Published: 2001


"See this yard?" Tom Shiburi waves his hand toward a sprawling field of weeds in the township of Diepkloof (DEEP-kloof), close to downtown Johannesburg. "We used to have some shacks here," he says. "Five thousand shacks—our last count came to something like 10,000 people. They've been relocated, all of them."

Shiburi is talking about the changes in the decade since South Africa abolished apartheid and embraced democracy. Under apartheid (the government-run system that forcibly segregated blacks from whites and denied blacks basic rights), South Africa's white rulers herded millions of blacks into townships like Diepkloof, where they lived in tiny houses or in iron shacks, many without electricity or water.

But since South Africa's black majority came to power in 1994, the government has built and given 1.5 million homes to former shanty dwellers—evidence of the transformation that has swept this nation in a blink of history's eye.

In the past decade, 40 million black and mixed-race South Africans have set aside more than a century of oppression and made peace with the 5 million whites whose government literally kept them prisoners in their own land.

In 1994, blacks and whites went to the polls to elect a new government in one of the 20th century's most inspiring civic exercises. Some feared a racial bloodbath when white rule ended, with blacks taking revenge for past deprivations and injustices. Instead, they embraced their new political power, with nearly 90 percent of those eligible casting ballots. And they have continued to turn out in throngs for elections in 1999 and, again, last April.

There is now a future for blacks where none existed. Honeyboy Khoza, 21, from Pimville, a township outside Johannesburg, is just graduating from high school this year.

"I was lazy," he says. "There was no potential in township schools; they didn't care if you failed." But today, Khoza is so intent on finishing high school and finding a job in technology that he has given up his passion, soccer, to study for finals. "Now, if you're hardworking, you get opportunities," he says. "We've still got a long way to go—everybody knows that. But I think things will keep getting better."

For blacks, apartheid's demise ended more than three centuries of steadily rising oppression that began in the colonial era. The Dutch first settled at Cape Town in 1652, and they soon began imposing restrictions on blacks. When the British took control of Cape Town in 1814, they outlawed torture and also restored some rights to blacks. In the meantime, conflicts between the British and the Dutch, called Afrikaners, continued.

When Britain finally defeated the Afrikaners in the Boer War in 1902, South Africa became part of the British Empire. But the Afrikaners wound up dominating the new Union of South Africa that was formed in 1910, stepping up repression and restricting blacks—who made up 80 percent of the population—to only 7 percent of the land.

That not only segregated the races; it made blacks dependent on whites, because they had too little land to support themselves. In protest, blacks formed in 1912 what became the African National Congress (ANC), with little effect. In 1936, they lost all rights to vote, and in 1948 the government proclaimed an official policy of apartheid (which means "separateness" in Afrikaans, the Dutch dialect spoken by descendants of the original settlers) and began forcibly moving blacks from white areas.

Trapped in slums and shantytowns, and relegated to menial work or brutal labor in gold mines, South Africa's blacks seethed. In 1960, white troops gunned down 200 black protesters in Sharpville, a township 35 miles outside Johannesburg. And in 1962, police arrested a young militant and underground ANC leader named Nelson Mandela. He was sentenced to life in prison for antigovernment activities.

Mandela languished in jail, on Robben Island, through the 1980s, and became an international symbol of the injustice of apartheid. As global opposition to apartheid grew, many nations cut ties to South Africa in an attempt to force change. At first, the United States relied mostly on diplomacy. But in 1986, Congress responded to rising public pressure and imposed sanctions on South Africa.

As demands for Mandela's release grew, F.W. de Klerk became South Africa's new President in September 1989, and quickly began work on a peaceful transition to black rule. De Klerk met with Mandela, then nearly 72, in December, and freed him from prison in February. Throughout 1990 and 1991, de Klerk dismantled most of apartheid's most odious regulations, lifted bans on black political organizations like the ANC, and began talks that led to a temporary government of national unity—and a commitment to democratic elections in April 1994. For their achievement, Mandela and de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Having spent a third of his life in jail, Mandela could have embraced revolution and retribution. Instead, he stayed true to what he said at his trial in 1962: "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities."

In those first democratic elections in 1994, Mandela became South Africa's President, serving a five-year term before retiring in 1999. Mandela's party, the ANC, maintained control of Parliament in elections that year, and Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela as President. (Mbeki was re-elected this April.)

Since the transition to democracy, some progress has been made in improving the daily lives of black South Africans. The government has extended the provision of clean water to 8.4 million people and electricity to 3.8 million. Average income has risen sharply, and with it, access to life's basics: More than 6 in 10 homes now have a refrigerator, compared with less than half in 1994. Nearly half of rural homes have televisions; barely a quarter had them 10 years ago.

Still, South Africa faces many challenges, including AIDS. One in nine South Africans is HIV-positive—5.3 million, the most in any nation. Six hundred South Africans die of AIDS each day, and 660,000 children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. The economy also suffers as sick or dying workers ravage company work forces.

Crime is also a huge problem: In 2002, there were one third more murders in South Africa than in the United States, which has a population six times as great. Robberies, attempted murders, and assaults have skyrocketed in the last 10 years. Part of the reason may be joblessness: More than 40 percent of adults are unemployed.

And despite progress, the income gap between blacks and whites remains vast. While blacks are moving into top corporate jobs and gaining ownership of companies, whites still control 70 percent of South Africa's wealth, and roughly a third of blacks are jobless and poor.

Nevertheless, South Africans remain optimistic. A poll this year by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University found that 70 percent are optimistic about the future and believe race relations have improved since 1994. Nathan Kavingesi, 18, of Johannesburg, is among them. In 1994, he was among the first blacks to attend a formerly all-white school in Port Elizabeth.

"The changes instituted in 10 years have been phenomenal," says Kavingesi, "in terms of integration of schools, in terms of us all learning to acknowledge each other's differences but learning to get along regardless. As a country, we are just starting to discover our own identity. And I like the way it looks."

Related Links:

Learn about the African National Congress, the political party founded by Nelson Mandela, which continues to govern the country today.

Find economic, social, and political data on South Africa in the World Factbook by the Central Intelligence Agency.