About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Historical Background Redux

Apartheid was an issue that dominated much of the last 20 years of the twentieth century; invoked worldwide protestations, was damned from every pulpit and political platform as being one of the most visible evils stamped on a world of many evils. Opposition to apartheid provided one with a sense of moral outrage, fitting in a world that had, for the most part, lost any sense of moral outrage. In the late 1990's the activities of the apartheid government's hit squads, "third" force and other covert operations came to light, adding to the heinous measures that the white minority government used to keep its vice-like grip on power and succor the allegiance of its small but privileged constituency.

But we need some perspective. In the wars, conflicts, oppressions, slaughters, genocides, mass murders & ethnic cleansings of the 20th century best estimates put the number of dead at 167 million to 175 million as the lower bounds & the upper bounds as 188 million to 258 million. A median estimate suggests 200 million & if we assume three family members directly affected by death of one other, then we may draw broader strokes on the canvas 200 million dead & 600 million family members who had to bear the loss or bore witness to the loss. In all, some 800 million people peeling off the canvas & falling into the nether world of ineffable suffering or the solitude of eternal silence.

The literature testifying to the horrific effects o0f apartheid on the Black population of South Africa in the last 40 years of the twentieth century is too voluminous to list social engineering on a scale never envisaged; the deliberate separation of people into racial groupings that would ensure that the white minority would maintain its hegemony-thus the incessant passage of legislation regulating every aspect of the lives of Black people, from cradle to grave.

In the waning decades of the Cold War the impact of apartheid on 83 percent of South Africa's population became, in the propaganda tool-kits of the superpowers, an ideological seesaw. No one could justify it, yet not quite everyone was prepared to condemn it. As long as the West could conjure some sufficient ideological reason to associate itself in its own interests with white South Africa, albeit an abhorrent regime, and as long as an abhorrent, suppressive Soviet had its own interests in Black South Africa, self-serving as they might have been, the adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend found fertile ground. What mattered little to either was the rule of law or the rights of the mass of South Africans; what mattered most was how to manipulate the margins to one's own gains.

What was it about apartheid that the clamor to release Mandela, abolish apartheid, enfranchise the Black majority, and have free and fair elections resonated across the West in the 1980s? Many explanations are given, most having to do with the West's guilt about the past in the West it was perceived as being work still undone work in Africa, and South Africa grated as the last colonial outpost. Racism had become an issue in the United States in the 1980s, xenophobia had awakened the European countries, which for reasons that are rather unfathomable, had heretofore seen themselves as without blemish in these matters, and with the ending of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the old ideological rationales for engaging in constructive engagements became obsolete.

Moreover, Mandela's long imprisonment, the 27 years he had spent in isolation, grown old in his unwavering pursuit of his simple cause, despite the blandishments being proffered him by an increasingly fretful white South Africa, which had begun to do its arithmetic and knew the havoc that would ensue in South Africa if Mandela were to die in prison and the international opprobrium from the international community that would most certainly result in further isolation and a tightening of the financial screws that would ultimately bring South Africa to its knees.

The concert in 1988 at Wembley Stadium in London, featuring many of the world's best musical talents and broadcast across Europe and the United States, to celebrate Mandela's 70th birthday and calling for his immediate release turned him into a global folk hero, all the more a celebrity for never having been seen. In a world that could not take much pride in its attention to human rights, Mandela's release became a focal point, presenting a point of redemption of sorts. Or, as important: the media was the message.

Apartheid was wrong, evil, and a crime against humanity. But it was also complex, wedded to assumptions about race and color that were prevalent well into the 1960s and unquestioned for the most part by the liberal West that moralized itself on precepts that all men are equal. Having defeated fascism, it crowned itself with the throne of pompous righteousness. Even today, vestiges of neocolonialism proliferate and the West has few scruples when it comes to putting the poorest, most destitute, disease-stricken continent in its place. Indeed, as the West prospers, the gap between the West and Africa continues to widen according to every measure on the UNDP's Human Development Index (HDI).

According to the March 2003 Labour Force Survey, the poorest 10 per cent of income earners got less than 200 Rand ($35) a month, then richest 5 per cent earned more than 10,000 Rand ($1, 666) a month. About 90 per cent of South Africa's Africans earn under 4000 rand ($666) a month; 63 per cent of Africans earn less than 1,500 rand ($350) a month. Over 50 per cent of formal employees earn under 2, 500 rand ($414) a month and about 80 per cent earn less than 6,000 rand ($ 250) a month. Even teachers the largest professional group in SA earn on average less than 8,000 rand ($1, 333) a month & nurses under 6,000 rand ($1000).

That's the earning classes. Now factor in the 30 per cent plus who are unemployed.

South Africa has done well in some regards in the first ten years of democracy, but poverty, unemployment & above all HIV/AIDS threaten to pull it under. And, if they do, SA should remember that it ceased to be the flavor of the month a long time ago. A successful "lift off" will take two generations.

There are no short cuts. And, thus, we clutch the heart of hope.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.