The official end of the apartheid government in South Africa has been hard won. It took decades of activism both inside and outside the country, as well as international economic pressure, to end the regime that allowed the country’s white minority to subjugate its black majority. This work resulted in the dismantling of apartheid between 1990 and 1994. On April 27, 1994, the country elected Nelson Mandela, an activist who had spent 27 years in prison for his opposition to apartheid, in his first presidential election. free.
The white minority that controlled the apartheid government were Afrikaaners – descendants of mostly Dutch settlers who had invaded South Africa from the 17th century. Although Afrikaaner oppression of black South Africans predated the formal establishment of apartheid in 1948, apartheid legalized and imposed a specific racial ideology that separated South Africans into legally distinct racial groups: white, African, “colored” (ie multiracial) and Indian. The apartheid government used violence to enforce segregation between these groups and forcibly separated many families containing affected people from different racial categories.
South African resistance
Black South Africans resisted apartheid from the start. In the early 1950s, the African National Congress, or ANC, launched a campaign of challenge. The purpose of this campaign was for black South Africans to break apartheid laws by entering white areas, using white facilities and refusing to carry “laissez-passer” – domestic passports that the government used. to restrict the movement of black South Africans in their own country. In response, the government banned the ANC in 1960 and arrested prominent ANC activist Nelson Mandela in August 1962.
The ban on the ANC and the imprisonment of its leaders have forced many ANC members into exile. But that did not stop resistance in South Africa, says Wessel Visser, professor of history at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
“What many dissidents started to do inside the country was to form a kind of alternative resistance movement called the United Democratic Front,” he says. The UDF, created in 1983, “was a [collaboration] church leaders and political leaders who were not banned at this stage, community leaders, trade unionists, etc. He said.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Reverend Allan Boesak, two of the main leaders of the UDF, “started organizing marches in parliament, in Cape Town, in Pretoria, Johannesburg – crowds of 50 to 80,000 people, so there definitely had a wave of resistance against apartheid, “he says. And around the world, this activism has gained attention.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s opposition to sanctions quashed
One of the great moments in the international awareness of apartheid came in 1976, when thousands of black children in Soweto township protested against a government policy requiring all classes to be taught in Afrikaans against the government attempt to impose the Afrikaans language on them. Police responded to the protests with violence, killing at least 176 people and injuring more than 1,000 others. The massacre brought more attention to activists’ calls to disengage from South Africa, which the United Nations General Assembly first asked member states to do in 1962.
The economic sanctions campaigns against South Africa gained momentum in the 1980s, but faced considerable resistance from two prominent heads of state: United States President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Reagan and Thatcher condemned Mandela and the ANC as communists and terrorists at a time when the apartheid government presented itself as a Cold War ally against Communism.
Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, but the US Congress overturned its decision with a two-thirds majority, passing the law imposing sanctions on South Africa. The UK has also imposed limited sanctions over Thatcher’s objections. The combination of international sanctions put considerable economic pressure on South Africa, which was then at war with the present-day nations of Namibia, Zambia and Angola.
International pressure is mounting to free Mandela
Anti-apartheid activism has also drawn international attention to Mandela. International defenders urged South Africa to release him and other jailed ANC members and allow exiled members to return to the country.
“As early as 1984, the national intelligence services tried within government structures and also certain ministers to contact the ANC … and to probe the waters of a possibility of a negotiated settlement”, says Anton Ehlers, professor. of history. at the University of Stellenbosch.
The Berlin Wall falls, Nelson Mandela is freed
Visser speculates that the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 helped accelerate the process of ending apartheid, as it removed one of the government’s main defenses among Western allies: that it had to remain in place to fight communism. “The argument that the ANC are just the puppets of the Reds could no longer be used,” says Visser, both because the Cold War was ending and because the ANC now had much more support in Europe. and the United States.
Mandela was finally released free on February 11, 1990, and negotiations to end apartheid officially began that year. These negotiations lasted four years, ending with the election of Mandela as president. In 1996, the country launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to attempt to address serious human rights violations during apartheid.