On the 27th April, 1994, non-white South Africans cast a vote for the first time ever to determine the first post-apartheid president. Before this, they had endured 46 years of one of the most extreme systems of racial segregation of the 20th century.

In 1948, the Herenigde Nasionale Party, an Afrikaans political party were victorious in the national elections, with their lead policy of Apartheid (Afrikaans word for ‘apartness’). After evolving into the National Party, their leader D.F. Malan became the first prime minister in the new Apartheid system. This policy proposed that all the different races in South Africa had to live separately.

Soon laws were being passed that enforced Apartheid, such as the Registration Act where all people had to register with their ethnic origin. Other segregation laws followed: the Mixed Marriages Act and the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act which paved the way for segregated beaches, toilets, parks and other public areas.

Understandably, it was not long until some kind of resistance emerged. This came in the form of a black political organization known as the African National Congress (ANC) which believed that the overthrowal of Apartheid could be achieved through mass action such as strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience. Behind these resistance ideas were three men whose actions in the next few decades placed them in history. They were Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela.

Hector Pietersen being carried during the Soweto Uprising. Wikimedia Commons
Hector Pietersen being carried during the Soweto Uprising. Wikimedia Commons

Over the next ten years, the defiance campaign continued; thousands were arrested but even more swelled the ranks of the ANC. In 1959, disenchanted with the ANC, a group of radicals formed the Pan-African Congress (PAC) and began coordinating nationwide strikes. This climaxed on 21st March 1960 when between 5000 and 20000 protesters gathered outside the police station in the small town of Sharpeville, to protest against the Pass Law, a law stating that all Black people had to carry a pass that restricted them to certain areas. Three hundred police officers watched the crowd nervously until panic set in and they opened fire killing 69 people. This incident sparked an international outcry against South Africa as the government consequently, issued a ban on the PAC and ANC.

These bans took the movements underground and and they began a militant campaign, of which Mandela was an integral part, leading the ANC’s guerrilla wing known as Umkhonto We Sizwe. Eventually, in 1963, ten members of the ANC were arrested, including Mandela, and were tried for treason. The government, aware of the national reaction if they were executed instead sentenced them to life in prison.

However, another movement had begun, based within the younger and more radical generation, which became known as the Black Consciousness Movement. This movement grew in the late 1960s and 1970s, thanks to its charismatic leader Steve Biko, whose ideas of Black Pride and a non-violent opposition to Apartheid were at its core. Alongside this, other movements such as Black Trade Unions, also helped spread the fight against Apartheid.

The aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre. Wikimedia Commons
The aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre. Wikimedia Commons

Mass protests would turn violent as the government, now under the leadership of PW Botha, violently repressed the movements, as seen by events such as on June 16th 1976 when 20000 students protesting in the township of Soweto were attacked by police leading to hundreds of deaths. This was followed by the arrest and death of Steve Biko in 1977, murdered by the police.

The situation could no longer be ignored by the outside world and protests took place in numerous countries leading to international sanctions and trade embargoes, not helped by Britain and the USA whose Cold War policy was in favour of a capitalist South Africa with vast resources.

Throughout the 1980s the situation grew direr as townships erupted and battles between protesters and police took place leading to the declaration of a National Emergency. All of this culminated in the 1989 elections which saw FW De Klerk become president and begin paving the way for the dismantling of Apartheid. The ban on the ANC was lifted and dozens of its members were released from prison, including, after 27 years, Nelson Mandela. A series of negotiations took place between the NP and the ANC building up towards the 1994 elections and the vote for Mandela.

This year marks the 20th anniversary since the 1994 elections and, as South Africa stands on the eve of another presidential vote, it looks back through decades of violence and remembers the sacrifice of those who helped it overcome oppression and racism.