Dive into the History of South Africa

This past meeting we dove into the history of South Africa, for in order to have a better understanding of the struggles being faced today one must take a look at how South Africa came to be.

Before 1652 the land of South Africa was divided amongst African tribes. The arrival and eventual invasion of Dutch settlers with the Dutch East India Company in 1652 forced the tribes away from the coastline further inland and away from Cape Town. The Dutch (who eventually became known as Afrikaners) took over land and began importing slaves as they continued to expand. In 1795 the British forced the Dutch to give them control of Cape Town.  Control would go back and forth between the British and Dutch. Between 1830’s and 1840’s the Afrikaners were forced to move inland further taking land from natives. These colonists became known as Voortrekkers. Between 1843 and 1870 the British settlers arrived. These settlers were determined to take control of the indigenous Africans through any means possible.

In 1910 the Union of South Africa formed and blacks were barred from being members of parliament.  A series of acts were passed including the 1913 Land Act which declared 90% of the country’s land for whites. By the time the Land Act was passed, the ANC (African National Congress) was formed in a show of black unity and in an effort to fight black persecution and colonialism in Africa. Eventually the ANC Youth League was formed in 1944 with AM Lembede as president and Nelson Mandela as its secretary. Among those leaders to arise from the ANC Youth League were Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu

hendrik verwoerd

H.F. Verwoerd

The Nationalist Party however gained strength and in 1948 the Nationalist Party of Afrikaners won election, retaining power until 1994. D.F Malan became the prime minister of South Africa. H.F. Verwoerd represented the NP in the Senate and with rising power became responsible for crafting what became known as apartheid – the official government ideology.

Apartheid mandated that people were separated (and treated much differently) based on race. Some of the acts of apartheid included the Population Registration Act of 1950 that required people to be classified based on their racial characteristics, the Group Areas Act of 1950 that forced individuals to live in communities of the same race, and the Pass Laws Act of 1953 requiring black south Africans to carry a pass book in all “white areas”. During Verwoerd’s time in power over 80,000 black Africans from Sophiatown, Martindale and Newclare were displaced to the newly established townships of south-western Johannesburg (Soweto). With the increasingly repressive laws against black South Africans came increasing resistance.

soweto uprising

Soweto Uprising

One of the events we discussed in our meeting was the Soweto Uprising. Both Mandela and Sisulu had been jailed since the late 1960s at Robben Island and sentenced to life in prison.  The Soweto Uprising took place on June 16, 1976 as the youth of Soweto marched against the South African government requiring that Afrikaans language be taught in schools. The Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) carefully planned out a peaceful protest that received support from the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). The key word here is that this protest was a peaceful one, yet the response of the police to the uprising was horrifyingly violent. The armed police force took fire against the defenseless demonstrating students. Many protestors were shot and to this day there is no definitive number of casualties. Some information was leaked implicating the police in shooting students in the back as they were fleeing. The aftermath of the Soweto uprising struck the hearts of many, leading to international pressure upon the South African government, which grew as images of police firing on peacefully demonstrating students were spread.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was another great leader in the fight against apartheid. He became a leader as he spoke out against the injustices of the system. He originally studied to become a teacher but quit in protest of the Bantu Education Act of 1953. He furthered his studies but at the same time began to make his opinions against apartheid known.  After the Soweto uprising Desmond Tutu became the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches where he became a leader. He pursued the goal of justice and reconciliation.  In 1984 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his effort. In 1986 he was elevated to Archbishop of Cape Town where he aided in the transition to democracy by asking other countries to pressure the government to dismantle apartheid.

Finally, in February of 1990, President FW de Klerk, leading a racist, crumbling and divisive South African government lifted restriction on the ANC a well as other opposition groups, which lead to the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison. South Africa held its first democratic election in April of 1994 and Nelson Mandela took office as president in June of that year. Mandela’s focus was to somehow begin a process of reunification and reconciliation as his government began to restructure a nation blighted by apartheid.  The foreword of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom exemplifies his story.

“It’s the chronicle of a son who breaks from his family and tradition; a voice for liberty who is captured, isolated, and imprisoned; a revolutionary who transcends conflict to become a peacemaker and unifier; and a rare human being who, in freeing himself of demons, also became free to give his extraordinary leadership to his country and the world.”

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is respectfully addressed as Madiba, the name of his family tribe. He is a remarkable man who somehow found the power and grace, after a lifetime of living under the oppression of apartheid and 27 years of persecution in prison, to look to heal himself and his country rather than retaliate against the persecutors. He did not take on the quest to heal South Africa alone. Many brave and oppressed men and women walked the long path to justice with him. And they continue to do so as the very real and damaging scars of apartheid still exist in a country still seeking wellbeing for all.

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