The Anti-Apartheid Movement

Apartheid means separateness. Apartheid was a system of legal racial segregation enforced by the South African National Party government between 1948 and 1994. This system created a society of enormous repression for black South Africans. Apartheid was characterized by an authoritarian political culture based on baasskap, which ensured that South Africa was dominated politically, socially, and economically by the nation’s minority white population. According to this system of social stratification, white citizens had the highest status, followed by Indians and Coloureds, then black Africans. The economic legacy and social effects of apartheid continue to the present day.

The anti-apartheid movement was the first successful transnational social movement in the era of globalization. The movement began after a massive turnout by rural Afrikaners gave Rev. Daniel Malan’s Nationalist Party a majority of five seats in the whites-only Parliament of the Union of South Africa on May 26, 1948. The Nationalists won on a racist platform that played on white fears of the “black threat” and promised to establish strict “apartheid” or separate development policies to counter it. British Anglican archbishop Trevor Huddleston was a leader in the campaign against apartheid, an official system of discrimination against non-whites in South Africa. His efforts helped bring that struggle to the world’s attention

What is unique about the anti-apartheid movement is the extent of support it received from individuals, governments and organizations on all continents. Few social movements in history have garnered anywhere near the international support that was mobilized against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. Although national liberation and Marxism might both be considered as successful, trans-national social movements, neither of these had the global support that the anti-apartheid movement garnered.

There were two main aspects of the anti-apartheid movement: the internal campaign to destabilize the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, and the external campaign for political, economic, and cultural sanctions. At the heart of the movement was the struggle of black Africans to end white supremacy in South Africa. This internal movement was both a catalyst for actions at the international level and the critical link that gave coherence to the movement as a whole. The external effort can be divided into two fronts: (1) regional efforts to provide military bases, material, and diplomatic support for liberation movements; and (2) the diaspora movement, which focused on seeking international sanctions against the regime and providing direct aid to the liberation movements.The internal struggle within South Africa was the core of the movement, and it served as a catalyst for regional and international support movements. This effort emerged to oppose apartheid legislation imposed after the all-white election of 1948.

Nelson Mandela’s contribution

The man we know behind this movement is Nelson Mandela.  Under apartheid, the South African population was divided into four distinct racial groups: white (including Afrikaners, who speak a Germanic language called Afrikaans), black, colored, and Indian. Strict residential, economic, and social segregation was enforced on the basis of these racial categories. Non-whites were not allowed to vote in national election. Moreover, apartheid saw the institution of the “homeland system,” in which the government sought to establish separate states for members of each of the country’s many black ethnic groups. This often involved the forced removal of families from their original homes to the newly-created “bantustans” (or ethnic states). In other cases, it meant breaking up interracial and inter-ethnic families. While non-whites were confined to squalid ghettoes with few decent educational and employment opportunities, whites were afforded the basic privileges of life in a democracy.

 In a 1955 article, Nelson Mandela—then a leading activist in the growing fight against apartheid—described the horrors of the system and the brutal means by which it was enforced:The breaking up of African homes and families and the forcible separation of children from mothers, the harsh treatment meted out to African prisoners, and the forcible detention of Africans in farm colonies for spurious statutory offenses are a few examples of the actual workings of the hideous and pernicious doctrines of racial inequality. To these can be added scores of thousands of foul misdeeds committed against the people by the government: the denial to the non-European people of the elementary rights of free citizenship; the expropriation of the people from their lands and homes to assuage the insatiable appetites of European land barons and industrialists; the flogging and calculated murder of African laborers by European farmers in the countryside for being “cheeky to the baas”; the vicious manner in which African workers are beaten up by the police and flung into jails when they down tools to win their demands; the fostering of contempt and hatred for non-Europeans; the fanning of racial prejudice between whites and non-whites, between the various non-white groups; the splitting of Africans into small hostile tribal units; the instigation of one group or tribe against another; the banning of active workers from the people`s organizations, and their confinement into certain areas.

Because of the injustices it perpetuated, the apartheid system gave rise to a broad resistance movement. The primary organization leading the struggle against apartheid was the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC was founded in 1913 in response to the oppression of non-white South Africans at the hands of the white ruling class. In 1943, Nelson Mandela—then a law student—joined the ANC and co-founded its youth division, the ANCYL. Mandela and other young activists had begun to advocate for a mass campaign of agitation against apartheid. In 1949, the ANCYL gained control of the ANC and a year later Mandela was elected national president of the ANCYL. Around this time, Mandela’s political outlook began to shift: while he had previously opposed cross-racial unity in the fight against apartheid, he came to be influenced by the writings of socialist thinkers who supported organizing across racial lines. He was also influenced by the nonviolent strategies of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was himself a resident of South Africa for more than 20 years, from 1893 to 1914.

Mandela and other political prisoners engaged in many political debates and discussion.  The prison on Robben Island, where Mandela stayed for 20 years, was sometimes called “University of Robben Island.”

Although he was sidelined from direct participation in the movement while in prison, Mandela became a symbol—both in South Africa and internationally—of the struggle against injustice. During his imprisonment on Robben Island,  the fight against apartheid continued. New organizations and leaders emerged to advance the cause, and thousands of average South Africans risked their lives to resist the brutal system.  A powerful international movement included  boycotts and bans of South African goods; protests, including massive civil disobedience; and an explosion of music and art demanding the end of apartheid and the freeing of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. 

Violence and instability grew within South Africa. The apartheid government faced increasing domestic and international pressure. In 1985, then President P.W. Botha offered to release Mandela from prison if he agreed to “unconditionally reject violence as a political weapon.” Mandela refused the offer. He wrote: “What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”

Despite his recognition as a central figure in the fight against apartheid, Mandela has always been quick to note that he was not personally responsible for its overthrow. As he said upon his release from prison in 1990: “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.” Mandela’s courage is inspiring and his story is dramatic, but he did not end apartheid alone. In South Africa and around the world, people were inspired by Mandela’s example. They recognized that there would never be freedom in South Africa unless many people took action. In South Africa, many died in the struggle for freedom.