In 1948, fearing the changes the post-war world might bring in a country with a large black majority, the Afrikaner Nationalist Party instituted the system of apartheid to deny black Africans the right to participate politically at any level. And this changed the course of history for South Africa.
Suppression and Resistance
The African National Congress (ANC) condemned and protested apartheid through peaceful—albeit unlawful—demonstrations. The apartheid government responded with the 1950 passage of the Suppression of Communism Act.
The ANC, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, trained volunteers in non-violent resistance. With each subsequent demonstration, more volunteers joined the action. This was called the Defiance of Unjust Laws campaign and it kicked off on June 26, 1952. Black people entered areas and buildings designated as being for whites or Europeans only. Others burned their pass cards.
At the start of the campaign, the ANC had counted 7,000 members. By its end, membership surpassed 100,000.
New Acts Introduced
The white government’s 1954 Native Resettlement Act brought new degradation to black Africans and demanded a response. The act allowed the government to remove any black Africans who lived within or next to the magisterial district of Johannesburg. Black African families abruptly found themselves living in slums and shanty towns.
At the same time, a political coalition of African, Indian, mixed-race and white groups under the ANC umbrella, called the Congress Alliance, issued a document called the Freedom Charter, which advocated for universal suffrage and rights.
Also during this period, divisions within the ANC materialized. In April 1959, these frustrated ANC delegates broke to form a more militant organization, the Pan African Congress. The PAC asserted that for democracy to flourish, multiracialism needed to be rejected along with apartheid.
In March 1960, the Pan African Congress organized demonstrations to protest the internal passport system known as the Pass Laws. But trouble arose in Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg, when the police opened fire, killing 69 unarmed protesters, and leaving at least 180 wounded.
This event transformed the anti-apartheid struggle. It was clear to many now, including to Nelson Mandela, that civil disobedience was likely to lead to more bloodshed. The men and women challenging apartheid needed to adopt more-radical measures. In anticipation, the government declared a state of emergency, and outlawed both the ANC and the Pan African Congress. Thousands were arrested throughout the country.
After the Sharpeville massacre, the UN Security Council took its first action on South Africa by calling on the government to abandon its policies of apartheid and racial discrimination.
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Formation of umkhonto wesizwe
Mandela meanwhile decided to form a new military organization, separate from the African National Congress, to be called umkhonto wesizwe— Zulu for Spear of the Nation.
The plan was to attack economic interests rather than human life. Spear of the Nation struck in December of 1961, attacking power stations, electrical lines, and empty government buildings. It was the first of hundreds of acts of sabotage over the next few decades. Few white casualties were recorded.
The movement received a setback when Mandela was arrested and sent to prison on Robben Island, just offshore from Cape Town where he would spend the next 27 years.
Student Organizations Spring into Action
With Mandela imprisoned, an important element of the freedom struggle now shifted to underground student organizations, such as the National Union of South African Students.
In 1970, it split from the larger student union to became independent, with Steve Biko as its president. Biko’s “Black consciousness” ideology reflected the idea that disenfranchised peoples could claim power if they rejected impotence and inferiority.
In June 1976, high school students in Soweto protested the new educational decree, encouraged by the South African Student Organization. Between 10,000 and 20,000 youths gathered to march peacefully. They carried signs challenging the language decree and sang native African hymns. Police responded by shooting into the crowd.
The Soweto Uprising proved to be a turning point in the struggle against apartheid. Another was the murder of Steve Biko. Outrage over Biko’s death in detention spread around the world. Pressure mounted both diplomatically and economically. The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to declare a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa.
Buoyed by the international support, several African groups began to coordinate their efforts. The multiracial United Democratic Front organized boycotts, demonstrations and strikes.
By the middle of the 1980s, many foreign companies divested themselves of their South Africa holdings. And several international banks refused to extend credit to the regime.
In 1986, the US Congress overrode a presidential veto to impose mandatory sanctions. And new boycotts, demonstrations, and work stoppages heightened the growing economic crisis in South Africa. Although the regime responded with force once again, it was clear by the end of the 1980s that apartheid couldn’t sustain itself amid such resistance at home, and opprobrium abroad.
In 1989, F.W. de Klerk took charge of the government and ended the ban on the African National Congress. Mandela and other political prisoners were also freed. De Klerk then followed up with reforms to end the country’s apartheid laws. Primary among these reforms was the enfranchisement of all adult South Africans in time for the 1994 general election.
The African National Congress party won nearly 63% of the vote in the country’s first democratic election. The revolutionary transformation of South Africa from a segregated racist state to one that endowed all people with political rights had been long and difficult.
Common Questions about South Africa’s Anti-apartheid Movement
The Defiance of Unjust Laws campaign kicked off on June 26, 1952, as a means to protest against apartheid. Blacks entered areas and buildings designated as being for whites or Europeans only. Others burned their pass cards.
Umkhonto wesizwe, or Spear of the Nation, significantly contributed to the anti-apartheid movement. It struck in December of 1961, attacking power stations, electrical lines, and empty government buildings. It was the first of hundreds of acts of sabotage over the next few decades.
In March 1960, the Pan African Congress organized demonstrations to protest the internal passport system known as the Pass Laws. But trouble arose in Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg, when the police opened fire, killing 69 unarmed protesters, and leaving at least 180 wounded. This event transformed the anti-apartheid struggle. It was clear to many now that civil disobedience was likely to lead to more bloodshed.