Twenty-five years ago, South Africans engaged in a peaceful revolution. As late as the 1980s commentators predicted that any transition from white minority domination and black majority rule would precipitate a bloody civil war. Instead, in 1994 South Africans replaced president F. W. de Klerk with Nelson Mandela in a free and fair election that astonished the world. This month historian Zeb Larson evaluates what has happened in South Africa in the last quarter century and describes how difficult it has been to shake the legacy of apartheid.
In 1991, the future of South Africa held tremendous promise.
After decades of the brutal, legalized racial segregation called apartheid, Nelson Mandela had been freed from prison, the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) had been lifted, and negotiations for a new constitution had commenced. While political violence between the ANC and rival factions remained a fact of life, it could not squelch the nation’s optimism.
In April 1994, South Africans of all races voted in the country’s first democratic elections, choosing Mandela as their first black president. The inhumane apartheid regime seemed to be miraculously ending peacefully, though much work remained to improve the lives of all South Africans.
Today much of that initial promise remains unfulfilled. After 25 years in power, the ANC draws intense criticism for South Africa’s persistent poverty, inequality, violence, health crises, and corruption.
As he works to renovate South Africa, new president Cyril Ramaphosa faces a daunting list of tasks: jump-start economic growth, shrink the debt, build functioning, law-based governance, and hold together the ANC when it seems to be coming apart at the seams.
Some of these problems go back to the colonial era, while a great many others were either created or sustained during the apartheid era. Understanding this history clarifies the situation in which South Africa finds itself and may help shape the choices it now faces.
From Colony through the Apartheid State
For decades, white South Africans eager to justify their occupation of the land perpetuated the now-debunked theory that the country had been “empty, uninhabited lands” prior to their arrival.
The first Europeans arrived in South Africa in 1652 under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company to set up a station for passing ships at the Cape of Good Hope. They slowly expanded outward, seizing land by force from native groups. The Dutch settlers became known as Afrikaners or Boers (literally “farmers”).
The British became involved in South Africa via the Napoleonic Wars a century and a half later. They seized the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch permanently in 1805 and began settling in the east. Many of the Boers rejected British rule and began “trekking” eastward, displacing native peoples and clashing with the Zulu Kingdom. They established several “Boer states,” including the Orange Free State and South African Republic. The British in turn took up arms against the Xhosa, Zulu, and Basotho peoples.
Tensions between the free Boer republics and the British grew after the discovery of large gold and mineral deposits in the South African Republic.
These tensions ultimately erupted in the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The British won with many casualties and the forcible internment of Boers along with many black South Africans in concentration camps. Tens of thousands died. The British consolidated South Africa in 1910 and gave it considerable autonomy as a dominion of the Empire, but the Boers remained resentful.
In 1948, amid widespread grievances over continued British domination of the economy and the presence of black South Africans in South African cities, the National Party (Afrikaner ethnic nationalists) became the majority party. This year marks the formal beginning of apartheid, though its foundations had been established through discriminatory legislation decades before.
Under apartheid, a tiny white majority ruled over an overwhelmingly black majority by denying them access to the political system, restricting their economic opportunities, amassing vast wealth on the backs of African labor, and forcing them to live in designated “tribal homelands.” Better known as Bantustans, these areas were small, poorly suited for farming, and soon became overcrowded as people were forcibly resettled onto them.
The white government intended that ultimately all black South Africans would live in the Bantustans, leaving them only to labor for white employers. This systematic racial segregation and oppression was enforced through an extensive security and police force that routinely employed violence against black South Africans.
By the late 1980s, however, South Africa’s economy was in a deep recession and large segments of the country were becoming ungovernable. A number of countries enacted sanctions against South Africa in a show of international condemnation of the apartheid system.
These economic and governance problems forced the government to change. In 1990, the government freed Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the ANC, and began negotiations to create a new constitution. In 1993, Mandela, along with South African leader Frederik Willem de Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize and on May 10, 1994, Mandela was inaugurated. The celebrations bordered on deliriousness.
Mandela’s inaugural speech did not shy away from acknowledging the realities of apartheid and the terrible circumstances of the past half-century. Nevertheless, the speech was full of hope for the future. Building on a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mandela described South Africa as a rainbow nation and insisted that national reconciliation would help to heal the scars from decades of racial division and conflict. Part of that would inevitably be about solving poverty, which was deeply entrenched in the country.
Despite a long list of achievements, the deepest problems and challenges faced by South Africa since the peaceful transition to black majority rule remain.
The apartheid regime was built on an ideology of racial segregation.
Before apartheid, there were a few integrated neighborhoods in South Africa’s major cities. However, the Group Areas Act of 1950 empowered the government to restrict residence for certain racial groups, allowing the government to eliminate nonwhite or integrated neighborhoods at will. “Townships” were created for blacks, coloureds, and Asians. Many of these have survived and have been sites of development since apartheid, such as Soweto, though they remain highly segregated.
The white South African government aspired to restrict the movement of black South Africans into cities to prevent them from competing with white South Africans as well as to limit their ability to organize politically. Rural poverty and overpopulation, however, pushed people off the land and toward jobs in cities. Large squatter settlements grew up on the outskirts of major cities, precipitating conflicts with police before limited squatter rights were established.
The apartheid government tolerated these settlements to an extent because of the need for workers (one of apartheid’s internal contradictions was always the struggle between a need for cheap labor, on the one hand, and the desire to reserve jobs for whites, on the other). However, the position of squatters was always legally precarious, and these settlements had limited access to infrastructure.
Even in legal townships, just 7% of the houses had access to running water in 1976 by one estimate. While white South Africans enjoyed access to medical services on par with Britain and the United States, black South Africans were often denied basic healthcare.
As late as the 1980s, black babies in urban areas died at six times the rate of white babies. As bad as this was, it was even worse in the rural Bantustans, where in 1979 anywhere between 20% and 30% of all black babies died before age one. Many of these deaths were caused by unsanitary water or by the use of unventilated indoor fires.
In schools, the South African government’s per capita spending for black students was a tenth of that for white students. Under the Bantu Education Act in 1953, schooling provided for blacks was strictly vocational. Schools were poorly constructed, with a majority lacking indoor plumbing.
In 1974, the government attempted to force instruction to take place in Afrikaans instead of English. Anger over this policy and others led in 1976 to the Soweto Rebellion, during which police shot hundreds of protesting school children.
The post-apartheid government repealed the Group Areas Act but the ANC government has faltered on desegregation. Today there are more squatters in Cape Town than there were under apartheid.
While housing has improved for many people, 14% of the population still lives in so-called informal settlements. Targets for housing construction have not been met and long backlogs have grown from an estimated 1.5 million units in 1994 to 2.1 million in 2018.
Consequently, activists such as the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign have arisen to empower squatters to fight evictions in court, demand services such as electricity and water, and agitate for the construction of more housing. They have won major legal battles: in Port Elizabeth Municipality v Various Occupiers, the city’s eviction of squatters on unoccupied land was ruled illegal.
Access to schooling remains a major issue in post-apartheid South Africa. The death of a child in a pit toilet in Mpumalanga Province, following several similar incidents in the past few years, highlights that even now roughly 4,000 South African schools have only pit toilets.
School facilities, and education more broadly, remain profoundly unequal. A report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that after six years of schooling, 27% of black South African students still could not read, compared with just 4% in Tanzania.
Nowhere are South Africa’s current difficulties more visible than in debates over land expropriation.
Once the period of colonial wars ended, Europeans consolidated their control over arable land in South Africa. Though weakly enforced until the 1930s, the 1913 Natives Land Act played a role in dispossessing black South Africans.
The law’s basic provisions restricted the sale or purchase of land between groups, which effectively left black South Africans with 7% of the country’s land (later 13%) despite making up 67% of the population. This grossly uneven distribution of land structured labor relations in the pre-apartheid era and remained deeply entrenched throughout apartheid.
Laws restricting land ownership along racial lines were overturned in 1991, but restitution has proven more difficult. The ANC had set a goal of returning 30% of white-owned land to black farmers, but by last year reached only 10%. Historically, the ANC operated with a “willing buyer, willing seller” model, but tight funding meant that those transfers happened very slowly and on a small scale.
White farmers control an estimated 73% of commercial farmland today. To try to ease crushing rural poverty, the government has begun to explore legislation that would allow land to be seized without compensation.
Such proposals have provoked a bitter backlash from the center-right Democratic Alliance, prompting comparisons to Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe used land expropriation in 2000 to reward his supporters, with disastrous economic results.
This turmoil has fueled commentary in the United States. In August, Fox News host Tucker Carlson argued against land expropriation in South Africa, setting in motion a tweet from President Trump directing the State Department to investigate the killings of white farmers (a conspiracy theory common among white nationalists). The conservative American magazine, The Federalist, recently argued that South Africa is on the verge of collapse and set to become the next Venezuela.
Climate change and its unpredictable effects on water resources have only complicated farming and land-use issues, reviving earlier disputes. Restrictions on commercial farming aggravate white farmers and stoke fears of dispossession. On the other hand, colonial and apartheid-era seizure of land from black South African communities was often justified on the grounds that they used it inefficiently, so new restrictions based on climate patterns could evoke those earlier rationales.
Poverty and Development
South Africa’s economy is troubled and poverty is still deeply entrenched. Counting potential workers who have given up looking for jobs, unemployment may be as high as 40%; its official rate is 27%. Critics on the left argue that spending on social services is low in comparison to other countries, even as the country’s national debt has ballooned to seven times what it was in 1994.
Questions of poverty and economic development did not simply vanish when apartheid ended. The Eastern Cape is one of the most impoverished regions of the country, with poor residents concentrated in the province’s former homelands. The ANC has been lackluster in its attempts at rural reform. Facing a troubled budget at independence, former Bantustans saw budget cuts among civil servants and institutions that threw them into chaos. Services in former homeland territories have been mostly subsistence welfare in the form of subsidies to impoverished people.
If anything, the ANC’s development schemes reinforced a rural-urban divide that existed under apartheid by focusing development on urban spaces. Rural communities were included in planning only to enable people to leave them and head to the cities, which is precisely what is happening.
Similarly, hopes for a comprehensive social safety net eroded in the wake of apartheid. The South African state was massively in debt by 1994. Facing a choice between decreasing the foreign debt or more aggressively funding housing and school construction, the ANC ultimately chose the former. The 2008 financial crisis eroded the progress South Africa had made, and today South Africa is facing the prospect of spending proportionally more of its budget to pay down its debt.
Critics of the ANC government are on firm footing when they point to the astounding levels of corruption. In 2018, the World Bank ranked South Africa as the most corrupt country in the world.
Former president Jacob Zuma (2009-18) brought the country a reputation for corruption and ineptitude. Despite a 2006 prosecution for rape, he won the presidency in 2009. Massive corruption and capitulation to the wealthy Gupta family finally ended Zuma’s presidency in 2017.
Ajay and Atul Gupta immigrated to South Africa in 1993 and built an extensive business empire. By the time of Zuma’s presidency, the Guptas were accused of wielding tremendous power behind the scenes and operating what some have called a “shadow government.” In 2017, leaked e-mails showed millions being directly given to Atul Gupta. Zuma resigned.
The ANC inherited a profoundly corrupt and inefficient state, especially in rural areas and the former Bantustans.
In places like Mpumalanga, the ANC has grown as a party because of a patronage machine that effectively buys supporters and votes by diverting government money. David Mabuza, the former premier of the province, used this to power Ramaphosa’s ascendency. Stories about ANC members living in luxury amid their constituents’ poverty are routine in the media.
In the Transkei, the bureaucracy was regarded as so inefficient that it simply became normal to rely on personal connections to obtain money for projects, often through chieftains. These patterns of governance remain in many parts of the country under ANC rule today.
Contemporary political corruption, however, is rooted in the apartheid era, when it was exacerbated by global economic sanctions. The apartheid government did not remain passive as the international community imposed sanctions on it, particularly after the mid-1970s when demands increased for trade embargoes against the country.
South African leaders circumvented oil embargoes through intermediaries, all of whom profited handsomely. To circumvent an arms embargo by the UN in 1977, South Africa developed an enormous homegrown armaments sector. To pay for it, South Africa became deeply enmeshed within a global money laundering system.
The money spent on arms and intelligence amounted to billions of rand annually with virtually no oversight from parliament. Specific appropriations for national security were never publicly disclosed.
The murder of a prominent National Party MP, Robert Smit, and his wife Jean-Cora in 1977 might have been carried out to prevent him from speaking out about the bribes spent abroad to procure arms technology. (This of course was in addition to the murders that were carried out on anti-apartheid activists both in South Africa and around the globe.)
While few apartheid bureaucrats enriched themselves through these sanctions-busting arms deals, they nevertheless normalized a culture of weak or nonexistent fiscal controls in government and loose ethical practices. Beginning in 1999, reports circulated about massive bribes paid as part of arms deals with a number of different European countries.
The culture of corruption exists in tandem with the arms industry and a culture of state security and secrecy. While most apartheid laws were overturned in the 1990s, the Protection of Information Act (PIA) of 1982 remained when apartheid ended. The law, which defined national security in broad terms, was used in the post-1994 period in a wide variety of contexts. Corruption inquiries into individual ANC members were often flagged using the PIA, preventing investigators from disclosing findings outside of internal hearings.
Crime and Safety
Crime is another area in which South Africa has a profoundly complicated history. To undergird apartheid, white South Africans frequently accused black South Africans of criminality. Apologists for the apartheid government point to the sudden rise in homicides and property crime in 1994 as proof that the current government could not rule.
However, the bump in statistics can be attributed to the fact that the Bantustans were deliberately excluded from apartheid-era counts. It is extraordinarily difficult to assess whether there actually was an increase in crime or whether there was simply a more honest reporting after 1994. Critics also point to the murder rate in South Africa, which is indeed high. In fact, the homicide rate has dropped by about half since 1994.
Perceptions about crime have to do with the fact that white South Africans are far more exposed to crime than they were under apartheid. South Africa is home to the largest private security sector in the world, and even that has its roots under apartheid.
A series of laws in the 1980s encouraged the growth of private security firms as the police increasingly tried and failed to maintain order in the townships. In this respect, some aspects of crime and policing are little changed since the end of apartheid: wealthier areas are well policed and squatters’ settlements are more or less left to fend for themselves.
And state violence to maintain order and enforce labor demands has not disappeared. In 2012, Ramaphosa, a wealthy businessman before becoming president, encouraged police to end a wildcat strike at the Marikana Mine. Police subsequently killed 34 striking miners in a shooting, the bloodiest use of force by police since the Soweto Uprising in 1976.
The story of HIV/AIDS in South Africa has been complicated and often tragic. Thabo Mbeki, president from 1999 until 2008, was a prominent AIDS denialist who refuted any link between HIV and AIDS and went so far as to ban antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals, which likely cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Mbeki’s position was treated with scorn across the world and by South Africans such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but it took nearly a decade for the Ministry of Health to take HIV/AIDS seriously.
Mbeki’s position was indefensible, but it fits within a deeper pattern of white European racism toward black Africans.
The apartheid government’s initial response toward HIV/AIDS was shaped by who was infected: intravenous drug users, sex workers, and black South Africans. Deploying few resources to tackle the social causes of the epidemic, the socially conservative government allowed infection rates to spiral.
White South Africans frequently focused on black South Africans’ supposed uncleanliness, in terms of hygiene, sobriety, and above all sexual promiscuity. Mbeki and others thus rejected a narrative that to them seemed familiar as it seemingly castigated Africans for unclean behavior.
A ray of hope in South Africa’s recent history is its progress against HIV/AIDS. Thanks to organizations like the Treatment Action Campaign, average life expectancy in South Africa rose from 52 years in 2004 to 64 years in 2018, despite the fact that nearly 19% of the population is infected with HIV.
Some of the many problems South Africa now faces—such as the conflict over land ownership—predate apartheid, but by far the majority can be traced to that era. Most obviously: the impoverished townships and weak educational system are the result of decades of spending policies that deliberately left black South African communities underdeveloped. However, the current style of governance and the normalization of corruption began during the apartheid era as well. Those legacies have been difficult to escape, and continue to bedevil the country today.
South Africa’s problems defy easy solutions. Since Mandela’s death in 2013, reappraisals of his presidency have tempered his saintly legacy; Mandela himself had admitted that he had not done enough to combat the AIDS epidemic. That he could have solved the entrenched problems in five years as president seems unlikely, and South Africa continues to grapple with them today.
One other fact is important to note about the country. South Africa still serves as a vessel for the hopes and fears of other people. Those on the right can look at the country and vindicate their dread about socialism run rampant and racial conflict. Those on the left look at the same country and point to the corrupting influence of unrestrained capitalism and globalization as well as an unfinished struggle against systemic racism.
Read these fascinating Origins articles for more on Africa: Sport in South Africa; A Century of HIV; Sudan in Crisis; the Darfur Conflict; A New Congo Crisis; Understanding Boko Haram; Islamist Groups in Egypt; Africa and China; Ethiopia and Nile River Tensions; Politics in Senegal; Piracy in Somalia; Violence and Politics in Kenya; and Women in Zimbabwe.
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Friedman, Steven. “The More Things Change...South Africa’s Democracy and the Burden of the Past.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 86 (1): Spring 2019.
Gibbs, Timothy. Mandela’s Kinsmen: Nationalist Elites and Apartheid’s First Bantustan. Suffolk, UK: Woodbridge, 2014.
Hart, Gillen Patricia. Rethinking the South African Crisis: Nationalism, Populism, and Hegemony. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013.
Hunter, Mark. Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender, and Rights in South Africa. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010.
Mack, Katherine Elizabeth. From Apartheid to Democracy: Deliberating Truth and Reconciliation. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.
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