24 Startling Photos That Explain Apartheid In South Africa
By Susan Sims | Checked By Savannah Cox
Published January 19, 2015
Updated October 26, 2019
Despite its formal ending twenty years ago, apartheid's damning legacy persists in South Africa.
When attempting to understand our present, it is vital to begin with the past. This very much applies when examining contemporary political, economic and cultural struggles in South Africa. While racial discrimination and segregation had existed in colonial South Africa for centuries, it was officially codified into law in 1948 so that minority whites could hold onto power.
Under this system, known as apartheid, non-whites were unable to vote and lacked any semblance of economic mobility or educational opportunity. Segregation was the law of the land, and it’s estimated that 3.5 million non-white people were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to racially segregated areas.
After years of violent and nonviolent protest, apartheid laws were officially overturned in 1991. But it wasn’t until democratic general elections were held in 1994 that non-whites saw the first real fruits of apartheid’s end. The photos below show feature the days when apartheid was law on South African soil–days that are not far removed from our present:
Racial classification laws were imposed in 1950 and required that each citizen of South Africa be issued an identity document classifying them as White, Native (African) or Coloured. Coloured included individuals that were neither white nor native, and was primarily established for people of mixed heritage. These laws would determine where one could live, work and what public facilities they were able to use. Later, a separate category for Indians would be created and they would suffer at the hands of the minority Afrikaner government as well. Source: 100R
Native Africans burn their pass cards. Pass laws were developed under the slave economy of the British and Dutch to control African movement. They became more stringent in 1952 when Africans were forced to carry a “reference book” which contained personal information at all times. Failure to do so would result in arrest, detainment and torture. Source: Flashbak
Part of apartheid policy included the creation of Bantustans or homelands, which divided Africans into ten ethnically discrete groups and eliminated representation in the capital of Pretoria. Each group was assigned a “homeland” which was used to identify them as citizens of a homeland, not South Africa itself. This served as a way to forcibly remove Africans from their property, bulldoze their homes and exile them to homelands. More than 860,000 blacks were segregated to overcrowded slums called resettlement camps. Source: Espresso Stalinist
Founded in 1955, the Black Sash organization was a group of white women who protested the abolishment of black voting rights. Participants would stand quietly in public locations wearing a symbolic black sash. They also set up legal advice centers to assist Africans with governmental issues. These advice centers continue to operate today, providing paralegal services and conducting human rights monitoring, education and research. Source: MSU
A poster made by the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the United Kingdom outlined the rules of apartheid as established by the National Party. Racial segregation was rampant, impacting all aspects of private and public life. Source: Espresso Stalinist
Nelson Mandela (pictured on the right) would become an icon of the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress political party and fighting against the repressive regime. Mandela was persecuted for his beliefs and political action along with many others, while the South African Tourist Corporation published propagandistic ads like the one on the left. Source: Wordpress
On February 3, 1960, Harold MacMillian, the British Prime Minister, addressed a meeting of 250 members of Parliament in Cape Town. He informed the South African military police that Britain disagreed with some of their policies. Britain and the United States, while unsupportive of the policy of apartheid, would continue to maintain economic relations with the country and often voted against sanctions. Source:
A mother bathes her child in a tin pail in a town surrounded by detritus. A bulldozer collects materials from the piles of leftover homes. Filthy and hazardous conditions in the resettlement camps plagued blacks and they were always at the risk of government harassment. Source: Yazkam
Five thousand black protestors assembled outside of the Sharpeville police station on March 21, 1960, to express their anger against pass laws. The police opened fire on the protestors, killing 69 individuals, many of whom were shot in the back as they tried to escape. Source: South Africa Civil Rights
The uproar among the black population was instantaneous and the following week was marked by demonstrations, marches and riots throughout the nation. Following the massacre, the United Nations condemned South Africa’s actions and the nation would gradually become isolated. The South African government banned the African National Congress and its rival political party, the Pan-Africanist Congress, after the protests because of their association with political organizing and protests. Source: MSU
Anti-apartheid protestors burn South African Foreign Minister Eric Louw in effigy on October 13, 1961. At one time pro-Nazi and an ardent supporter of apartheid, Louw left his post in 1963 following official censure from the United Nations. Source: Flashbak
Protestors in South Africa hold signs demanding the freedom of South Africa on Africa Day.
Africa Day is the annual commemoration of the founding of the Organization of African Unity that established independence for some African countries in 1962.
Anti-apartheid graffiti examines the lunacy behind segregation politics. To this day, progressive graffiti still graces the streets of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria. Source: Wordpress
The trial that changed South Africa took place in October 1963 and put ten anti-apartheid activists on trial in an attempt to save their lives. The ten protestors, including Nelson Mandela, were charged with two counts of sabotage and eight of them would be convicted. Mandela would serve 27 years in prison. Source: UMKC
A series of protests began on June 16, 1976 in Soweto in response to an official decree that introduced Afrikaans, the language of the Afrikaners, as the language of instruction in local schools. Black high school students protested in the streets of Soweto and were met by armed police. The death toll was 176, though some estimates say 700 perished. Source: Wordpress
On March 30, 1960, hundreds of black protestors descend on Cape Town to demand the release of their political leaders who were arrested during early morning raids on their homes. Stolen under the cover of darkness, the Nationalist Party would arrest rival political leaders in an attempt to maintain control and ensure the success of apartheid. Source: City Lab
Steve Biko was an anti-apartheid activist and student leader who founded the Black Consciousness Movement, which would motivate much of the black urban population in the 1960s and 1970s. Biko was famous for his “black is beautiful” slogan and became a martyr for the movement when he died suspiciously while in police custody. Source: Dbsjeyaraj
In the 1980s anti-apartheid protests spread across the United States with demonstrations on college campuses, at the national capitol and even in movies. Protestors called for divestment to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars were not being used for the systematic repression of blacks in South Africa. Source: Jon Jeter
Protests spread throughout New Zealand when the South African rugby team, the Springboks, competed in the country in 1981. New Zealanders did not support apartheid and believed that the Springboks should be banned from playing in their country. It became clear that South Africa’s racialist policies wouldn’t survive the education and development of the world. Source: Times Union
In 1986, a young black man rides a whites-only bus in an act of non-violent resistance against apartheid. As the government continued to persecute non-whites, more political groups would rally and protest, allowing the anti-apartheid movement to gain support across the globe. Source: Haaretz
Desmond Tutu is a retired South African Anglican bishop who gained fame as a political activist and avid apartheid opponent in the 1980s. After the Soweto uprising and subsequent deaths, Tutu supported an economic boycott of his home country and organized marches. He frequently compared apartheid to Nazism and was jailed twice because of his beliefs. Source: Denver Post
Nelson Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990 following the unbanning of the African National Congress on February 2. The National Party government agreed to talks with the ANC to negotiate the end of apartheid. These talks led to a new constitution and the first free elections in 1994. Source: South Africa
The first free elections in the nation led to the appointment of Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa. He ran on the AFC platform. Mandela served for five years and inherited a nation that suffered massive disparities in wealth between black and white communities. Millions of black families lacked sanitation, clean water and education. Source: JTA
Twenty years following the end of apartheid, sanitation, education and health issues are still of great concern. South Africa has one of the highest rates of crime in the world and is frequently used as an example of the global AIDS crisis. The unemployment rate hovers at 25 percent and the ANC remains in power with little competition. While the nation has made giant steps toward amending its violent past, South Africa’s future success will be determined by the government’s focus on its people and the people’s willingness to hold it accountable. Source: NPR
South Africa's Colonial History
In the 17th century, white settlers from the Netherlands arrived in South Africa and wanted to make use of its abundant resources--both natural and human. At the end of the 19th century, South Africa was separated into four territories, with two under British rule and two under Dutch rule. Dutch descendants known as Afrikaners or Boers would engage in a war with the British between 1899 and 1902. After deadly fighting and incarceration in concentration camps, the Afrikaners surrendered and the two Dutch colonies fell under British rule.
The British agreed under a peace treaty to hand the country back over to the local white population, which occurred in 1910 when all four colonies were united under the Act of the Union. The Union removed all parliamentary rights for blacks.