Upfront Home
In This Issue
News and Trends
Times Past
The Ethicist
Teen Voices
Upfront Topics
Magazine Info
1991: The End of Apartheid

South Africa's race laws were abolished after a long, sometimes violent struggle.

By Michael Wines

When Antoinette Sithole and thousands of other teenagers gathered on the streets of Soweto, a sprawling black ghetto near Johannesburg, South Africa, on June 16, 1976, they had no idea they would change history.

They only knew they were angry: The government had ordered schools to teach all major courses not in English, but in Afrikaans, the Dutch-based mother tongue of the white rulers who had oppressed them their entire lives. After months of classes they could not understand, more than 10,000 of them staged a protest march.

Not an hour into the protest, the police opened fire on the unarmed crowd, killing at least 23. Students fled in panic, leaving fallen friends behind.

Almost instantly, South Africa erupted in rioting. What came to be known as the Soweto uprising claimed nearly 600 lives over the next few months, including Antoinette's 12-year-old brother, Hector Pieterson. (The photo on this page of Hector's body being carried to a car, with Antoinette wailing alongside him, became a symbol of black South Africans' resistance to apartheid.)

Today, many believe that the bullets fired during the uprising delivered a mortal wound to apartheid, the government system that robbed millions of South Africa's nonwhites of their basic human rights. Apartheid would cling to life until 1991, when it was officially abolished, 15 years ago this June.

Minority Rule

Until that day in Soweto in 1976, apartheid—which means "separateness"—had seemed almost unassailable. A white minority had both dominated and segregated blacks and other nonwhites since the Dutch and British settled what is now South Africa in the late 1600s and 1700s.

But apartheid took an especially pernicious form in 1950 when the ruling Afrikaners, descendants of the original Dutch settlers, began passing laws forcing blacks and coloureds (people of mixed race) to live and work in restricted areas, and barred them from owning land outside those areas.

Nonwhites soon found themselves prisoners in their own land. They were educated only enough to perform basic labor in white-run industries. They could not socialize with whites, have a voice in government, or even travel outside their designated areas without government approval. All blacks—who made up 70 percent of the population—had to carry "pass books" that recorded their movements, and could be arrested for inviting whites to their homes without approval.

Mandela & The A.N.C.

Secret police spied on black activists, and arrests, beatings, and even murders of dissidents were standard fare. One year after the events in Soweto, the leader of the South African Students Organization, Steven Biko, was beaten to death by government agents. Nelson Mandela, who led the military wing of the leading anti-apartheid group, the African National Congress (A.N.C.), was arrested and sent to jail with a life sentence in 1962. Against this backdrop, black rage in South Africa didn't surprise outsiders. "Suppose white American families were told that their children would be taught all their school subjects in French and Dutch from now on. Imagine that virtually all white children, regardless of ability, were given a different and inferior kind of education," New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote after the riots.


But with the uprising, apartheid's solid foundation began to crack. Unable to contain the rioting, the government slowly began to look for ways to divert black anger. It condemned the hated pass books but failed to abolish them; drew up a new constitution that gave some nonwhites a voice but still excluded blacks; tried to make all blacks citizens in separate semi-independent "homelands" within white-controlled South Africa.

None of it worked. The United Nations condemned apartheid in 1977 and imposed an arms embargo on South Africa. International sports groups banned South African teams, and many companies boycotted South African goods and services. The demand for Mandela's release grew into a global campaign, and a leading critic of apartheid, the South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

Along with the rest of the world, the United States condemned apartheid but was criticized by some in the 1980s for not doing enough to end it. Instead of isolating South Africa's rulers with economic and political sanctions, as many other nations had done, President Ronald Reagan's administration tried what it called "constructive engagement": negotiating with white and black leaders to seek a peaceful end to apartheid.

Some opposed Reagan's approach as too soft on South Africa's government. Testifying before Congress in 1984, Tutu called the Reagan administration's policy "immoral."

U.S. Pressure

But the State Department official responsible for that policy, Chester A. Crocker, argues that critics did not know about the enormous pressure that the U.S. was placing on South Africa's white leaders at the time, softening its public criticism of the government while privately demanding that it grant blacks long-denied freedoms.

The Americans also hastened change, he said, by negotiating an end to crises in nearby Angola and Namibia, where South Africa's leaders believed they faced military threats.

But it is important, Crocker says, to realize that the most important push for change in South Africa came not from outsiders like the U.S., but from within. "You need leaders to make peace," he says. "It takes guts."

Those leaders were South Africa's last President under apartheid, F.W. de Klerk, and Mandela. Seeing that apartheid was not only isolating his nation, but robbing it of the talents of its black workers, de Klerk released Mandela from jail in 1990, ended restrictions on black political groups, and began negotiations toward democracy and majority rule.

President Mandela

On June 17, 1991, South Africa's Parliament voted to repeal the legal framework for apartheid. Three years later, Mandela was elected President.

While South Africa has made the transition to majority rule, it hasn't always been a smooth ride.

Warfare among rival black groups in eastern South Africa followed the arrival of democracy, and the government has been battered by charges that it tolerates corruption and is slow to address the needs of millions of its poorest black citizens.

Antoinette Sithole, now a guide at Soweto's Hector Pieterson Museum, named for her brother, says the struggle has been worth it. "I don't think we expected things to be quick," she says. "We have to learn the ropes." But "slowly," she says, "we're getting there."