Apartheid and Nelson Mandela

Apartheid is a uniquely South African policy of racial engineering with which European colonizers tried to ensure their supremacy between 1948 and 1994. Invented by the Afrikaner section of the minority white population, it also aimed at advancing exclusive Afrikaner nationalism. Prior to the institutionalized racialism, Anglo type informal segregation had achieved similar effects, although racial mixing and miscegenation was widespread in a rapidly industrializing society. The apartheid ideology, strongly influenced by evolutionist, hierarchical, and racial supremacist ideas, justified the formal separation between racialized groups in South Africa. The Afrikaner Nationalist Party, particularly under its leader Hendrik Verwoerd, systematized these practices into a coherent doctrine. Afrikaner newspapers, such as Die Burger, preachers, and intellectuals used the suppression of the Afrikaans language by the assimilationist United Party as a mobilizing tool, subsequently supplemented with a program of capital accumulation (‘‘buy Afrikaans only’’) for fledgling Afrikaner building societies and banks.

When the Nationalists unexpectedly came to power through a restricted franchise in 1948, Afrikaners formed 57 percent of the white population controlling 29 percent of total personal income, as against the English speaking whites who held 43 percent. Africans, although comprising 68 percent of the population, commanded only 20 percent of total personal income (Giliomee 2003: 489). The  Nationalist  ‘‘poor whites,’’ distinctly underprivileged  vis a vis  English  speakers, also had to compete with African job seekers, who were considered cheaper and more pliant by  English dominated  corporations.  Faced with the threat of nationalization, a compromise was struck to guarantee poor whites job reservation and higher wages in mining enterprises (‘‘civilized labor policy’’) as well as preferential employment on the railways and in the post offices.

Racial legislation took the form of categorizing the population into four racial groups: whites, coloreds, Asians (Indians), and Africans. In 1949, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act made it illegal to marry across the color line. Later this was followed by the Immorality Act, which declared it an offense to have any intimate contact across racial groups.  The  Population  Registration  Act required the carrying of identification documents; the Group Areas Act of the 1960s designated separate residential and commercial areas for each group; the Suppression of Communism Act, which gave extraordinary power to the state to ban organizations considered to be ‘‘communist,’’ and the Bantu Education Act controlled access to segregated education for each racial group.

Longstanding communities comprising people of all groups who had come to live together were destroyed by these measures. The residential segregation particularly affected the Indian and colored property owners more than it did Africans, who had already been excluded earlier under the Urban Areas Act preventing them from acquiring any land in the urban areas and ‘‘white’’ South Africa, comprising 83 percent of the total territory. The rationale offered for this  was twofold; firstly, that whites had submitted petitions complaining about Indian and colored penetration  into their areas with the consequent drop in their property values. Secondly, it was argued that groups would be more inclined to live harmoniously with one another when they reside among members of their own group. The same logic was to pervade the case for separate educational facilities, at first at the primary and secondary levels.

Unlike any other country, South  Africa imposed group membership, regardless of individual association. Without self identification such labeling stigmatizes people, especially where differential privileges and forcible separation are concerned. This is all the more so where groups have lived in close proximity to one another and shared culture, language, and religion, as was the case with the 10 percent so called coloreds in the Cape. Often there were few discernible differences and degrading practices such as pencil tests – namely, to see if a pencil when inserted into hair would fall out or be held by more curly African type hair – were used to decide if one was colored or white.

Through a process of ethnicization, black ethnic  groups  were  separated  from  one another and disaggregated, while non blacks with diverse ethnic origins were homogenized through racialization into one group, as whites, for political advantage. Apartheid utilized different histories and cultures to divide the population through the program of separate development. Whites held the monopoly of political control over a disenfranchised ‘‘non white’’ majority. Economic power was initially concentrated in the hands of the people of English origin but later increasingly included Afrikaner capitalists through state patronage. The franchise was the privilege of white South Africans only, as others were excluded from the political process. Instead Africans were to have circumscribed citizenship rights within the segregated enclaves designated for each group, known as Bantustans. Freedom of movement  from  these  impoverished  rural areas into urban centers was curtailed through influx control and pass laws.

European penetration of the African hinter land had destroyed most of the traditional African subsistence economy. Squeezed into ever more overcrowded reserves, its inhabitants  increasingly relied on remittances of migrant workers in the cities. At the beginning of industrialization, Africans had to be forced into poorly paid work on the mines through head and hut  taxes which British administrators first introduced in the Eastern Cape. Later it was sheer rural poverty that drove blacks into the city slums, dormitories, and  compounds.  Migrant  labor  not  only destroyed the African peasantry but also under mined the traditional family. The competition among ethnically housed migrants in the insecure urban settings encouraged tribalism as a form of kinship solidarity and own group protection in a tough struggle for survival.

In  1910 the  African National  Congress (ANC) was founded. Among the first goals of the ANC was the battle for African unity against tribalism. Under the influence of supportive white and Indian liberals and communists, this priority was later extended to colorblind non racialism. A moderate black elite, educated  at  Christian  missionary  schools, repeatedly pleaded with the government for recognition. A much celebrated Freedom Charter of 1955 claimed the right of all South Africans to the land of their birth. A Gandhian type civil disobedience campaign against new pass laws was tried in Natal, but failed when the government simply imprisoned the peaceful protesters.  The National Party  government responded with ever more repressive legislation. The 1960 Sharpeville massacre of some 60 pro testers marked a turning point. The ANC and its rival, the more radical Pan African Congress (PAC), decided to go underground, revert to sabotage without hurting civilians, and establish an exile presence for the anti apartheid struggle after they were outlawed inside the country. After a few years in hiding, Nelson Mandela and his comrades were caught and sentenced to life imprisonment, to be freed only after 27 years on Robben Island in 1990.

In 1983 the National Party had split and shed its conservative wing. In 1989, the hard line president P. W. Botha was replaced with a new National Party leader, F. W. de Klerk, who had finally realized that apartheid was not sustainable. The costs outweighed the benefits. Influx control of blacks into the cities had failed; business needed  ever  more  skilled employees who also had to be politically satisfied; a powerful union movement had taken over from the banned political organizations since the late 1970s; restless townships could not be stabilized, despite permanent states of emergencies; demographic ratios changed in favor of blacks, with more whites emigrating and draining the country of skills and investments; the costs of global sanctions, particularly loan refusals, and moral ostracism of the pariah state were felt. The collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War in 1989 provided the final straw for the normalization of South Africa. The National Party decided to negotiate a historic compromise from a position of relative strength while the whites were still ahead. With the loss of Eastern European support, the ANC also had to turn away from the armed struggle and seek a political solution. A perception of stalemate on both sides prepared the ground for a constitutionally mandated agreement to share power for five years. The first free democratic elections in 1994, 1999, and 2004 provided the ANC with a two thirds majority.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, perhaps the most generally admired political figure of our time, was born on July 18, 1918 into the Thembu  royal family in Transkei. Groomed to become a chief,  he  attended  Healdtown,  a  mission school of the Methodist Church, which provided a Christian and liberal arts education, and later the University College of Fort Hare, which was a beacon for African scholars from all over Southern, Central, and Eastern Africa. For young black South African leaders including Oliver Tambo and Robert Mugabe, Fort Hare became the center of early anti colonial sentiments and liberation strategies. At the end of his first year, Mandela became involved in a boycott of the Students Representative  Council  against  the  university’s policies and  was  expelled.  After  moving to Johannesburg as an impoverished student, Mandela studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he was the only African student in the law faculty, and, in partnership with Oliver Tambo, set up the first black law practice in Johannesburg in 1952.

As  a  young  student,  Mandela  became increasingly involved in political opposition to the white minority government’s denial of political, social, and economic rights to South Africa’s black majority. Together with Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and others, Mandela was active in the ANC Youth League, of which he became national president in 1950. He  helped organize the  passive resistance campaign against the laws that forced blacks to carry passes and kept them in a position of permanent servility, calling for non violent protest for as long as it was effective. This led to his first arrest and suspended sentence under the Suppression of Communism Act. Despite his ban from political activity, Mandela  succeeded in  reorganizing the  ANC branches into small cells for their expected underground functioning.

In 1956 Mandela was charged with high treason  along  with  156  political  leaders following the anti pass campaign and demonstrations against the Declaration of the Republic. Following the banning of the ANC and PAC in 1961, Mandela went underground and traveled to Addis Ababa, Algeria, and London where  he  attended  conferences and  held discussions with various political leaders.

A few weeks following his return to South Africa in July 1962, Mandela was arrested and charged with incitement and for leaving the country illegally. At the notorious Rivonia trial of 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment together with his fellow conspirators on June 12. His statement from the dock stirred the conscience of many:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the  ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve, but, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

The rallying cry ‘‘Free Nelson Mandela’’ became the slogan associated with opposition to apartheid for anti apartheid campaigners around the world in subsequent years.

On February 11, 1990, after nearly 27 years in prison, Mandela was finally released unconditionally following delicate negotiations, sustained ANC campaigning, and international pressure that led to both his freedom and the beginning of the end of apartheid. He had refused earlier offers of conditional release in return for renouncing the armed struggle. After more than two decades of imprisonment, Mandela quickly filled a vacuum in the heterogeneous ANC camp. His leadership unified the oldest and most popular liberation movement as he straddled the divide between a militant youth and older traditionalists, revolutionaries and pragmatists, African nationalists and liberal universalists, orthodox socialists and social democratic capitalists. He succeeded in rallying the ANC’s skeptical constituency behind the new politics of negotiation, suspending the armed struggle, and allaying fears of nationalization and redistribution. Mandela’s remarkable lack of bitterness and steady moderation were also critical in convincing the white minority to share political power with a disenfranchised majority.

As the first ever democratically elected president of South Africa, he presided over the transition from minority rule and apartheid, from May 1994 to June 1999, winning international respect for his advocacy of national and international reconciliation. At the same time, Mandela was criticized for his support of Arafat’s PLO, Libya’s Gadhaffi, and Cuba’s Castro, whom he referred to as his ‘‘comrades in arms.’’ Some critics alleged that the world’s most famous prisoner was in danger of becoming a symbol more powerful behind bars than in the world of realpolitik. Many were also disappointed with his government’s ineffectiveness in dealing with a looming AIDScrisis. However, he subsequently engaged in a massive campaign to address the AIDS pandemic and in so doing admonished his successors for their silence on this question.

After his retirement as president in 1999 and handing over to his successor, Thabo Mbeki, Mandela went on to become an advocate for a variety of social and human rights organizations. On his 80th birthday he married Graca Machel, widow of the  former Mozambican president, and travels the world to raise funds for major causes. He has been honored in countless countries with a host of prestigious awards. As a universally revered hero and global conscience, he speaks out against injustice on the world scene, from criticizing US unilateralism to peacemaking in Burundi. He spoke out against the Zimbab wean government for its human rights abuses while other African leaders maintained silence. Mandela almost assumed the role of informal opposition leader along with fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu while simultaneously remaining a loyal member of the ANC.

For  countless people around  the  world Nelson Mandela stands as an international hero whose lifelong struggle to end racial oppression in  South  Africa  represents  the  triumph of dignity and hope over despair and hatred. His unprecedented moral authority and iconic status resemble the influence of Mahatma Gandhi nearly half a century earlier. Like Gandhi, an honorable Mandela remains faithful to his party’s ideals of non racialism, inclusiveness, and reconciliation for his beloved South Africa.


  1. Adam, & Moodley, K. (1993) The Opening of the Apartheid Mind. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  2. Giliomee, (2003) The Afrikaners. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.
  3. Mandela, N. (1994) Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Little, Brown, New
  4. Sampson,  (2000) Mandela:  The  Authorized Biography. HarperCollins, London.

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