Africa’s land.
  • Restricting freedom of movement, requiring Black South Africans to always carry a “pass book” showing their assigned race and “homeland.” Being outside of one’s “homeland” was cause for arrest.
  • Forbidding Black South Africans from owning land outside of the Bantustans.
  • Forbidding Black labor unions from striking.
  • Making it illegal to protest, or to gather in groups large enough to start a protest.
  • Denying Black people the right to vote, except for local authorities in their Bantustans.
Historians have noted how similar these laws were to the Jim Crow laws in the American South from the 1870s through the 1960s. The Jim Crow laws forced segregation, second-class status, and political disenfranchisement (taking away the right to vote) on African Americans. Apartheid did the same thing, but to a Black majority within South Africa. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the US, the federal government slowly began to dismantle these legal restrictions. But about the same time, South Africa’s national government was writing inequality and injustice deeper into the law of the land.
An example of Jim Crow laws in the American South. From the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs, public domain.

The anti-apartheid movement

The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was fought on many fronts. Political parties were formed such as the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP), the South African Indian Congress, and the South African Congress of Democrats. In the 1950s, most of these parties formed a multi-racial alliance against apartheid.
For many years these groups used nonviolent activism. But as National Party laws became more racist and restrictive, the opposition groups called for stronger action. They organized strikes, boycotts of white businesses, and protests of all kinds. In 1955 they issued the Freedom Charter. This document called for an end to apartheid and new freedom and opportunity for Black South Africans. It stated that all people were entitled to an education and a decent job. Also, since many influential leaders had embraced the idea of African socialism, the Freedom Charter called for worker control of industry and a sharing of all the nation’s land and wealth.
Similar laws under apartheid. Public domain.
The Freedom Charter was controversial. Some Black activists disliked the references to all people having rights, wanting it to focus exclusively on the rights and freedoms of Black Africans. Others were uncomfortable with the charter’s socialist language. They feared that any link to socialist or communist ideas would discredit the entire anti-apartheid movement. And that’s pretty much what happened. The white minority government sounded the alarm that all activism—protests, strikes, and boycotts—was communist-inspired. Remember that this was taking place during the 1950s and 1960s, when many were panicked about the spread of communism. The US and USSR were in the midst of the Cold War. Governments, as well as some dictators, were using the excuse of “fighting communism” to crush rebellions of workers who rose up to battle poverty and injustice. It was easy for the National Party to do the same. They claimed that their brutal tactics against Black activists were simply attempts to stop a communist takeover.
A copy of the Freedom Charter. By PHParsons, CC BY-SA 3.0.
And brutal they were. As opposition to apartheid gained momentum across the country, the government unleashed the power of their well-armed police and military. In 1960 police opened fire on peaceful protesters in the township2 of Sharpeville, killing 69 people. Shortly after these killings in 1962, Nelson Mandela, a lawyer and president of the ANC, was imprisoned along with other leaders of the opposition movement. At his trial, Mandela inspired future generations of activists with his three-hour “I Am Prepared to Die” speech in court. While Mandela would spend 27 years in prison, both he and others continued the fight against apartheid. In 1976, in the township of Soweto, thousands of students took to the streets to protest new educational restrictions. The police responded with tear gas and gunfire, which resulted in the deaths of over 100 schoolchildren.
These and other actions were creating the type of inspirational figures that authoritarian leaders fear. Stephen Biko was a leader of the South African Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), which shared ideas about Black pride and empowerment with people of color around the world. In the same way that the American Civil Rights Movement inspired anti-apartheid struggles, African American groups like the Black Panther Party were motivating the BCM from many thousands of miles away. The term “Black is Beautiful” may have originated in America, but it was Biko who used it to inspire a generation of young Black Africans. When he was jailed and beaten to death in Port Elizabeth, 20,000 people attended his funeral and he became a beloved martyr of the movement.
Mbuyisa Makhubo carries Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old student who was shot by South African police at a peaceful student protest, as his sister Antoinette Sithole runs alongside of them (Soweto, 1976). By Sam Nzima, fair use.

A global response

Nelson Mandela was also beloved. His decades-long imprisonment became a symbol of the ongoing repression by the South African government. The resistance to apartheid by youth in Soweto and elsewhere was discussed all over the world. It broadened the anti-apartheid movement into a powerful international network. As more people became aware of the horrors of apartheid, the international community began to act. In the 1970s and 1980s, South African teams were banned from participating in the Olympics, FIFA World Cup, and the Rugby World Cup, among others. Activist groups, in particular university students in America and Europe, began asking their schools to “divest” from South Africa. Divestment is basically the opposite of investment, so this movement called for companies to stop doing business in South Africa and for individuals to boycott any companies that refused. This became a major focus of the movement within the United States, with students on campuses nationwide staging demonstrations. Their message: Americans must sever ties to anyone conducting business in South Africa.
A mural of Nelson Mandela, freedom fighter who spent 27 years in a South African prison, later to become the nation’s president. By Thierry Ehrmann, CC BY 2.0.
Inspired by the continued struggle of the Black community in South Africa, people around the world became determined to bring about change in South Africa. The frequent television reports of Black South Africans taking to the streets and being met with brutal government retaliation helped to keep attention on the situation. In many countries, schools, churches, city councils, union halls, and corporations were all demanding an end to apartheid. Some leaders, like President Ronald Reagan in the United States and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, resisted these calls. They claimed that the Black activists supported communism. But the international movement managed to overcome their objections.
South Africans felt supported and encouraged, and their political power grew while the South African government became financially and politically more isolated. Finally, in 1990, the world watched as the new president of the National Party, F. W. de Klerk, released Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. The party began to overturn segregationist laws and recognized the ANC as a legitimate political party. Within four years, Mandela became president of the country. Though the new majority government faced many challenges, it was a new day in South Africa. Apartheid was over.
A sticker expressing international belief that apartheid could be ended through economic pressure—boycotts and sanctions. By Djembayz, CC BY-SA 3.0.
The country continues to grapple with the problems faced by many nations: economic development, poverty, crime, access to education, and discrimination. But its ability to end the policies of apartheid are still an example of how people can come together to overcome years of mistreatment and work to create a just society. It has also shown how the fight for equality in one nation can move to a global stage and gain support. Had the activists in South Africa not been able to bring on board global support, would apartheid still be the law of the land in South Africa?
Author bio
Jeff Spoden is a retired social studies teacher, having been in the classroom for 33 years. He taught US history, world history, sociology, international relations, and history of American popular music. He loves music, film, travel, the Golden State Warriors, and the number 32.

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