This Week in History

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This Week in History
17 March 1992: The end of Apartheid in South Africa

  Karthik Manoharan

On 17 March 1992, in a landmark referendum, South Africa voted to end apartheid, with 68.7 per cent voting to end racism and minority white rule as a result of a long and arduous struggle against racial segregation. President FW de Klerk declared, "Today, we have closed the book on apartheid."

Background to Apartheid Legislations
In South Africa, apartheid laws were implemented in the 1850s, beginning with the Masters and Servants Acts of 1856. These laws were applied in four different territories and criminalized the breach of employment contracts. However, it became evident that the laws were primarily enforced against unskilled black workers, although they were technically applicable to all citizens. This discrimination continued with the Mines and Works Act of 1911, which limited the participation of black individuals in numerous skilled mining occupations.

Having gained independence in 1910, South Africa experienced the implementation of laws that aimed to subjugate the black majority and grant unprecedented power to the white minority. The passage of the Natives Land Act in 1913 further worsened the situation by restricting the acquisition and use of land by black Africans to a mere 7 per cent, confining them to reserves.

In response to the Natives Land Act, the African National Congress (ANC), originally known as the South African Native National Congress, was formed to fight against discriminatory policies. However, geopolitical conditions, including the impact of world wars and economic depression, exacerbated racial segregation and strengthened apartheid.

Apartheid-era laws in South Africa reflect a deeply discriminatory system that infringed upon the rights and freedoms of non-white individuals. The Immorality Act of 1927 aimed to forbid sexual relations between white individuals and individuals of black descent. Later in 1950, the amendment widened the scope to include sexual relations between white individuals and individuals of all other races. Additionally, the Mixed Marriages Act banned marriages between white individuals and individuals of other races. The Natives Act enforced a requirement for all Africans over the age of 16 to carry passbooks containing information about their employment. The Separate Amenities Act segregated public places and transportation, making separate facilities available for white individuals and non-white individuals. The Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 limited Bantu, a prominent tribal group in South Africa, to being citizens solely of their tribal homelands, effectively considering them as foreigners within South Africa. These laws not only restricted personal relationships and marriages but also had far-reaching effects on education, employment, and everyday life. 

Resistance to the Apartheid
In 1948, the Afrikaner Nationalist Party, a white ruling party, won the election and instituted a system called apartheid. The Population Registration Act of 1950 became the cornerstone of apartheid, categorizing citizens based on race and implementing strict measures to enforce racial segregation. 

As resistance against apartheid grew, demonstrations evolved from non-violent to armed means. The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 was a turning point, where unarmed black protesters were met with violent police retaliation, resulting in the deaths of over 60 people and injuring hundreds. The incident garnered international condemnation and heightened the willingness of anti-apartheid activists to turn to armed struggle. Nelson Mandela, among other leaders, was arrested and imprisoned during this period.
International pressure and economic sanctions eventually forced President FW de Klerk to begin dismantling apartheid. The repeal of the Population Registration Act in 1989 and the subsequent release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 signalled a gradual shift towards dismantling apartheid policies. 

The Referendum: Why, What and How
In his inaugural address as President of the State on February 2, 1990, FW de Klerk implemented various reforms and initiated the path towards a democratic South Africa. To gauge white support for dismantling apartheid, a referendum was proposed. 

The referendum question asked voters if they endorsed the ongoing reform process initiated by the president on February 2, 1990, which aimed to negotiate a new constitution. The 1992 referendum, although restricted to white South Africans, delivered a strong majority vote of 68.7 per cent in favour of abolishing apartheid, with 31.2 per cent opposed. 
In 1994, South Africa held its first free and fair elections, making Nelson Mandela the country's first black President. This marked a significant milestone in the nation's history, solidifying the end of apartheid and the beginning of a new era of democracy and equality.

After the Referendum
The impact of the referendum and the subsequent dismantling of apartheid is profound. South Africa has witnessed a notable reduction in violent racial clashes since then, a testament to the successful transition away from the country's violent past. In recognition of the struggle and the need for constant vigilance against racial discrimination, the South African government declared 21st March as National Human Rights Day, commemorating the victims of the Sharpeville Massacre and promoting the elimination of racial discrimination.

The end of apartheid in South Africa serves as a powerful reminder that perseverance, resistance, and the shared pursuit of justice can overcome even the most entrenched systems of oppression. It is a beacon of hope and inspiration for nations around the world grappling with similar challenges, demonstrating that lasting change is attainable through unity and determination.


This Week in History is a new addition to our research publications, looking at the history, its importance, consequences/legacies, and relevance today. We hope this will add historic value to two of our flagship publications- Conflict Weekly and The World This Week. A shorter version of the above will be published in Conflict Weekly/The World This Week.

About the author
Karthik Manoharan is a PhD Scholar at the Department of History, Loyola College, Chennai.


In the series:
18 March 2014: Russia annexes Crimea
14 March 1879: Albert Einstein born in Germany
14 March 1849: The Sikh Army surrenders to the British
12 March 1918: Lenin shifts the capital to Moscow
11 March 1985: Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
09 March 1776: Adam Smith publishes “The Wealth of Nations”

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