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The End of Apartheid, 1964 to 1994

In the 1960s, South Africa had economic growth second only to that of Japan. Trade with Western countries grew, and investors from the United States, France and Britain rushed in to get a piece of the action. Resistance among blacks had been crushed. Since 1964, Mandela, leader of the African Nation Congress, had been in prison on Robben Island just off the coast from Cape Town, and it appeared that South Africa's security forces could handle any resistance to apartheid. But in the seventies this rosy picture for South Africa's whites began to fade.

In South Africa in 1974, resistance to apartheid was encouraged by Portugal's withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola. Portugal was not able to afford continued combat against liberation movements in its colonies, which were being aided by the Soviet Union and China. South African troops withdrew from Angola in early 1976, failing to prevent the liberation forces from gaining power there, and black students in South Africa celebrated that victory.

That same year, South Africa's Nationalist Party passed a law prohibiting instruction in schools in any language but Afrikaans and English. In the town of Soweto, a student demonstration protesting this move was fired upon by the police, and a thirteen-year-old student was killed. People in Soweto were outraged and for three days war existed between the outraged public and the police, and the clashes spread to other black townships. Two whites died and at least 150 blacks – mostly school children. The unrest spread to teachers, churchmen and others.

In 1978 the defense minister of the Nationalist Party, PW Botha, became Prime Minister. Botha's all white regime was worried about the Soviet Union helping revolutionaries in South Africa, and the economy had turned sluggish. The new government noted that it was spending too much money trying to maintain the segregated homelands that had been created for blacks, and the homelands were proving to be uneconomic.

Nor was maintaining blacks as a third class working well. The labor of blacks remained vital to the economy, and illegal black labor unions were flourishing. Many of the black majority remained too poor to make much of a contribution to the economy through their purchasing power. Capitalism functioned on goodwill, and it was goodwill that concerned the regime. Botha was interested what he saw as the goodwill needed to prevent blacks from being attracted to communism.

Concerned over the popularity of Mandela, Botha denounced him as an arch-Marxist committed to violent revolution. Then, to appease black opinion and to nurture Mandela as a benevolent leader, the government moved Mandela from Robben Island to a more pleasant prison in a rural area just outside Cape Town, Pollsmoor prison. There the government allowed Mandela more visitors, including visits and interviews by foreigners – to let the world know that Mandela was being treated well.

To win the hearts and minds of blacks and also to ward off movements in the United States and Europe against apartheid, a new constitution was created. Black homelands were declared nation-states and pass laws were abolished. Also, black labor unions were legitimized. The government recognized the right of blacks to live in urban areas permanently and gave blacks property rights there. The Botha regime was interested in rescinding the law against interracial marriage and also rescinding the law against sex between the races – laws being ridiculed abroad. The Botha government committed itself to "separate but equal" education, and the spending for black schools increased, to one-seventh of white children per child – up from on one-sixteenth in 1968. At the same time, attention was given to strengthening the effectiveness of the police.

A new anti-apartheid optimism had emerged. Movements in the United States and Europe were gaining support for boycotts against South Africa, for the withdrawal of US firms from South Africa and for the release of Mandela. South Africa was becoming an outlaw in the world community of nations. Investing in South Africa by Americans and others was coming to an end.

In January 1985, Botha addressed the government's House of Assembly and stated that the government was willing to release Mandela on condition that Mandela pledge opposition to acts of violence to further political objectives. Mandela's reply was read in public by one of his allies – his first words distributed publicly since his sentence to prison twenty-one years before. Mandela described violence as the responsibility of the apartheid regime and said that with democracy there would be no need for violence. The crowd listening to the reading of his speech erupted in cheers and chants, and Mandela was elevated as the leader of South Africa's blacks.

Botha's effort to win hearts and minds failed. Blacks were encouraged to seek more than what Botha was offering. The campaign to overthrow apartheid escalated, with African National Congress leaders in exile calling for consumer boycotts, rent strikes and making townships ungovernable. Violence increased, and rage was vented on black policemen and township officials regarded as government stooges. Other black on black violence erupted, between the followers of the Zulu chieftain, Buthelezi, considered too close to the Apartheid regime.

Botha blamed the violence in the townships of Communist agitators and the foreign media. His government declared a state of emergency. The police were ordered to move against "troublemakers," and special attention was given to student leaders.  People were rounded up, and, out of sight of the public, prisoners were tortured and beaten, and some were killed slowly with rat poison in their food – events later documented.  In 1989, 4,000 deaths were reported, mostly blacks.

By 1987 the growth of South Africa's economy had dropped to among the lowest rates in the world, and the ban on South African participation in international sporting events was frustrating many South African whites. Examples of African states with black leaders and white minorities existed in Kenya and Zimbabwe. Whispers of South Africa one day having a black President sent more hardline whites into Rightist political parties. Mandela was moved to a four-bedroom house of his own, with a swimming pool and shaded by fir trees, on a prison farm just outside Cape Town. He had an unpublicized meeting with Botha, Botha impressing Mandela by walking forward, extending his hand and pouring Mandela's tea. And the two had a friendly discussion, Mandela comparing the African National Conference's rebellion with that of the Afrikaner rebellion, and about everyone being brothers.

In August, 1989, Botha retired and was replaced by a member of the National Party who had solid conservative credentials: Frederik W. de Klerk. For the sake of making South Africa a functioning nation again, de Klerk moved toward the one development that would appease blacks: giving them a voice in the politics of the nation. In 1991, the government repealed apartheid laws and in March, 1992, a whites-only referendum was held on de Klerk's policy. With an 85 percent turnout of voters, de Klerk's government received a 70 percent vote of approval. A change of opinion among whites was moving the issue of segregation in South Africa as it had among whites in the United States.

The way was now open for South Africa's first non-racial democratic election, which was held on April 27, 1994, with some Rightist whites and conservative black officials in the homelands looking on with disfavor. The African National Congress won 63 percent of the nearly 20 million votes cast. The National Party received 20 percent. Buthelezi's party, the Inkatha Freedom Party, won 10 percent of the vote, and the white, Rightist, Freedom Front Party won but 2 percent.

In the new parliament, 252 of its 400 seats went to members of the African National Congress. On May 10, 1994, Mandela was sworn in as South Africa's president, and his cabinet was diverse: with 17 of its members from the African National Congress, 10 from the National Party and 10 from Buthelezi's party.

The policy of the new government was that blacks and whites had to live together in a nation of laws with rights for all. A commission was established for reconciliation, the aim being to give amnesty for crimes committed if people admitted to their misdeeds. What mattered most to people whose family members had been murdered by the apartheid regime was that they had the bones of the murdered so that they could give their people a decent burial.

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Copyright © 2005-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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