Cape Town railway station in the 1950s


Apartheid was a unique system of racial segregation and white supremacy in South Africa. For nearly three centuries Africans were dispossessed and exploited by Dutch and British colonists. In 1948 apartheid (‘apartness’) became official policy. The National Party, elected by an all-white electorate, extended and formalised separation and discrimination into a rigid legal system.


Most of the land was allocated to whites, and Africans were confined to barren overcrowded ‘homelands’. Black workers in so-called white areas were required to carry passes at all times. They lived in townships outside the city centres and were paid below subsistence wages.

Health and education facilities were segregated and those for blacks were hugely inferior to those for whites. The system was kept in place by a battery of repressive laws, under which people could be detained indefinitely without trial.


The apartheid government allied with the Portuguese colonial government in Angola and Mozambique and the illegal white regime in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to maintain white minority regimes on its northern borders. It ruled Namibia in defiance of UN rulings. After they won their independence, South Africa terrorised its northern neighbours.


From the beginning, South Africa’s African, Indian and Coloured (mixed race) communities fought back. Despite brutal repression, they used every means of resistance – mass protest, armed struggle, strikes and boycotts – to overthrow the apartheid regime. Increasingly they looked to the outside world for support.

Luthuli apartheid quote

Soldier chasing young boy Soldier chasing young boy