Apartheid – 1948-1994

An Afrikaans word meaning ‘separateness’, apartheid was the formal policy of racial segregation which prevailed in South Africa for most of the second half of the 20th century, making it a pariah state among the nations of the world. Introduced by the National Party when it assumed power following the 1948 whites-only election, the policy classified the population in four racial groups: White, Black, Indian and Coloured (mixed race). Increasingly fearful of the urban migration of blacks seeking work, the white minority sought to defend itself by enacting laws separating the different groups and banning racially mixed marriages.

Apartheid ideologues, many of whom were Afrikaners of Dutch descent and devout Calvinist backgrounds, believed that it was God’s will, no less, that different races should live apart. But there was also a hard commercial reality to the system, based on economic self-interest; why should non-whites reap the fruits, so the argument ran, of predominantly white labors? The majority black population was subjected to humiliating measures such as the hated ‘pass laws’ and their forced resettlement into homelands, known as bantustans. The international community turned its back on the regime, imposing wide-ranging economic sanctions and banning South Africa from major sporting events. While this external pressure was an undoubted contributory factor, the decisive blows that undermined the foundations of apartheid came with the collapse of Soviet communism in 1990 and the civil unrest which had been growing steadily inside the country in spite of the government’s brutal attempts to stifle it.

Apartheid was finally abolished following protracted negotiations in the early 1990s between the government of F W De Klerk and the principal black party, the ANC (African National Congress). In 1994 South Africa held its first free, non-racial elections, and Nelson Mandela was chosen as president and head of a government of national unity.

When: 1948-1994

Where: South Africa

Death toll: Estimates vary, but one authoritative source puts the number of deaths in political violence during the apartheid era as high as 21,000. Almost exclusively black deaths, these include the notorious Sharpeville Massacre of i960 and the Soweto Uprising of 1976-1977.

You should know: The vile nature of the apartheid regime is often best captured in its more bizarre details, such as the ‘comb test’ used in the racial classification process, if a comb drawn through someone’s hair got stuck, that person was identified as African.

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