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History > 19th, 20th, early 21st century > South Africa


Timeline in articles, pictures and podcasts





Soweto youths kneeling in front of the police.


Photograph: Foto24/Getty Images


'My activism started then':

the Soweto uprising remembered


Thursday 16 June 2016    07.00 BST



















A full frame of the famous photograph.


Photograph: Sam Nzima

KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images


Searching for Soweto:

mystery of a man whose image defined apartheid brutality


Thursday 16 June 2016    09.30 BST

Last modified on Thursday 16 June 2016    10.34 BST




















Desmond Mpilo Tutu    1931-2021





Then-Bishop Tutu and his wife, Nomalizo Leah Tutu,

at the General Theological Seminary in New York in 1984.


Photograph: Don Hogan Charles

The New York Times


Desmond Tutu, Whose Voice Helped Slay Apartheid, Dies at 90

The archbishop,

a powerful force for nonviolence in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement,

was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.


Dec. 26, 2021    Updated 4:30 a.m. ET



























Desmond Mpilo Tutu    1931-2021


cleric who used

his pulpit and spirited oratory

to help bring down

apartheid in South Africa

and then became

the leading advocate

of peaceful reconciliation

under Black majority rule




Archbishop Tutu had fought

an on-and-off battle

with prostate cancer

since 1997.


As leader

of the South African Council of Churches

and later as

Anglican archbishop of Cape Town,

Archbishop Tutu led the church

to the forefront of Black South Africans’

decades-long struggle for freedom.


His voice was a powerful force

for nonviolence

in the anti-apartheid movement,

earning him a Nobel Peace Prize

in 1984.


When that movement

triumphed in the early 1990s,

he prodded the country

toward a new relationship

between its white and Black citizens,

and, as chairman

of the Truth and Reconciliation


he gathered testimony


the viciousness of apartheid.


“You are overwhelmed

by the extent of evil,”

he said. But, he added,

it was necessary

to open the wound

to cleanse it.


In return for

an honest accounting

of past crimes,

the committee offered

amnesty, establishing

what Archbishop Tutu called

the principle of restorative

— rather than retributive —

































story.php?storyId=124539592 - March 11, 20210





















Post Apartheid South Africa





































Divided cities:

South Africa's apartheid legacy photographed by drone





Vusimuzi/Mooifontein Cemetery, Johannesburg



Johnny Miller/Millefoto/Rex/Shutterstock


Divided cities:

South Africa's apartheid legacy photographed by drone


Thursday 23 June 2016    11.30 BST
























Roelof Frederick Botha    1932-2018


















"Winnie" Madikizela-Mandela    1936-2018















Under Apartheid,

black South Africans

weren’t allowed

to live in the cities;



were created for them

on the outskirts.


All of the jobs,

blue-collar or domestic,

were in the cities,

and the train-and-bus commute

from the townships

could take two hours.



















Steve Biko / Stephen Bantu Biko    1946-1977





A man holds a picture

of South African students leader Steve Biko,

at his funeral in King William’s Town, 1977.


Photograph: AFP

Getty Images


Peter Gabriel – 10 of the best


Wednesday 2 November 2016    09.48 GMT

Last modified on Wednesday 2 November 2016    09.49 GMT









anti-apartheid activist

in South Africa

in the 1960s and 1970s
























 Rioting in Guguletu, near Cape Town    1976





A South African policeman collars a black student

during rioting in Guguletu, near Cape Town, 1976.


Photograph: AP


The brutal reality of apartheid in South Africa

7 December 1976: This edited eye-witness account

of the action by South African police

in a black township near Cape Town

was written by a ‘coloured’ teache

in a letter to a friend in Britain


Mon 7 Dec 2015    05.00 GMT

Last modified on Mon 7 Dec 2015    05.06 GMT
























Soweto uprising    June 1976





High-school students in Soweto, South Africa,

protest for better education.


Police fired teargas and live bullets

into the marching crowd

killing innocent people

and ignited what is known

as The Soweto Uprising,

June 1976.


Photograph: City Press

Getty Images


S African riot evokes shades of Sharpeville

June 16 1976:

On this day

clashes between school students and police

in the Soweto township

ended with at least eight dead.

This is how the Guardian reported the events.


Thu 17 Jun 1976    11.35 BST

First published on Thu 17 Jun 1976    11.35 BST









Thousands of black children

and teenagers had taken

to the streets of Soweto

in June 1976

to protest being forced

to study in Afrikaans.


Police responded

to the peaceful protest with force,

spraying bullets

at the schoolchildren.














in-pictures - Guardian pictures gallery































Sophiatown in 1955,

when black South Africans

were being forced out to southern townships.


Photograph: Bettmann



Story of cities #19:

Johannesburg's apartheid purge of vibrant Sophiatown


Monday 11 April 2016    08.20 BST

Last modified on Wednesday 20 April 2016    12.17 BST
















9 February, 1955




The bulldozers arrived

in Sophiatown

at five o’clock on the morning

of 9 February, 1955.


Behind them in the darkness,

police commanderslined up

with piles of paper

– lists of names and addresses,

eviction notices, and assignments

to new plots

in the Meadowlands suburb,

15 kilometres away

on the northern edge of Soweto.


Behind the commanders,

an army of 2,000 police

carried rifles and batons,

ready to enforce the eviction

and clear Sophiatown

of its black residents.


“Maak julle oop!”

they shouted in Afrikaans.

“Open up!”


By sunrise, 110 families had been

forced to remove all belongings

from their homes,

pile into police trucks

and move out to the Meadowlands,

where hundreds of matchbox homes

awaited them.


Sophiatown was one

of the last remaining areas

of black home-ownership

in Johannesburg.


Five years earlier,

the South African parliament

had passed the Group Areas Act,

which sought to purge

black South Africans

from developed neighbourhoods

and establish “urban apartheid”.


In Johannesburg,

the act gave license

to the city’s government

to push middle-class

black residents

out of northern areas

including Sophiatown

into southern townships

such as Soweto,

where the majority

of poor black residents

already lived.





















Asiatic Land Tenure

and Indian Representation Act























The Immorality Act, 1927

(Act No. 5 of 1927)

was an act

of the Parliament of South Africa

that prohibited extramarital sex

between white people

and people of other races.


In its original form

it only prohibited sex

between a white person

and a black person,

but in 1950 it was amended to apply

to sex between a white person

and any non-white person.

- Wikipedia,

December 18, 2022

















Nelson Mandela:

How Africa has changed

in his lifetime

Nelson Mandela's life
spanned the continent's transition
from colonialism to independence
as the white powers that ruled it
were forced to give up their grip


Sunday 8 December 2013
The Observer
Chris McGreal
This article appeared on p10 of the Special supplement section of the Observer on Sunday 8 December 2013.
It was published on the Guardian website
at 19.00 GMT on Sunday 8 December 2013.


July 1918: Africa at the time of Mandela's birth

Nelson Mandela was born into a continent colonised and in servitude to European powers. Only Ethiopia and Liberia were independent. But Germany's defeat in the first world war brought about a reworking of the colonial order with its possessions in what are now Tanzania, Cameroon, Togo, Burundi and Rwanda distributed among the war's victors – Britain, France and Belgium. German South West Africa, now Namibia, fell under South African control.

Mandela was a citizen of a new country: South Africa had been born eight years earlier with the unification of four British colonies, including the two former Afrikaner republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, taken over after the Boer war. Ironically, the Boer struggle was widely seen as the first anti-colonial fight of the 20th century against the British empire.

South Africa, because of its large white population, was a politically autonomous dominion under the British crown, unlike the UK's other African colonies. In 1918, some territories were still regarded as the private property of commercial companies. Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was owned by the British South Africa Company and would not be recognised as a colony until 1923.

Whatever the status of territory, the plunder of Africa's wealth – its gold, rubber, tobacco, diamonds, ivory and copper – was unrelenting. But the seeds of the independence movements were sown with the hundreds of thousands of Africans who served in the first world war helping to raise political awareness and challenge white claims of racial superiority.


1936-1945: Invasion and the second world war

Ethiopia was one of only two independent countries in Africa when the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, decided to expand his small "African empire". Italy invaded in 1936, overthrowing Emperor Haile Selassie and confirming the League of Nations as toothless in the face of fascist aggression. Ethiopia was integrated into Italian East Africa with Eritrea and Italian Somaliland.

From 1940, the desert war ranged across north Africa for three years, swinging from French Tunisia through Italian Libya to within striking distance of Cairo. That conflict once again remade the colonial map, with Italy forced to relinquish its rule of Libya and Somalia, and Ethiopia liberated in 1941. It was also deciding the future of imperial rule in less immediately evident ways. After the war, France recovered possession of Tunisia, where a sizeable expatriate population lived, but its authority was fatally undermined and it was independent within a few years, along with Morocco.

Newly demobilised African soldiers who served the allied cause in north and east Africa, Europe and Asia arrived home questioning the disconnect between the Allies' trumpeting of freedom with the continued subjugation of their own continent.

A smattering of well-educated anti-colonial leaders provided the arguments and the direction to draw increasingly restless Africans into the struggle for their freedom.


1948: Apartheid

The National party won power in South Africa with an unexpected and narrow victory on a platform of more rigid race segregation. Afrikaner leaders portrayed apartheid as a form of social upliftment for poorer whites, in part by protecting their jobs from cheaper black labour. The vote for the National party was also in part a backlash against British influence by Afrikaners still bitter about the Boer war and loss of self-determination. At the time, Britain and its western allies sought to placate the new government in Pretoria which did not immediately look so out of step with the colonial regimes and their systems of race-based privilege, power and segregation.

But as the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, reminded the South African parliament in his "wind of change" speech in Cape Town in 1960, the apartheid government was on the wrong side of history. South Africa left the British Commonwealth the following year.

The rapid decolonisation of most of Africa helped drive the white regime's increasingly repressive response to resistance to apartheid legislation, including the arrest and trial of Mandela and other ANC leaders.


1956 on: Decolonisation

The tumble of decolonisation across sub-Saharan Africa began with the Gold Coast, reborn as Ghana in 1957.

Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, espoused a pan-African philosophy that inspired other subjugated nations and alarmed complacent imperialists who initially imagined they could drag out the independence process in other parts of Africa, especially in countries where there were large numbers of white settlers.

But Britain had learned the hard way with the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya that if it was not prepared to negotiate an end to its rule then Africans would fight for it. Within a few years, most of Britain's colonies in Africa had gained independence or were on the brink of it.

France gave up control of two of its north African Arab colonies, Tunisia and Morocco, in 1956 in the hope of clinging to a third – Algeria, then home to close to one million white settlers, which Paris regarded as a department of France.

The ensuing struggle brought down the French Fourth Republic and stripped Paris of its colonial delusions. Paris's brutal "pacification" of the independence struggle pushed Algeria to civil war. The French claimed military victory but the political shock at home was so great that Algerian independence could no longer be resisted.

The Algerian war helped dispel any lingering hopes of France holding on to its sub-Saharan colonies and most were freed in a burst of independence celebrations in 1960. Belgium pulled out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo the same year, and Rwanda and Burundi two years later.

But Paris made sure to hold its former colonies close through economic, political and military ties, including underpinning regional currencies.


1960-1980: White resistance to decolonisation

As the imperial powers withdrew, the determination of the remaining settler administrations to hold on to power hardened. Ian Smith's white government of Rhodesia made a unilateral declaration of independence on 11 November 1965 in resistance to the UK's plans to make the colony independent. Britain declared the move an "act of treason". Rhodesia found backing from apartheid South Africa, including crucial economic assistance, and Portugal, which gave access to ports in Mozambique. But Rhodesia was besieged by sanctions and then an escalating insurgency in the 1970s which strengthened after Mozambique gained independence and provided a base for Robert Mugabe's Zanu guerrillas. Eventually, the white minority regime was overwhelmed by the military and economic pressures, although Smith later blamed South Africa for Rhodesia's collapse, saying it had been "stabbed in the back" by Pretoria. Mugabe became the first – and only prime minister – of an independent Zimbabwe in 1980.

Armed independence movements launched rebellions in the early 60s in Portugal's remaining territories – Angola, Mozambique and Guinea – and were met with increasing brutality. The economic and political toll of the conflict helped prompt a coup in 1974 that overthrew the rightwing regime in Lisbon. Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau gained independence the following year.


1960-1980s: Cold war

The early hope of the newly independent African nations was rapidly undermined by the cold war struggle as Soviet backing for African liberation movements was countered by American support for military coups and authoritarian leadership.

Under protection of western aid based largely on anti-communist credentials with little concern about the quality of governance, military dictatorships and one-party states run by presidents-for-life emerged from Nigeria to Malawi, Kenya to Zambia, Zaire to Ivory Coast, while the Soviets sponsored governments such as Ethiopia and Mozambique.

The cold war confrontation was at its bloodiest in Angola where the Soviet-backed government and Cuban troops fought a long war against Jonas Savimbi's US-sponsored rebels and South Africa's army. The conflict destroyed towns and villages across the oil-rich country and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

For many years during the 1970s and 1980s, Africa was defined to much of the rest of the world by its more brutal and extreme leaders, such as Uganda's Idi Amin, who was regarded as part clown and part monster, and Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, who stole billions of dollars while his country collapsed around him.


1976: The beginning of the end for apartheid

Neither South Africa's white regime nor Mandela's ANC predicted the Soweto uprising, which kicked off the escalating popular resistance that played a central role in bringing down apartheid. On 16 June 1976, thousands of students took to the streets against the government forcing black schools to teach many lessons in Afrikaans, not only seen as the language of the oppressor but also as a further means of keeping black people down.

The South African police responded to the protest with violence, killing 23 people on the first day, including 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who became a symbol of the uprising. Hundreds more died in the following months. The protests marked a new wave of popular protest against apartheid inside South Africa which put the ANC at the forefront of the liberation struggle inside the country. The white regime responded with increasing repression that only fed the popular resistance and gave rise to a broad coalition of opponents of apartheid, including trade unions, churches and civic groups, under the umbrella of the United Democratic Front. The white government's increasingly heavy-handed response fuelled international outrage and led to the tightening of sanctions.


1990: Freedom

Mandela's release from prison on 11 February 1990 prompted a wave of expectation among people across Africa weary of maladministration and political leaders clinging to power. Old leaders were forced out across the continent, including in Zambia, Malawi and Kenya. A much heralded "new breed" of leader had already emerged led by Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, although he, too, came to be accused of authoritarian tendencies after ruling his country for longer than any of his predecessors.

The press for political change was less successful elsewhere, and in Nigeria it resulted in another military coup. Newfound political freedom could not release African nations from their dependence on foreign aid which came with added strings requiring adherence to western neo-liberal economics. Some African states had already suffered the imposition of International Monetary Fund and World Bank economic plans which proved particularly harsh on the poorest by reversing the benefits they enjoyed such as free schooling. More countries were forced into privatisation programmes and other measures that caused hardship and undermined support for newly elected democratic governments.

Mandela was elected South Africa's president in 1994 and set an example by stepping down five years later. He was replaced by his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, regarded in the west as a steady pair of hands with a strong intellect but his credibility was eroded by outlandish views on the Aids epidemic and for siding with Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.


1994: Genocide

As South Africa celebrated its newfound democracy, Rwanda was descending into its own particular hell. The post-cold war pressure for democratisation combined with the legacy of colonial racial theory to prompt Hutu extremists to attempt to cling on to power by engineering the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. The genocide set in motion a series of events that saw the toppling of neighbouring Zaire's long-standing ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, and years of war in what became the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Out of the tragedy emerged a new Rwanda led by one of Africa's most polarising leaders, President Paul Kagame.

The Rwandan genocide also helped shape international justice, with a United Nations tribunal to try the organisers of the slaughter that presaged another in Sierra Leone and the birth of the international criminal court. African leaders initially welcomed the ICC after it indicted Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army responsible for recruiting child soldiers and other crimes in Uganda. But the mood changed as the court came to be seen increasingly as exercising a double standard in indicting African leaders, including in Sudan and Kenya, while avoiding investigation of actions of western leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq.



China is emerging as the new foreign economic and political force in Africa. Some have condemned Beijing's rising influence as a new form of neocolonisation. Others praise China for helping to release African nations from their dependence on western aid.

China's thirst for minerals and oil, and its hunt for markets for its goods, has seen it develop close ties to Angola, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It has bought up copper mines in Zambia and all but killed the textile industry there by flooding the country with cheap clothes.

Critics of Beijing's expanding influence in Africa say that China is so hungry for resources it does deals with authoritarian regimes and doles out aid without consideration of issues such as good governance.

But China has also delivered on promised aid after decades in which western governments cared more about the political alignments of African leaders than development of their countries. Beijing has built an extensive new network of roads in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, after decades in which the number of paved roads fell sharply despite billions of dollars in western aid.

Growing Chinese influence alarms Washington. Hillary Clinton, then the US secretary of state, warned last year that Beijing is out to plunder the continent and African governments would do well to huddle under the protective wing of America's supposed commitment to freedom.

Nelson Mandela: How Africa has changed in his lifetime,












































































After Mandela:

South Africa as Miracle or Mirage?


June 10, 2008

12:35 AM ET


Charlayne Hunter-Gault


When Nelson Mandela took power from the white minority government in South Africa in 1994, the longtime anti-apartheid activist held out hope that this was the beginning of the end of his people's poverty and the decades-long oppression that kept them in it.

His gestures of reconciliation toward his and their erstwhile oppressors are credited with avoiding bloody conflict in the country, leading the world to hail South Africa as a "miracle."

Today, South Africa is at a crossroads. The heirs to Mandela's legacy are battling among themselves, as the hope he inspired is fading under the weight of unmet needs for the black masses.

This is no excuse, but it makes it more understandable how, once started, recent attacks on immigrants from other parts of the continent to South Africa spread like the kerosene fires that destroy entire neighborhoods after poorly constructed stoves explode while meager dinners are being prepared.

It was pent-up rage that, in the end, was misdirected at immigrants who have fled their own economic or political impoverishment to enjoy the fruits of South Africa's "miracle" — a miracle that may, in fact, have been a mirage.

When I first came to South Africa in 1985 on one of many assignments I would take over more than two decades, an Afrikaner told me the reason for not permitting "one person, one vote" was that South Africa was both First World and Third World.

By that, he meant the whites who controlled the economy and reaped its benefits, including a first-class education, were First World. And the blacks, who labored in the mines, the fields, the kitchens and other rooms of the privileged, and who were being deliberately undereducated so that they could remain subservient, were Third World.

But as I traveled around the country in recent weeks, reporting for the NPR series "South Africa at the Crossroads," those words came back to me, albeit in a different context.

Even with a black-led government, the country remains two separate nations: one white and largely in control of the economy; the other, a majority of blacks still outside the economic mainstream.

Of course, successful, high-profile black millionaires and even billionaires exist. But the nation's official unemployment rate is more than 25 percent. Unofficially, it's as high as 85 percent in the townships and informal settlements. The legacy of the apartheid system of separate and unequal education has left most of the unemployed without the skills to compete in an emerging market economy.

President Thabo Mbeki's government has received plaudits in financial circles at home and abroad for the sound conservative fiscal policies it has pursued. But recent global and local shocks to the system, including spiraling gas prices and massive power outages, have caused economists and other analysts to predict a slowdown in the nation's growth and increasing trouble absorbing the unemployed masses.

South Africa also is dealing with one of the highest crime rates in the world. AIDS continues to put an enormous strain on the nation. And then there's another lingering legacy of apartheid: racism, still ever-present in a nation that Mandela hoped would reflect an ethnic rainbow.

South Africa's myriad problems are being exacerbated by the political battles within the ruling party. Accused of being out of touch with the needs of ordinary people, Mbeki lost control of the African National Congress to his main political rival, Jacob Zuma, in December.

So, for the first time in its short history as a ruling party, the ANC has two centers of power — a president of the party and a president of the country — leading to concerns that urgent needs of the nation's poor may become hostage to political gridlock.

In recent weeks, there have been calls for Mbeki to step down, but he has shown no signs of acting on them. Not long ago, he downplayed the turmoil within the party, insisting it was all part of the natural evolution of a liberation movement becoming a governing party.

Jody Kollapen, chairman of the Human Rights Commission, argues that South Africa may indeed be at a crossroads. But he says that perhaps critics and analysts (and journalists) should be taking a longer view, recognizing that South Africa is a new democracy, undergoing growing pains common to new democracies all over the world — including America's, during its early years of independence.

"Maybe it's time to recognize that South Africa is not a miracle country," Kollapen says. "Maybe we should just come down to earth and say, 'We're an ordinary people perhaps, having done some extraordinary stuff, but maybe the world should let us be an ordinary country.'"

After Mandela: South Africa as Miracle or Mirage?,
June 10, 2008,









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