History > 19th, 20th, early 21st century
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Soweto youths kneeling in front
of the police.
Photograph: Foto24/Getty Images
'My activism started then':
Soweto uprising remembered
Thursday 16 June 2016 07.00 BST
A full frame of the famous
KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Searching for Soweto:
a man whose image defined apartheid brutality
Thursday 16 June 2016 09.30 BST
Last modified on Thursday 16 June 2016 10.34 BST
Divided cities: South Africa's
apartheid legacy photographed by drone 2016
apartheid legacy photographed by drone
Thursday 23 June 2016 11.30 BST
Zanyiwe "Winnie" Madikizela-Mandela 1936-2018
to live in the cities;
created for them
on the outskirts.
All of the jobs,
blue-collar or domestic,
were in the cities,
from the townships
could take two
Steve Biko /
Stephen Bantu Biko 1946-1977
A man holds a picture
African students leader Steve Biko,
at his funeral in King William’s
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
activist in South Africa
in the 1960s and
Guguletu, near Cape Town 1976
A South African policeman
collars a black student
during rioting in Guguletu, near
Cape Town, 1976.
The brutal reality of apartheid
in South Africa
7 December 1976: This edited
of the action by South African
in a black township near Cape Town
was written by a ‘coloured’
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
June 1976 Soweto uprising
High-school students in Soweto,
protest for better education.
Police fired teargas and live
into the marching crowd
killing innocent people
ignited what is known
as The Soweto Uprising,
Photograph: City Press/Getty
S African riot evokes shades of
June 16 1976:
On this day
clashes between school students
in the Soweto township
ended with at least eight dead.
This is how the Guardian
reported the events.
Thu 17 Jun 1976
First published on Thu 17 Jun
1976 11.35 BST
streets of Soweto
in June 1976
to protest being
to study in Afrikaans.
to the peaceful
at the schoolchildren.
Sophiatown in 1955,
when black South Africans
being forced out to southern townships.
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
arrived in Sophiatown
at five o’clock
of 9 February, 1955.
with piles of paper
– lists of names
in the Meadowlands
15 kilometres away
the northern edge
an army of 2,000
carried rifles and batons,
ready to enforce the
and clear Sophiatown
of its black residents.
“Maak julle oop!”
they shouted in
had been forced
to remove all
from their homes,
pile into police
and move out
to the Meadowlands,
Sophiatown was one
the last remaining areas
Five years earlier,
the South African
which sought to purge
black South Africans
the act gave license
to the city’s government
to push middle-class
out of northern areas
into southern townships
such as Soweto,
of poor black residents
Asiatic Land Tenure
Africa has changed
in his lifetime
spanned the continent's transition
from colonialism to independence
as the white powers that ruled it
were forced to give up their grip
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.
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
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
A smattering of well-educated anti-colonial leaders provided the arguments and
the direction to draw increasingly restless Africans into the struggle for their
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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,
Africa as Miracle or Mirage?
June 10, 2008
12:35 AM ET
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
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
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
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.'"
South Africa as Miracle or Mirage?,
June 10, 2008,
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