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How Apartheid Worked

Apartheid's Belated, Quick Fall

South Africans celebrated in June 1994 after the country's first democratic election and Nelson Mandela's victory.
South Africans celebrated in June 1994 after the country's first democratic election and Nelson Mandela's victory.
Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

The Black Consciousness movement had spread beyond South Africa by the mid-1970s, and when, amid the turbulence following the Soweto uprising, Steve Biko was arrested, beaten and left to die from his injuries in a prison cell, outrage was far-reaching [source: UN]. Among the thousands of mourners at Biko's funeral were U.S. Ambassador to South Africa William Bowdler, U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Donald McHenry and Helen Suzman, the sole anti-Apartheid voice in South Africa's all-white parliament [source: South African History Online].

After the funeral, events unfolded quickly, though Apartheid would hang on for another 13 years.


Biko's death prompted more than 100 members of the U.S. Congress to sign a letter requesting international access to look into South Africa's handling of political prisoners. The South African government proceeded to ban the SASO along with 17 other black political organizations and two black-run newspapers. The United States, Great Britain and three other Western nations soon pulled their ambassadors out of the country, and by the early 1980s, the boycotting of all things South Africa had begun [sources: South African History Online, UN].

Apartheid thus entered its decade of decline. By the end of the '80s, political and economic boycotts by governments, bolstered by the activist-pressured exodus of private businesses operating in the region, had left South Africa politically isolated and economically devastated. Much of the non-white populace was ignoring pass requirements, territorial restrictions and segregation policies. And the world was growing impatient [source: UN].

In 1989, F.W. de Klerk became president of Apartheid South Africa, and he ended it. Between 1989 and 1993, the de Klerk government repealed every Apartheid policy on the books. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, was elected head of the new African National Congress in 1991, and became South Africa's first black president in its first democratic elections in 1994.

Mandela, in his inaugural speech, acknowledged the inhumanity of Apartheid and its devastating consequences. And then, the activist who'd been imprisoned for 27 years set the tone for a new South Africa: The BBC reported on that day, May 10, 1994, that Mandela closed by saying, in the Afrikaans language of his former oppressors, "What is past is past" [source: BBC].

De Klerk and Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their roles in what turned out to be, in the very end, a shockingly peaceful transition from Apartheid rule to democratic government. South Africa now boasts one of the most racially, ethnically, linguistically and religiously inclusive constitutions in the modern world [source: MSU].

Constitutions, of course, are easier to re-create than people, and the country's relatively recent past of brutal racist oppression is not forgotten. South African society will take longer to heal. The goal of harmony has nonetheless been stated in uncertain terms -- a first step, and a significant one. Future generations will determine what comes after.

Author's Note: How Apartheid Worked

How Apartheid Worked was not, to understate it, an easy article to write. While the policy ended rather abruptly, the circumstances leading up to it spanned more than three centuries, somehow establishing a system of racial oppression that held up so long I clearly remember "End Apartheid" bumper stickers on cars in my hometown.

I would have liked to address more of the global context, as well as some of the particulars of the early master/servant laws that closely resembled those of the slavery and immediate post-slavery periods of the U.S. South -- the separation of black men from white women, for instance, and the legal use of punishments like whipping and food deprivation for petty "offenses."

But Apartheid is a tome, and I made choices, as writers must, many of which I still question. What I produced is, at best, an in-depth overview, and those looking for a complete, detailed map of the path to Apartheid along with its implementation, long-term effects on African culture, resistance leaders and ultimate demise would be well-served to visit South African History Online and South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid, sources I found to be invaluable in my research. In particular, you may want to explore the rise of the Black Consciousness movement, Mandela's leadership of the military arm of the National African Congress and the particulars of South Africa's post-Apartheid constitution.

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