What was the South African government like under Apartheid?

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Between 1948 and 1994, South Africa’s government was ruled by the National Party, which instituted the system known as Apartheid. In creating Apartheid, the National Party’s goal was to ensure that Afrikaners, white descendants of 17th century Dutch settlers, maintained political control in post-colonial South Africa. The Apartheid era was defined by extreme segregation and oppression; the legacy of which South Africa continues to grapple with more than two decades later.

Throughout the 1950s, the National Party stripped voting rights away from black South Africans, along with other minorities described under the umbrella term ‘Coloureds.’ The National Party did this by manipulating the court system and passing a series of laws in the legislature which it controlled. By 1960, black South Africans had lost their right to vote.

Though Afrikaners were the majority white population in South Africa, other whites such as the descendants of English settlers, along with a sizable Jewish community, were weary of the Afrikaners’ dominance of South Africa’s political system. Though Afrikaner politicians attempted to strengthen ‘white unity’ through declaring South Africa a republic in 1960, groups within South Africa’s white community continued to distrust one another until the end of the Apartheid era.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Apartheid government attempted to gain international support through its anti-Communist policies. Though America was learning many valuable lessons concerning racial equality from the Civil Rights Movement, the American government continued to support South Africa through the mid 1980s as part of its strategy to win the Cold War against the Soviet Union. In fact, it was the U.S.’s Central Intelligence Agency that assisted the Apartheid government in arresting Nelson Mandela, who at the time was affiliated with the South African Communist Party.

On the home front, the National Party continued its oppression of ‘Coloured’ South Africans by relocating millions of people to a series of ‘Bantustans,’ quasi-independent countries located in some of South Africa’s most inhospitable areas. In the Bantustans, education, sanitation, and other social services were severely limited. By the mid-1980s, life for white South Africans was comparable to living in wealthier areas of the United States. Life for black South Africans, however, was at Third World poverty levels.

The world turned against South Africa's Apartheid government throughout the 1980s. Trade sanctions placed on South Africa by nearly two dozen countries severely weakened South Africa’s economy. Combined with the condemnation of Apartheid by religious leaders such as Pope John Paul II, the National Party began to re-evaluate its stance on Apartheid. A defining moment came in 1989 when F.W. de Klerk became South Africa’s president. Though a conservative, de Klerk understood that Apartheid could no longer exist. De Klerk lifted restrictions on previously banned political parties such as the African National Congress. His efforts also led to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990.

After two years of negotiations, South Africa had its first free elections in 1994. Nelson Mandela was elected president, and the African National Congress, once labeled a terrorist organization by the National Party, became the majority political party in the country’s legislature. Apartheid was officially over.