By Henry Trotter – Wikimedia

Top 19 Facts About the Apartheid in South Africa


Originally published by Lilian on July 2021 and updated by Charity on July 2022 and Updated by Vanessa R on May 2023

Apartheid is a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. It was an authoritarian political structure led by the Dutch.

Black South Africans were discriminated against politically and economically. The country was racially segregated with the white minority ruling and enjoying the highest standard of living.

This was implemented and institutionalized by the then governing party. The Black majority lived a very disadvantaged life in their own country.

Basic needs such as income, education, and housing were hard to come by for the Black South Africans. Their life expectancy was low.

Many lives were lost in the quest for freedom. Local leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, and Desmond Tutu were at the front line demanding their freedom.

Today South Africa is a beautiful country, popularly referred to as the Rainbow Nation.

Here are the top 10 facts about Apartheid in South Africa.

1. The whites had their way and say

Former South African presidents de Klerk and Mandela in Davos, 1992. Photo sourced from Wikimedia

The racial hierarchy In South Africa placed the whites at the top and the Black South Africans at the very bottom. Others in between were Asians, Indians and the coloured (mixed race).

White South Africans ruled everything and had the best services. They had their separate areas of living such as Cape Town and Black South Africans were not allowed there.

All the Black South Africans were moved out of cities to townships such as Soweto. They lived in deplorable settlement schemes with little to no access to basic needs.  

2. Interracial marriages were criminalized

The love between a Black South African and a White South African was prohibited. Children born out of such unions were separated from their parents by the government.

In 1950, marriage or any sexual relations between the two races was banned. Any couple caught faces time in jail.

This greatly impacted the population and family life in South Africa. Families were split and forced out of their homes in 1961. About 3.5 million people were forcefully evicted from their lands and homes.

3. Black South Africans could not own property

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Apartheid worsened the situation of property ownership in South Africa. Most Africans were forced out of their homes and land by colonizers who made them labor for minimum wage.

With the institutionalization of Apartheid in South Africa, Black South Africans were forced out to settlement schemes. They were not allowed to own property and had little education.

This act was passed by Cecil Rhodes under the Glen Grey Act of 1894. They were allowed to own homes in the homelands that belonged to the different tribes.

Most of the industrial land was owned by the white minority.

4. Education was segregated

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Before apartheid in 1948, there were 10 universities in South Africa. only one university was designated for Black students. They did not have access to quality education.

Education during apartheid was segregated with the whites getting the best education. The 1953 Bantu Education Act separated the education system for Black South African students.

This act designated the Black population to live as a laboring class. There were separate universities for blacks, colored and Indian people.

The existing universities were strictly for white people and black students were not allowed admission.

Each black homeland controlled its own education, health, and police systems.

5. People in South Africa were classified into racial groups

In 1950, everyone in South Africa was grouped according to their race. The population registration act required all people to be classified under the color of their skin.

Colored people included Indians, Asians, and mixed people, black for Africans and White for whites. All these were based on social acceptance and descent.

When one did not comply with the race law, they were punished harshly. The Department of Home Affairs had a record of people according to their race.

It led to people being treated differently according to their race and laws based on this.     

6. The African National Congress Party was banned

The leading African political party in South Africa, the African National Congress, was banned by the then government. The party was led by Nelson Mandela.

Following the banning of the political party, Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1965.

Unfortunately, many European countries supported apartheid for their own selfish reasons. Britain for example was interested in gold that was discovered in Johannesburg.

7. Not all white people were for apartheid

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While the majority of whites supported apartheid, a small number of them were against it. Led by Helen Suzman, Colin Eglin, and Harry Schwarz, they formed the Progressive Federal Party.

They opposed apartheid in parliament. Other groups that opposed apartheid were largely based on the South African Communist Party and the women’s organization the Black Sash.

Public intellectuals such as Nadine Gordimer the eminent author and winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1991). She formed a movement against apartheid.

They joined black African groups in demonstrations and strikes.

8. Police brutality was rife among Black South Africans

Painting of the Sharpeville Massacre which occurred on 21 March 1960 By Godfrey Rubens – Wikimedia

During the strikes and demonstrations led by Black South Africans, there were many instances of violent protest.

The government of the day resorted to serial uprisings with severe police brutality. This in turn led to increased local support for armed resistance struggles.

Several organizations were created to solely organize peaceful protests, passive resistance, and armed insurrection.

The most violent protest in South Africa was in Sharpeville on March 21, 1960.  The police opened fire on the protesters and killed 69 Africans and wounding several others.

9. Black South Africans were required to carry passes

All black South Africans were required to carry a passbook containing fingerprints, photos, and information on access to non-black areas.

The government enforced this to prevent black people from accessing whites-only designated areas. Without the pass, one would not be allowed entry and faced a jail term.

Other laws banned social contact between the races, there were segregated public facilities, and restrictions on certain jobs example lawyer, judges.

Black South Africans could not apply for South African passports. This is because the eligibility requirements for a passport were difficult for blacks to meet. It was a privilege to own a passport.

10. Black South Africans were forced to learn Afrikaans

There was also an attempt to force the Afrikaans language on Black South Africans. The Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 required the use of Afrikaans and English on an equal basis in high schools outside the homelands. This led to a student riot in Soweto in 1976.

11. Fear was one of the main cause of Apartheid

Photo by Wikimedia Commons – Wikimedia 

The key causes of apartheid are white supremacy beliefs and fear. White Afrikaners believed that they were superior to the Black South African people.

Because white people in South Africa were in the minority, apartheid was partly driven by fear. Many were concerned that they would lose their jobs, heritage, and language.

The whites also intended to keep white South Africans in control of most of South Africa’s land, particularly the richest areas, such as Johannesburg’s gold mines.

White South Africans’ nationalism grew stronger as a result of the apartheid perspective because they firmly believed that separation was necessary.

12. Nelson Mandela was the Hero of Apartheid 

Photo by Wikimedia Commons – Wikimedia 

Apartheid in South Africa will undoubtedly be remembered as a disaster. However, inspirational people such as Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk emerged from the ashes of such tragedies to bring change. 

They became heroes because the majority of apartheid laws were passed due to the apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela in particular, fight for the rights of Africans and ensured the laws were conducive for them with the ministry of home affairs settled the issues affecting the public.

13. Apartheid in South Africa lasted for 46 years

South Africa’s apartheid system was terminated through a series of agreements and direct actions by the de Klerk administration during 1990-1993. The apartheid era in South African history lasted from 1948-1994.

In a more serious policy shift, South African President F.W. de Klerk’s government removed most of the regulations that supported apartheid, particularly the Population Registration Act, in 1990–91.

However, systematic racial discrimination remained profoundly ingrained in South African society and persisted in practice.

In 1993, a new constitution was enacted that empowered Blacks and other racial groups, and it went into force in 1994.

In 1994, all-race elections produced a unity administration led by anti-apartheid fighter Nelson Mandela and other Black South African anti-apartheid leaders.

In 1994, the African National Congress, led by Mandela, won the election. In 1994, Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first Black president. These events led to the end of legally enforced apartheid, but not of its social and economic consequences.

14. Agreement to End Apartheid

Photo by Magda Macaskill – Wikimedia 

National Peace Accord to end Apartheid was signed on September 14, 1991, by twenty-six organizations.

There was a post-apartheid settlement that did not resolve substantive questions about it. However, the first multi-party agreement included guidelines for the conduct of political organizations and security forces.

15. Bishop Desmond Tutu greatly contributed to ending of the Apartheid

Photo by Kristen Opalinski – Wikimedia 

Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Noble Peace Prize of 1984 was instrumental in ending apartheid by speaking against it. In specific, he talked about the economic sanctions against the apartheid government while maintaining a path of nonviolence in the anti-apartheid movement.

16. There was a hierarchy among all the races

Few people still now think that some races are superior to others, but under apartheid, the situation was far worse. Regrettably, in this discussion, Africans have always been at the base of the pyramid, which has forced them to view white people as superior.

The white race was seen as the most superior during South Africa’s apartheid, followed by Asians and people of mixed races, and finally Africans. These apartheid-related facts demonstrate how the system was created to restrict blacks of their rights while empowering other racial groups.

17. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 was created as an inferior education system

19 Facts About the Apartheid in South Africa

Solar782, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A powerful example of the discriminatory practices that existed in South Africa during apartheid is the Bantu Education Act of 1953. Black South Africans were forced into a blatantly segregated and inferior educational system as a result of its introduction.

The act’s goal was to restrict their access to higher education, guaranteeing them a limited future and low-skilled jobs. This intentional systemic inequality was created to keep a racially segregated society in place by preventing Black children from accessing high-quality education that may help them realise their full potential.

18. South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 allowed all racial groups to vote

The first democratic elections held in South Africa in 1994 was a milestone moment in the history of the country and a major step towards removing apartheid’s restrictions.

All racial groups received the right to vote in the important election, ending the long-standing unfair practices of the past. Citizens of all races were able to take part in shaping the country’s future thanks to this inclusive and transformative process.

19. Sports teams were segregated based on race

Apartheid policies had an effect on South Africa’s sports as well as the whole population. South Africa was not allowed to take part in international sporting competitions because the country’s international sports teams were divided according to race.

International boycotts opposing apartheid were imposed on racially segregated sports teams. Their exclusion from the international sporting community brought to light the widespread discrimination and the ways in which the world had rejected the policies of the apartheid regime.