How Apartheid Worked

The Long Resistance

The Soweto protest started after the decision to make Afrikaans the primary teaching language in upper schools.
The Soweto protest started after the decision to make Afrikaans the primary teaching language in upper schools.
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From the time of the Dutch arrival and ensuing conquest, isolated acts of resistance were stifled by European weaponry. In 1910, protest against the South Africa Act, carried all the way to Britain, fell on deaf ears. In 1946, when 75,000 unarmed black miners went on strike, the result was 1,000 casualties and no change in working conditions [source: UN].

But in the 1960s, around the same time the U.S. Civil Rights Movement exploded, the struggle picked up dramatically. The all-black African National Congress (ANC), of which Nelson Mandela was a prominent member, and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) played leading roles. Both organizations encouraged coordinated, widespread, peaceful resistance to Afrikaner oppression [source South African History Online].

An initially peaceful protest in 1960 proved a turning point in the fight for freedom. In March of that year, in the town of Sharpeville, thousands of black Africans left their required pass books at home and headed to the police station to turn themselves in. When the police opened fire on the crowd, 69 people were killed and hundreds were injured [source: BBC].

In the immediate aftermath, the South African government banned public gatherings, and soon banned both the ANC and the PAC [source: BBC].

Both organizations instead went underground. They established military wings, the ANC's led by Mandela, and carried out guerilla-style attacks on government facilities and projects [source: Byrnes]. In 1963, Mandela and 10 others were tried for plotting against the government and sentenced to life in prison, where they would remain for almost 30 years [source: Linder].

All of this was reported on and condemned outside South Africa. Still, despite increasing domestic unrest and an international call for reform, Apartheid policies remained firmly in place [source: MSU]. Two connected events in the mid-1970s, however, would firmly set in motion, albeit slowly, Apartheid's eventual demise.

First, in 1976, another peaceful protest: This time, thousands of students in the town of Soweto gathered to stand against a new law making Afrikaans the primary teaching language in black upper schools, despite the fact that few black students and teachers were fluent in it. When police opened fire on a group of students walking to the protest, two children were killed; and in the ensuing riots that broke out all over South Africa, somewhere between 575 and 3,000 people were killed by police [source: MSU].

As in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre, the government quickly cracked down on black political organizations, which by 1976 included the influential South African Students' Organisation (SASO), led by medical student Steve Biko. Biko founded the Black Consciousness movement, which stressed psychological and intellectual liberation, along with a return to peaceful resistance, as central to the fight against Apartheid [source: Byrnes].

Biko's arrest and subsequent death in police custody triggered much of what happened next [source: South African History Online].