Nelson Mandela at 100: how did South Africa’s apartheid start and end?

System of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination casts long shadow over the country’s history

Apartheid Sign
A public sign from the apartheid era
(Image credit: El C/Wikicommons)

Few words are more synonymous with 20th-century South African history than “apartheid”, the Afrikaans word for “apartness” that described the nation’s official system of racial segregation from 1948 until 1994.

And no figure did more to bring about its end than Nelson Mandela, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday today.

Speaking in the South African capital, Johannesburg, former US president Barack Obama led tributes to the man known affectionately as Madiba, who served 27 years in prison for political activism against the white regime before winning a Nobel Peace Prize and being elected as the country’s first black president.

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Hailing Mandela’s remarkable achievements, Obama warned that the values he stood for are once again under threat.

“On Madiba’s 100th birthday we stand at a crossroads... a moment in time in which two very different visions” can take hold, he said.

As tributes pour in from around the world, The Week looks back at the history of apartheid, what drove it and the lessons of its legacy.

Why did the apartheid start?

Although discrimination by whites of European descent against black Africans dates back to 19th-century British and Dutch imperialism, it was not until after the Second World War that the system of discrimination became formalised.

During the Second World War, “a vast economic and social transformation occurred as a direct result of white South African participation”, says education site ThoughtCo.

Some 200,000 South African whites fought alongside the British against the Nazis. At the same time, urban factories in South Africa expanded to make military supplies, drawing their workers from black communities out of necessity.

As a result, increasing numbers of black people moved from rural districts to urban areas. By 1946, black people outnumbered whites in major cities.

The future of race relations was therefore a major issue in the 1948 election. The governing United Party argued that complete segregation was impossible, while the Herenigde Nasionale Party (Reunited National Party, known as the HNP) stated that only a total segregation of the races “would prevent the subversion of white society by blacks”.

The HNP won the vote to become the governing party, renaming itself the National Party (NP).

What were the laws behind apartheid?

The election of the NP in 1948 marked the beginning of legally codified racism.

A number of laws were immediately passed to establish the apartheid structure of government. The three most important blocks of legislation, all introduced in 1950, were:

  • The Race Classification Act, which classified according to race every citizen suspected of not being European
  • The Mixed Marriages Act, which prohibited marriage between people of different races
  • The Group Areas Act, which required people of certain races to lives in designated areas

How did resistance to apartheid grow?

Early resistance to the apartheid laws resulted in the enactment of further restrictions. Notably, this included the banning of the influential African National Congress (the ANC), a political party that would later spearhead the anti-apartheid movement.

One of the ANC’s fiercest agitators was Nelson Mandela, who was arrested for conspiring to overthrow the state and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial in 1962.

The international response was complicated by the Cold War. Despite supporting a domestic civil rights agenda to further the rights of black people in the US, then-president Harry Truman's “chose not to protest the anti-communist South African government's system of Apartheid in an effort to maintain an ally against the Soviet Union in southern Africa”, says the US State Department website.

Other countries began voicing objections to the brutality of the South African regime in 1960, when white South African police opened fire on unarmed black protesters in the town of Sharpeville, killing 69 people.

By the late 1970s, “grass-roots movements in Europe and the United States succeeded in pressuring their governments into imposing economic and cultural sanctions on Pretoria”, says the US State Department, culminating in the US Congress passing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986.

How did apartheid end?

Amid growing pressure from around the world, many large multinational companies withdrew from South Africa. “Urged on by astutely mobilised black American opinion, US banks and corporations began to divest themselves of holdings in South Africa,” says The Guardian.

In response, “the fatuous laws banning marriage and sex between different races were repealed and the ban on black freehold ownership were also scrapped”.

But much to the displeasure of black township populations, the residential and educational segregation and racial classifications were retained.

The effects of this internal unrest and international condemnation led to dramatic changes, beginning in 1989. South African prime minister P.W. Botha resigned after it became clear that he had lost the faith of the ruling National Party as a result of his failure to bring order to the country.

In a move that surprised onlookers, his successor, F. W. de Klerk, announced in his opening address to parliament in February 1990 that he was lifting the ban on the ANC. Less than two weeks later he sanctioned the release of Mandela. The two men warily shared power until a free election gave Mandela a handsome majority, and apartheid officially came to an end in 1994.

What is the legacy of apartheid?

The repeal of the majority of segregation laws in 1990 was mostly symbolic, because the intended result was already in motion, says Daniel R. Magaziner, a Yale University history professor and author of The Law and the Prophets: Black Consciousness in South Africa, 1968-1977.

“The fact that the repeal was passed so overwhelmingly by parliament, I don’t think speaks to the sudden liberalisation of South African politics,” says Magaziner. “I think it speaks to people recognising the reality that this was a law that was anachronistic and wasn’t in practical effect anymore.”

The impact of apartheid, however, was nowhere near over. Although white South Africans only made up 10% of the country’s population at the end of apartheid, they owned nearly 90% of the land.

More than a quarter of a century since the Act’s repeal, “land distribution remains a point of inequality in the country”, says Smithsonian magazine.

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