It is difficult—actually, I’d say impossible—to understand modern-day South Africa without understanding apartheid. And so today I spent the day learning about it: I visited the Museum of Africa (disappointing), Apartheid Museum (excellent), and the Hector Pieterson Memorial (sadly unmaintained), and took a tour of Soweto, a Jo-burg township where violent uprisings against apartheid occurred in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
For extensive information about apartheid, visit the Wikipedia page. Briefly, apartheid was a legalized system of racial segregation that was formally implemented beginning in 1948 by the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, justified on grounds that are not entirely clear to me and that are not rationally explained elsewhere either. (An Afrikaner is a white South African, usually of Dutch or British descent.) Apartheid seems to have been motivated by the desire to retain power—Ten percent of the population wanted control of all the wealth and the entire government, the remaining 90 percent be damned. I also have to think that apartheid was racially motivated—the Afrikaners still had the colonial mindset that they were superior to the natives and that control was an entitlement of theirs.
Apartheid was very restrictive for non-white populations (i.e. blacks, Indians, and “colored” or mixed race): they were limited in where they could live, travel, work, receive medical care, and get educated; no inter-racial marriage was permitted and no large groups could gather. Liberation movements and civil uprisings were forcefully suppressed through rigged charges, unjustified jailing, torture, and censorship. It was a disgusting system by Western standards. Apartheid was phased out starting in 1990 after a combination of civil violence and international political pressure. Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president, in 1994, after having spent 27 years in prison. Mandela was succeeded by current President Thabo Mbeki in 1999.
The South Africans in my tour group seemed pleased with the amount of progress that has been made since 1990—they readily acknowledge past wrongdoings and seem very willing to look beyond racial differences. However, I am unconvinced that South Africans are fully aware of the likely longevity of the implications of apartheid: it will take many generations to offset the effects of a half-century of sub-standard education and health care, underdeveloped energy and transportation infrastructure, uninspired ambitions and dreams, and a great deal of other baggage.