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Segregation of whites and blacks in South Africa before the 1950s was largely a matter of custom. After the National Party victory in the 1948 elections, the government established the apartheid system, which provided segregation with an elaborate legal basis. The National Party was the party of the Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch, German, and French settlers.
In the 1950s a series of laws forced nonwhites to move to shanty towns (townships), created the so-called homelands (Bantustans), and abolished the Natives Representative Council, the only official countrywide institution for blacks. The police gained enormous power through a series of legislative acts. The Suppression of Communism Act in 1950 was part of the official explanation of the necessity of apartheid. The African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912, attempted to defend the rights of blacks and other nonwhites in South Africa. The Freedom Charter of 1955 emphasized the importance of a nonracial democracy for all South Africans. A turning point came in March 1960, when police fired on a crowd of demonstrators at Sharpeville and killed about seventy. The next month the ANC and other anti-apartheid organizations were banned. It became apparent that peaceful demonstrations, such as those advocated by American civil rights leaders, would not work. By the end of the 1960s the system of apartheid seemed unchallengeable. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned along with other African National Congress leaders on Robben Island. The ANC was banned in South Africa; those leaders not in jail had gone into exile. The armed wing of the ANC, Spear of the Nation (Umkhonto we Sizwe), was sending people into South Africa to carry out terrorist activities, but most were caught before they could accomplish much. The situation began to change in the 1970s. The Black Consciousness (BC) movement emerged in the mid-1970s in Soweto (Southwest Township). Its most prominent representative was Steve Biko, a medical student, who formed the exclusively black South African Students Organisation (SASO). Biko, only twenty-four in 1970, was a charismatic leader who encouraged blacks to think not about reform but about transformation of the South African system. Biko was arrested and then killed by the police in 1977, but his message had already taken hold. In the meantime, beginning in 1976 students in Soweto began a protest against educational policies that emphasized Afrikaans (the language of the Afrikaners, similar to Dutch). The slogan was “No education before liberation.” Hundreds were killed in the demonstrations. As it turned out, this was the beginning of the end of apartheid, but it would take another decade to accomplish this.
Suggestions for Term Papers
1. Compare the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s with the civil rights movement in South Africa in the same period. 2. Trace the early career of Nelson Mandela from his work in the ANC Youth League down to 1964, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
3. Investigate the ideas underlying the apartheid system, particularly the idea that each race must have the possibility of developing separately.
4. Review the legislation of the 1950s that established apartheid and write a paper on the way in which the system was constructed.
5. Cry Freedom is an American film that tells the story of Steve Biko mostly through the experiences of Donald Wood, a South African journalist who knew and wrote about Biko. View the film and discuss why the director approaches Biko’s life indirectly through Wood’s life and whether this approach is effective.
6. Read A Sport of Nature (see Suggested Sources) and comment on the way it presents the history of South Africa in this period.
In addition to the boldfaced items, look under the entry for “Nelson Mandela and the End of Apartheid in South Africa, 1989–1994” (#92). Search under Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Pan-Africanist Congress, Defiance Campaign, Mixed Marriages Act (1949), Group Areas Act (1950), Population Registration Act (1950), and Hendrik Verwoerd.
Biko, Steve. I Write What I Like. Chicago: LPC/In Book, 1996. A collection of writings by the foremost leader of the Black Consciousness movement.
Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994. Mandela’s own story of how he triumphed over apartheid.
Ramphele, Mamphela. Across Boundaries: The Journey of a South African Woman Leader. New York: Feminist Press, 1997. The autobiography of Ramphele, a leading South African activist and scholar, and a close friend of Biko’s.
Cry Freedom. Directed by Richard Attenborough, 1987. Distributed by MCA Home Video. 157 minutes. A film about a South African journalist, Donald Woods, who knew and wrote about Steve Biko. Woods later had to leave South Africa because of his support for Biko.
Fredrickson, George M. Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A fascinating discussion of black liberation movements in the two countries.
———. White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. A very fine overview of ideas about white superiority.
Gordimer, Nadine. A Sport of Nature. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987. An interesting, well-written novel about a white South African woman who becomes involved with the ANC.
Marx, Anthony W. Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States, South Africa, and Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A fascinating comparative study that brings out the many similarities between the United States and South Africa.
Sampson, Anthony. Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Biography. New York: Knopf, 1999. The best biography of Mandela available.
Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990. An excellent introduction to South African history. A good place to begin.
———. The Political Mythology of Apartheid. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. An excellent study of the ideas behind the system of apartheid.
Woods, Donald. Biko. New York: Henry Holt, 1991. A detailed biography of Biko by a South African journalist who knew him well.