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What is Apartheid?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Apartheid was a system of legal racial separation which dominated the Republic of South Africa from 1948 until 1993, However, the mechanisms of apartheid were set in place long before 1948, and South Africa continues to deal with the repercussions. Under apartheid, various races were separated into different regions, and discrimination against people of color was not only acceptable, but legally entrenched, with whites having priority housing, jobs, education, and political power. Although South Africa was heavily criticized for the system, it was not until 1991 that the legal system of apartheid began to be broken down, and in 1993 was thrown out altogether with the election of Nelson Mandela, the first black democratically elected President of South Africa. The term is also used more generally around the world to refer to systemic racism which is tolerated, rather than confronted.

Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning “apart” or “separate,” and one of the first pieces of apartheid legislation was the Group Areas Act of 1950, which segregated living spaces, concentrating whites in the cities and forcing people of color into rural areas or the urban fringes. In addition to separating whites from nonwhites, apartheid also separated different races, and fraternization between Africans of different tribes, Asians, and Europeans was frowned upon. Whites and nonwhites held different jobs, lived in different regions, and were subject to different levels of pay, education, and health care. Apartheid paid no attention to former social or residential status, dividing people up by color.

When nonwhites were pushed out of the urban areas, most of them were shuffled into Bantustans, or “African homelands.” Because they were made citizens of the Bantustans, black South Africans were not allowed to participate in the government of South Africa, and were forced to carry passes and obey curfew laws if they wanted to travel outside of their homelands. The homelands were also established on land which was largely unusable, and were heavily reliant on South Africa for assistance. Along the fringes of the cities, Africans lived in massive, terrible slums, often separated from their families because only one family member could get a permit to live in the city.

Nelson Mandela, along with many others, is a member of the African National Congress, a group which worked to abolish apartheid. He joined right before the Second World War, and was part of a major push to make the African National Congress a national movement, incorporating ethics of nonviolent resistance, strikes, and mass civil disobedience to fight for equal rights. In 1952, he was tried in court for participating in the Campaign of Just Defiance, and given a suspended sentence. He spent time in and out of prison throughout the 1950s and became an attorney to help blacks who had been dispossessed under apartheid.

In 1960, the African National Congress was banned, and Mandela was one of the founding members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, a violent civil rights organization. His membership was shortlived, however; in 1962, after traveling out of the country to speak about the situation in South Africa and receive military training, Mandela was imprisoned for life, and not released until 1990. The African National Congress was reformed in 1991, as apartheid began to be dismantled, and Mandela was elected President of the organization, going on to take office as President of South Africa in 1994, serving through 1999. In 1993, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition for his efforts to end apartheid in South Africa.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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 anon997948 — On Mar 22, 2017

Good question. Not an easy answer, because, usually, you alone cannot stop it. Nelson Mandela stopped it by being elected. Not everybody gets elected. And leaders are not usually chosen because of who they are, but what they are fighting for.

By anon994681 — On Feb 28, 2016

The truth is Mandela was an evil man, pretending to be good with the help of the western socialist controlled media. The world is a much better place without commies like him running around spewing crap for liberal idiots to lap up.

I am South African and I have witnessed that beautiful country sink into oblivion. So much for the rainbow nation peddled by the Marxist infested West. South Africa is more racist now and more dangerous than it was during the Apartheid period. The government is beyond corrupt and is completely self-serving. South Africa has become a failed state due to the terrorist government running it.

By anon994680 — On Feb 28, 2016

Today, South Africa is known as the rape capital of the world, where lawlessness runs rampant as blacks commit atrocities against white landowners with little reprisal. Additionally, poverty has increased since the time of Apartheid, with 55 percent of South African blacks living below that level, with per capita income lower now when compared to 1995.

We've taken a terrorist and criminal and made him into an idol of virtue. Apartheid in South Africa was a form of political slavery that segregated the majority from the minority, and its time for dissolution was long past. However, the legacy that Nelson Mandela leaves for a nation he sought to first take by force, then take by secret diplomacy, shows that in the end, Mandela was not about equality and justice, but about achieving power no matter what promises were broken, or what deals he made with the devil.

By anon948224 — On Apr 29, 2014

Some of these arguments are very dangerous. The end does not justify the means if the means by themselves are bad. Reading that the ANC only started to be violent after the Sharp Ville massacre is simply wrong, and even if this were the case, does this justify terrorism? And bombing hospitals is not a noble act of revenge, and neither is the attack on infrastructure killing civilians. These are the same arguments the Nazis used in Germany to justify their doings.

Nothing of this shall or should be used to justify apartheid. It was a bad choice and the supporters of it were wrong regarding my value system, but that does not make everybody who fought apartheid automatically a saint.

By anon942905 — On Mar 30, 2014

Why did Nelson Mandela die?

By anon932926 — On Feb 13, 2014

I think it is wrong for blacks to go to separate schools.

By anon360019 — On Dec 23, 2013

RIP mandela. He was the best person and all Africans should learn from him.

By anon357698 — On Dec 06, 2013

Was Mandela a Christian?

By anon353937 — On Nov 04, 2013

Indeed, Nelson Mandela did get a lot of offers that would have gotten him out of prison, but if he had accepted, the white people would still keep doing the violence, and Apartheid would still be a thing!

ANC, which was the congress that Mandela did kind of run from inside prison, was peaceful until the Sharp Ville massacre (White people killed a lot of children who were at the school) which made them have no other choice then start using weapons. That's when Nelson had to join SACP (South Africa Communist Party) so he could get the resources, and help them keep Africa protected! So I think Nelson did his best and he did make peace for the blacks; he and ANC did it.

By anon282932 — On Aug 01, 2012

This is exactly what we should know. There is no future without history. This is better than reading a book.

By anon269495 — On May 18, 2012

Do any of you actually live in South Africa? Mandela was actually a terrorist who bombed buildings and encouraged violence. There were a lot of black people killed in his so-called peaceful demonstrations.

Do you know that during his time in prison, the white president went to him with an offer to be set free if Mandela agreed to stop the violence. Mandela never agreed to stop.

By anon264191 — On Apr 27, 2012

For all the people commenting about where the word 'Apartheid' originated from, you're missing the point. This isn't about the 'Dutch' or the 'English' people. It's sbout South Africa.

By anon248919 — On Feb 19, 2012

I think apartheid is stupid! Why should people be judged by their color of their skin? People should be judged for who they are inside. I would like to see anyone disagree with me.

By anon214941 — On Sep 16, 2011

I love your web site and I want to learn about South Africa. My main interest is in Kenya and the Asolo tribe, because this where my husband is from.

By anon208119 — On Aug 22, 2011

The world should be celebrating apartheid. Although the was much suffering to get to where we are, there must be labor pains for any birth, and the birth of freedom is not exempt. However, it is a birth that should be remembered, therefore requiring much pre-birth agony.

By anon195959 — On Jul 13, 2011

This site is very simple, straightforward and educational. Great job! Cheers.

By anon183694 — On Jun 06, 2011

@157: You are right that it isn't afrikaans, but it isn't dutch either. it is partly english and partly dutch.

By anon182062 — On Jun 01, 2011

I don't intend to be rude or something, but the word 'apartheid' isn't created by Africans. It was created by the Dutch.

By anon177863 — On May 19, 2011

What was africa like after this even took place?

By anon177177 — On May 17, 2011

what happened when it ended?

By anon166338 — On Apr 07, 2011

This really helped me with my literature essay on Nelson Mandela!

By anon157945 — On Mar 05, 2011

For whoever was asking about how many people were white at the time of Aparthied, compared to who was not:

There were: 4.8 million white people; 24 million black people; 0.9 million of Asian origin; 2.8 million of mixed race.

These are actual numbers, found in the book "South Africa Since 1948" written by Jean Hayward and published in 1989 Wayland (publishers) Ltd.

Hope I could help!

By anon156192 — On Feb 26, 2011

thanks this really helped with my english homework.

By anon125569 — On Nov 09, 2010

this is totally the best site i have found. it is awesome and no they didn't spell afrikaan wrong. it is the way the natives are spelled.

By anon118283 — On Oct 13, 2010

Thanks man. this really helped in my history class. By the way, Nelson Mandela is awesome.

By anon112782 — On Sep 22, 2010

this site is pretty useful! thanks.

By anon111255 — On Sep 15, 2010

to all people who said this is horrible, shame on you all. this is very useful for people who either didn't know about apartheid or have to get information on it.

By anon109602 — On Sep 08, 2010

Thank you so much. this is helping a lot with my social studies homework.

By anon107036 — On Aug 28, 2010

Thank you oh anonymous person. you are indeed wise. it really helped me. i would advise everyone to come on this website. Thanks!

By anon92557 — On Jun 28, 2010

Why was apartheid introduced? What was the reasoning behind separating every race into its own area?

By anon90894 — On Jun 18, 2010

short and sweet. very helpful. thanks

By anon90619 — On Jun 17, 2010

Helping me with my school work! really good!

By anon90560 — On Jun 16, 2010

thank you mystery person who wrote this. I'm going to pass my final, now, hopefully. it was very straightforward. i liked how i didn't have to read so much to get the point.

By anon87570 — On May 31, 2010

dude you seriously spelled african wrong. you spelled it like afrikan.

By anon84851 — On May 17, 2010

It started in 1948 and ended in 1994. A year before my birthday!

By anon81939 — On May 04, 2010

Thanks so much; this really helped me with my english work.

I hope someone else will soon laugh at this!

By anon81556 — On May 02, 2010

Thanks. It was very fascinating and I learned something new!

By anon81262 — On Apr 30, 2010


By anon79371 — On Apr 22, 2010

This helped me so much with my school project. thanks.

By anon78416 — On Apr 18, 2010

good site. got heaps of info.

By anon77433 — On Apr 14, 2010

wow there's so much to learn about south africa.

By anon69367 — On Mar 08, 2010

good site.

By anon69170 — On Mar 06, 2010

this is very good. I found a lot here. thanks.

By anon68860 — On Mar 04, 2010

Wow. What a great website this helped me a lot on my south africa project! Great facts and information on apartheid and poverty!

By anon68519 — On Mar 02, 2010

wow. awesome facts straight up. Many sites neglect to include basic details. Definitely contributing to my assignment work. Who made this site? It's great, I want more.

By anon67862 — On Feb 27, 2010

this helped me with my homework.

By anon67355 — On Feb 24, 2010

Thank you so much. You really helped me with my homework. I got some great facts,and this page really helped and was great. Thanks!

By anon64890 — On Feb 10, 2010

thanks a lot.

By anon64550 — On Feb 08, 2010

thank you! this helped loads with my RE homework.

By anon64434 — On Feb 07, 2010

thanks. this helped a lot with my social studies work. Just one question: How did apartheid start? Maybe i skipped over it but i couldn't seem to find the answer. Thanks again. ps. I love this site so much!

By anon64043 — On Feb 04, 2010

thank you for helping me on my black history project to find out about apartheid because my mother would not tell me what is was. Thank you a lot.

By anon63963 — On Feb 04, 2010

Thank you. It really helped with my geography homework. I didn't know what was going on most of the time!

By anon62986 — On Jan 29, 2010

this site would help a lot of South African children and it helped me in my homework.

By anon62227 — On Jan 25, 2010

this helped me a lot. thanks.

By anon62210 — On Jan 25, 2010

this helped me with work.

By anon61258 — On Jan 19, 2010

This helped me a lot in my homework. thanks.

By anon60656 — On Jan 15, 2010

thank you. this helped me with my english work. :)

By anon58744 — On Jan 04, 2010

this is good

By anon58642 — On Jan 03, 2010

thank god, that helped me. but how are things now?

By anon58608 — On Jan 03, 2010

Cheers! this help loads with my geography work!

By anon55275 — On Dec 06, 2009

Thanks so much! This really helped me with my Social Studies project.

By anon55217 — On Dec 05, 2009

It is an extraordinary web site and it helped me to complete my English assignment. Thanks a lot.

By anon54994 — On Dec 03, 2009

thank you very much! this help me complete my research for my english class and this subject really is interesting. please continue on with this site. ~Anonymous xD~

By anon54409 — On Nov 30, 2009

how has apartheid affected women in africa?

By anon52896 — On Nov 17, 2009

thanks so much

By anon52149 — On Nov 11, 2009

thanks this helped a lot in school!

By anon51804 — On Nov 09, 2009

thanks. This helped me a lot on my homework :)

By anon50951 — On Nov 02, 2009

thanks. helped me with my course work :)

By anon50938 — On Nov 02, 2009

i love this website. it really helped me. thanks

By anon50884 — On Nov 01, 2009

thanks. helped a lot on my project.

By anon49854 — On Oct 23, 2009

This really helped on my history project. now I can please my history teacher.

By anon49603 — On Oct 21, 2009

Thanks! I really needed this so I could please my history teacher. :D

By anon49530 — On Oct 21, 2009

thank you. i'm doing a power point on this.

By anon49525 — On Oct 21, 2009

thanks a lot!

By anon49484 — On Oct 20, 2009

Thanks! This helped me a lot on my homework!

By anon47468 — On Oct 05, 2009

i'm doing a project on this in school and this info helped a lot.

By anon47382 — On Oct 04, 2009

besides the heartbreaking injustices, it's a real pity to see a beautiful, diverse and rich continent like africa being torn apart by war, disease and poverty.

By anon47369 — On Oct 04, 2009

thanks a lot. this really helped.

By anon43125 — On Aug 25, 2009

why was the apartheid introduced?

By anon32812 — On May 27, 2009

I'd love to hear peoples opinion of apartheid and discrimination in South Africa. Thanks.

By anon28860 — On Mar 23, 2009

Why did this happen?

By anon26947 — On Feb 21, 2009

How much of the population was white and how much was not, at the time?

By anon16534 — On Aug 08, 2008

Isn't it ironic now, if we look back at the achievements of that National Party, how it dwarfs that the ANC... sure their human rights record was bad. But their economic and technological achievements...of 4 million people... phenomenal.

By anon8138 — On Feb 08, 2008

Who were the drivers behind the movement? It wasn't just the "Nationalist Party," it was certain specific people who had specific roles.

By anon8072 — On Feb 07, 2008

What are measures to deal with 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...

Learn more
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