Personal recollections of the end of apartheid in South Africa


Colour, confusion and concessions (654:27.b.95.16)

As a South African immigrant from China at a young age, I do not recall the huge political impact on my life during the negotiations to end apartheid between 1990 and 1993. Many people in South Africa did not know what was happening in their own backyard and did not even know there was a man called Nelson Mandela fighting for freedom, because the news and politics were suppressed by the government. But the vague memories of some daily lives stay with me no matter how far I have come away from the apartheid time in South Africa. I remember the excitement among many of the South Africans and probably the rest of the world, but also some concerns among some of the Afrikaners. Afrikaner Afrikaan : anekdotes en analise by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert (2001.8.9441) could be a good read in order to understand the worries and uncertainties among the Afrikaners at the time. On April 26-29 1994 South Africa held two days of peaceful elections for the first time in history that allowed an all-race vote. There are more than a thousand books at the UL about 1994 in South Africa in different languages, such as Die Bedeutung der Presse im Transitionsprozess Südafrikas by Petra Märlender (C200.d.2422), and L’Afrique du Sud dix ans après : transition accomplie? (654:36.c.200.27).

Apartheid was a system of racial discrimination and segregation in South African government. It was formalised from 1948 to 1994, forming a framework for political and economic dominance by the white population and severely restricting the political rights of the black majority through legislation by the governing National Party (NP). But racial segregation in South Africa began already in colonial times in the middle of the 17th century under the Dutch empire. This following book shows the depth in the racial segregation history: Grensbakens tussen blank en swart in Suid-Africa, ‘n historiese ontwikkeling van grensbeleid en beleid van grondtoekenning aan die naturel in Suid-Africa by P. van Biljon (Rosenthal.c.94.19, RCS.A.5c.8, RCS.A.5c.9).

Under the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953, municipal grounds could be reserved for a particular race, creating, among other things, separate beaches, buses, hospitals, schools and universities. Signboards such as “whites only” applied to public areas, including park benches, toilets and paths. Blacks were provided with services greatly inferior to those of whites, and to a lesser extent, to those of Indian and coloured people. Mixed marriages between persons of different races were not allowed, and sexual relations with a person of a different race were a criminal offence. The ban on mixed marriage was ended only in 1985. You can browse through the following book about this part of the history – Legislation and race relations: a summary of the main South African laws which affect race relationships by Muriel Horrell (RCS.C.5k.5). Under apartheid black and coloured women suffered huge impacts on their lives from both racial and gender discrimination which was controlled by the government and the pro-apartheid Dutch Reformed Church. The Church played an important role in the politics and supported the system of apartheid during this period: Blanke broeders, zwarte vreemden, de Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk, de Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland en de apartheid in Zuid-Afrika, 1948-1972 by Erica Meijers (654:35.c.200.64).


The atlas of apartheid (654:35.b.95.15, 1993.9.1735)

There were separate areas for different racial groups to live in. Chinese were officially classified as coloured under apartheid, we were not welcome but tolerated in officially white areas, and these differences in treatment caused confusion at the time in South Africa: Colour, confusion and concessions by Melanie Yap and Dianne Leong Man (654:27.b.95.16). Towards the end of apartheid, Chinese were allowed into white Catholic schools and also under a quota for coloureds for university entries. Furthermore Chinese could even stay in whites-only suburbs if their neighbours did not object. Close family friends, who were at the time the very first Chinese family to buy a house in a white suburb in Pretoria, had to ask every single household of their neighbours-to-be on the street for their consent to allow them to buy the house as a family home.

During apartheid the government banned pornography, gambling and other such “vices”. Abortion, homosexuality and sex education were also restricted. Television was not introduced until 1976 because English programs were seen as a threat to the Afrikaans language. However, many South African writers still wrote extensively about the apartheid era in South Africa, such as J.M. Coetzee, who won the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, and who was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement within Afrikaner literature and letters. Two of his books which describe the impact of apartheid on people’s lives won the Booker Prize: Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 (there are three different editions at the UL) and then again: Disgrace (two different editions at the UL) in 1999. Nadine Gordimer was one of the very important figures among all the anti-apartheid writers during this time. She won many awards including the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature and her The conservationist (1978.7.3562) won the Booker Prize in 1974. The South African government banned several of her works but still she continually wrote in a world without peace as this title describes: Schreiben in einer friedlosen Welt (C202.d.7634). She had helped Nelson Mandela edit his famous speech “I Am Prepared to Die” given from the defendant’s dock at his trial. She hid anti-apartheid activists in her own home to aid their escape from arrest. Among the many holdings by about her, see Nadine Gordimer, strategie narrative di una transizione politica by Tania Zulli (725:29.c.200.1225). André Philippus Brink was one of the writers who used Afrikaans as a language to speak against the apartheid government; his novel Kennis van die aand (751:57.c.200.44) was the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the government. Afrique du Sud : une traversée littéraire (C205.c.8825) is accompanied by a sound disc (CD.7583) which contains the voices of André Brink, Nadine Gordimer, and also featuring interviews with Nelson Mandela.

On the 10th May 1994, Nelson Mandela became the first black president after more than three centuries of apartheid in South Africa. I clearly remember the scenes of many South African men, women and children of all races singing and dancing with joy.

Joanne Koehler

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