Apartheid as a Form of Government and Discrimination against South Africans
How it works
Leading up until 2018, the streets of South Africa were filled with protest signs like “We need leaders, not looters,” and #ZumaMustFall was trending on social media. In February 2018, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma resigned after facing numerous scandals like tax evasion, the rape of Fezeka Kuzwayo, and his statement that showering after sex could “minimize the risks of contracting HIV” (Kadt, Lieberman, Martin). How did South Africa transition from an oppressive apartheid society to this state of turmoil? I outline this transition in this report by describing apartheid and its resistance.
I then tell the negotiations for democracy and South Africa’s democratic state.
For decades, South Africa was ruled under apartheid, a word that means “separateness.” Apartheid was the government that discriminated against non-white South Africans politically and economically. It was solidified in 1948 when the all-white government of the National Party came to power. The party aimed to decrease the political power of black Africans, and Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerd specifically wanted to focus on the policy of “separate development.” For example, the 1959 Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act created 10 Bantu homelands called “Bantustans” so that the government could claim that there was no black majority. Almost a decade later, the government made every black African a citizen of a Bantustan. Black Africans were given full political rights, but the government effectively removed them from the political body. These oppressive actions continued as the government stripped black Africans of their land and sold it at low prices to white farmers. This displaces over 3.5 million people and results in incredible poverty (Britannica). This systematic oppression prohibited black South Africans from gaining economic, political, and social status.
Although black South Africans were essentially disenfranchised, this did not prevent them from expressing their discontent. This resistance initially took the form of non-violent protests and strikes. It eventually became more violent as Africanists formed the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), which promised militant action to achieve its goals. In 1960, police indiscriminately killed 69 and wounded 186 PAC demonstrators in Sharpeville. The Sharpeville massacre caused weeks of protests and riots, and the government detained over 18,000 people. Later, Mandela led the new organization, Umkhonto we Sizwe, which planned to launch a sabotage campaign. Again, however, this campaign failed Mandela’s expectations and only encouraged the government to pursue even more repressive policies (Meredith, chapter 7). Ultimately, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the nationalist movement was silent for a decade.
This tide turned in the late 1970s and 1980s when South Africa was surrounded by newly independent countries like Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. In 1976, thousands of children in Soweto protested the use of Afrikaans, which was seen by many as the oppressors’ language. The police were involved in these demonstrations and killed over 500 people. Mandela’s hope that political instability would weaken the economy occurred during the Soweto protests. Foreign investors feared these protests and moved their money toward short-term investments.
Additionally, the UN Security Council imposed an embargo on selling arms to South Africa. The economic recession and government oppression brought international attention to South Africa (Britannica). In 1978, their economy struggled as they dealt with corrupt leadership, and labor was their only significant export. For the first time, the idea that apartheid was necessary for South Africa to prosper was challenged.
In 1980, Prime Minister P.W. Botha instituted a new constitution that allowed for a racially segregated house of parliament for whites, Asians, and people of color. However, these reforms did not significantly impact the distribution of power. The constitution did not allow blacks to become citizens, so it was criticized for extending apartheid. As a result, there were many more protests, and black trade unions organized strikes. The government used military forces and repressive actions to shut down these protests, weakening South Africa’s economy. International banks no longer wanted to loan their money, the currency weakened dramatically, and inflation was rampant. Politicians and business people realized that the apartheid system needed to change to save South Africa’s economy (Britannica).
Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk, who succeeded Botha in 1989, moved quickly to implement these reforms. In 1990, he released political prisoners like Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years. He also lifted the ban on the ANC and PAC, previously deemed illegal. He continued to systematically dismantle apartheid by repealing legislation that enforced discriminatory measures on education, residence, and healthcare. For example, he vetoed the Reservation and Separate Amenities Act, the Native Land Act, the Group Areas Act, and the Population Registration Act.
Furthermore, de Klerk regularly met with representatives of other political parties to discuss how to implement a democratic system. These negotiations were called the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). The members of this forum focused on implementing an interim constitution. De Klerk and the other members of CODESA agreed to a system of regional legislatures and equal voting rights regardless of race. Additionally, they agreed to create a bicameral legislature, the National Assembly and Senate, headed by an executive president. They discussed the logistics of an election in 1994 and decided that the government elected would serve for five years (Britannica).
In April 1994, South Africa held its first elections, which paved a new path for the country. People of all races were voting for the first time, and over 22 million people voted. Although some political parties initially threatened to boycott the election, ultimately, 19 parties participated. The elections ran peacefully, contrary to previous fears that democratization would be violent. The African National Congress (ANC) won 62.65% of the vote, followed by the National Party, the Inkatha Freedom Party, and several other parties with less than 3% of the vote. Thus, the National Assembly unanimously elected Nelson Mandela as the ANC president. Despite winning the election, the ANC strived to make the government more inclusive. South Africa was run by the Government of National Unity, which included political parties that received more than 10% of the vote (Southall). Mandela had members of other political parties in his cabinet, and de Klerk was named deputy president. The National Party formally resigned from the Government of National Unity, and President Mandela stated that this was a sign that South Africa was maturing as a democracy.
In December 1996, South Africa adopted a new, final constitution. The constitution included a Bill of Rights, and a majoritarian government replaced the Government of National Unity. As seen in the graph of South Africa’s polity scores in the appendix, South Africa became slightly more democratic in 1990 as de Klerk gradually instituted reforms. However, the sudden jump in the polity score from 1994 to 1996 was due to the drafting and adoption of this new constitution (Polity IV Country Reports).
Following the presidencies of Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, and Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma was elected president in 2009. He catered to the needs of the rural people by launching a populist campaign and directly appealing to their ‘African’ identity. Although the ANC hoped that Zuma would become more in touch with the ordinary people, his presidency was founded on corruption and nepotism. His presidency was a “tug of war between two competing forces” (Kadt, Lieberman, Martin): his temptation to use his position for his benefit and the constraints imposed on him by the government and media. For example, Zuma spent $21 million of taxpayer money to improve his home. He also fired the respected Finance Minister, Nhlanhla Nene, and replaced him with a political ally. However, the ANC chose Cyril Ramaphosa as the new party candidate in their elective conference and threatened Zuma with losing a no-confidence vote in parliament (The Economist). Ultimately, Zuma resigned.
Although many people point to South Africa’s democracy as a “broken democracy” (New York Times), Zuma’s resignation means a functioning democracy. Democracy does not promise a competent leader or sound policymaking. Instead, it “provides mechanisms for societies to eject bad leaders, either through open elections or internal party processes” (Kadt, Lieberman, Martin). In this case, the ANC and parliament demonstrated the strength of South Africa’s democratic institutions. Although many people also point to the ANC’s dominance in every national election as evidence of a weakening democracy, this is untrue. There has also been increased competition in local elections, especially in the 2016 elections, and opposition parties have been growing steadily. Ultimately, South Africa’s ability to transition governments with ballots instead of bullets demonstrates its growth as a country and as a democracy.