The years of Apartheid

South Africa lived under an oppressive and ruthless system of racial segregation for nearly half a century

South African armed forces stand by during state of emergency regarding anti-apartheid unrest © Getty

For almost 50 years, a system of racial segregation divided South Africa. Apartheid (meaning ‘separateness’ in Afrikaans) protected white minority rule by controlling the non-white population in all aspects of life, from what facilities they could use to where they could live. There was fierce opposition both inside the country – introducing the world to one of the 20th century’s most influential figures, Nelson Mandela – and on the international stage, before apartheid’s symbolic end in 1994.


Torment in the townships

A group of children (and a few men) gaze from behind a barbed-wire fence that marks the boundary of the Moroka township in Soweta, Johannesburg in 1950 © Getty Images

A group of children stare out from behind the barbed-wire fence encircling their Johannesburg township. As part of the all-white government’s ‘resettlement’ plans – giving 80 per cent of the land to the white minority – 3.5 million non-whites are forced to leave their homes and live in segregated, poorly provided-for areas.

Classifying the people

Racist Road Sign © Getty Images

Racial segregation has been in place before apartheid, but laws in the 1950s institutionalise discrimination further. Signs like those above become common. The Population Registration Act of 1950 classifies all South Africans by racial groups – ‘Bantu’ (black), ‘White’ and ‘Coloured’ (mixed race), with a fourth, ‘Asian’, added later. Such categories can legally split families apart.

Beatings at the beer hall

Beer Hall Beating © Getty Images

Any action against apartheid – such as the ‘Defiance Campaign’ launched by the African National Congress (ANC) in 1952 – can provoke harsh treatment by both the law and police. In 1959, a group of non-white women are beaten by club-wielding officers, after they raided a beer hall in Durban and set fire to the building.

Signs of segregation

Man Sitting on "Europeans Only" Bench during Apartheid © Getty Images

Contact between white and black is limited by segregated public spaces and facilities, education and jobs. Interracial marriage is also forbidden. Here, a black man risks police punishment just by sitting on a bench marked ‘Europeans only’.

National hero

Nelson Mandela (right), Patrick Molaoa and Robert Resha walk to their trial for treason © Getty Images

Apartheid is met with strong opposition across the country, which leads both to peaceful demonstrations and armed resistance. In 1964, the charismatic ANC leader Nelson Mandela (third from right), is sentenced to life imprisonment. During his time at Robben Island, he becomes a global figurehead for the anti-apartheid movement.

You shall not pass

Black South Africans burn African pass books. © Getty Images

Burning their passbooks (an identification document aimed to restrict movement) is one way for non-whites to fight apartheid. But when thousands gather in the Sharpeville township on 21 March 1960 to protest peacefully against the draconian pass laws, police open fire. Sixty-nine people are killed and 180 wounded.

Black and white clash
Protests erupted in Cape Town in September 1976 © Getty Images

In 1976, more than 100 black South Africans are killed in the streets of the black township Soweto when anti-apartheid protests clash with police. The brutal clampdowns spark further riots in Cape Town – where this photo is taken – and global condemnation.

Innocents at risk

A South African woman runs with two terrified children while a mob forms behind her during a riot © Getty Images

Carrying one child and gripping the hand of another, a woman runs away from an increasingly violent mob in 1981. The townships become the battleground between the anti-apartheid movement and the government.


This content first appeared in the June 2016 issue of History Revealed