History and heritage


South African history: three decades of crisis

The 1950s had still offered many opportunities to resolve South Africa's racial injustices peacefully. This, however, was contrary to official ideology. Instead, apartheid transmuted itself into the policy of "separate development": the division of the black population into ethnic "nations", each of which was to have its own "homeland" and eventual "independence".

The Sharpeville Massacre

A turning point came at Sharpeville on March 21 1960 when a PAC-organised passive anti-pass campaign came to a bloody conclusion with police killing 69 unarmed protesters. A State of Emergency was declared: detention without trial was introduced and the ANC, PAC and other organisations were declared illegal. The resistance groups went underground.

South Africa's isolation increased in 1961 when, following a white referendum, South Africa became a republic and Verwoerd took it out of the Commonwealth. A general strike was called to coincide with the May 31 institution of the republic.

At the end of that year, Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation), emerged with acts of sabotage against government installations. Originally formed by a group of individuals within the ANC, including Mandela, it was to become that organisation's armed wing.

A new stage of international pressure began when the UN General Assembly called on its members to institute economic sanctions against South Africa. Mandela, in the meanwhile, had travelled through Africa making contact with numerous leaders. Going underground on his return, he was arrested in Natal in August 1962 and received a three-year sentence for incitement.

The Rivonia Trial

In July 1963 a police raid on the Rivonia farm Lilliesleaf led to the arrest of several of Mandela's senior ANC colleagues, including Walter Sisulu. They were charged with sabotage, Mandela being brought from prison to stand trial with them. All were sentenced in 1964 to life imprisonment and taken to Robben Island.

In September 1966 BJ Vorster became Prime Minister after the assassination in parliament of Verwoerd. Segregation became even more strictly enforced. Reeling under the blow of the "Rivonia Trial", the ANC nevertheless continued to operate, regrouping at the Morogoro Conference in Tanzania in 1969.

The first half of the next decade was marked by increasing repression, increasing militancy in the resistance camp, and extensive strikes.

June 16, 1976

The moment of truth came on June 16, 1976, when the youth of Soweto marched against being taught in the medium of Afrikaans. Police fired on them, precipitating a massive flood of violence that overwhelmed the country.

Nevertheless, an attempt was made to further the "homeland" policy, with Transkei being the first to accept nominal independence later that year.

A new movement known as Black Consciousness had become increasingly influential. The death as a result of police brutality of its charismatic founder, Steve Biko, shocked the world in 1977.

PW Botha, who became Prime Minister in 1978 after Vorster's retirement, tried to co-opt the coloured and Indian population in the early 1980s with a new constitution establishing a Tricameral Parliament, with separate houses for these groups. The constitution also did away with the post of Prime Minister and provided for an executive State President.

Opposition came from both left and right, a section of the right wing splitting off from the National Party. The United Democratic Front, an internal coalition of anti-apartheid groups, organised highly successful boycotts of the coloured and Indian elections in 1984.

State of emergency

There was a further escalation of violence, with the country being governed – as far as it was governable – under a state of emergency in a spiral of revolution and repression. International sanctions increased.

Among the other organisations in the spotlight at this time were the trade union body Cosatu and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha, the latter involved in bloody conflict with pro-ANC factions.

1989 was the year in which the logjam started to break up. Negotiations had been entered into between Mandela and PW Botha, but these were secret. Dissension within the Nationalist Party, in combination with Botha's ill health, led to his resignation, and he was replaced by FW de Klerk.

After an election in September, De Klerk released Walter Sisulu and seven other political prisoners.

SAinfo reporter

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The 1976 Soweto student uprising

The day that changed the course of South African history: Soweto school children on the march on 16 June 1976 (One of the photographs in display in the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto)

The apartheid state responds to 1976 Soweto uprising

Live ammunition ... the men the apartheid state sent out to face school children in the 1976 uprising

Apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd

Hendrik Verwoerd, National Party prime minister and the architect of apartheid, on a 1966 cover of Time magazine (Image: Time)

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