Thirty years ago apartheid ended: history of the policy of racial segregation in South Africa

L'apartheid (which means “separateness” in the Afrikaans language) was the system of racial segregation established in South Africa by the white ethnic minority to the detriment of the black population and other ethnic groups. Apartheid “officially” began in 1948 and included a large number of legislative measures, issued at different times. One of the main ideologists of apartheid was Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd. Against apartheid a developed vast struggle movementof which the protagonists wereAfrican National Congress (ANC) and its leader Nelson Mandela. The system, also due to international pressure, collapsed in the early 1990s, but the inequalities between blacks and whites they have not failed. The official date chosen for the end of segregation was April 27, 1994.

A premise on colonial South Africa

In the modern age, South African territory was a “population” colony: the European powers did not limit themselves to assuming military and political control, as in other African regions, but transferred part of their population there. The colonists were in part of Dutch originknown as Afrikaners or Boers, and in part of British origin. The territory in which they settled was inhabited mainly by blacks of the Bantu ethnic group, who constituted (and always have constituted) the great majority of the population. Over the centuries, they have also developed mulatto minorities And of Asian origin (especially Indians who arrived between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries).

South Africa, which has become one UK dependency after the wars between the English and the Boers in the period 1880-1902, during the twentieth century it gained progressive autonomy and in 1961 it obtained full independence.

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The First Anglo-Boer War (credits FAK)
The First Anglo-Boer War. Credits: FAK.

Until 1994, political power was managed by the white minority, in particular by the Afrikaner one, which had already imposed some discriminatory measures against blacks before the Second World War, for example by limiting their right to own land. Apartheid proper was established later the 1948 electionsin which the winner was National Party, representative of the Afrikaners. He is considered the true “architect” of segregation Hendrik Frensch Verwoerdminister throughout the 1950s and prime minister from 1958 to 1966.

What apartheid consisted of

Apartheid was founded on a series of legislative measures which aimed to keep the black population and other ethnic groups separate from the whites. For example, the black population was deported from many urban neighborhoods and relegated to semi-independent territories, i bantustan, much less developed than the areas occupied by whites and characterized by the spread of poverty and infectious diseases. Throughout the country, moreover, wealth was concentrated in the hands of whites and other ethnic groups lived in conditions of poverty and social exclusion. Furthermore, to access certain locations inhabited by whites, blacks had to have access to special internal passports. All public facilities (offices, shops, etc.) were strictly separated on a racial basis. THE mixed marriages hey sexual relations between people of different ethnic groups were strictly prohibited. All non-white ethnicities were without political rights.

Apartheid era sign
Apartheid era sign

The fight against apartheid and the role of Mandela

The Bantu population or, at least, its more politicized minority, led a long struggle against apartheid. The main organization was theAfrican National Congressin which in the 1950s a leader emerged who was destined to be talked about for a long time: Nelson Mandela.

Mandela burned his pass book in 1960
Mandela burned his internal passport in 1960

The government reacted to the ANC struggle with extreme brutality, incarcerating the leaders and many militants of the party. Mandela, for example, remained in prison for twenty-seven years. Furthermore, the police carried out real massacres against black citizens, like the one that occurred in 1960 Sharpeville during a demonstration against internal passports.

As the years passed, the international community took a stand against apartheid. Many states and supranational institutions, such as the UN, imposed sanctions on South Africawho was also excluded from the Olympics and other sporting competitions.

The end of apartheid

In the 1980s the white minority had to realize that international reaction and the struggles of the ANC made it impossible to perpetuate apartheid. President Frederik De Klerk, elected in 1989, began negotiations with Mandela, who was still imprisoned. The two reached an agreement which, in essence, provided for the equal rights for all South Africans and the national reconciliation without punishment for the abuses committed by whites.

Mandela was freed in 1990 and in 1993 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1994, in South Africa's first democratic elections, he was elected President of the Republic. After him there have always been black presidents and those belonging to the ANC.

De Klerk and Mandela in 1992
De Klerk and Mandela in 1992

Blacks and whites in South Africa today

Today blacks represent the81.4% of the South African populationwhites 7.3%, mulattoes 8.2% and Indians 2.7% (2011 data).

Although apartheid was abolished thirty years ago, not all of its effects have disappeared. The institutions have tried to promote the development of acommon identity among all South Africans, without however managing to completely eliminate the contrasts of an ideological-cultural nature between whites and blacks (for example, controversies arose regarding the names of some places).

What's worse is that on an economic level the divergence between whites and blacks has not only not disappeared, but has even increased, to the point that today South Africa is one of the countries in which economic inequalities are most marked. 55% of the population lives below the poverty line and the poor are almost all black or belong to other non-white ethnic groups.

One of the differences compared to the apartheid years is the development of a black middle class, which however constitutes only a small minority of the total population. In short, the road to true equality is still long.

World Bank, South Africa Economic Update Jobs and Inequality, 2018, International Monetary Fund, Six Charts Explain South Africa's Inequality, 2020 Life in Apartheid-Era South Africa, Bloomberg 2013 Azi Ayubi, Apartheid policy in South Africa, International Journal of Science and Society 5(1), 2023, pp. 124-131