Top 25 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 and Updated by Vanessa R on January in 2024 and Updated by Diana K in May 2024

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 25 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

By Jcwf – Wikimedia

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

By Dewet – Wikimedia

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

By rahuldlucca – Wikimedia

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 causes 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 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 how the world had rejected the policies of the apartheid regime.

20. Black South Africans were forced into crowded reservations and homelands

Apartheid in South Africa resulted in the creation of crowded reservations and homelands for black South Africans, resulting in the forced removal of families and communities from their ancestral lands. The 1913 Natives Land Act allocated over 90% of South Africa’s land to the white minority, limiting the black majority to live in reserved areas.

These areas became extremely crowded, lacking adequate space and resources to support the large numbers of people forced to relocate. This led to immense hardship and poverty, with resistance often resulting in arrest and violence from apartheid police and military. The creation of these reservations remains a dehumanising example of deprivation and indignity.

21. Many skilled jobs were reserved for white workers

Top 24 Facts About the Apartheid in South Africa

Justin Hall, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Apartheid’s civilised labour policy was a significant tool for oppressing non-white citizens, as it reserved high-paying, high-status jobs for white workers. Skilled and managerial jobs were designated “for whites only,” forcing Black, Coloured, and Indian/Asian populations into low-skill manual labour. The policy also barred promising non-white youth from upward mobility opportunities, leading to skewed unemployment disparities.

White workers received preferential hiring treatment, hoarding the best jobs and receiving higher pay rates. This discriminatory employment restriction was psychologically and economically crippling for non-white citizens for decades, reinforcing racial inequality and highlighting the unjust extremes of apartheid’s agenda.

22. International criticism and internal unrest against apartheid strengthened through the 1960s and 1970s

The 1960s and 1970s saw a growing international condemnation of apartheid policies in South Africa, with major countries, leaders, activists, and civic organisations pressuring the country through criticism, divestment campaigns, protests, boycotts, and sanctions.

Internally, tensions among the oppressed non-white populations worsened, leading to mass demonstrations, strikes, and violent clashes. Groups like the ANC mobilised anti-apartheid resistance despite government bans and arrests. The escalating unrest led to escalating reputational and stability costs for the apartheid government. However, initially, it responded with defiance and violence against dissent, ultimately leading to the regime’s downfall.

23. Many major countries and institutions eventually levied economic and sports sanctions on South Africa

Top 24 Facts About the Apartheid in South Africa

Vusi vilanculos, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Many major countries and institutions eventually levied economic and sports sanctions on South Africa over apartheid, including the Olympics since 1964. By the 1980s, nations representing over half of South Africa’s trade had implemented trade and economic restrictions, including the US, the Commonwealth, and the EEC.

Corporations curtailed business and disinvested as global condemnation grew. Sports federations refused to host events in South Africa or allow its teams to compete internationally, costing the country international prestige. The barrage of economic and sports sanctions signalled apartheid was becoming universally unacceptable to world geopolitics and business, raising pressure for reform.

24. Apartheid was very economically damaging and unsustainable for South Africa

Apartheid was very economically damaging and unsustainable for South Africa including investment losses, skilled emigration and massive military spending on quelling unrest. The economic stresses compounded each year as sanctions expanded and civil conflict required ever greater resources to police dissent. An immense military buildup and international sports/cultural isolation scarred the country’s reputation.

Knowledgeable white citizens and professionals emigrated in large numbers. Foreign capital rapidly fled the country throughout the 1980s as internal turmoil exploded. This economic bleeding contrasted with the blatant enrichment of whites under apartheid, making the system’s cost clear. Mass unrest and global condemnation combined with unsustainable economic strains made apartheid’s abolition the only way to chart a viable course ahead.

25. South Africa held its first universal elections in April 1994

After decades of racial oppression and violent internal resistance, South Africa took a historic step by holding its first-ever elections in April 1994, where people of all races could vote. The election marked the official end of apartheid. It followed years of intense political negotiations under the de Klerk government to dissolve the racist institutions and form an interim constitution. For the first time, Black South Africans and other non-white groups were finally extended basic civic rights after lifetimes of marginalization.

Nelson Mandela was elected the nation’s first Black president in the landmark election after his release from prison. Despite threats of violence from extremists, long lines of South Africans across the colour barrier came out peacefully to cast their first ballots as empowered citizens, captivating the world. Though inequality and healing would persist, the participation and hope surrounding the inclusive 1994 election resonated globally as a symbolic rebirth for post-apartheid South Africa.

5 popular movies about apartheid in South Africa

1. Invictus (2009)

This movie is about how Nelson Mandela used the sport of rugby to unite South Africa after apartheid ended. The country was still very divided between blacks and whites in the 1990s. As the new president, Mandela knew he had to bring people together. He supported the mostly white rugby team in the World Cup to get both races cheering as one nation. His brave leadership and compassion, after so many unfair years, helped start the healing.

2. Cry Freedom (1987)

This movie follows black activist Steven Biko and journalist Donald Woods. Biko fought apartheid by uniting black people to demand peaceful change. He was killed in police custody in 1977. His friend Woods tries to escape South Africa with Biko’s story while officers hunt him. It shows Biko as an inspiration for change who threatened the racist government. It also shows how reporters risked their lives to expose apartheid’s brutality.

3. Sarafina! (1992)

This musical movie is about black students protesting apartheid in 1976. Sarafina is a teenage girl joining classmates to demand better education. Police shot unarmed children during the protests. Sarafina loses friends but sings about continuing to fight inequality and find joy in their culture. The upbeat songs with powerful messages captivated audiences worldwide.

4. A Dry White Season (1989)

In this movie, a white man named Ben fights for justice after the senseless death of his black employee in police custody. Ben sees the evil of apartheid firsthand and speaks out, but finds himself abandoned by fearful friends. He loses everything for supporting equality. The movie shows that even some whites who benefited questioned apartheid’s morality when witnessing its cruelty.

5. Catch a Fire (2006)

This movie follows Patrick, a young man who suffers harshness under apartheid. After police abuse him and his wife, Patrick joins the military wing of the ANC. He becomes a rebel fighter, planting bombs against oppressive targets. It shows the turn towards more aggressive resistance when peaceful options fail minorities for too long. Violence and counterattacks worsened on both sides by the 1980s.

10 Facts about South African People

1. People of South Africa  Speak many Languages

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more culturally diverse people than South Africans. The Rainbow Nation is a melting pot of peoples and languages from across the continent and beyond. Spend a day in vibrant cities like Johannesburg or Cape Town and you’ll hear a constant flow of different languages.

The rich clicking sounds of Xhosa intermingle with the guttural sounds of Zulu on busy street corners. Afrikaans, a descendant of Dutch, has its own distinct cadences and phrases. Of course, English is widely spoken too – though often with a lilting local accent. Smaller language groups like Tsonga, Swazi, and Venda each add their unique flavour to the multilingual mix.

2. Nelson Mandela is Perhaps the Most Famous South African

Nelson Mandela… where do I begin? South Africa’s most famous son, a legendary figure that battled apartheid system of racial segregation and oppression. Despite spending 27 long years unjustly imprisoned, Mandela never lost hope or his commitment to achieving equality and justice for all people.

 Mandela’s unwavering spirit eventually led to his freedom and a transition to democratic elections in 1994, when he went from being a political prisoner to becoming South Africa’s first black president at the age of 77 years. Millions of people are inspired by his  peaceful resistance. Mandela’s beaming smile and conviction left a permanent mark on history.

3. Heritagewise South Africans are are a Mixed Bag

South Africans’ heritage is enriched with a colourful mix of diverse cultures. At its core lie the traditions of the indigenous African peoples like the Xhosa, Zulu, and San, whose ancient practices, art forms, and spirituality have endured for millennia.

There is also the contribution by European settlers – the Boers leaving behind their architectural gems like the Cape Dutch homesteads, while the British bequeathed aspects of their language and customs. The Indian diaspora added the vibrant hues of their cuisine, festivities, and faith. The mixed-race Coloured community forged their own unique identity.

4.  The  San and the Khoikhoi  are the Aboriginal People of South Africa 

File:Bushmen hunters (cropped).png

Andy Maano, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa are the San and Khoi peoples. The San, often referred to as Bushmen, are hunter-gatherer groups.  They’ve lived nomadic lifestyles in the Kalahari Desert region for thousands of years. The San are renowned for their ancient rock art and intricate folklore passed down over generations.

The Khoi, commonly known as Hottentots, were the first pastoralists in the area. Livestock husbandry is their main activity and live in portable huts made from mats and poles. Both the San and Khoi experienced discrimination and displacement with the arrival of European colonists beginning in the 1600s. these indigenous groups maintain unique cultural identities and traditions to this day Despite their struggles. 

5.  The People of South Africa Endured Apartheid System of Government

Can you imagine or endure being treated like a second-class citizen in your own country? That was the harsh reality for Black South Africans during apartheid. Basic rights were denied and they were forced to live in separate, often impoverished areas. Speaking out meant  arrest, violence, and even death.

In the face of this oppression, their incredible resilience and strength did not crack. They refused to accept injustice and raised their voices in protest to engaged in civil disobedience.  The world joined them inspired by their courage. Eventually, they toppled apartheid’s cruel regime. South African’s endurance in the face of such cruelty is truly humbling.

6.  Over 80% of South Africans are Christians

Walking down the streets of any major South African city or town you will see churches on nearly every corner. Christianity is popular here – almost 4 out of every 5 people identify as Christian. According to IndexMundi (2015) Christian 86%, ancestral, tribal, animist, or other traditional African religions 5.4%, Muslim 1.9%, other 1.5%, no religion in  particular 5.2%. 

On Sundays, the streets fill with sharply-dressed families making their way to services. The air fills with uplifting gospel harmonies pouring out of open doors and windows. Brightly coloured church vans move about, ferrying elderly congregants. South Africans take their faith seriously – Christianity is deeply practised by many.

7.  South Africans’ Love  Sports

Sports are simply ingrained in the lives of South Africans from an early age. You’ll find kids kicking soccer balls in the dusty streets with the dream to play for Bafana Bafana (the national soccer team). The roar of vuvuzelas from rugby matches echoes through townships and cities alike.

Watching a Springboks rugby match is like a religious experience, with fans decked out in green and gold face paint, chanting and singing for their beloved team. When the Proteas cricket squad takes the pitch, entire neighbourhoods gather around television sets, united by their passion for sport. For South Africans, athletics aren’t just games – they’re a way of life deeply woven into the cultural fabric. 

8. The Most Performed Playwright after Shakespeare is South African

You may know Shakespeare’s plays like the back of your hand, but have you heard of Athol Fugard? This South African writer is the most performed playwright after Shakespeare. Born in 1932, Fugard used his pen as a powerful tool against the injustices of apartheid. His hard-hitting plays like The Blood Knot laid bare the ugliness of racial segregation.

His passport was revoked for several years because of this play. He earned enemies but also got global acclaim. Fugard didn’t just settle for critiquing from the sidelines – he boldly staged his productions in humble venues frequented by the working class, allowing audiences to see their struggles mirrored on stage. Athol Fugard’s courage and artistry have cemented his place in the seat of great dramatists.

9.  What South African doesn’t Like Braai?

File:Mutton and chicken braai.jpg

Ossewa, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If there’s one thing every South African looks forward to, it’s Braai Time! Firing up the grill and gathering outdoors with loved ones is pretty much a religion here. The smoky aroma of sizzling boerewors (spicy sausages) and succulent steaks fills the air as everyone cracks open a cold beer or wine spritzer. Kids chase each other around the yard while adults catch up, swapping stories and laughs. 

As the sun sinks low, papa becomes the grill master, carefully tending to the meats with his well-seasoned tongs. Pap (traditional porridge), chakalaka (spicy relish), and phutu pap (crumbly porridge) make their way to the table as everyone’s mouths water in anticipation.

10. South African is a Young Country with a Young Population

Did you know that South Africa is a nation of young people? It’s true – with a median age of just 27.6* years old, this vibrant country has one of the youngest populations in the world.  You can feel it buzzing in the cities, where young entrepreneurs are driving innovation and progress. And in the rural areas, where children race through the open spaces, laughing and playing without a care.

This youthful spirit flows through everything, from the upbeat local music scenes to the passionate sports fandom. With a young population come challenges of creating enough jobs and educational opportunities for all. But talk to any young South African and you’ll be struck by their drive to build a better future. 

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