Home » One Shadowed History in Africa

One Shadowed History in Africa

Nelson Mandela is one of the great moral and political leaders of our time: an international hero whose lifelong dedication to the fight against racial oppression in South Africa won him the Nobel Peace Prize and the presidency of his country. Since his triumphant release in 1990 from more than a quarter-century of imprisonment, Mandela has been at the center of the most compelling and inspiring political drama in the world. As president of the African National Congress and head of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, he was instrumental in moving the nation toward multiracial government and majority rule.

He is revered everywhere as a vital force in the fight for human rights and racial equality. The election of Nelson Mandela in 1994 marked the first time all race elections were held in South Africa and the end of all white rule in South Africa. Prior to 1994, only white people held political control with the majority of people living in South Africa having little to no real representation in government. One word described the racist system that kept non-whites from political and social equality and became infamously known around the world: Apartheid.

Apartheid was not a case of just I am white and I don’t like blacks. It was a complex system of social separation – called segregation under British rule. It was a system of cheap labor enforced by laws, social, and industrial practices. There was also an ideology that justified it; whatever one did to question it, there was the pre-existing attitude we are civilized and they are not. In 1910 the British parliament passed the Act of Union that brought British and Afrikaans colonies together to create a united and independent South Africa.

Unfortunately, the newly created country did not break from a tradition of discrimination and segregation. Instead these practices became even further entrenched as bills were passed to ensure white domination. However, it wasn’t until 1948 and the election of Dr. D. F. Malan’s Nationalist Party that the concepts of apartheid became officially government policy (Moodie, 1994, p12). Malan was victorious in the election, beating the United Party and its leader Jan Smuts by portraying Smuts and his party as too liberal and not capable of dealing with the swart gevar (Afrikaans for “black peril”).

In a country controlled by a white minority, fear tactics worked for the Nationalists, and they managed a slender parliamentary majority. From 1948 on, official apartheid principles were put into practical effect, and Malan’s government passed bills designed to maintain political, economic, and social control by whites over non-whites (Robinson, 1968, p. 87). Under apartheid, people were classified into one of four categories: White, Colored, Indian, and Black. As a non-white, one was required to carry a passbook that detailed ones racial grouping, employer, place of dwelling, and permission to be (on a temporary basis only) in a white area.

In 1954 the Resettlement of Natives Act meant that entire towns and villages in which “non-whites” lived were suddenly designated to be “white-only” areas. The entire population would then be forced to resettle into “tribal reserves. ” As well, Blacks not needed for labor in white communities (referred to as “superfluous Bantu” by the nationalist government) were sent to live in these homelands. During the 1960’s, nearly three million Africans were moved onto the Bantustans (Porter, 1991, p. 32).

Blacks would be removed from their homes, trucked to their new homeland, and dumped on land with little or no agricultural value and no infrastructure. The result was mass starvation and major epidemics. In an effort to give credibility to the reserves, the 1953 Nationalist government passed the Bantu Authorities Act allowing Bantustans to become “independent” homelands. In reality, however, Bantustans proved to be nothing more than holding areas for cheap labor for the white economy (Report of the Select Committee on the Immorality Amendment Bill, 1968, p. 9).

Meanwhile charges of racism were coming from both inside South Africa and around the world. Oliver Tambo, a leading political activist against apartheid and president of the African National Congress (ANC), outlines what it meant to be a non-white living in apartheid South Africa in his paper Human Right in South Africa: During the last two decades human values in our country sank to primitive levels as elementary human rights were trampled underfoot on a scale unparalleled in recent history. This occurred in open and direct defiance of the United Nations and the entire international community.

It is as well to remember that the men in power in South Africa today wholeheartedly supported Nazism and have never repented of it. The African and other non-white people in Africa do not enjoy the right to take part in government nor can they vote for representatives who govern. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (passed in 1961) specifically excludes non-whites from any participation in the councils of the State. They do not have the right to assemble with others and join – or refrain from joining – any legitimate organization or group.

They cannot enjoy a full cultural life in accordance with their artistic, literary and scientific inclinations. On the contrary, the majority of the people are excluded from places of culture or entertainment, from libraries, from scientific institutions. Our people do not have the right to travel without hindrance within the country or leave the country. The notorious pass laws and the Departure from the Republic Regulation Act prevent this. Africans do not have the right to a job and in fact are legally prevented from doing a large variety of jobs which are reserved for whites.

They have no rights of collective bargaining, and cannot form or join a labor union, even one recognized by the State. Africans cannot agitate and cannot go on strike in order to better their working conditions and pay (Tambo, 1968, p. 29). In reaction to being excluded from political power by the 1910 Act of Union, due to the color of their skin, a group of chiefs, Christian ministers, and intellectuals came together to form the South African Native National Congress. In 1923 this organization changed its name to become the African National Congress (ANC).

The ANC believed that Africans should work together as a united force to bring about political change and racial equality (Mandela, 1995, pp. 12-15). Initially, the ANC stuck to a strict policy of pacifist resistance. However, frustration with a lack of results led the ANC’s militant “Youth League,” formed in 1944 under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu, to advocate becoming more aggressive in the struggle. At an ANC conference in 1949, Mandela and his colleagues passed the Program of Resistance that was to change the nature of the ANC.

The Program of Resistance called for boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience to bring an end to racial discrimination (Thompson, 1996, p. 65). The fundamental principles of the Program of Action of the African National Congress were inspired by the desire to achieve national freedom. By national freedom, they meant freedom from white domination and the attainment of political independence. That implied the rejection of the conception of segregation, apartheid, trusteeship, or white leadership, which were all, in one way or another, motivated by the idea of white domination or domination of the whites over the Blacks (Thompson, 1996, pp. -21).

In 1955, opponents of apartheid, including The South African Indian Congress, The Colored People’s organization, the white’s “Congress of Democrats,” and the ANC, met at the Congress of the People where they drafted the Freedom Charter. The Freedom Charter became the declaration for all of these organizations fighting for democracy and human rights. It declared that We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people (Porter, 1991, p. ).

In 1949 the National Party led government set up the “Eislen Commission,” a specially appointed commission given the task of restructuring the education system according to the apartheid philosophy. The commission recommended that different races should receive different forms of education. For example, Black children were to be taught in such a way that the Bantu child will be able to find his way in European communities, to follow oral or written instructions, and to carry on a simple conversation with Europeans about his work and other subjects of common interest.

These recommendations became law in the 1955 Bantu Education Act. In short, Blacks were to be trained to do manual labor and to follow the instructions of whites (Porter, 1991, pp. 25-45). In response to the Bantu Education Act, the ANC held a boycott of government schools, and set up their own schools. Nelson Mandela spoke out against the introduction of Bantu Education, calling for community activists to “make every home, every shack or rickety structure a center of learning” (Mandela, 1995, p. 45).

However government, forces cracked down on these private schools, declaring unlicensed schools illegal and forcing the students to return to the public schools. Education became a major rallying point for the fight against apartheid as the Nationalist government’s racist policies radicalized the youth. Black youth became reluctant to participate in an educational system designed to create a menial labor force for the white economy (Elder, 1993, pp. 12-26). In 1959, a militant group of “Africanists” split from the ANC and formed the Pan African Congress (PAC), led by Robert Sobukwe.

For the first time, the ANC was challenged as the leading voice against apartheid. On March 21, 1960, Robert Sobukwe initiated widespread anti-pass law demonstrations. People gathered in thousands at the police station where passes were to be destroyed. As the morning wore on, the crowd, which journalists found “perfectly amiable,” appeared to the police increasingly menacing (Thompson, 1996, pp. 74-82). In the early afternoon, seventy-five policemen fired some 700 shots into the crowd, killing 69 Africans and wounding 180. Among them were women and children. Most of the dead had been shot in the back.

That evening, a thousand miles away, outside Cape Town, the protest drew 10,000 people: again the panic, again the shooting. Two Africans were killed, and 49 injured. Outrage swept the country, precipitating riots, strikes, and mass demonstrations. The government declared a state of emergency. Both the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress were outlawed. Some 20,000 people were detained. Most were African men, both leaders and so-called “vagrants. ” Men and women of all races were rounded up, not just members of the Congress Alliance, but members of the Liberal Party (Jackson, 1987, pp. -45).

It seemed that the liberation movement must surely be crushed, but detainees were able to conspire while in jail. One group of whites, including members of the multi-racial Liberal Party, agreed that after Sharpeville non-violent protest was futile. Upon release, a group of African men began to recruit like-minded men and women, among them former leaders of the National Union of South African Students and journalists. They formed a sabotage group, recruited black members, and called themselves the National Committee of Liberation (later changed to African Resistance Movement).

Their first action in December 1960 went unnoticed, and it was not until October 1961 that their sabotage was reported. During the following two years, such actions continued sporadically (Jackson, 1987, pp. 45-69). Among black detainees, it was decided to make one last attempt at non-violent protest. After their release, they called an “All African Conference” in March of 1961. Nelson Mandela, momentarily free of bans, was elected to lead a National Action Council, and to renew the demand for a National Convention in order to establish a new union of all South Africans.

In support of the demand, a nationwide stay-at-home strike was to take place over two days in May. Organizing from the underground, Mandela was assisted in his clandestine existence by comrades of all races. In the days leading up to the strike, the government called out police and army. A massive display of force was directed at the African townships. On the second day, Mandela was obliged to call off the strike. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of Africans had responded to his call, and in Durban they had been joined by Indian workers.

In Cape Town, for the first time, there was a substantial response from the Colored people. Mandela spoke of the immense courage this took, and he declared, “If the Government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent struggle, we will have to reconsider our tactics” (Mandela, 1995, pp. 76-92) Early in June 1961, Mandela took part in secret deliberations with a small group from the outlawed African National Congress. The crucial decision was made: after half a century of non-violence, the policy of the African National Congress must change.

The main organization would continue its underground organizing and would remain non-violent, but a select few of the African National Congress would unite to undertake controlled violence. Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) was formed. Sabotage was to be their first form of action because, as Mandela was to explain, “It did not involve loss of life, and it offered the most hope for future race relations. ” (Mandela, 1995, pp. 78-79). Umkhonto`s first acts of sabotage took place on December 16, 1961. A few days earlier, Chief Albert Lutuli had received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

It was as though this event set the seal on a long and extraordinary history for, as he said in his address, the honor must be accepted in the name of the “true patriots of South Africa,” all those in the African National Congress who had “set the organization steadfastly against racial vain-gloriousness” (Tambo, 1968, pp. 56-60). The shootings at Sharpeville had sent waves of outrage around the world. It was as if the international community had suddenly realized the full horror of apartheid and had seen how police violence had escalated through the long years of oppression.

The award of the prize to Lutuli was a measure of the worlds sympathy, admiration, and perhaps its guilt (Robinson, 1990, pp. 135-162). In the 1980s, people took the liberation struggle to new heights. In the workplace, in the community, and in the schools, the people aimed to take control of their situation. All areas of life became areas of political struggle. These strugglers were linked to the demand for political power. Botha, the president back then, was powerless and was forced to resign. The senate then appointed F. W. De Klerk (Robinson, 1990, p. 8).

To end apartheid was a decision by President F. W. De Klerk, who then released the imprisoned ANC leader Nelson Mandela unconditionally in February 1990, after he had served 27 years in jail. At this point, the ANC’s consistent adherence to the principle of non-racial democracy paid enormous dividends. It created a ground base of trust that enabled all political parties, black and white, to meet and to hammer out a transitional constitution (Mandela, 1995, pp. 140-152).

The end of Apratheid led to a Government of National Unity far wider and more explicit than the attempts to heal political breaches made by previous South African presidents South Africa then reached a turning point in its history after the first democratic elections in 1994 and the rise to political power of Nelson Mandela. Still, one cannot begin to understand the history of South Africa without considering the effects of four and a half decades of Apartheid. Most black people working today are engaged in dealing with the legacy of the past as retold to them weekly in the South African press reportage on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee.

For many, the new era in South Africa has brought little appreciable change in the standard of living partially because foreign industries that divested their interests there during the 1980s have been slow to return despite the dramatic political changes that have taken place (Elder, 1993, pp. 152-163). The time of post-revolutionary euphoria is coming to a close in South Africa. Continued poverty, inadequate housing, an overburdened education system, and many other leftovers from the Apartheid era still hamper the forging of a new nation and the remaking of ideas about society.

South African history has shown how effectively a distorted, but legalized distribution of power can bring about a warped social system when backed by strong-willed security forces, how the moral authority of a determined opposition, even outside the legalized structures, can challenge that power if it can operate from a secure base and receive support from outside. Lets therefore unite our forces, fight, and challenge each one of us for a better future of South African children and let apartheid be no more.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.