This month marks 20 years since the end of apartheid in South Africa. Stylist examines its history – and ongoing legacy.
A little girl and her father were walking, hand in hand, through a public park in the South African city of Durban one afternoon in the late Seventies, when she asked him a question that he simply did not know how to answer: “Daddy, why can’t we live in one of those pretty houses with a swimming pool?”
The reason wasn’t economic. The girl, Renee Horne, was born into a mixed-race family in South Africa in 1974, in the grip of the brutal apartheid regime. Not only did they have no hope of leaving the township into which they had been moved by the government, but were even banned from sitting on certain benches, designated for white people, in the park where they were strolling. “My father had no idea how to explain apartheid to me,” says Horne now a PhD student studying black empowerment at The School of Oriental and African studies in London. “As children, we were totally unaware of what it had done to us.”
Twenty years ago this month, apartheid was dismantled by South Africa’s last white president, FW de Klerk. The date was 5 June 1991, just over a year after Nelson Mandela was freed from his 27-year confinement on Robben Island. The world will never forget Mandela’s “march to freedom” victory speech on the day of his release, delivered from the balcony of Cape Town City Hall to an ecstatic crowd of 50,000 supporters and broadcast around the globe. But how far has that march progressed?
Although apartheid – literally meaning ‘separateness’ – became law in South Africa in 1948, the Afrikaner National Party, the political party that established it, was founded in 1914, four years after South Africa was made a dominion of the British Empire and two years after the ANC (African National Congress) was formed to resist ongoing white oppression in the country. The ANP immediately rallied Afrikaners against the then Prime Minister, Louis Botha, and the man who succeeded him, Jan Christian Smuts, whose pro-British policies threatened to abolish the second-class status of the black population, who often worked as household servants or laboured for a pittance for the white population.
Race relations had been turbulent in South Africa ever since the British abolished slavery in 1883, but, in 1948 the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse – the results of which horrified the world and are still felt.
In 1948 the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse – the results of which horrified the world and are still felt
Right-wing former cleric Daniel François Malan – then leader of the ANP – scraped a narrow majority in the 1948 election; an election which black people could not vote in. The supremely charismatic Malan won by convincing the white population that the shortlived wartime relaxation of race relations was anti-Christian and threatened their safety. Twisting Biblical stories to suit his purposes, Malan professed that diversity, not equality, was God’s wish and allowing racial distinctions to become blurred spelled economic and social disaster. Apartheid immediately became government policy, based on forced racial segregation, discrimination against non-whites (who the government classed as Black African, Coloured and Indian) and persecution of anyone who opposed it.
The regime was brutal: 1955 saw the start of a series of mass forced evictions, when the 50,000 multiracial residents of Sophiatown, a slum in Johannesburg, were ordered out of their homes by armed police, who loaded their belongings into trucks. They were taken to open land 13 miles away while Sophiatown was bulldozed to make way for a new whites-only suburb. The field where the black people were dropped off became part of the new South West Township, known as Soweto. Resettlements of non-whites would continue until the Eighties, affecting some 600,000 people, with the majority forced from their homes into crude wooden or tin shacks. South Africa had suffered oppression ever since Dutch and English settlers colonised it in the 1600s. However, with the introduction of apartheid, the human rights of 25 million black and mixed-race people, under the minority rule of five million whites, were revoked by a regime
An unjust society
In preserving the superior standard of living for a white minority, apartheid rulers neglected the health and basic need of non-whites. They were left with inadequate housing, sanitation and essential services. Interracial marriages were prohibited in 1949, and homes were invaded where the police suspected interracial sex, with suspects’ underwear used as forensic evidence in court. In 1950, the Group Areas Act barred black people from many urban and municipal areas. “If you were seen by police in the wrong part of a segregated park or beach, you would be questioned and given a warning,” says Horne, who is also a journalist alongside her PhD studies. A notable achievement for a student educated under the Bantu Education Act, the system of inferior schooling for non-whites introduced in South Africa in 1953. Henrik Verwoerd, Minister for Native Affairs, declared “What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics, when it cannot use it?”
The apartheid government spent 10 times as much on schooling for white children as it did for black children. “You weren’t encouraged to become anything other than a labourer; there were no white-collar jobs for us,” remembers Lesley Moses, a black UK resident born in Cape Town in 1970.
As the Fifties progressed, injustice and ignominy increased. Black people were not allowed to work in white areas, unless as cheap labour for a white employer and in possession of the requisite travel permit. Hospitals for the black population were overcrowded and understaffed. Black people were only carried in black ambulances and given blood from their own race.
Throughout this period, the ANC campaigned tirelessly, often through acts of civil disobedience. Its hero was a young man named Nelson Mandela, who had been involved in anti-colonial rule protests as a student and was committed to black liberation. After studying at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, Mandela qualified as a lawyer and specialised in defending those prosecuted under apartheid laws.
After 20 years, we still have a long way to go in dealing with racial inequality and improving the lives of black people in South Africa
By 1960, political unrest in the country was rife. On 21 March, 20,000 protestors congregated in the township of Sharpeville. More than 100 police opened fire on the angry but unarmed crowd, shooting dead 69 protestors, including eight women and 10 children and injuring a further 180. Many victims were shot in the back while attempting to flee from the chaos. That same year, the ANC was banned as the government escalated efforts to quash black resistance.
Now leading the ANC from underground, Mandela co-founded an armed wing – Spear of the Nation. He planned to bomb sites such as government buildings, but instructed comrades to avoid fatalities. In 1962, he was arrested and convicted of sabotage and other charges, and sentenced to life in prison. Outside the country, condemnation of apartheid was growing, but within it, many white people were oblivious or indifferent. However, not all whites turned a blind eye. Karien Buter, 42, left South Africa for Britain 13 years ago and now lives in Glasgow. “Apartheid is the saddest thing that ever happened to my country,” she says. “I grew up in a very liberal, anti-apartheid white family and my parents had black friends, so as a child I knew exactly what was happening. I met a lot of white Britons who emigrated to South Africa under the regime because it offered them a much higher standard of living – even teachers could afford a big house with a pool, and two maids.”
A turning point came in 1976. The government had decreed secondary schools must teach basic subjects in Afrikaans – not the native language of black South Africans. Soweto’s schoolchildren protested culminating in a mass rally on 16 June. As in Sharpeville, a peaceful demonstration turned violent. When children began to throw stones, police responded with bullets, killing around 600 people. A photo of the scene was published worldwide, causing global outrage. Investors were pressured to pull out of South Africa. Its sporting teams were barred from international events and tourism was boycotted.
The regime was cracking under external and internal pressure, and in 1989, FW de Klerk was elected. At the opening of parliament, he declared that apartheid had “failed”. Segregation laws were abolished; the ban on the ANC was lifted. Mandela was released from prison and given a hero’s welcome at Cape Town’s Grand Parade. Moses remembers: “There was still a heavy police presence with dogs, but democracy had come to South Africa and there was no going back.”
In the 17 years since its first democratic election – when Mandela was elected the first black president – South Africa has effectively become a normal country, according to Alec Russell, author of After Mandela: The Battle For The Soul Of South Africa. Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 1996, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Russell says the post-apartheid government has stabilised the state, staged fair, multi-party elections and pursued orthodox economic policies.
“However, not enough has changed; the government still needs to build schools, hospitals and water projects,” says Russell. “Meanwhile, on a psychological level, the scars of apartheid are far from healed,” says Horne. “In 1993 I had a white boyfriend, and his parents would shout ‘your bushman girlfriend is on the phone’. We split up, all over race. We need more generations to come through who have not lived under apartheid.
The whites still have most of the wealth and it will take decades for that to change. After 20 years, we still have a long way to go in dealing with racial inequality and improving the lives of black people in South Africa.”
Words: Jackie Hunter. Picture credit: Rex Features