Your guide to apartheid in South Africa

What was apartheid? When did it start and end? And what happened to those who broke the laws? Here's your guide to the system of discrimination imposed against non-whites in South Africa

Apartheid road sign

What is apartheid? And what does apartheid mean?

An Afrikaans word for ‘separation’ – literally, ‘separateness’ – apartheid was used to describe the discriminatory political and economic system of racial segregation which the white minority imposed on non-whites. It was implemented by the governing party, the National Party of South Africa, from 1948 until 1994.


When did apartheid start?

Segregation according to race wasn’t new to South Africa, as racial legislation in the country can be seen as early as 1806. But it was greatly extended with the Population Registration Act of 1950, which divided South Africans into four categories: Bantu (black South Africans), Coloured (those of mixed race), White and Asian (Indian and Pakistani South Africans). The Act was designed to preserve white supremacy in the country.

What was living under apartheid like?

The effects of apartheid touched every aspect of daily life. By 1950, marriage and sexual relations between white and non-white South Africans were banned, while a series of Land Acts meant more than 80 per cent of the country’s land was set aside for the white minority. Black men and women were forced to live in ten so-called ‘black homelands’, where they were permitted to run businesses. To live and work in designated ‘white areas’, they required permits. Hospitals, ambulances, buses and public facilities were all segregated, and non-white participation in government was denied.

The impact on South Africa’s non-white population was horrific. Families were often split by the laws (if parents were black and white, their children were classed as ‘coloured’) and, between 1961 and 1994, 3.5 million people were forcibly removed from their homes. Their land was sold for a fraction of its price, plunging non-whites into severe poverty and despair.

White children in South Africa paddling in a pond marked by a sign reading 'For European Children Only', c1956. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
White children in South Africa paddling in a pond marked by a sign reading ‘For European Children Only’, c1956. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

What happened to those who broke the laws of apartheid?

South Africans caught disobeying apartheid could be imprisoned, fined or whipped, while those suspected of being in a racially mixed relationship were hunted down under the Immorality Acts of 1927 and 1950. Most ‘guilty’ couples were sent to prison. If a black man or woman was found without their ‘dompas’ – a passport containing fingerprints, photograph, personal details of employment and permission from the government to be in a particular part of the country – they could be imprisoned as well. More than 250,000 black South Africans were arrested each year under these Pass Laws.

Who fought apartheid?

In 1952, the first significant, non-violent political campaign took place – the Defiance Campaign. For four months, more than 8,000 volunteers deliberately flouted the laws of apartheid by refusing to carry passes, violating curfews and using public places and facilities designated for white-use only. The campaign, run by the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Indian Congress, generated a mass upsurge for freedom within South Africa itself, and attracted the attention of the United Nations.

Other episodes of resistance took place throughout the period, including demonstrations, protests, strikes, political action and eventually armed resistance. In 1960, one act of protest saw at least 69 unarmed black people killed and 180 wounded when the police opened fire at a protest in the poor black township of Sharpesville.

Defiance Campaign volunteers in Johannesburg, 1952
Defiance Campaign volunteers gather in Johannesburg as part of a civil disobedience campaign to protest the apartheid regime, 12 August 1952. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

What was Nelson Mandela’s role in resistance to apartheid?

Nelson Mandela – President of the ANC Youth League – was Volunteer-in-Chief of the 1952 Defiance Campaign. He went on to play a leading role in generating large-scale resistance to apartheid and, in 1961, introduced a controversial, armed wing of the ANC – ‘Umkhonto we Sizwe’ (Spear of the Nation).

Mandela’s involvement in both peaceful and armed resistance led to a 27-year prison sentence where he was subjected to appalling and inhumane conditions. His story became famous around the world.

When did apartheid end?

In 1973, the UN had denounced apartheid, but things came to a head in 1976, when police opened fire with tear gas and bullets against school children in Soweto. The violence caused outrage and a UN embargo on the sale of arms to South Africa was introduced, followed, in 1985, by economic sanctions by the UK and US.

Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, raise fists upon Mandela's release from Victor-Verster Prison in Paarl after 27 years, 11 February 1990. (Photo by Alexander Joe/AFP via Getty Images)
Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, raise fists upon Mandela’s release from Victor-Verster Prison in Paarl after 27 years, 11 February 1990. (Photo by Alexander Joe/AFP via Getty Images)

With mounting international pressure, some apartheid laws were revoked. In 1990, the world watched as Nelson Mandela was released from prison, whereupon he continued to campaign. Four years later, on 26 April 1994, more than 22 million South Africans took part in the first multiracial parliamentary elections, voting in the ANC with Nelson Mandela sworn in as the country’s first black president.


This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed