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Overview of Apartheid

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Overview of Apartheid

Apartheid began in South Africa with the election of the Nationalist Partyin 1948. Afrikaans for “apartness,” Apartheid represented the codification of a legacy of segregation and racism that spanned the history of colonialism in southern Africa.

Southern Africa was initially colonized by the Dutch, who arrived in 1652. Joined by the British during the 18th century, both European powers participated in the subjugation of native Africans whilst competing against one another for ownership of the land and resources. With the discovery of diamonds and an increasing need for production, slaves and indentured servants were imported from Asia and other parts of Africa. In 1910, South Africa became a sovereign nation, and with this came the legalization of many segregationist policies, which included constrained land allowances with limited traveling privileges, disenfranchisement, and a general lack of citizenship or basic human regard for non-whites.

The 1948 election marked a political turning point, with Afrikaners (descendents of the Dutch) finally winning over the British political parties. Having won on a platform of “apartness,” President Malan and the new government quickly enacted several new policies that appealed to the then world-wide regard for racial segregation. Many policy advisors, such as H. F. Verwoerd, had studied in German universities and gleaned many tactics utilized by the Nazi regime to maintain racial superiority.

The process began with the Population Registration Act, whereby every person residing in South Africa was required to undergo racial classification by government officials. Based on several crude measures including such things as nose width, hair texture, skin tone, and ancestral history, every South African was issued a pass book identifying them as white, coloured, Indian, and Native. This process was followed by the Group Areas Act, which mapped out distinct residential areas for each racial group. Race group mixture was criminalized, and each group was made to attend separate schools and participate in separate political systems. The Bantu Education Act mandated the relative dissolution of Native education, forbidding any type of substantive educational content and stripping Native schools of most resources. Government funding to the various groups was determined on a sliding race-based scale.

Resistance to Apartheid took several forms over the of the next forty years. Various groups such as the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), African National Congress (ANC), Natal Indian Congress, Congress of Democrats, and the Communist Party work tirelessly to organize demonstrations and develop political maneuvers to counteract the Apartheid regime. Several altercations, such as the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and the Soweto Massacre of 1976, where many black women, men, and children were murdered while protesting, drew international attention.

A view from a riot during Apartheid
A view from a riot during Apartheid

While the world reaction was quite delayed, slowed considerably by the efforts of the United States and Britain to prevent international sanctions, external and internal pressures eventually led to the fall of Apartheid. Due to both violent and non-violent protests and demonstrations world-wide, along with economic and political stability concerns, President deKlerk was forced to commence the process of dismantling apartheid. He unbanned political organizations and leaders, began to dissolve racist laws and practices, freed Nelson Mandela from his 27-year political imprisonment, and involved the government in negotiations with several groups representing the various races. In 1994, South Africa had its first democratic election, and Nelson Mandela was elected President.

In the efforts of starting anew, the new government consulted the South African people regarding ideas for a new constitution. The resulting South African Constitution, a combination of the Freedom Charter written during the struggle, and the input of the people, is one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, granting rights to people regardless of race, religion, language, or sexual orientation, among others.

The government also formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), with the aim of unveiling the truths about apartheid and healing the riff among the racial groups. The effects of the TRC are highly contested because many serioius offenders were offered amnesty just for telling the truth about their crimes.

Post-apartheid South Africa is a country that is still dealing with the effects of apartheied, especially remaining feelings of resentment for the horrible crimes committed against blacks, and the continued tremendously unequal distribution of wealth and resources. However, South Africa remains among the most developed and wealthy African nations, drawing large numbers of immigrants and tourists from around the world.

Source: Eades, L. M. The End of Apartheid in South Africa. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press (1999).

More on South African Apartheid

In Memoriam

Grave site of Stephen Bantu Biko
Grave site of Stephen Bantu Biko

Almost 50 black South Africans are known to have died in the custody of the Security Police, but there are countless more unresolved disappearances. None of these prisoners were ever officially charged or received trials and they were never allowed to contact their family or friends. The alleged causes of death are given in brackets, but the police undoubtedly played a role in most of their “suicides,” “falls,” and “natural causes.” Like Biko, they all fought against the oppression of apartheid and were martyrs for the cause of freedom.

L. Ngudle died in Pretoria on Sep. 5, 1963 (suicide by hanging)
B. Merhope died in Worcester on Sep. 19, 1963 (causes undisclosed)
J. Tyitya died in Port Elizabeth on January 24, 1964 (suicide by hanging)
S. Saloojie died in Johannesburg on September 9, 1964 (fell seven floors during interrogation)
N.Gaga died in Transkei on May 7, 1965 (natural causes)
P. Hoye died in Transkei on May 8, 1965 (natural causes)
J. Hamakwayo died in Pretoria in 1966 (suicide by hanging)
H. Shonyeka died in Pretoria on October 9, 1966 (suicide)
L. Leong Pin died in Pretoria on November 19, 1966 (suicide by hanging)
A. Ah Yan died in Pretoria on January 5, 1967 (suicide by hanging)
A. Madiba died in undisclosed prison on September 9, 1967 (suicide by hanging)
J. Tubakwe died in Pretoria on September 11, 1967 (suicide by hanging)
An Unnamed Person died on an unknown day in 1968 (disclosed under Parliamentary questioning on January 28, 1969)
N. Kgoathe died in Pretoria on February 4, 1969 (slipped in shower)
S. Modipane died in prison on February 28, 1969 (slipped in shower)
J. Lenkoe died in Pretoria on March 10, 1969 (suicide by hanging)
C. Mayekiso died in Port Elizabeth on June 17, 1969 (suicide)
J. Monakgotla died in Pretoria on September 10, 1969 (thrombosis)
Imam A. Haron died in Cape Town on September 27, 1969 (fell down stairs)
M.Cuthsela died in undisclosed prison on January 21, 1971 (natural causes)
A.Timol died in Johannesburg on October 27, 1971 (leapt from 10th floor window during interrogation)
J. Mdluli died in Durban on March 19, 1976 (fell against chair during scuffle)
M. Mohapi died in Kei Road on August 5, 1976 (suicide by hanging)
L. Mazwembe died in Cape Town on September 25, 1976 (suicide by hanging)
D. Mbatha died in undisclosed prison on September 25, 1976 (suicide by hanging)
E. Mzolo died in Johannesburg on October 14, 1976 (no details given)
W. Tshwane died on October 14, 1976 (no details given)
E. Mamasila died on November 18, 1976 (no details given)
T. Mosala died in Butterworth on November 26, 1976 (no details given)
W. Tshazibane died on December 11, 1976 (no details given)
G. Botha died in Port Elizabeth on December 14, 1976 (fell down stairwell)
Dr. N. Ntshuntsha died on January 9, 1977 (no details given)
L. Ndzaga died on January 9, 1977 (no details given)
E. Malel died on January 20, 1977 (no details given)
M. Mabelane died on February 15, 1977 (no details given)
T. Joyi died on February 15, 1977 (no details given)
S. Malinga died in Maritzburg on February 22, 1977 (natural causes)
R. Khoza died in Maritzburg on March 26, 1977 (suicide by hanging)
J. Mashabane died on June 5, 1977 (suicide)
P. Mabija died in Kimberley on July 7, 1977 (fell six floors during interrogation)
E. Loza died in Cape Town on August 1, 1977 (no details given)
Dr. H. HafeJee died in Durban on August 3, 1977 (no details given)
B. Emzizi died on August 5, 1977 (no details given)
F. Mogatusi died on August 28, 1977 (suffocation in epileptic fit)
S. Biko died in Pretoria on Sep. 12, 1977 (injured in scuffle)

Apartheid Legislation in South Africa

Starting in 1948, the Afrikaner Nationalist Party had “whites-only” elections, and began a series of institutionalized state-sanctioned racial discrimination. A few of the legislative acts declared “crimes against humanity” according to the UN General Assembly in 1974 are as follows:

The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949), which made marriages between whites and people of other colors in South Africa illegal (i.e. – coloreds, blacks, and Indians).

The Population Registration Act (1950), which classified people according to race on a national register.

The Group Areas Act (1950), which enforced a physical separation between races and separated them into various residential areas. Colored, African, and Indian communities received typically inferior land.

The Separate Amenities Act (1953), which prohibited people of color from sharing public amenities such as restrooms, cinemas, restaurants, hospitals, schools, and more with whites.

The Bantu Authorities Act (1951), which provided rural areas or homelands for Africans called Bantustans, separating Africans according to their tribal identity. Homelands such as the Transkei, Ciskei, Venda, and Bophutswana were allowed to gain independence as separate countries.

For a more thorough listing of the racial discriminatory acts imposed under the Nationalist Party’s apartheid regime, click here

South-African National Anthem


Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika was composed by Enoch Sontonga in 1897, and in 1927 seven additional Xhosa stanzas added by poet, Samuel Mqhayi.

There are no standard versions or translations of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika so the words vary from place to place and from occasion to occasion. Generally the first stanza is sung in Xhosa or Zulu, followed by the Sesotho version.

After being taken on September 6, 1977 by the South African political police to Room 619 of the Sanlam Building in Strand Street, Port Elizabeth, Cape Province, Biko was tortured and beaten. At his funeral, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was sung.

Nkosi, sikelel' iAfrika;
Malupakam'upondo lwayo;
Yiva imitandazo yetu

Sikelel' amadod' esizwe,
Sikelela kwa nomlisela
Ulitwal'ilizwe ngomonde,

Sikelel'amalinge etu
Awomanyano nokuzaka,
Awemfundo nemvisiswano

Yihla Moya, Yihla Moya,
Yihla Moya Oyingcwele


God Bless Africa
Raise up her spirit
Hear our prayers
And bless us

Bless the leaders
Bless also the young
That they may carry the land with patience
And that you may bless them

Bless our efforts
To unite and lift ourselves up
Through learning and understanding
And bless them

Descend Spirit! Descend Spirit!
Descend, Holy Spirit!

For more on the history of the South African National Anthem, as well the various versions and translations that exist click here


Woods, Donald. Biko. New York & London: Paddington Press, Ltd., 1978.

Christie, Kenneth. The South African Truth Commission. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 2000