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How did Apartheid End?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A combination of factors contributed to the end of apartheid in South Africa. Many people point to the end of the this system as an illustration of what can happen when people from numerous governments and cultural backgrounds get together to oppose something, whether it be institutionalized racism or war. It is also important to remember that although apartheid is over in South Africa, it has left an indelible cultural legacy which will take decades to repair.

Before discussing how it ended, it might help to know what apartheid was. It was a system of institutionalized racial segregation which was created by the government of South Africa. In addition to giving preference to a very small minority of white South Africans, it also created class divisions between native South Africans, forcing people to migrate to “homelands” which were divided along ethnic grounds. Blacks, Indians, and Asians were treated as second class citizens in South Africa under apartheid, a system which endured from the late 1940s to the early 1990s.

One important factor in the end of apartheid was pressure from inside the country. Members of the government began to have doubts about the system, and several parties which were opposed to it also began to grow in South Africa, starting in the 1970s. Widespread opposition among both black and white South Africans essentially eroded the system from within.

There was also a lot of external pressure, especially from Western nations, some of whom had extensive civil rights legislation. As the power of the Soviet Union began to decline, Western nations felt that apartheid could no longer be tolerated, and they began to actively speak out against it. This period also marked moves toward democracy and self-determination in other African nations, as the West no longer feared the influence of Communism on nascent African governments. Numerous diplomats and public officials made derisive comments about the system, encouraging South Africa to bring it to an end.

South Africa also experienced immense economic pressure to end apartheid. Banks and investment firms withdrew from South Africa, indicating that they would not invest in the country until its institutionalized racism came to an end. Many churches also applied pressure. Combined with violent demonstrations from within and a mass organization of angry South Africans, these factors doomed the system, and repeals to laws started to occur in 1990; four years later, South Africa had a democratic election, and the last legal traces of apartheid were eliminated.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon333941 — On May 08, 2013

Apartheid started 1948-1980. It ended because of human rights. The racial segregation was the one who started apartheid or so I learned in my class. Or you can read "The Long Walk to Freedom" by Nelson Mandela.

By anon332039 — On Apr 26, 2013

Apartheid was also affected by the cold war. The ANC and several other organizations were supported by the Soviet Union, they gave them weapons and trained their armed wing(MK and SWAPO mostly). The USA supported the NP as they followed a capitalist policy and were under threat of communist revolution. When the cold war ended in 1989 The support for both sides came to an end and the only options left were civil war and negotiations. The NP were not capable of winning a civil war either, thus De Klerk was left with a simple choice.

By anon313838 — On Jan 14, 2013

How did apartheid end?

By anon275272 — On Jun 17, 2012

Nelson Mandela actually led this by using sport, as it uses the four cardinal virtues and ideals to promote oneness and equality for all.

By anon263257 — On Apr 23, 2012

I would just like to pinpoint the fact that the ideology of apartheid is still very common, just not directly sponsored by the government.

Anyway, nice page for a 14-year-old geek like me in need of this for homework.

By anon233462 — On Dec 06, 2011

This article is quite wrong regarding the role Western nations played in ending apartheid. If not for the support of Western nations, in particular US, UK, France, Italy, West Germany and Israel, South African apartheid would not have lasted as long as it did (1948-1994).

Western nations such as the ones I listed above, repetitively rejected U.N trade embargo resolutions assembly, defied both the 1962 and 1977 arms embargo on South Africa by directly providing Pretoria with military equipments, weapons as well as nuclear technologies. In fact, the Western Nations, save for a few Scandinavian states, were the largest trading partners to South Africa from the 1960-80s. It was not until late 1980s when the South African white minority government had lost control of the domestic situation that the Western nations and multinationals finally pulled out of South Africa and ended their business relations with the racist regime.

Western nations helped prolong apartheid; they didn't help end it. Their contribution in disinvesting in South Africa was a direct consequences of the years of riots, protests and strikes of the Blacks in South Africa.

By anon104983 — On Aug 18, 2010

this is really helpful. thanks

By anon104649 — On Aug 17, 2010

thank you. Really helped for history coursework.

By anon88404 — On Jun 04, 2010

this is awesome. Thanks!

By anon83699 — On May 12, 2010

Nice website to get information about Apartheid.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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