April 27th

Today, 23 years ago, the first general election was held in South Africa in which people were not excluded from the franchise based on race; bringing an end to white minority rule and seeing Nelson Mandela become the nation’s first President.


As always seems to be the case, the starting point in nations with ethnic tensions was British colonial rule and the ‘Scramble for Africa’, which as discussed on February 5th, saw great atrocities and tensions rise across the continent. British settlers and their Indian ‘work force’ began settling in the nation, defining its borders in a somewhat recognisable manner to today. As such, for most of the 20th century, the debate was not around black rights and representation but instead focused on white factionalism between those speaking English and those speaking Afrikaans, who in 1915 founded the National Party which took power in 1948 and instituted ‘apartheid’ laws – apartheid being an Afrikaans word for ‘separateness’. These laws made whites ‘officially superior’ and enforced a curfew and ID cards on the black majority. This was completely in line with Western treatment of black people around the rest of Africa and other parts of the world, including the Southern United States, with legislation like the Jim Crow Laws.

As Africa became more decolonised after the war, the South African Prime Ministers Hendrik Verwoerd attempted to reform society. This focused on social engineering to encourage individual self-determination within the parameters that had existed decades earlier, such as moving ‘Zulu people’ to ‘Zulu land’. However, divisions along what were now arbitrary lines combined with the prosperous nature of white regions led to such actions only encouraging a greater division of whites and blacks, causing greater tensions.

By the 1970s and 80s, Prime Minister and later State President P.W. Botha had begun to realise the failure of these measures and encouraged reform. He repealed over 100 of the 148 apartheid laws which had been passed in South Africa and gave a considerable boost to black and minority rights. Big questions remained for the white population, who desired self-determination and saw the failures of one-man-one-vote systems across the rest of Africa. Moreover, the Cold War environment bred fears of Communist revolution in the nation, further discouraging  a relinquishing of power by the white minority.

Whilst all this was going on, groups like the African National Congress (ANC) were gaining support for their platform against apartheid, and in favour of voting rights for the black majority. Although peaceful in their efforts to begin with, the brutal repression of the non-violent Sharpeville protest leading to 69 black deaths and the banning of the party in 1960 led to guerrilla warfare tactics against the government. Influential individuals like Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela continued the fight, with the latter being arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment for ‘conspiring to overthrow the State’. Mandela would serve 27 years and refuse numerous offers of release on the condition of dropping his political ideology, spending much of his time on the infamous Robben Island. He was released in 1990 by reformist President F. W. de Klerk who also unbanned the African National Congress.

F. W. de Klerk was considerably more liberal than his predecessors, allowing protests in the street, and opening negotiations with the ANC to bring an end to apartheid. Parties on all sides accepted that any revolutionary outcome would be bloody and undesirable and also agreed that to continue apartheid would be untenable and backwards. As such, a four year process culminating in the 1994 elections began to bring an end to the institutions of injustice in South Africa and bring about a more equal, fair, representative society.

The African National Congress swept the election in a landslide, winning more than 62% compared to F. W. de Klerk’s National Party’s 20%. Nelson Mandela, as head of the ANC, became the country’s first black President. Mandela introduced very progressive social policy and attempted to modernise South African society and move it away from its past of racial social, economic and political segregation.

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Today, the ANC continue to dominate South African politics, having not lost an election since the inception of the modern democratic system. However, even today many argue that the failure to modernise governmental institutions has prevented the effective modernisation required to integrate all the different minorities that exist in South Africa, arguing that more needs to be done. Wealth inequality is high and human development is low. With that being said, it does seem that the South African national motto, “!ke e: ǀxarra ǁke”, “unity in diversity” to us English speakers, holds true.


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