Apartheid was a system of legal racial separation which dominated the Republic of South Africa from 1948 until 1993, However, the mechanisms of apartheid were set in place long before 1948, and South Africa continues to deal with the repercussions. Under apartheid, various races were separated into different regions, and discrimination against people of color was not only acceptable, but legally entrenched, with whites having priority housing, jobs, education, and political power. Although South Africa was heavily criticized for the system, it was not until 1991 that the legal system of apartheid began to be broken down, and in 1993 was thrown out altogether with the election of Nelson Mandela, the first black democratically elected President of South Africa. The term is also used more generally around the world to refer to systemic racism which is tolerated, rather than confronted.
Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning “apart” or “separate,” and one of the first pieces of apartheid legislation was the Group Areas Act of 1950, which segregated living spaces, concentrating whites in the cities and forcing people of color into rural areas or the urban fringes. In addition to separating whites from nonwhites, apartheid also separated different races, and fraternization between Africans of different tribes, Asians, and Europeans was frowned upon. Whites and nonwhites held different jobs, lived in different regions, and were subject to different levels of pay, education, and health care. Apartheid paid no attention to former social or residential status, dividing people up by color.
When nonwhites were pushed out of the urban areas, most of them were shuffled into Bantustans, or “African homelands.” Because they were made citizens of the Bantustans, black South Africans were not allowed to participate in the government of South Africa, and were forced to carry passes and obey curfew laws if they wanted to travel outside of their homelands. The homelands were also established on land which was largely unusable, and were heavily reliant on South Africa for assistance. Along the fringes of the cities, Africans lived in massive, terrible slums, often separated from their families because only one family member could get a permit to live in the city.
Nelson Mandela, along with many others, is a member of the African National Congress, a group which worked to abolish apartheid. He joined right before the Second World War, and was part of a major push to make the African National Congress a national movement, incorporating ethics of nonviolent resistance, strikes, and mass civil disobedience to fight for equal rights. In 1952, he was tried in court for participating in the Campaign of Just Defiance, and given a suspended sentence. He spent time in and out of prison throughout the 1950s and became an attorney to help blacks who had been dispossessed under apartheid.
In 1960, the African National Congress was banned, and Mandela was one of the founding members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, a violent civil rights organization. His membership was shortlived, however; in 1962, after traveling out of the country to speak about the situation in South Africa and receive military training, Mandela was imprisoned for life, and not released until 1990. The African National Congress was reformed in 1991, as apartheid began to be dismantled, and Mandela was elected President of the organization, going on to take office as President of South Africa in 1994, serving through 1999. In 1993, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition for his efforts to end apartheid in South Africa.