In 1990, under international pressure and with fears of an approaching racial civil war, the white South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk released black political activist Nelson Mandela from prison. Together, they began proceedings to dismantle apartheid: a system of white minority rule inherited from the colonial era that at that time was the most extreme version of institutionalised racism anywhere in the industrialised world.
Mandela had spent twenty-seven years behind bars convicted of ‘statutory communism’, a term commonly used by the South African government to describe those opposed to apartheid. Around 90 per cent of South Africans who were black or coloured could now freely vote. In South Africa’s first multiracial general election, held in 1994, Mandela led his party, the African National Congress, to an historic victory. He served as the first black president of South Africa until 1999. International observers called the peaceful process of reconciliation between the oppressed and the oppressor “Mandela’s miracle”.
Today, however, South Africa is hardly the rainbow nation of racial equality that the term implies. It is the most economically unequal country in the world: economists estimate that some 20 percent of South Africans hold 70 percent of the country’s wealth (compared to around 47 per cent in most other countries.) And, while there is now a large black middle class, this is linked to racial divisions in the country. Youth unemployment is well above 50 per cent, and the majority of the unemployed are black. The country also suffers what is sometimes called a “shadow pandemic” of violence against women.
But there is also a new generation of South Africans which is articulate, outspoken and connected to the world. They feel solidarity with movements such as Black Lives Matter in the United States, seeing them as international manifestations of a struggle that has gone on in South Africa for decades.
Apartheid was a series of measures that shaped South African society so that whites - less than 9 per cent of the population - would be the demographic majority. They built on policies imposed by 19th-century British colonial administrations with the intention of segregating black or coloured South Africans from whites. Up until the 1990s, black South Africans had few rights, couldn’t use public facilities, and were forced to speak Afrikaans in school. Sexual relations between whites and non-whites were prohibited until 1985. Bantustans or ‘black homelands’ were created with the goal of making them self-ruling. As a result, black South Africans would eventually lose their South African citizenship and any voting rights.