South Africa’s journey from apartheid to freedom

One of my favorite things to do is go on free walking tours in every city I travel to. In Cape Town, I opted for the Apartheid to Freedom tour to learn more about the history that binds the city together so strongly.


Before the tour began, our guide shared a quick introduction into the meaning of apartheid and its roots here in South Africa.

An introduction to apartheid

Apartheid literally means apartness in Afrikaans. This ideology was introduced in 1948 throughout South Africa and lasted until the early 1990s. It called for the segregated development of racial groups. On paper, it called for equal opportunity and freedom of speech. Reality told a much different story.

Apartheid came about because the white minority wanted to maintain power over economic and social systems. Racial segregation was the main policy. Laws physically separated the white minority from a large black majority.

The government made colored people believe they were superior to Indians. They made Indians believe they were superior to Africans. They even made Africans believe they were separated as well. Rivalries between tribes established during apartheid still exist today.

Different public spaces, transportation, and education systems were available for blacks and whites. If you were found protesting against apartheid, the police had every right to throw you into prison for a maximum of six months without trial.

The law that defined apartheid

The High Court

The system of racial segregation was outlined in a number of laws. The first main law was the Population Registration Act, which classified citizens by race. Every person had to come into the High Court to receive their official classification. One judge and three random people taken off the street would decide your fate through strange pseudoscientific tests. Their decision would classify you into five specific racial categories: “White”, “Honorary White”, “Colored”, “Indian”, and “Black”.

Tests included:

  1. Measurement of jaw dimensions
  2. Width of shoulders
  3. Color of skin
  4. Language spoken at home

The most ridiculous test that our tour guide talked about is the pencil test. The pencil test consisted of sticking a pencil in a woman’s hair, having her jump three times, and if pencil fell out, she was denoted as white; if the pencil held steady, she was not white.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The pecking order of the classes were as follows. White South Africans received all political and social rights. Honorary Whites had the same rights but only for limited periods of time and if the individual met certain criteria. This designation was saved for the wealthy Asians, Indians, and sports players. If you’ve ever seen Invictus, the realities of the rugby player portrayed in that movie were an accurate representation of this status.

With vastly limited rights, the next group were colored South Africans or those of a mixed race. After colored people came the Indians and Asians. The group with the lowest status was bantu, a now derogatory term. Bantu or black Africans were further subdivided, sparking tribal wars that leave ugly wounds that have yet to heal.

Remember, the goal of this separation was to pit these races against each other in an attempt to keep the white minority in control.

Born a crime

Grand apartheid were the negative ramifications of the first law that affected the lives of non-whites. Because of the Group Areas Act in a span of 23 years, over 3.5 million non-white South Africans were evicted from their homes and forced to live in segregated neighborhoods. This wins the grim award as one of the largest mass evictions in modern history.

Most of these removals targeted the black population. The goal was to restrict them to ten areas known as bantustans. Once relocated, they would lose their citizenship. Colored people lived in colored areas that were a step above the townships that the African communities were designated to. Each group had their designated spaces.

If a colored South African was born before 1994, he or she was called ‘born a crime.’  You were told what color skin you were, where you live, what education system you’re getting. The government had your life planned for you from birth. Anyone born after 1994 was called ‘born free.’ They had endless possibility.

Trevor Noah wrote a book called Born a Crime where he shared his life growing up during apartheid. His father was Swiss who met an African woman. Born a crime, he wasn’t allowed to be seen with his father, a white man, or with his mother, a black woman. He was brought up his entire life inside a house in an African area. If he stepped outside that house as a colored boy in an African area, he would immediately be picked up by the police. They would then take him to an orphanage in a colored area far away. He would have a very slim chance of seeing his mother again.

A shift in the battle of apartheid

Much like Jews had to sew the star of David on their clothing, South Africans had to carry a dompas or “dumb pass.” A little book with your name and designated status was required to be on your person from the age of 16. 

protestors discarding dompases

This little book outlined the areas you were bound to. Two years after the dompas was issued, a group of students gathered outside a police station to protest. An act of defiance, they threw their dompases in the fire. It took one policeman to fire a warning shot in the air for chaos to ensue. That one shot gave permission for defense forces to shoot unarmed defenseless children in their backs as they fled the scene in terror. Sixty-nine people were killed and hundreds were injured. Today South Africans commemorate the day of the Sharpeville Massacare, March 21, as Human Rights Day.

This tragedy was a tipping point. After this incident Nelson Mandela as a part of the African National Committee (ANC) addressed the government in a public statement. He cried out about the government’s nonsense talking peace when their response was savage.

Mandela’s response went beyond words. He took action by forming the military arm of the ANC. He left South Africa for four years to visit neighboring countries to learn combat skills. In 1964 when returning to South Africa, the government took their own action against him. Mandela was charged with treason and his sentence was the death penalty. He fought his case politically, because he knew his international allies were his only chance at survival. He succeeded in getting the attention of the world who lobbied for his death penalty to become a prison sentence.

Nelson Mandela said he has fought against white domination. He said he also fought against black domination. He believes South Africa to be fair with equal opportunities for everyone. Not one race dominating another. It’s something he hoped to see happen in his lifetime, but if need be, it’s something he was willing to die for.

He was 54 when he was sentenced to life in prison for 27 years. While Mandela was released from prison in 1991, apartheid officially ended in 1994, a mere 24 years ago.

District 6 as a living reminder

You still see remnants of apartheid sprinkled throughout Cape Town, serving as important reminders for a people who are still nursing their wounds.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

District 6 is an old township in the heart of Cape Town that remains as empty as when it was during apartheid. Before apartheid, the district was made up of Africans, Jews, and colored South Africans. A place with some of the most iconic views of Table Mountain and the harbor, it was prime real estate. It was no surprise that the white government wanted control of it. Especially considering it was a multicultural haven where people lived together in harmony, it was a direct threat against apartheid’s mission to destroy race relationships. 

the edge of District 6; building on the right serves as its museum

Marked in 1966 as a white area, 60,000 people were told to evacuate. Ignoring the government’s threats, the government resorted to action by knocking on residents’ doors and handing out 24-hour eviction notices. With a bulldozer, they forcibly removed people from their homes. These people stood on the sidelines as their homes and livelihoods were flattened. The government believed the people would only leave if there was nothing for them to come home to. So they mercilessly took everything from them.

Disctrict 6 in 2006; Photo by Derek Keats

Today the area remains barren. While apartheid is over, the scars are still healing. A group known as Hands On District 6 are former residents and sympathizers who have sworn to bulldoze any new building in the area as revenge.


At the edge is the district’s museum, where former residents share their stories of how apartheid changed their lives. They refuse to let their stories be swept under the rug.

Mandela to unite a broken country through forgiveness

Mandela united South Africa on February 11, 1990. He spoke to the country in front of a crowd of 250,000. Suffering in sweltering heat, waiting over nine hours, these people stood in the square waiting for their hero. 

Stepping out into the public, he shouted one word: forgiveness. A ripple of confusion swept through the crowd. Did they hear him correctly?

“If you want to take South Africa forward, we have to forgive.” Mandela explained to the country that apartheid is not one common to the human heart. It’s something you are taught from a young age.

His message was clear. “We can’t just forget about it. We need to be strong, talk to each other, discuss our differences, and see how we can get over this.”

Nelson Mandela casting his vote in the 1994 election; Photo by Paul Weinberg

1994 saw South Africa’s first democratic, non biased, non sexist election. Millions of people voted, many for the first time ever. The ANC won, marking victory for the first ever African leader of South Africa in 400 years of oppression. 

It was liberation for the Africans. Despite all of this progress, racial friction remained. As timing would have it, the Rugby World Cup served as a unifier for the country. People rallied together as champions of the world.

Living in a post-apartheid world

Our tour guide left us with some words that I think speak beautifully to what I experienced during my time in Cape Town.

“We love talking about apartheid, because its such a big journey that we’ve overcome. I’m sure you guys will feel on a ground level that there is no such thing as apartheid. We love helping each other and talking to each other on a daily basis.”

South Africa has gone through hell and back. The people survived something that seems unimaginable in the modern world, yet it happened in our lifetime. I think it’s still something that many South Africans fear may happen again. That’s why they talk about it. Otherwise, history could repeat itself.

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