Unit 1. Introduction

Apartheid describes a system of laws and policies of total racial segregation in South Africa that began in 1948, when the National Party came to power, and ended in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected President in the first democratic elections. This online, multimedia educational resource explores apartheid (“apartness” in the Afrikaans language) and its historical roots, and the successful popular struggle waged against it. Personal stories told through evocative and original video and audio interviews, documents, photographs and other sources bring this remarkable history to life.

The fight against apartheid led to one of the most important democratic transformations of the 20th century. That the negotiated transfer of power in South Africa in the early 1990s did not unleash a racial bloodbath is especially striking considering the violent nature of apartheid and the crucial role of armed struggle in the history of the liberation movements. The victory over apartheid was an African success story: South Africans provided their own solution to institutionalized racism and intolerance, creating a pluralistic state out of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity.

Today, South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world; it guarantees the human and civil rights of all its people. Of the 48 million people living in South Africa, an estimated 79 percent is Black African, 9.6 percent is white, 8.9 percent is “Coloured, ” and 2.5 percent is Indian. There are eleven official languages: isiZulu, isiXhosa, English, Afrikaans, Sesotho, SePedi, Setswana, Tshivenda, isiNdebele, SiSwati, and Xitsonga. About 60% of the population lives in urban areas, including large, modern cities such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban, but a sizable minority of the population lives in rural areas. Despite being the most industrialized country in Africa, South Africa still faces complex health, housing, and employment problems, and the region as a whole suffers from periodic droughts.

Paths to Pluralism: South Africa’s Early History

The history of South Africa constitutes and informs crucial aspects of world history. South Africa’s past is marked by changing interactions among a broad diversity of peoples. Indigenous African peoples include Khoikhoi (or Khoekhoe) herders and San hunter-gatheres, as well as Bantu-speaking mixed farmers from two main linguistic groups: the Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Ndebele) and Sotho-Tswana. White South Africans are primarily people of Dutch (known as Afrikaners) and British origins. In 1652, the Dutch East India Company established a permanent “refreshment” station at the Cape of Good Hope. At first, they had no intention of colonizing or settling the area, but that would soon change. In about 1688, the French Huguenots arrived. In search of a better life, and, understanding the Mediterranean climate of Cape Town, they introduced wheat and wine to the Western Cape, which was gradually integrated into the expanding world economy. Imperial Britain wrested final control of the Cape Colony from the Dutch East India Company in 1806. The 1820s saw the arrival of British settlers in the Eastern Cape and Natal. The racial and cultural diversity of South Africa is perhaps most notably embodied in the hybrid ethnic group labeled as “Coloureds,” a designation for South Africans of mixed race that gained primacy in the late 19th century. Finally, a small but significant portion of South Africans are people of Asian descent, mainly Indians brought to Natal as indentured workers in the 1860s and other “free” or “passenger Indians” from the merchant classes.

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