South Africa was home to apartheid from 1948 to 1994. This meant that years after blacks in the United States fought for equality during the civil rights movement, black South Africans still lived separate and unequal lives while the white minority ruled the government. This overview of apartheid and the activists who fought against it, such as Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, reveal the origins of the racially stratified system and the extent to which it restricted the rights of black South Africans. In addition, a review of feature films about apartheid serves to further highlight the impact racial stratification had on the lives of blacks and whites.
Europeans first began to settle in South Africa in the 17th century. As word spread that South Africa was home to vast natural resources such as gold, diamonds and platinum, waves of European immigrants began to live in the region. By the 20th century, most of these Europeans had either British or Dutch ancestry. Apartheid became an official way of life in the early 1900s when European colonists forced the Bantu, or South African natives, to live on reserves. In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party came into power, establishing hundreds of laws that created a racially stratified society in South Africa and disenfranchised blacks. Blacks and whites could not intermarry, and blacks were required to carry documentation with them at all times to justify their presence in public spaces designated for whites. To boot, the education blacks received was restricted and they were relegated to jobs as unskilled laborers, ensuring that they would remain impoverished. By the mid-20th century, activists began to challenge apartheid laws. Nelson Mandela was among the most notable of such activists, serving 27 years of a life sentence because of his activism.
Nelson Mandela grew up in a small village and went on to become the first person to be educated in his family after a royal took him in following the death of Mandela’s father from lung cancer. In school Mandela was a good student and a good athlete. He studied law and increasingly became politically active as a young man. In the early 1960s, he would be jailed for his activism, ultimately receiving a life sentence because of his anti-apartheid efforts. He served 27 years of his sentence before his release in 1990. Three years later he won the Nobel Peace Prize. The next year he voted for the first time and was elected South Africa’s first black president. He died in December 2013 at the age of 95.
Nelson Mandela’s speeches reveal a great deal about his political philosophy, including why the African National Congress eventually embraced violence as a political strategy and that he saw himself as one of millions of South Africans who challenged apartheid. In addition, Mandela’s speeches reveal that even after his release from prison in 1990, he did not believe the struggle for equality was over. Instead, he called for his supporters to work together to create a South Africa that would serve in the best interests of all of its inhabitants.
Steven Biko led the black consciousness movement of the 1960 and 70s. He wanted blacks to have control over their lives and advocate for their self-interests. At the same time, Biko thought that South Africa could be a place where people of all races lived in peace. A medical student at the University of Natal, Biko helped give rural blacks access to healthcare. He also launched an organization that provided literacy and dressmaking classes for blacks. The South African government sought to neutralize Biko by banning him from public speaking and forbidding him to leave his hometown, but he continued to speak out, leading to multiple arrests. While in police custody in 1977, Biko died at the hands of police. He was just 30 years old.
Hollywood has made a number of films about apartheid over the years—from “Cry Freedom,” the story of Steve Biko, in 1987, to “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” released in 2013. These films help to illuminate some of the realities of apartheid for viewers unfamiliar with the system of racial stratification. They show the violence peaceful black protesters endured at the hands of police, how whites, such as Donald Woods, had to flee the country for questioning the manner of Biko’s death, and how apartheid’s racial classification system ended up tearing a South African family apart.