BRIA 12 2 a South Africa: Revolution at the Ballot Box

The elections of April 1994 signaled a major breakthrough in South Africa. Political control was shifting from the white minority to the black majority. Only a few years ago, many observers of South Africa were predicting that only a bloody revolution could overturn the brutal white-controlled government. But in a remarkable turn of events, a black leader imprisoned for 26 years and a white leader willing to change worked together for a new South Africa.

White Minority Rule

Although always a minority in South Africa, whites have ruled this land since the first Dutch settlers arrived in the 1650s. In 1902, the British seized control of South Africa, defeating the Dutch settlers as well as the Zulus and other native African tribes. In 1910, the British officially made South Africa a colony in its empire.

From the beginning, white settlers denied the native African majority economic and political power. Only members of the white minority could vote and hold political office. After the British took control, white settlers drove blacks from the most productive lands.

By 1936, whites composed about 20 percent of the population of South Africa. The black majority, consisting of several African tribes, made up about 70 percent. The remaining 10 percent were immigrants from India and mixed-race persons, called "Coloureds."

Following World War II, South Africa achieved independence along with other British colonies. In 1948, white voters put the National Party in control of the South African government. The National Party represented the Afrikaners, descendants of the early Dutch settlers. Afrikaners made up a majority of South African whites (but only 12 percent of the total population). The National Party clearly stated its purpose in one of its publications: "The preservation of the pure race tradition of the [Afrikaner people] must be protected at all costs in all possible ways as a holy pledge entrusted to us by our ancestors as part of God's plan with our People."

Over the next 40 years, the South African government, under the control of the Afrikaner National Party, pursued a policy of apartheid (uh PAR tide), which meant complete racial separation. As in the old American South, people of different races were required to use segregated train cars, buses, elevators, park benches, restrooms, restaurants, hotels, and a host of other public and private facilities. Interracial marriages and interracial sex were outlawed. Athletic teams were segregated and could not play against each other.

Unlike white children, black children were not required to attend school. When they did seek an education, black youngsters attended inferior schools with poorly trained teachers. These school children were also forced to learn the Afrikaner language (based on Dutch).

Starting in the 1970s, the white South African government established tribal "homelands" in the poorest parts of the country. The government then deprived blacks of their South African citizenship and forced them to move to these homelands.

To work outside the homelands, African workers needed passes, which they had to carry at all times. In most cases, only single persons or married men received passes. So when workers left the homelands, they had to leave their families behind. Vast, racially segregated worker "townships" sprang up outside South Africa's major cities. Many thousands of black workers, unable to secure a government pass, were arrested when they desperately sought jobs outside the economically depressed homelands.

Meanwhile, white South Africans lived well. They held all the best-paying jobs. Many worked in the large government bureaucracy, which granted preferences to Afrikaner-owned businesses, farms, and industries. A strong military and police force upheld the apartheid system.

The black majority suffered greatly under apartheid. With jobs scarce, most blacks lived in poverty. Massive housing shortages pushed blacks into crowded slums. High disease rates, little health care, and poor nutrition resulted in a life expectancy among blacks of 55 years, compared to 68.5 years among whites. Perhaps most importantly, since black South Africans were denied the right to vote, they possessed no political power to peacefully try to change things.

Opposition to Apartheid

Since its beginning, apartheid had drawn opposition within South Africa. White opposition came mainly from English-speaking South Africans and young Afrikaners. The most important black organization opposing apartheid was the African National Congress (ANC).

The police and military, however, responded harshly to any opposition to the apartheid policies of the Afrikaner government. In the early 1950s, the ANC led a non-violent campaign against apartheid, but soon called it off after police arrested and imprisoned thousands of protesters. In 1960 in the black township of Sharpeville, the ANC organized a large protest over the inferior schooling of black children. Police fired into the crowd, killing 69 people.

Following Sharpeville, the government outlawed the ANC. The ANC then went underground and turned increasingly to armed revolutionary activities. One of its leaders, Nelson Mandela, a lawyer, was arrested and jailed many times. In 1964, he and several other ANC leaders were convicted of sabotage and treason and sentenced to life in prison.

But the cycle of black protest and white government repression continued. In 1976, black school children in Soweto, a worker township outside of Johannesburg, began demonstrating against the required use of the Afrikaner language in their schools. When the protests grew, the government cracked down harshly, killing hundreds, including 134 people under the age of 18. Anti-apartheid boycotts, strikes, demonstrations (some violent), sabotage, and almost daily clashes with the police continued into the 1980s.

In 1984, the Afrikaner government decided to include Indian and Coloured South Africans in the political process. A new constitution established a three-house parliament. But white representatives held the majority of seats and blacks were still totally excluded.

By this time, the world community was taking steps to pressure the apartheid regime to change. South Africa was banned from the Olympic Games. An increasing number of nations, including the United States, applied economic sanctions, which placed severe restrictions on trade and investment in South Africa.

In addition to international pressure and the growing political violence within South Africa, another factor weakened the will of the white minority to hold on to power: The percentage of whites was shrinking. At its peak, the white minority composed only 21 percent of the population. By the end of the 1980s, this figure had dropped to 14 percent. By the year 2005, it would slip to a mere 10 percent. How much longer could such a small group hope to dominate, even by force, the ever-increasing numbers of black South Africans? Realistic white South African leaders could see the handwriting on the wall. One of these leaders was Frederik Willem (F. W.) de Klerk.

The End of Apartheid

F. W. de Klerk became the president of South Africa in 1989. An attorney like Nelson Mandela, de Klerk realized that South Africa had to change. Although many whites still supported apartheid, de Klerk worked to dismantle it. In 1990, he released Nelson Mandela from prison and started negotiating with him and the ANC on the transfer of political power from the white minority to the black majority. The ANC, in turn, abandoned its support for armed revolution.

The following year, de Klerk and Mandela reached an agreement. White-minority rule would end without bloodshed. South Africa would hold its first all-race elections. The parliament created by these elections would then have five years to write a new constitution for South Africa. Both de Klerk and Mandela were awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their achievement.

Although De Klerk and Mandela received broad support for their power-sharing agreement, some South Africans vowed to resist it. One group, the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, demanded a white-only homeland to be created by armed force, if necessary. Similarly, the black Inkatha Freedom Party held out for an independent Zulu province.

On the eve of the all-race elections in April 1994, South Africa was torn by fear, political violence, and divisions within both the white and black communities. But, over the four days that the elections took place, peace prevailed. Nearly 23 million people aged 18 and over voted, including 17 million black South Africans voting for the first time. On the first day of voting, Nelson Mandela remarked, "Today is like no other before it. Voting in our first free and fair election has begun. Today marks the dawn of our freedom."

The ANC gained control of the national parliament with 63 percent of the vote. The parliament then chose Nelson Mandela as the new president of South Africa. De Klerk's National Party won 20 percent of the vote, assuring him one of the deputy president positions.

At his presidential inauguration on May 10, 1994, Nelson Mandela, age 75, pleaded for unity among the racial groups that had been so bitterly divided during the decades of apartheid:

We understand there is no easy road to freedom. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.

The black majority government headed by President Mandela faced enormous challenges. The Mandela government was confronted with a black majority suffering from a dearth of land, jobs, education, housing, health care, and nutritious food. In June 1996, Mandela’s government introduced a strategy in response to the economic problems facing the nation. Called "Growth, Employment, and Redistribution," this strategy sought to encourage open markets, privatization, and a favorable investment climate through tariff reduction, subsidies, tax incentives, and increased services to the disadvantaged.

Nelson Mandela retired from office in June 1999. The new government must continue to address several important problems, including an exodus of educated white South Africans and a severe crime problem. Furthermore, the December 1996 constitution must be fully implemented. But all of these things are now possible because of the vision of Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk along with the millions of voters who brought about a revolution at the ballot box.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. In what ways did the black majority suffer under apartheid?
  2. Why do you think the white minority leadership of South Africa gave up political control of the country to the black majority?
  3. What do you think is the single most important challenge facing the new South Africa? Why?

For Further Information

South Africa: A web site describing the geography, people, government, economy, communication, transportation, and military of South Africa.


The South African Bill of Rights

South Africans recently wrote a new constitution. The new constitution includes a bill of rights. Listed below are a few provisions of the new bill of rights. Form small groups to discuss these provisions and to recommend whether or not South Africans should have included them in their bill of rights. Your recommendation for each provision should include a list of reasons for your decision. Minority views expressed during your group's discussion should also be noted. Prepare to make an oral report on your recommendations.

  1. "Everyone has the right to life [and the death penalty ib hereby abolished]."
  2. "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression [but this right does not extend to] . . . propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence, or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm."
  3. " Everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right not to be deprived of freedom arbitrarily or without just cause, the right not to be detained without trial, the right to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources, the right not to be tortured in any way, and the right not to be treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way."
  4. "Everyone has the right to have access to health care services. . . ."
  5. "Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education."
  6. "Everyone has the right to have access to health care services, including reproductive health care, sufficient food and water, and social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependants, appropriate social assistance."



Constitutional Rights Foundation
is a member of: 
crn footer


Terms of Use Privacy Notice  |  Donor Privacy Policy  |  Teach Democracy (formerly Constitutional Rights Foundation), 601 S. Kingsley Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90005 | 213.487.5590 | 

© 2024 Teach Democracy®.  All Rights Reserved.

Joomla3 Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux