Apartheid: Beginning and End, and the History of South Africa

| | April 4, 2024

Apartheid, a dark chapter in South Africa’s history, was more than just a policy of racial segregation; it was a systematic construct designed to perpetuate inequality and subjugation.

Enacted in 1948 by the National Party, this regime not only classified the nation’s populace into rigid racial groups but also dictated their rights, freedoms, and places in society. It entrenched the dominance of the white minority over the majority black population, leaving scars that the nation still works to heal today.

As the world watched, the struggle against apartheid became emblematic of the broader fight for human rights and justice, capturing global attention and support.

The 1990s and the Events Leading Up to Apartheid

The path to apartheid in South Africa was paved through legislative acts and significant social movements, setting the stage for a deeply segregated society.

The Union of South Africa’s formation in 1910 established a political structure that favored the white minority, a precedent that was solidified by the 1913 Land Act, prohibiting black South Africans from owning land outside designated reserves.

This legal framework for racial segregation was further entrenched by the 1936 Representation of Natives Act, which marginalized black South Africans in the political sphere. The period also witnessed significant unrest, such as the 1946 mine workers’ strike, underscoring the racial and economic tensions brewing in the nation.

The rise of Afrikaner nationalism, marked by the National Party’s victory in the 1948 general election, was a turning point that heralded the formal implementation of apartheid.

This nationalism, spurred by economic depression and post-war social changes, sought to preserve white dominance through a segregated society.

The events leading up to apartheid, from early legislative segregation to the socioeconomic upheavals and the assertion of Afrikaner identity, collectively crafted the backdrop against which apartheid was instituted, embedding racial discrimination and segregation into the fabric of South African society with lasting implications.

The decade of the 1990s stands as a watershed moment in the history of South Africa, marking both the denouement of apartheid and the dawn of a new era of democracy and reconciliation.

This transformative period was characterized by a series of decisive, often tumultuous events that reflected the culmination of decades-long resistance against a deeply entrenched system of racial segregation and oppression.

1990: Release of Nelson Mandela and Unbanning of Political Parties

On February 11, Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison, marking the end of his 27 years of imprisonment. His release was a significant victory for the anti-apartheid movement and signaled the beginning of the end for apartheid.

The same year saw President F.W. de Klerk lifting the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and the South African Communist Party (SACP), allowing them to participate in the political process.

1991: Beginning of the National Peace Process

The year 1991 was marked by the initiation of formal negotiations aimed at ending apartheid. The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) was established as a forum for negotiations between the government and political parties, including previously banned groups.

These talks were aimed at creating a new constitution that would ensure equal rights for all South Africans, irrespective of race.

1992: Whites-Only Referendum and the Record of Understanding

In March 1992, a crucial referendum was held for white South Africans, asking whether they supported the continuation of reforms to end apartheid. An overwhelming majority voted in favor, providing a mandate to the government to proceed with negotiations.

The Record of Understanding, agreed upon in September, resolved several sticking points between the ANC and the government, facilitating further progress in negotiations.

1993: The Multi-Party Negotiation Process and the Assassination of Chris Hani

Talks continued with the aim of forming a multi-party transitional government and drafting a new constitution. The process was almost derailed by the assassination of Chris Hani, the leader of the SACP and a senior ANC member, in April. His death led to nationwide unrest but ultimately galvanized the negotiating parties to push forward with the democratic transition.

By the end of 1993, the parties agreed on an interim constitution that would guide the country towards its first democratic elections.

1994: The First Democratic Elections and Nelson Mandela’s Presidency

The climax of the decade and a historic milestone for South Africa was the general elections held from April 26 to 28, 1994. For the first time, citizens of all races were allowed to vote, culminating in Nelson Mandela’s election as the first black president of South Africa.

These elections not only marked the official end of apartheid but also the beginning of a new era focused on healing, reconciliation, and rebuilding the nation on the principles of freedom, democracy, and equality.

Apartheid in South Africa

The introduction of apartheid in 1948 by the National Party, led by figures such as D.F. Malan significantly changed South African society. This regime was not born in isolation but was the culmination of earlier segregationist policies.

Under apartheid system, the government implemented a comprehensive system of racial classification and segregation, profoundly impacting every aspect of life. The architects of apartheid sought to ensure white supremacy by controlling the South African economy and social structures of the nation, thereby institutionalizing racial discrimination.

Apartheid Laws

The apartheid regime meticulously crafted a series of draconian laws to entrench racial divisions and perpetuate white dominance. The foundation of this legal framework was the Population Registration Act of 1950, which classified individuals into racial groups: ‘White’, ‘Black’, ‘Coloured’, and ‘Indian’.

This classification dictated one’s access to rights, services, and opportunities, laying the groundwork for further segregation.

The Group Areas Act of 1950 was another cornerstone of apartheid, forcibly segregating residential areas by race. This law led to the demolition of mixed-race communities and the creation of townships for non-white South Africans, which were often located on the peripheries of cities and lacked basic services.

The act not only dispossessed many of their homes and communities but also entrenched socio-economic disparities.

Moreover, the Pass Laws Act of 1952 controlled the movement of Black South Africans, requiring them to carry passbooks to enter or remain in certain areas. These laws were a source of humiliation and oppression, restricting freedom of movement and contributing to the systemic economic disenfranchisement of Black people.

The defiance against pass laws sparked significant protests and marked a critical point in the resistance against apartheid.

South African Protests

The response to apartheid was characterized by widespread resistance, with the South African population engaging in protests, strikes, and acts of civil disobedience. One of the most iconic acts of protest was the 1952 Defiance Campaign, led by the ANC, which encouraged people to deliberately contravene apartheid laws.

This campaign marked a significant shift towards mass resistance and mobilized thousands of South Africans from all racial backgrounds against the apartheid regime.

The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 was another moment in the struggle against apartheid. A peaceful protest against the pass laws turned tragic when police opened fire on demonstrators, killing 69 people.

The massacre garnered international outrage and led to the banning of anti-apartheid organizations, pushing the resistance movement underground and signaling a more militant phase in the fight against apartheid.

Perhaps the most well-known protest was the Soweto Uprising of 1976, when thousands of Black school children took to the streets to protest against the mandatory use of Afrikaans in schools.

The brutal response from the police, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of young protesters, highlighted the regime’s brutality and sparked further domestic and international condemnation.

These protests, among countless others, played a crucial role in challenging the legitimacy of the apartheid government and drawing global attention to the injustices occurring in South Africa.

End of Apartheid

Apartheid officially ended in the early 1990s, with a series of legislative and political reforms that systematically dismantled the apartheid system. The repeal of the remaining apartheid laws occurred alongside negotiations for a new, democratic South African government, which were finalized with the country’s first multi-racial elections in April 1994.

This transition was not abrupt but rather the result of years of resistance, international pressure, and ultimately, a series of negotiations that sought to peacefully resolve one of the most entrenched systems of racial segregation in modern history.

Nelson Mandela’s contribution to the end of apartheid was monumental. His release from prison in February 1990, after 27 years of incarceration, was a critical turning point. Mandela emerged not only as a symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle but also as a unifying figure who championed the principles of forgiveness, reconciliation, and inclusivity.

Under his leadership, the African National Congress (ANC) engaged in negotiations with the apartheid regime, advocating for a transition to a democratic society that would ensure equal rights for all South Africans, regardless of race.

Mandela’s approach to ending apartheid was characterized by his unwavering commitment to dialogue and reconciliation. He worked tirelessly to maintain a balance between demanding justice for the oppressed majority and avoiding a descent into racial vengeance.

His vision for a “Rainbow Nation” underscored his belief in a South Africa that celebrated its diversity while acknowledging the shared pain of its past.

Mandela’s leadership during the negotiations, his subsequent election as the country’s first black South African president, and his efforts to foster national unity were instrumental in navigating South Africa through one of the most significant political transitions of the 20th century.

Impact of Apartheid

The legacy of apartheid in South Africa is profound and multifaceted, affecting the social, economic, and political fabric of the nation long after its formal conclusion. The impact of apartheid has been both deep and enduring, with consequences that continue to resonate across South African society.

Socially, apartheid entrenched divisions and fostered a sense of mistrust and animosity among the country’s racial and ethnic groups. The forced segregation of communities, the unequal allocation of resources, and the systematic discrimination based on race have left lasting scars.

Despite efforts at reconciliation, the remnants of apartheid-induced segregation are evident in the spatial layout of cities, the disparities in education and healthcare, and the persistent social inequalities that plague the nation.

Economically, the apartheid system deliberately marginalized the majority of South Africans, restricting access to economic opportunities, education, and land. The policies of apartheid aimed at maintaining white supremacy had the effect of creating profound economic imbalances, with wealth concentrated in the hands of a small white minority.

These economic disparities have been challenging to reverse, and South Africa continues to grapple with high levels of poverty, unemployment, and inequality. The economic legacy of apartheid is a complex problem that affects the prospects of generations and requires sustained effort to address.

Politically, apartheid has left a lasting imprint on the governance and political culture of South Africa. The transition to democracy was a monumental achievement, yet the process of building a democratic society in the wake of such a divisive system has been arduous.

The political landscape is still influenced by the divisions and tensions that apartheid fostered. While South Africa has made significant strides in establishing a democratic system, the country faces ongoing challenges in ensuring political inclusivity, addressing corruption, and fostering genuine political reconciliation.

On a more positive note, the struggle against apartheid and the transition to democracy in South Africa have become powerful symbols of the triumph of human rights and dignity over oppression.

The global anti-apartheid movement and South Africa’s peaceful transition have inspired democratic movements worldwide, showcasing the potential for peaceful resolution of conflicts and the importance of inclusive governance.

The cultural impact of apartheid and its aftermath has been significant as well, influencing the arts, literature, and national identity of South Africa. Artists, musicians, and writers have used their platforms to process and critique the apartheid experience, contributing to a rich cultural discourse that explores themes of resistance, resilience, identity, and reconciliation.

This cultural response to apartheid has played a crucial role in the nation’s healing process, offering a means to remember the past, critique the present, and envision a more equitable future.

How to Cite this Article

There are three different ways you can cite this article.

1. To cite this article in an academic-style article or paper, use:

James Hardy, "Apartheid: Beginning and End, and the History of South Africa", History Cooperative, April 17, 2017, https://historycooperative.org/systemic-story-apartheid/. Accessed May 18, 2024

2. To link to this article in the text of an online publication, please use this URL:


3. If your web page requires an HTML link, please insert this code:

<a href="https://historycooperative.org/systemic-story-apartheid/">Apartheid: Beginning and End, and the History of South Africa</a>

Leave a Comment