Module Twenty Nine, Activity Two

 South African History

South Africa is home to many different groups of people who have inhabited and migrated into the region at different times. The interactions of these people have had a large impact on the history of this country. Looking at the interactions of the different groups of people who have come into South Africa is an effective way of exploring issues in South Africa’s history. Today the South African government and leading political party, the African National Congress (ANC), has described South Africa as a “Rainbow Nation,” or a country of people of different colors, languages and ethnic/national origins living and working together as a single nation. The history section will look at the history of this “Rainbow Nation” and the following sections will look at two issues within the context of contemporary South Africa and the building of the Rainbow Nation.

(Throughout this activity, many references are made to South Africa History Online. To explore different aspects of South Africa’s history in more detail visit the South Africa History Online webpage at

Early Peoples of South Africa:

The Khoisan
The first groups of people to inhabit the land of modern-day South Africa are known as the Khoi-Khoi and the San peoples. Archaeological evidence suggests that they have lived in the region for nearly 5,000 years. You’ve already learned about these peoples in the discussion of hunter and gatherer societies in Module Twenty: Southern Africa; Activity 3Module Nine: African Economies, and Module Ten: African Politics and Government. These people largely inhabited the high-veldt and the western semi-arid regions. The San peoples were hunter-gatherers and the Khoi-Khoi were a pastoralist group of people who depended upon cattle for their livelihood. Today they are commonly known as the Khoi-San, as the groups have mixed, but when the Europeans came into contact with them they called them Hottentots (Khoi-Khoi) and Bushmen (San), terms which today are regarded as demeaning. They are characterized as lighter-skinned and are generally shorter in stature than the other African peoples who came into the region at a later date. These people have unique language dialects that use various clicking sounds.

The Khoi-Khoi settled the southern plains and along the Orange/Gariep River and the highlands of the western escarpment. The San traveled in small bands and inhabited the semi-arid regions and mountainous areas of the Western Cape and the Drakensberg Mountains. In these places, the peoples often painted onto walls of caves. One of the most notable of these collections of cave paintings depicting animals (the Eland, a large species of antelope, was painted more than any other animal) was found in the Drakensberg Mountains.

Teachers: Archaeologists and historians believe that cave paintings by the early Khoi-San represent the importance of animals and hunting to the early southern Africans. Note how realistic the representations of animals are, while the representations of human hunters are more abstract. Dancing is a common representation in cave paintings. Experts believe that dance had ceremonial importance in preparing hunters for the hunt.

Sights and Sounds of Africa
Copyright: Sights and Sounds of Africa, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Sights and Sounds 2
Copyright: Sights and Sounds of Africa, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Sights and Sounds 3
Copyright: Sights and Sounds of Africa, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Bantu Migrations:

You have already learned about the migrations of people who speak Bantu languages in Module 7A, African History until 1500. These people came into the eastern part of the country through what we now know as Mozambique and Zimbabwe and settled the region up to the coast in the fourth century, BCE. They interacted with the Khoisan peoples as they migrated into the region. This is evidenced by the adoption of click sounds into some of the Bantu languages, such as Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho. The Bantu languages can be classified into four subgroups: the Nguni (which includes Xhosa, Zulu, Swati and Ndebele), the Sotho (including Northern and Southern Sotho, Tswana, and Pendi) and Tsonga and Venda.

Origin of Bantu Language Groups Map Bantu Language Migration Map

These Bantu language speaking peoples settled the Eastern regions (in environments better suited for farming) with mixed-farming economies. They raised cattle and sheep, which played an important role in their societies (particularly cattle), but also had semi-permanent agriculturalist societies. The settlements of these groups of people largely centered around the umzi, or the homestead with the cattle kraal or corral. Men and women had clearly defined responsibilities. Women were responsible primarily for the agricultural work. They planted and harvested crops of grains and vegetables, and gathered other food. They fetched water, firewood or cow dung, cooked, and plastered the walls of the homes. Some of them also made baskets and pottery.

Two Houses in the Transkei. Image courtesy Africa Focus.
Houses in the Transkei: These stone and cement structures resemble some of the houses built by the Bantu-speaking people in earlier times.

The men helped women in agriculture by clearing the fields of trees, and built the frames for the houses that the women plastered. Their other responsibilities centered around the livestock. Young boys herded the cattle, while men milked the cows, butchered the animals, and performed leather-work. Men also did some iron smelting and presided over politics. Children were given tasks to help their mothers or fathers when they became old enough to work.

Patriarchs governed the homesteads and families were ordered patrilineally (as described in Module Eight: Activity 3: Families and Communities in Africa). When a young man and young woman wanted to marry, their two families would meet to discuss lobola or the amount of cattle given to the bride’s family at the time of marriage. When the family gave lobola and the marriage was performed, the wife became a member of the husband’s family. Her children took her husband’s name and belonged to her husband’s family line. Many of these societies also practiced polygamy, or allowed a man to have more than one wife. A family’s wealth and prestige was determined by the size of their household, both the resources they owned, such as cattle, and the size of their family. This also extended to chiefs, heads of kinship groups or clans. The greater the resources and number of people under his influence, the greater the chief. The chief also depended on his people for council and support in his office. Communities had village meetings to discuss matters of governance and relations with other groups.

Many of the groups of people had alliances under chiefs or monarchs. Most of the chieftaincies in South Africa were relatively small, although a few larger consolidated groups formed kingdoms. The most famous of these is the Zulu society which became consolidated under the innovative if violent leadership of Shaka Zulu during the 1820s and 1830s. Have you heard of Shaka before? He carried out a series of wars, known as the Mfecane or the Difiqane (in Sotho). The Zulu incorporated many groups of people into their kingdom with violence. Those who resisted fled to other areas. This changed the politics and settlement of the region as Europeans began trading and settling in the area.

A Drawin of Shaka
A Drawing of Shaka (OA)

Migrations of the Mfecane

Early European Explorations and settlements:
The first Europeans to reach the Khoisan and Bantu-speaking people of South Africa came as part of the late 15th Century search for a sea-route to the east. Portuguese sailors and explorers sailed down the west coast of Africa to find a way to the East Indies. (Bartholomew Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1487. Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape in 1497.) The Portuguese navigated the region around South Africa, but the Dutch became the first really influential Europeans to settle in South Africa. The Dutch East India Company sailed by South Africa many times to reach their sources of trade in the Indian Ocean and Asia. They eventually decided to establish a refreshment station in the cape, a place where traders could stop for more supplies. Men from the Dutch East India Company, led by Jan Van Riebeck, embarked on this mission in 1652, founding Cape Town.

Exploration of Africa Map

South Africa Exploration Map

In what soon began to be known as the Western Cape of South Africa, the Dutch settlers came into contact with the Khoisan peoples. Their refreshment station grew into a settlement and the Dutch realized they needed to have more control over the land if they were to have a fruitful station. They initially traded with the Khoisan, but eventually decided to establish a colony because they could not get the supplies they needed from the Khoisan, either because the Khoisan did not want to trade with them, or did not have enough resources for the travelers. As the Dutch established their farms and their colony they devastated Khoisan communities in military clashes. Many Khoisan people or their surviving children were taken to work on colonial farms after the Dutch conquered their communities and took their resources.

Discussion: Why do you think Cape Town was called a refreshment station? What does that show about how the Dutch East India Company viewed South Africa at this time?

The people of the Dutch East India Company were joined by other immigrants from Europe and also a large number of slaves brought in to work on the farms. Thousands of slaves were brought to the Cape from Indonesia, India, Madagascar, and the East Coast of Africa. As the colony grew, another group of people emerged from the interactions of all of the different people in the Cape. Some Europeans, Khoisan, and Asian slaves intermarried and had children. These people of mixed racial backgrounds eventually became known as “Coloured” people. A large group of Coloured people came from an Indonesian or Malaysian background (since the Dutch East India Company brought them from Dutch colonies in Indonesia and Malaysia) and kept much of their Malaysian characteristics including the practice of Islam. They became known as the Cape Malay people.

"Slave poster" from Overcoming Apartheid.

Europeans Move In: Establishing British colonies and the Great Trek:
As European navigation along the African coast increased, the British began to settle in South Africa as well. They regarded South Africa as a strategic place to control trade going to the East Indies. In the late 1700s, the Dutch East India Company’s economic power declined and in 1795, the British took over the Dutch East India Company. Just a few years later, in 1806, the British government took charge of the Cape colony. As the British moved farther into South Africa and up the coast, they became more involved with the Bantu speaking people in the region. The British had a large presence in the Eastern Cape where they came into contact with the Xhosa people. From roughly 1779-1879 the British and Xhosa clashed violently, engaging each other in nine different wars until the British finally annexed the territory. These series of wars are known as the Frontier Wars.

European Contact and Settlement Map

Farther up the coast British merchants worked out of a port named D’urban (Durban). In this region, what is now known as Kwa-Zulu Natal, British traders came into contact with the Zulu people and Shaka, their ruler. Shaka had expanded his kingdom, but did not have absolute power. In fact, because of his tyranny, he alienated others in his kingdom and was eventually assassinated by his step-brothers.

The Zulu people at this time were not only coming into contact with the British on the coast – those primarily concerned with trade – but another group of people began moving into the interior. The Dutch farmers (known as Boers – the word for farmers in their language) of the Cape began to feel oppressed by the British government. In 1807, the British government abolished the slave trade and in 1834, abolished slavery in the Cape. The descendants of the Dutch settlers felt the British government was attacking their way of life. In the 1830s, large groups of Dutch farmers began to leave the British Cape colony to head for a place in the interior where they could be free to live they way they wanted to.

These farmers’ ancestors had come to the Cape in the late 1600s and their families had lived there for almost 200 years. Over the course of the growth of the colonies, their language had changed and been influenced by other immigrants to the region. Some Dutch people viewed the farmers’ language as corrupted by the farmers’ interactions with their slaves. The language began to be known as Afrikaans – “African” in Dutch. The people who spoke this language began to be known as Afrikaners.

Dutch Home in South Africa. Image courtesy Africa Focus.
Dutch Home in South Africa. Image courtesy Africa Focus.

Afrikaners look back to the movement of their ancestors out of the Cape as a defining event for their people. They called this movement The Great Trek. Afrikaner farmers traveled into the interior of the South African region with ox-drawn wagons, much like the American pioneers who moved into the western part of the United States with ox-drawn, covered wagons.

Covered Wagons of the Voortrekker Monument. Image courtesy Africa Focus.

One group of these Voortrekkers (as the Afrikaner people traveling into the interior were called) moved into lands of the Zulu people and another group moved up into the north, clashing with the Ndebele. Due to the wars of expansion of the Zulu and drought, many of the peoples who had inhabited the land previously had moved elsewhere or had fled. The Voortrekkers moved into areas that they saw as uninhabited.

Afrikaner Great Trek Map

This was not a peaceful process. For example, a group of Voortrekkers led by a man named Piet Retief, came into contact with Dingane, the Zulu king (who had taken the kingship from Shaka). Piet Retief and his men tried to make peace with Dingane and strike a deal with the Zulu people in order to obtain land in 1837. Dingane invited Piet Retief and his men to his homestead. He said he would give them land if they brought him cattle. In 1838 Retief and his men took the requested cattle to Dingane. Dingane and his men killed them all, then attacked the rest of the Voortrekkers. In response to this, other Voortrekkers under the leadership of Pretorius went back into the territory and circled their wagons on the banks of the Ncome River. On December 18, 1838, the Zulu attacked these Afrikaners. With the protection of their circled wagons and guns, the Afrikaners fended off the Zulu successfully without one fatality. They killed an estimated 3,000 Zulu soldiers. This battle is known as “The Battle of Blood River” or “The Battle of the Ncome River.” The descendants of these Afrikaner people interpreted their success as a sign from God that they were destined to occupy the land and rule in South Africa. December 16 was considered for a long time in South Africa as “the day of the vow.” The Afrikaner people eventually established two federations. The northern colony was called the Orange Free State. The colony south of the Free State and north of the coast and British colony of Natal was called the Transvaal. To see a map of the treks inland and to read more about the great trek click here.

Former Provinces Map
Former Provinces Map
South Africa 1885
South Africa 1885

The British established Natal as a colony in 1856. This meant that the British started trying to establish control in the region and began to weaken African independence. In the colony, they did not allow Africans to vote and implemented taxes that pushed African men into work for white farms in order to have an income to meet tax requirements. (The British system of colonial rule in Africa in the latter half of the 1880s was one known as indirect rule. The British allowed African chiefs to maintain sovereignty over their people, but these chiefs were considered part of the British hierarchy of rule and had to answer to colonial officials.) Segregation between the white colonists and black Africans was also a characteristic of this new colonialism in Natal.

The Discovery of Gold and Diamonds and Consolidation of the Colonies:
In 1867, diamonds were discovered outside of the town Kimberly to the northeast of Cape Province. Twenty years later, in 1886, gold was discovered near Johannesburg, in the Transvaal. These discoveries of precious minerals changed the nature of South African colonialism and the relationship between the different European groups and the Africans in the region.

Ariel View of Gold Mines
An Aerial View of Gold Mines in South Africa. Image courtesy Africa Focus.
A Mineshaft. Image courtesy Africa Focus.
Contemporary Johannesburg: Johannesburg became an important industrial center

Because of the discovery of the minerals the British decided they wanted to have greater control over the whole region of South Africa. They eventually defeated the Zulu in 1879, and by 1889, and Zululand was no longer independent. Between the 1870s and 1890s, the British finally defeated the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape.

The other groups of people who stood in the way of British having  full control of South Africa were the Afrikaner people of the two republics. From 1899-1902, the British fought the Afrikaners in what became known as the Anglo-Boer War or South African War. It was a war of the British colonial power against the Free Republics. The Afrikaners fought much of the war with guerrilla warfare and were successful with these tactics. The British responded by burning the land and resources of the people (called a “scorched earth policy”), exiled Afrikaner leaders, and even set up concentration camps for Afrikaner prisoners (some blacks Africans were involved, but the camps held mostly Afrikaners).

The British continued to consolidate their power after the end of the war and, after meetings and compromises, declared the Union of South Africa in 1910. This gave the people of South Africa greater independence from the British. The union did not extend the vote to black South Africans and non-whites could not be elected in the colonies (except for in the Cape colony which continued to base its franchise on land and property—based on how much a person owned-- instead of race until 1936).

With the consolidation of the colonies and the exclusion of Africans from participation in government, Africans formed opposition groups. The most notable of these is the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) founded in 1912, later known as the African National Congress (ANC). This organization was founded by men such as John L. Dube, its first president, who came from the mission-educated Christian African elite. They founded the organization for the purpose of demanding rights for Africans of South Africa, largely through petitions and delegations. Their name resembled the Indian National Congress, an anti-colonial organization with a large following in India and ties to South Africa.

(To see photographs and read more about the ANC’s founding, visit the ANC’s website. A brief history can be found at

Indentured Servants and Other Immigrants:
In the 1860s, Indians from India migrated to the Natal region to become indentured servants on European farms and sugar plantations. Six thousand Indians from different Indian social groups went to South Africa between 1860 and 1866. A small number of Indian traders accompanied them. At the end of their contracts, many Indian indentured servants stayed in South Africa. In the 1880s, as the male African population of Natal began to work more in gold and diamond mines, more Indian workers were brought into Natal to work on the sugar plantations that were the basis of Natal’s colonial economy. The Indian population and community grew so that by the end of the 19th century there were more Indians than white people in Natal. Early on, elite members of the community took a part in politics. For example, in 1893, they brought in a young lawyer named Mahatma Gandhi who increasingly challenged the government’s racial policies through non-violent means. Gandhi left South Africa to return to India in 1914, where he led the non-violent independence movement in India. (To read about Gandhi and passive resistance in South Africa see South Africa History Online at

After World War II, Indians in South Africa began to work with other political parties such as the ANC. Indians still constitute a major group in South Africa today. Durban, the city center of the Kwa-Zulu Natal region now has the largest population of Indians outside of India.

Mosque in Durban
Mosque in Durban

Other people from Europe and Asia made their way to South Africa. British settlers included people from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The mines attracted people from all over Europe and from parts of Asia. When Africans resisted labor control by white mine owners, the colonial government imported Chinese workers. By 1907, 63,000 Chinese workers had gone to South Africa to work in the mines.

Segregation and the Lead up to Apartheid:
As the South African Union grew, the African National Congress found more reasons to contest government policies. The government continued to implement segregation policies and Afrikaner nationalism increased. From the union of South Africa (1910) up until the implementation of apartheid in 1948, South Africa saw more migrations, though these were internal movements of Africans mostly to urban areas. These migrations also had an affect on government policy.

One of the first laws the government passed after the union was the 1913 Land Act. This prohibited Africans from owning land outside of ‘homelands’ – lands deemed to be the traditional lands of Africans. In reality these lands constituted only a small fraction of what Africans had occupied before the coming of the Europeans. The Land Act reserved only 13 % of the land for Africans and designated the rest for the ownership of white people. This land policy made it so that many Africans who farmed on land in areas suddenly deemed white areas had to move. The policy also served as a basis for later acts, such as the Homelands Act.

During this period many young men also migrated to the mines to work. Many other Africans moved to the cities to perform domestic work. With this intense period of urbanization, the government continued to try to restrict and control the movement of African peoples by requiring them to carry passes, a practice they had implemented in the late 1800s with the growth in the mine industry.

South African Pass Book
A South African Pass Book. Image courtesy UN Photo.

Other legislation implemented during this time that increased segregation and unbalanced economic development, included the 1911 Mines and Works Act which put into effect a color bar in the work force, restricting black workers from management and higher-paying skilled jobs. This act was followed up by two acts in the 1920s, the 1925 Wage Act and the 1926 Mine and Works Amendment Act that extended the color bar.

In 1923 the government passed the Natives (Urban Areas) Act which restricted Africans coming into urban areas. In 1937, the government passed the Native Laws Amendment Act which required Africans who lived in white cities and towns to provide proof of registered employment.

During this time, Africans protested segregation policies through petitions and legal means, believing that the British system of justice and governance which the South African system was based on would eventually allow them to gain the rights and protection it provided for other citizens in South Africa.

The Introduction of Apartheid:
In the 1930s, Afrikaner nationalism intensified. Part of this was due to the celebration of the centennial of the Great Trek. A large festival was organized by an Afrikaner cultural group, a movie was produced called “The Birth of a Nation,” a Voortrekker (those who migrated into the northeast) Monument was built, and other people pushed for recognition of the Afrikaans language as a sophisticated language of the nation as opposed to the language of poor uneducated people, as it had been seen as in the past. Afrikaners also gained economic power in the 1930s. A secret fraternity of Afrikaners was formed, called the Broederbond (Brotherhood) which helped Afrikaners in economics and politics work together to gain power.


Talk about the power of national holidays, celebrations, and/or festivals and what they mean in U.S. society. Have you seen festivals and commemorations of local or national holidays change in the past years? What meanings do people place on historically significant days in the U.S. and does everyone agree on that meaning? (Note: Think of Columbus Day and how that is celebrated. In recent years there has been a move to recognize the Native American casualties of colonialism in the Americas on Columbus Day rather than viewing the day as a celebration of the founding of the United States as has been done in the past.)

Statue In Front of Voortrekker Monument
Statue In Front of Voortrekker Monument

Part of this growth in Afrikaner nationalism included a drive to gain political power by the Nationalist Party (originally formed as the Purified National Party in 1934). Afrikaner nationalism was described as Christian Nationalism. It included a belief that the Afrikaner people were destined to rule in South Africa. They believed in a natural separation of peoples by God and a divine mandate given to the Afrikaner people to bring Christianity and development to the “inferior” non-European peoples of South Africa.

The Nationalist Party ran an election campaign in 1948 centered on the word apartheid. This word literally means ‘apart-ness.’ They proposed a plan for intensified segregation and separate development. They argued that the British liberal segregation was inadequate or too loose. They gained political power in 1948, as the Nationalist Party won a majority of seats over the other parties, such as the United Party. The Afrikaner intellectual, Daniel F. Malan was elected by the National Party as Prime Minister. (Read more about types of African governments in  Module Ten: Activity 4: Politics and Government in Post-Colonial Africa.

When Malan arrived in Pretoria in June, he announced, “In the past we felt like strangers in our own country, but today South Africa belongs to us once more. For the first time since Union, South Africa is our own. May God grant that it always remains our own.” Soon after he said this, the National Party proceeded to treat black South Africans as though they were strangers in their own country through apartheid programs. The white government did this through educational, economic, social, and political policies.

The legislation that the Apartheid government passed in order to separate the people of South Africa and keep non-white or non-European groups of people inferior can be classified into two types: petty apartheid and grand apartheid laws/policies. The term, petty apartheid refers to laws concerning small aspects of daily life (though they greatly affected the lives of South Africans). Petty apartheid laws include segregation of public facilities, similar to the Jim Crow segregation laws of the American South. Public restrooms, drinking fountains, entrances, and even benches were designated for Whites or non-white people. People of different races could not use the same post office or the same beaches. These stipulations mostly fell under the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act passed in 1953.

public bathroom entrancespublic bathroom entrances 2

Two different entrances for public bathrooms

for use by white persons

a segregated beach
A segregated beach. Image courtesy UN Photo.

The grand scheme of apartheid, or apartheid on a large/grand scale, was to secure economic (and thus land) resources into the hands of white South Africans and create separate “spheres of development.” (As we know from United States history, the idea of “separate but equal” does not hold true.) This included land and residential segregation policies. In 1950, the government passed the Group Areas Act, which designated certain areas for certain racial groups. People could not choose where they wanted to live. Whites had to live in designated White areas, Coloured people in Coloured areas, Indians in Indian areas and Africans in African areas.

Differences between formally all-white areas and black townships/locations(photos by Leslie Hadfield):

home in Beacon Bay Some homes in Duncan Village

A home in Beacon Bay, a suburb of East London

Some homes in Duncan Village, a ‘location’ of East London

Beacon Bay Duncan Village

Beacon Bay

Duncan Village

Beacon Bay 2 Duncan Village 2

Beacon Bay

Duncan Village

Beacon Bay 3 Duncan Village 3

Beacon Bay

Duncan Village

Beacon Bay Garden Duncan Village 4

Beacon Bay garden

Duncan Village

 Duncan Village 5
 Duncan Village

In order to enforce this, the government had to classify people. They did this through legislation and issuing more restrictive passes (building on the passes of the segregation era). Government officials visited different parts of the country to assign official racial classifications and register people under the racial classification laws. A classic example of how the government determined if someone had African ancestry (and thus was Coloured) is the pencil test. Sometimes a government official would stick a pencil in the hair of the person they were classifying. If the pencil could not be easily pulled out, the person was thought to have African hair and was thus classified as Coloured.

Overcoming Apartheid Multi-media resource units on Forced Removals.

This also resulted in the relocation of large numbers of people. The government forced people out of their homes if they were living in the wrong area and split up neighborhoods. Famous examples of this include forced removals from Sophiatown in February of 1955, and District Six of Cape Town beginning in 1966. Visit the District Six Museum website at

Another important part of grand apartheid expanded on the land policies of the earlier government. These policies culminated in the Homelands Acts which made the so-called homelands of Africans supposedly independent from the South African government. It also made Africans become citizens of their respective homelands. This meant that in South Africa they were considered foreigners. In the land of their birth they were no longer citizens with a chance at voicing their grievances to the government. The first apartheid acts concerning the homelands were passed in the 1950s. In the 1970s, the South African government granted these homelands their independence (though the homeland governments were closely tied to the South African government and could not isolate themselves economically from South Africa). The government forcibly removed people to the so-called homelands. Many people were forced to move to the small regions corresponding to their ancestry. Some people had not ever seen their so-called homeland because they were born in the city or townships. Yet, because their family’s ethnic group was, for example, Xhosa, they had to move to the Xhosa homelands of Ciskei or Transkei. People also had difficulties in farming in these areas because the homelands included poor land.


Look at the maps below of the South African Homelands. Why do you think the homelands are scattered and fragmented? Only the country of Israel recognized homelands as independent nation-states. Why do you think no other countries did so? Why do you think Israel did? 

South Africa Black Homelands

Additional Images from Overcoming Apartheid:

Other acts of government can be classified under social apartheid. These include the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and the Immorality Act of 1950, prohibiting interracial marriage and sex, and education acts of 1953 and 1959 which established inferior education systems under government control for black students and segregated the universities.

Resistance to Apartheid:
When the NP won the 1948 elections, it obviously was not through a democratic vote. First of all, with the 1910 compromise in the creation of the Union of South Africa, rural votes were given more weight in the political process. Numerically, the NP did not win a majority of the popular vote, but because many rural voters supported the NP and their promise of apartheid, the NP won a majority of seats in parliament. Furthermore, and most importantly, all of the African, Coloured and Indian populations could not vote at this time and largely saw the NP as a threat to their freedom.

As the NP began passing more and more laws, opposition to apartheid policies grew. The ANC was the major opposition party of the 1940s – mid 1960s, although there were other organizations who also opposed apartheid.

In the 1940s, young members of the ANC gave a new energy and direction to the ANC. They organized the Congress Youth League (or ANC Youth League). They spear-headed the ANC Program of Action which began in 1949. This program of action was radical for the ANC because it called for the downfall of white domination and attainment of political independence. They totally rejected segregation and apartheid policies. They embraced African nationalism and advocated more confrontational means of protest through mass movements. They employed forms of protest such as boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and non-cooperation. They also started working more closely with the South African Indian Congress and other national anti-apartheid organizations such as the Coloured People’s Congress. The alliance between these congress groups was known as the Congress Alliance. Trade unions also began working on a larger scale. They formed the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) in 1955.

Contemporary ANC Logo. Image courtesy Overcoming Apartheid.

In 1952, the ANC and SAIC launched the Defiance Campaign. Massive numbers of people across South Africa demonstrated against apartheid by disobeying apartheid laws, such as using public facilities reserved only for white people. Other groups across South Africa waged resistance campaigns against Bantu Education and pass laws. For example, the Federation of South African women marched on Pretoria in 1955 and 1956.

In 1955, members of the ANC and its allies in the Congress of the People campaign spelled out their goals and vision for their country. They did this in a document called the Freedom Charter. This document stated that South Africa belonged to all of the people who lived in the country and all should be equal before the law. It demanded land, educational, and economic reforms and had a socialist tone. The adoption of the Freedom Charter signified an important change in the anti-apartheid movements. It unified different organizations such as the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured People’s Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats, and the South African Congress of Trade Unions. With this bold statement clarifying the objectives of the organizations to change the nation, the people moved away from working to just obtain rights within the existing governmental system to transforming the system. This clear, unifying statement also mobilized more people to oppose apartheid. Read the Freedom charter on the ANC website at

A group of people in the ANC thought that the organization should be more radical and more committed to securing South Africa for Africans. They did not support the idea of the Freedom Charter or that Africans should work with whites when gaining freedom in an African country and stressed a psychological liberation from their white paternal or colonial thinking. This led to the founding of the Pan-African Congress (PAC) in 1959, led by Robert Sobukwe a professor of African languages. The PAC became another major anti-apartheid organization of the 1960s onward.

In the 1960s, opposition groups organized more mass resistance. The government increasingly met these non-violent demonstrations with a violent response. As a turning point in resistance, the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 illustrates the violence used by South African police. The PAC had planned a non-violent demonstration in the Vaal region, south of Johannesburg. In the town of Sharpeville, a township situated between the white towns of Vereeniging and Vanderbijlpark, the residents of the town were to march to the police station where they would burn their passes in protest of government racial and residential policies. An estimated 5,000 people marched to the station on 21 March, 1960, where they met the police. Faced with a large crowd, inexperienced policemen panicked and open fired on the people (who would have only been armed with stones at best). They killed 69 people – including 8 women and 10 children – and wounded 180. On 6 April, 1960, the government banned the ANC and the PAC. This meant that the organizations and participating in any of their activities was illegal. To read more about the Sharpeville Massacre and see photographs visit South African History Online’s special project on Sharpeville at

In response, both the PAC and the ANC decided to establish underground military wings. The PAC named their military wing Poqo (Pure) and the ANC named their military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (spear of the nation) or MK. They began to carry out acts of sabotage against the government and corroborating African chiefs of the homelands; however the government continued to suppress these opposition movements. They arrested Robert Sobukwe and other PAC leaders, while others went into exile. Many ANC leaders also went into exile and traveled out of the country to gain support for their movements. In 1963, the government dealt another blow to the opposition movements when they captured most of the ANC leaders, including Mandela who had just returned to the country. In what became known as the Rivionia trial, Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki, among others, were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. Thus started what many refer to as the silent decade, where organized opposition to apartheid was virtually quiet.

Yet, not all was quiet in the late 1960s and earlier 1970s. Much activity occurred on South African University campuses. In the mid-1960s, liberal student organizations carried on anti-apartheid activities. Two of the major organizations included the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and the University Christian Movement (UCM). African students became increasingly involved in these university movements. In 1959, with the implementation of higher education segregation, and thus the building of “tribal” or “bush” universities in the African homelands, the number of African students enrolled at the university level grew. This helped contribute to a growing student activism.

Steve Biko, a young medical student at the University of Natal, Non-European section, became involved along with other African students in NUSAS and the UCM. After a number of incidents, Biko and his colleagues became dissatisfied with NUSAS and formed a black student organization in 1969 as an exclusively black organization, called the South African Student Organization, or SASO. This was the beginning of the Black Consciousness Movement that focused on cultivating the ability of the black people of South Africa to change the oppressive situation in South Africa by rejecting the ideology (and eventually the system) of apartheid. Adherents to Black Consciousness stressed self-reliance to build up their capacity as a people. They also introduced a new definition of “black people.” They defined black people as all those people of color in South Africa who suffered from white racism. The Black Consciousness Movement started as a student movement but also had mobilizing programs and organizations which went out into the community. For example, the Black People’s Convention acted as the political wing of those adhering to the Black Consciousness ideology, and the Black Community Programs organization focused on black community development. As a student group, SASO worked through Student Representative Councils and had a focus on building youth leadership, even extending into some high schools, where SASO members hoped to recruit graduating senior students.

Steve Biko next to Excerpts of his Writings
A Picture of Steve Biko Next to Excerpts of His Writings (on a background of an aerial view of a township), Displayed in His Home in Ginsberg, South Africa To learn more about Steve Biko, visit the Steve Biko Foundation at

Enrollment by African students had also grown rapidly in elementary and secondary schools in the 1960s. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 placed primary and secondary education under the control of the government. This had repercussions for the education system as the government used it to perpetuate its own goals. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, South Africa experienced an economic boom. South Africa needed more skilled workers to fill the new jobs created with this boom, so they worked to increase school enrollment.

Along with the new energy and psychological liberation brought by the Black Consciousness Movement, the atmosphere in South Africa became more energetic as workers throughout the country became more active and militant. For example, in 1973, workers in Durban carried out a number of strikes demanding better treatment. Furthermore, South Africa’s neighbors to the north west and north east gained independence from European powers through intense independence wars. In 1975 Mozambique and Angola won their independence from Portugal. This added to the brewing energy and hope in South Africa.

This was the environment that the elementary and secondary school students lived in during the mid-1970s. These students would have a profound impact on the direction of the country, particularly the students of Soweto, a township outside of Johannesburg. In the mid 1970s, the Soweto schools were crowded with the growth in student enrollment accompanied by a lack of resources and a mid-1970 economic decline. To add fuel to the fire, during the summer vacations of 1975-1976 (from December to January in South Africa), the department of education issued a decree that Afrikaans would be the language of instruction in Math, geography, and social studies for all black middle schools. Not only did the people see this as imposing the language of their oppressors, the students and teachers found it very difficult to teach and learn in a language they did not know.

classroom in informal settlement
A classroom in an informal settlement in contemporary South Africa. Image courtesy UN Photo.

In Soweto, as the mid-year exams approached, student protests of the imposition of Afrikaans increased. In June, the middle school students of Orlando West Junior Secondary School, led class boycotts which spread to seven other middle schools in the area. The older students of the high schools got involved in the boycotts in a meeting where students from different schools planned a march. On the morning of June 16, 1976, students from all over Soweto marched towards the Orlando stadium where they planned to have a peaceful meeting, demand that the government repeal the imposition of Afrikaans, and then go home. The police tried to stop the students before they got to the stadium by firing tear gas. The students responded by throwing rocks and soon the police shot at the students, killing two; then began a “rampage through the township.”

Hector Peterson
A picture taken by Sam Mzima on June 16, 1976 of one of the first children to die from shots fired on protesting students in Soweto. The boy’s name is Hector Peterson. (Photo used under provisions of SA Act No.43 of 1996)

The riots continued on June 17 and spread to surrounding schools, including the University of Witswatersrand. These uprisings also ignited protests and unrest throughout the country – notably in the Cape Town area with the Coloured university, the University of the Western Cape. Students in Soweto also organized stay-aways for the whole community to stay home from work.

By October 1977, the townships quieted down, but these uprisings had a huge impact on South Africa. One historian has written that the Soweto uprisings “altered [the] pace and direction of change in South Africa.” It heightened resistance and youth militancy, and also influenced the government. The apartheid regime eventually lightened the Afrikaans educational policy and began to crack down even more on opposition. (To read more about Soweto and see photos, visit

On September 12, 1977, the government announced that Steve Biko died while in police custody. An investigation into the cause of his death showed that he died from brain injuries sustained during security police interrogation (though the police never fully admitted to beating him and were not charged with any crime). The death of Biko in detention drew a lot of attention to South Africa’s police brutality and harsh government oppression. Biko was not the only one who died in police custody, but was a prominent example. His death, along with the banning of all Black Consciousness related organizations and programs greatly weakened the Black Consciousness Movement.

The 1980s and the end of Apartheid:
Under the leadership of the new Prime Minister, P.W. Botha, the South African government became more militarized in the 1980s. Because of the way white politicians talked about the state of their nation, many white South Africans feared their country was under siege by communists and that the ANC acted under the direction of the Soviet Union, though this was untrue. South Africa became more isolated from the international community, particularly with the 1977 United Nations arms embargo on the country. The South African government launched what they called a “Total Strategy” for the 1980s. To defend themselves from a feared “communist” take-over, the government carried out covert military campaigns in neighboring countries fighting for their independence, used secret death squads to eliminate black opposition, and increased its support to the police forces.

Politically, the government sought to reform aspects of apartheid without changing its fundamental basis. They gave more rights to workers to form unions and relaxed the job color bar. In 1983, the government passed a new constitution which gave token representation to the Indian and Coloured populations through a Tri-cameral legislature. Yet the new Indian and Coloured houses did not have much decision making power since they still formed a minority against the white house. Africans were still fully excluded and the president gained greater powers, particularly over the military.

In response to these attempts to pacify opposition, both domestic and international, a new political organization was formed. In 1983, a group of leaders from different organizations formed the United Democratic Front (UDF), a coalition of mostly community based action groups, but which also included trade unions, fighting against apartheid. They followed the precepts outlined in the Freedom Charter and organized mass campaigns such as the successful urban rent boycotts of the mid- to late 1980s. They were broadly aligned with the ANC, whose membership, along with the PAC, also increased in the 1980s in the aftermath of the 1976 uprisings, and whose military wing continued to carry out acts of sabotage. (To learn more about the UDF, visit Overcoming Apartheid’s Multi-media resource unit)

In 1985, faced with growing opposition and growing resistance and violence in the townships, the government declared a state of emergency in South Africa. Although white communities were not directly affected, the fear of civil war or disintegration of order in South Africa began to grow among white people. Business leaders began to reach out to talk with the ANC leaders in exile. In 1986, the government began secret negotiations with Nelson Mandela, still a prisoner on Robben Island, as the police and the people of the townships reached a stalemate.

funeral of anti apartheid activist
Funeral of an anti-apartheid activist in 1985, a common scene in the 1980s. Image courtesy UN Photo.

International pressure also increased with the imposition of economic sanctions against South Africa by the United States in 1987, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, signifying the downfall of the communist block and end of the Cold War. With the absence of the threat of a communist onslaught, the South African government lost much of its justification for violent repression of anti-apartheid movements.

Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Botha suffered a stroke. The National Party quickly replaced Botha with a new party leader, F.W. De Klerk, who became the president of South Africa after elections at the end of 1989. De Klerk was a more moderate member of the National Party, yet he surprised many in 1990 when he announced at the opening of parliament on 2 February 1990, that the bans on the ANC, the PAC, and South African Communist Party, as well as other organizations were lifted. He also announced the release of political prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela. Thus began the official negotiations leading to democratic elections in 1994.

Statue of Nelson Mandela leaving Prison (Victor Verster Prison, Paarl Western Cape) February 11, 1990 after 27 years in prison
Statue of Nelson Mandela leaving Prison (Victor Verster Prison, Paarl Western Cape) February 11, 1990 after 27 years in prison

Statue of Nelson Mandela leaving Prison (Victor Verster Prison, Paarl Western Cape) February 11, 1990 after 27 years in prison

South Africa experienced much violence between 1990 and 1994, and negotiations did not always go smoothly. The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), a forum to negotiate a new constitution met from December 1991 to May 1992 and included all parties; however, talks occasionally broke down and political violence threatened the continuation of negotiations. Negotiations resumed in 1993 under the name of the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum and in November agreed to an interim constitution and elections to establish a government of national unity.

1994 Democratic Elections and the Building of a New Nation:
From 26 to 29 April, 1994, South Africans of all races went to the voting booths. For the most part, the election process went smoothly with widespread participation and no violence. Black South Africans waited in long lines for hours in order to participate in a government that they had been excluded from for so long. The ANC received 62.65 % of the vote, wining the majority in nine of South Africa’s seven provinces. Nelson Mandela, as the main leader of the ANC, became the first president of a democratic South Africa. His two vice-presidents were the National Party’s F.W. De Klerk and the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki.

Nelson Mandela voting
Nelson Mandela voting in 1994. Image courtesy UN Photo.

South Africa then embarked on an era of transformation. In order to address the fragmentation of societies and discrepancies in privilege and economic well-being caused by uneven development of the past, South Africans had to restructure the government and infrastructure on all levels. A new constitution was ratified in 1996 which grouped all of South Africa (dissolving the homelands), into nine provinces and amalgamated fragmented municipal governments. Restrictions placed on the movement of people and where they could live were lifted. Formally all-white and privileged schools were open to students of all races. The new government also introduced a Reconstruction and Development Program intended to address socio-economic effects of apartheid. (To read the 1996 Constitution visit the government of South Africa’s website at

South Africa faces the legacy of apartheid on many fronts. Although legal apartheid has been abolished, racism still exists, violent crimes remain a problem, poverty and the spread of HIV/AIDS (which is featured in the Special Topics Section under HIV/AIDS: A Crisis in Africa) plague the country. Progress is slow, but has been made. One South African from Soweto, Nomalanga Grootboom, has said, “We are on a slow truck moving to the promised land.”

As one way to address the wrongs of the past and in hopes of healing the nation, the transitional government of 1994 created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In 1995, the government passed the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act. This act established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa whose mandate was to investigate politically motivated gross human rights violations committed from 1960 to 1994. The TRC consisted of three committees: the Human Rights Violations Committee (HRV), the Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee (R&R) and the Amnesty Committee. The HRV Committee invited individuals to come forth and testify of politically motivated human right violations committed against them. The Reparations and Rehabilitation Committee was intended to address the needs of victims of such violations, identified by the HRV committee (although it did this for only a few cases). The Amnesty Committee handled applications by individuals. If a person applied for amnesty for their gross human rights violations, proved they were politically motivated crimes, and gave a full disclosure to the Amnesty Committee of the TRC, they would be granted amnesty by the government and be free from prosecution for that particular act. TRC hearings lasted from 1996 to 1998. 2,000 people testified at these hearings that were open to the public and broadcasted over the radio and television. 7,112 people applied for amnesty but only 849 (12%) were granted amnesty.

Leaders of the ANC wanted to carry out the TRC because they wanted to promote forgiveness and reconciliation between previous oppressors and their victims. It was a way the ANC could show white South Africans that they could be secure in the new South Africa and a way black South Africans could have the crimes committed against them recognized and know the truth about what happened to family members or friends who had been killed. Seventeen commissioners headed the TRC. Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Nobel Peace Prize winner and anti-apartheid activist) chaired the commission. He advocated the idea of restorative justice as opposed to retributive justice. Instead of punishing people for their crimes (retributive justice) they wanted to invite people to come forward with the truth about what they did, admit their wrong-doing, and if appropriate, be legally forgiven of their crimes. Tutu believed that in knowing the truth of the past, publicly admitting wrong, and forgiving (restorative justice), the nation could close their wounds and work together as they moved forward into the future. The country broadly achieved reconciliation as the people listened to hearings and came to terms with their past; however, people reacted differently to the process. For example, while some who personally participated in the process felt relieved and healed, others were dissatisfied with incomplete testimonies and felt their pain renewed.

To read more about the TRC process, transcripts of amnesty hearings, and to see other related sources visit Overcoming Apartheid’s unit on exploring the TRC, the TRC website at and the “Traces of Truth” online document collection at

A large part of the ANC’s platform and a major reason for the success of the transition and consolidation of democracy in South Africa is the idea of reconciliation and accommodation of all races in South Africa. In the efforts to create peace and a strong nation, the South African government and the ANC has perpetuated the idea of a Rainbow Nation. This goal of creating a nation made of people of all different skin colors and cultures who can live together peacefully and cooperatively, is the subject of the next two sections. Activity three focuses on some of the challenges of the government in creating a Rainbow Nation and Activity four looks at a tool or means of doing so: sports.


JIGSAW – Information Chart

Fill in the following chart. If used in a classroom setting, assign groups to focus on one of the categories then have each group share their information with the rest of the class.

Khoisan Bantu Dutch British Coloured Indian
Important Events


Give each student an identity and have them put themselves in order according to the apartheid racial hierarchy illustrated in the following pyramid. Next, talk about how students feel in their position and predict what will happen if the majority of the people are placed in the lower class (i.e. this led to resistance to apartheid). The following chart is based on statistics reported in 1960 that show White people made up 19% of the population (3.1 million), so-called Coloureds 9% (1.5 million), Indians 3% (.5 million), and Africans 68% (10.9 million).

South Africa hierarchy



Peter Jones was born in Somerset West near Cape Town in the early 1950s. He was classified by the apartheid government as Coloured. In 1968 he attended the University of the Western Cape where he became involved in the South Africa Students’ Organization (SASO). This was the beginning of his involvement in the Black Consciousness Movement. Jones went on to hold positions in the Black People’s Convention and to work closely with Steve Biko in the Black Community Programs organization.

Listen to this clip of Peter Jones talking about his experiences of getting involved in the Black Consciousness Movement and analyze how his testimony can be used as a source for historians.

Before You Listen: Note what you already know about the Black Consciousness Movement. What do you predict Peter Jones will talk about? What questions would you ask him if you were doing the interview? (What would you like to know about the Black Consciousness Movement)?

While Listening: Note the impressions you have and the emotions you feel. What facts can you get from this source? Does Peter Jones provide answers to the questions you would have asked him? Does he say anything that surprises you?

After Listening:
What did Peter Jones experience growing up that would motivate him to become politically involved, even though he says he came from “a [completely] non-political” background? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

What kind of materials did he and other students read? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

How did he and others of the Black Consciousness Movement view their relationship to the community? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Is Jones a credible source? Why, or why not? __________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Is he helpful in giving you a sense of South Africa’s history?_______________________________________________________________________________________________

How does Peter Jones’ position as someone involved in the Black Consciousness Movement influence his perspective about it? How might his racial classification affect his perspective? He was interviewed almost 30 years after the events he talks about and after the South African transition to democracy. How might this influence how he talks about this particular history? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

How does this interview contradict or support your other sources? _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Write an essay about how this interview supports or contradicts statements about South Africa’s history that you read in the unit. For example, discuss the statement, “Adherents to Black Consciousness stressed self-reliance to build up their capacity as a people.” Say whether or not the interview supports the statement you choose to discuss and give at least three examples from the interview to show why or why not.



Listen to this clip of Peter Jones talking about some of the community projects he and others of the Black Consciousness Movement worked on in the areas surrounding King William’s Town, South Africa. Analyze his testimony as a source for historians.

Before You Listen: Note what you already know about the Black Consciousness Movement. What do you predict Peter Jones will talk about? What questions would you ask him if you were doing the interview (what would you like to know about)?

While Listening: Note the impressions you have and the emotions you feel. What facts can you draw from this source? Does Peter Jones provide answers to the questions you would have asked him? Does he say anything that surprises you?

After Listening:
What kind of programs did Peter Jones and his associates work with? _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Why did they decide to run a leather-working factory? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

What term does Peter Jones say “encapsulates” their philosophy for running the programs? ______________________________________________________________

Is Jones a credible source? Why or why not?___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Is Jones helpful in giving you a sense of the history of the Black Consciousness Movement?­­­­­­­­­­­­­­______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Peter Jones was interviewed almost 30 years after the events he talks about and after the South African transition to democracy. How might this influence how he talks about this particular history in 2006? ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

What did you hear in the interview that helps you understand the process of conducting oral history? What can you say about how historians construct history? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

How does this interview contradict or support your other sources? _______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Imagine that it is 1976 and you are a newspaper reporter from the United States, investigating the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. Write an article describing the programs of the Black Community Programs (BCP). Use what you already know of the Black Consciousness Movement and the interview with Peter Jones (including direct quotes) to describe what the people of the movement are doing and why it is important (in other words, why you think people in the United States should know about what Black Consciousness adherents are doing).

Go on to Activity Three or select from one of the other activities in this module.