Apartheid

Mandela SculptureIt was just days ago that I felt the freezing cold temperatures of a Chicago winter against my face.  The accompanying icy bite of wind chill forcing its way inside both nostrils, turning breathing into a conscious choice; one that delivers a throbbing pain with every inhale.

I escaped the January onslaught and today I find myself soaking up the summer sun resident over the opposite hemisphere. It is morning, the sky is blue, the temperatures are rising and the water is sparkling around Cape Town, South Africa.

I spend my first couple of days exploring the city, its museums, gardens, parks, and the surrounding countryside; climbing Table Mountain and heading south on the peninsula to the Cape of Good Hope. It’s a breathtakingly gorgeous city; an outpost of good taste and relative progressive tolerance.

The history of South Africa is an important one to remember.

Robben Island is visible from the top of Table Mountain and sits as a testament to oppression, perseverance, freedom, and forgiveness. 

It was there that Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years behind bars as a political prisoner before being freed in February 1990. This was a key moment in the history of South Africa and initiated the true start for the process of dismantling the apartheid system; a system of legal race segregation, black, white, colored, Indian, imposed by an all white government that had ruled the country since 1948.

Under apartheid, non-white South Africans, the vast majority of the population, were forced to live in separate areas from whites and use separate public facilities; contact between the two groups would be limited.

Marriages and sexual relationships between groups was outlawed.

A series of Land Acts set aside more than 80 percent of the country’s land for the white minority, and “pass laws” required non-whites to carry documents authorizing their presence in restricted areas. Non-whites were denied participation in national government.

To further protect white interests, a system referred to as “separate development” was introduced in the late 1950’s. This system created “Homelands” for black South Africans. The effect was to separate further, black South Africans from each other, enabling the government to claim no black majority, reducing the possibility that blacks would unify into one nationalist organization. Every black South African was designated a citizen of one “Homeland”.

One of the most devastating aspects of apartheid, forcibly imposed by the government, was the removal of black South Africans from farming areas designated as “white”; they were trucked to the “Homelands” and their land sold at low prices to white farmers. From 1961 to the end of apartheid, more than 3.5 million people were forcibly removed from their land and houses and deposited in the “Homelands” where they plunged into poverty and hopelessness.

Resistance to apartheid within South Africa took on many forms, from non-violent demonstrations, protests and strikes, to political action and eventually to armed resistance.

In 1952 the African National Congress, a banned organization under apartheid, organized a mass meeting during which attendees burned their pass books. Another group, the Congress of the People, asserting in 1955 that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black or white.” The government broke up the meeting and arrested 150 people, charging them all with high treason.

In 1960, at the black township of Sharpesville, the police opened fire on a group of unarmed blacks associated with the Pan-African Congress, an offshoot of the ANC. The group had congregated without passes.

At least 67 were killed and more than 180 wounded.

Sharpesville convinced many anti-apartheid leaders that their objective could not be achieved by peaceful means. The ANC and PAC established military wings. By 1961, most resistance leaders had been captured and sentenced to long prison terms or executed. Nelson Mandela, the founder of the military wing of the ANC, was incarcerated from 1963 to 1990; his imprisonment would draw international attention and help garner support for the anti-apartheid cause.

In 1976, thousands of children in the black township of Soweto, outside Johannesburg, demonstrated against the requirement of the Afrikaans language being a mandatory subject taught in their schools; the police opened fire.

The protests and government crackdowns that followed, combined with a national economic recession, drew more international attention to South Africa and shattered all illusions that apartheid had brought peace or prosperity to the nation. The United Nations General Assembly denounced apartheid and in 1976 the UN Security Council voted to impose a mandatory embargo on the sale of arms to South Africa.

Under pressure from the international community, the government of Pieter Botha sought to institute some reforms, including abolition of the pass laws and the ban on interracial sex and marriage. The reforms fell short of any substantive change and by 1989 Botha was pressured to step aside in favor of F.W. de Klerk.

Despite strong and consistent opposition to apartheid from within and outside South Africa, its laws remained in effect for the better part of 50 years. In 1991, President F.W. de Klerk, working closely with freed Nelson Mandela, began to repeal legislation that provided the basis for apartheid. A new constitution, which enfranchised black South Africans and other racial groups, took effect in 1994; elections that year led to a coalition government with a non-white majority, marking the official end of the apartheid system.

Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected President of South Africa just 4 years after his release from prison.

As I wandered the streets of Cape Town and other cities and towns in South Africa it became apparent there was still a large population of whites that held resentment toward the change. They said the right things in conversation but would slip all too often and the ideals of a past era would rear their ugly head.

Photos attributed to:
Apartheid Museum in Ormonde, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Non-whites Bench Outside High Court Civil Cape Town by KNewman1.

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32 thoughts on “Apartheid

  1. I learned only a little bit about Nelson Mandela growing up. I’m sad to say I was taught even less about apartheid. It sucks that people did that stuff. Racism was and still shows up in different areas in different ways.

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  2. When I was in middle school in the 80s, they would talk often about the horrors of apartheid. My best friend was a white girl who had moved to the U.S, from South Africa when she was 6. I remember her getting really upset when they would talk about apartheid and say that Americans don’t have the full story. It was interesting to know someone from South Africa and see how maybe she had been kept from the full story herself. Anyway, while inequalities in the world still exist, I’m glad that apartheid is something of the past.

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    1. When I lived in London and was a tour guide I had the opportunity to take the Sth African under 16 cricket team on tour. They and their chaperons were all white had similar view points as the 6 year old from your school. I think it was less a matter of being kept from the full story but more a matter of intense propaganda about the systems, perceived, virtues.

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  3. Tim, as always, envious of your travels. Appreciative of your thoughtful insight. I was just a boy when in 1976, and Soweto was barely a blip on America’s radar. Unless you watched the nightly news (which we did in my house) or read the newspaper (thank God for the Boston Globe) you would never have known of the Apartheid issue until the mid-80’s through the movies and music. Although my first exposure to the African problem with white settlers/overlords was 1978’s “The Wild Geese” with Richard Burton and Richard Harris.

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    1. Growing up in NZ and being massive rugby rivals the apartheid system was highlighted for us through sports and the protests that happened around these events.

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  4. We all lived though part of this, and it is fascinating how the trend changed so fast. At one time, the US would do nothing to say anything bad about apartheid, and then American attitudes changed, and the government finally changed its attitude.
    I also find the history of South Africa interesting, how this began before the Boer Wars, and if the outcome of them were different, I wonder how history would of changed.
    What a great post.

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  5. Tim, in 1970 we fostered a young black boy, three years old, whose mother had smuggled him out of South Africa. She wasn’t able to get away. She did later and was able to take over the care of her boy..
    I had never really thought about race differences in any way before – to me a person was a person was a person – who cared what colour or culture.
    But taking care of young Kuda opened my eyes to intolerance, even here in Canada which totally surprised me.
    This led to an interest in wanting to know more about South Africa and I was appalled at the injustice and cruelty that existed. It always left me with the question – who appointed us whites as the dominant, know best, society?
    Thanks for a very thought provoking post.

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  6. Like many others I was aware of apartheid but I’m sorry to say never took the time to read much about it other than in relation to Nelson Mandela. Thanks for sharing this Tim. Africa has such a rich culture, and the people there are obviously incredibly resilient to have survived such hardship over the decades.

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  7. Mandela, Apartheid…these were shocking when I first learned about them in high school in the 1970s. I grew up in rural PA and there were no minorities in my school until I was maybe a junior–and then one family. So the ways I felt about all these very were theoretical, in the, “how the heck can this be,” and “why would anyone?”

    I guess I am still asking these questions today in our own USA. I want to judge/be judged on who I am, not on my skin color.

    Provoking post, Tim.

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  8. I think South Africa is the most interesting place I’ve ever been. It is both beautiful and historically tragic. But I also found so many of the people of South Africa to be so full of hope. One of the most moving places I’ve ever been is the District Six Museum in Cape Town. In addition to the exhibits there were people in the museam who had lived in that section of Cape Town during apartheid and who were happy to tell their stories.

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    1. I agree about the beauty and tragedy of South Africa making it one of the most interesting places on earth and even though I have no doubt the District Six Museum in Cape Town is a great educational experience even that is controversial. Over 60,000 people lived in District Six and were bulldozed out of their homes as it was declared a Whites Only zone.

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  9. I love your write up on such a sensitive subject.

    Nelson Mandela was a true leader of his time. He stood for what he believed, no matter what.

    There is such a long way to go for race equality to exist within South Africa and many other countries – too many to name. I hope my children are alive to see this as I doubt it will happen in my lifetime.

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  10. What we call an appalling time in South African history, I wish we were aware so history doesn’t repeat itself. I agree with Jacquie, take a look at the deep south and it is a sad time that things are still bad.Prejudice is an ugly thing and it is hard to change.

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  11. Beautifully put as always Tim! It took me a while to learn to love South Africa, as whilst the landscapes are out of this world, cultural discrimination still reigns in many places. I am always very uncomfortable when we visit our white Afrikaans friends who have been brought up to feel superior, and find myself very embarrassed in places like restaurants when they treat the black waiters with little respect and pretty much order them around. I understand this is the only behaviour that older generations know, but just hope as time goes by the younger ones will work together for a more cohesive society.

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    1. I know exactly what you are referring to Heather, I saw that attitude many times in restaurants especially. The thing that blew me away the most was that they have no idea how bad it is. I hope, like you, that the younger ones grow more towards a cohesive society.

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  12. You are a good narrator, Tim.
    Thank you for the information. Apartheid was indeed a tough period for the people who faced it. The sad part is that discrimination still prevails around the world. How I wish I could see a discrimination-free world before I die; but chances of this dream coming true are really lean..

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  13. Such an important piece of history to remember and consider, especially when visiting South Africa. It’s crazy to think that apartheid ended so recently and it scares me to think that people still hold these same values in many places around the world today. Thanks for the reminder. Looking forward to reading more about your time in South Africa!

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  14. Such a timely post, Tim, as we watched a documentary about Mandela the other day, and I was quite horrified about the things I learned about apartheid. That is an amazing image you have shown at the beginning of your post. Quite the art installation! I’ve yet to visit South Africa, but it is certainly on my list.

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  15. I’ll be the Idaho hick and admit I knew next to nothing about Mandela and apartheid until the 1987 movie came out starring Danny Glover. I would have been 11 at the time and it really made an impression on me and started to open my eyes to the ways of the world.

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  16. South Africa really does have such a terrible past, and although huge gains have been made, in no small measure through Nelson Mandela, there is still a long way to go. Thanks so much for this history. It’s one of those things that I know parts of, and remember parts of, but don’t know the whole story.

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    1. I figured it was a good way to start of my African series of articles; hopefully jog the memories of some and educate others, even if just a little bit.

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  17. This synopsis of apartheid in South Africa, even knowing the history, is one of the most despicable situations of our time in this world. While I believe prejudice can go away, a person has to first WANT it to. And from what you say here Tim, it may always be with some. Thank God for Nelson Mandela.

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  18. I wonder how much longer it would have taken South Africa to end apartheid if there hadn’t been a Nelson Mandela. He became a symbol of all that was wrong with South Africa. President F.W. de Klerk was also a key factor in tearing down the laws that segregated the races. It’s amazing how he and Nelson Mandela worked together in that dark era.

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  19. Apartheid is a dark and shameful period of history in South Africa. I wonder how many generations it will take to erase any lingering feelings of prejudice? I still see it in the Southern states of America!

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