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Civil Resistance 101: South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Struggle


Civil resistance exists as a pivotal catalyst, effecting transformation within oppressive regimes and confronting unjust policies that impede civil liberties. Civil resistance’s impact has changed the course of cultural and historical identities throughout history. The study of civil resistance has shed light on the intricate power dynamics present in governance; moreover, it has illuminated a pathway of discourse that empowers nonviolent actions to pursue justice and equitable change. The narratives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela, among others, attest to the potential of civil resistance to dismantle the seemingly insurmountable walls of injustice. It is through these 101 series of civil resistance that the reader will unearth the subtle intricacies of power dynamics within governance structures. This series exposes how resolute people are. Civil resistance, in its essence, is a testament to the resilient human spirit, forging a pathway of discourse that transcends the realm of violence. This series focuses on the foundational principles of democracy, equity, and human rights. Moreover, civil resistance is a testament to the perseverance of humanity to shape its own destiny, fight oppression, and create a trajectory towards a more just and equitable world.

In the context of an international relations and history degree curriculum, this multifaceted study of civil resistance is vital for understanding philosophies, theories, and historical movements, enabling those to analyze, interpret, and actively pave the way for a humanistic, ethical, and peaceful future. This series of articles will embark on a journey through a comprehensive exploration of civil resistance. It will weave together threads of international relations theories, and conflict resolution approaches, and discuss historical movements to provide insightful and indispensable knowledge to the reader. The series aims to provide the reader with a thorough understanding of civil resistance’s impact on societies and how it has left an enduring mark on society today.

This series is divided into the following chapters:

4. Civil Resistance 101: South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Struggle

5. Civil Resistance 101: Achieving Equality through the Civil Rights Movement

6. Civil Resistance 101: Unmasking the Berlin Wall’s Liberation

7. Civil Resistance 101: Unearthing the Power of Civil Resistance for the Future

Civil Resistance 101: South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Struggle

Introduction to Apartheid

In 1652, a Dutch explorer named Afrikaner developed an interest in South Africa. Shortly afterward, the British engaged in three wars with the Dutch, seeking control of the region's diamonds and the incorporation of South Africa into their colonial holdings (Ayubi, 2023, p. 124). This early colonial history laid the groundwork for profound transformations. From 1910 to 1970, South Africa witnessed the establishment and consolidation of the apartheid state (Luiz, 1998, p. 51). Apartheid, derived from the Afrikaans word for "separation," is a term that explains the system of racial segregation that took place in South Africa (Ayubi, 2023, p. 125). This system put individuals into four distinct racial groups: the privileged white community, followed by the colored population, then the Asian community, and the marginalized black Africans (Ayubi, 2023, p. 127).


During the apartheid movement, the National Party (NP) was extremely powerful (Luiz, 1998, pp. 66-67). They were able to institute laws that gave them immeasurable control over their wishes and wants of maintaining and promoting apartheid. Their strength was supported by creating rules and laws that were so stringent and segregated that they were able to “systematically weaken civil society” (Luiz, 1998, pp. 66-67). With the advent of apartheid, it was the first time ever that a “highly industrialized state” was overpowered by its own people (Zunes, 1999, p. 137). Resisting the rules and laws of the National Party was considered a direct betrayal, leading to severe punishment within their society (Luiz, 1998, pp. 66-67). The system they established rewarded whites while causing harm to blacks through a carefully engineered structure of dominance and segregation laws (Luiz, 1998, pp. 66-67). At the same time, they appointed many whites into the public sectors of society (Luiz, 1998, pp. 66-67). The formidable challenge in overcoming apartheid stemmed from the entrenched social structure that severely constrained protest opportunities (Zunes, 1999, p. 137). With more than four-fifths of the South African population being black and subject to the dominance of the whites, the control exerted by the ruling class further hindered the potential for effective opposition and resistance against the oppressive system (Zunes, 1999, p. 137).


 Figure 1: Members of the ANC, 1914 (Wikipedia, 2024).

In 1910, the Union of South Africa emerged as a formal state, marking the beginning of a discriminatory era (Luiz, 1998, p. 51). The white ruling population came from aristocratic and rich backgrounds - controlling much of the gold and minerals in Africa (which represented the majority in the world) (Zunes, 1999, p. 138). Overall, the economy and social society represented extreme oppression while maintaining a level of modernity similar to that of Western nations; essentially, it was a paradox of its own existence (Zunes, 1999, p. 138). The black population found themselves excluded from political participation, trapped in a web of institutionalized segregation governed by a series of rules and laws (Luiz, 1998, p. 51). Beginning in 1912, the African National Congress (ANC) was there to represent black South Africans legally and politically by nonviolent means (Ayubi, 2023, p. 139). The Native Land Act of 1913 allocated a mere 7% of property ownership rights to Africans, compelling impoverished individuals to seek "urban work" as agricultural lands faced closure (Luiz, 1998, p. 51). The year 1923 witnessed the implementation of the Urban Areas Act, which confined Africans to designated areas or "townships" (Luiz, 1998, p. 51). Subsequently, in 1924, the Pact government enacted laws eradicating any black presence in "Government jobs" and empowering whites to assume those roles (Luiz, 1998, p. 51). By 1931, South Africa fell under the control of Great Britain (Ayubi, 2023, p. 124). With the advent of the fusion government in 1934 due to World War II, the white government's grip on white supremacy weakened, leading to Africans attaining positions of greater respect. However, government control was still shared between the British and the Afrikaners until the 1940s when the National Party favoring the Afrikaners won the vote (Ayubi, 2023, p. 124). The National Party set the ground rules for establishing Apartheid and preserving a white-controlled government and racist society in South Africa (Ayubi, 2023, p. 124).

Further, in 1948, non-white Africans, as a whole, became completely limited and nearly powerless at the hands of the white minority (Luiz, 1998, p. 51). The National Party (NP) won the elections in South Africa (Luiz, 1998, p. 52). From 1948-1970, the National Party was able to create a new land that focused and successful in Afrikaner jobs, interests, opportunities, and nationalism (Luiz, 1998, p. 52). Ultimately, apartheid law set certain restrictions; there was to be no relationships between whites and non-whites, all public facilities would be segregated, and all non-whites would be banned from representation in the national governments (Ayubi, 2023, p. 125).

Figure 2: 19th-century Afrikaner family in South Africa (Facing History, 2018).

This government created a proclamation of the land that centered on apartheid and “Afrikaner empowerment” (Luiz, 1998, p. 52). The Afrikaners focused on supporting and promoting their Afrikaner nationalism; to achieve this, they created segregation laws, assisted in creating job opportunities for Afrikaners while creating laws to keep the blacks behind, and ultimately tried to put their interests in helping the Afrikaner people in a variety of sectors (Luiz, 1998, p. 52). In 1950, the Population Registration Act was created by the National Party to acknowledge an individual based on their race (Luiz, 1998, p. 52). Regions were established to further divide the groups and zones: the black zones were known as “Homelands” or “Bantustans” (Ayubi, 2023, p. 127). These regions were impoverished and suffered from resource allocation and weak autonomy (Ayubi, 2023, p. 127). These regions were known to be dirty, population-dense, and filled with laborers or unemployed black persons (Ayubi, 2023, p. 127).


Desmond Tutu & Nelson Mandela

Archbishop Desmond Tutu emerged as a significant advocate for the anti-apartheid movement, championing nonviolent resistance throughout his career (McCarty, 2012, p. 971). Desmond Tutu became a moral leader in the anti-apartheid movement, merging his role as an Anglican bishop with a strong commitment to justice. His church speeches were focused on reconciliation as he closely connected to the wider political struggle for equality in South Africa (Rensburg, 2002, p. 746). Tutu boldly confronted the National Party (NP), insisting that their segregated policies contradicted God's wishes (Rensburg, 2002, p. 746). Through his influential stance, Tutu inspired a moral awakening and played a vital role in breaking down apartheid, making a lasting impact on the fight for a fairer society (Rensburg, 2002, p. 746). Additionally, up until the 1990s, Tutu would participate in boycotts and protest marches, often leading both in the efforts to end Apartheid (McCarty, 2012, p. 980). His teachings and beliefs come from the African idea known as “ubuntu” which has its roots in the belief that all individuals are connected and reliant upon one another and their very sense of humanity (McCarty, 2012, p. 981). Simply, he applied this principle to show that humanity is what connects black South Africans to white South Africans (McCarty, 2012, p. 982). The other aspect of “ubuntu” refers to the idea that all individuals are created in God’s image; therefore, there is no distinction between races in the sense that all humans are created as God created them (McCarty, 2012, p. 984).


Figure 3: Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela (Mail & Guardian, 2013).

Nelson Mandela, part of the minority of newly educated black Africans in the 1940s, emerged as a leader within the African National Congress's Youth League (Freund, 2014, p. 292). During this period, the ANC, under Mandela's influence, adopted a more confrontational stance against the segregation and political divisions imposed by the white minority in power (Freund, 2014, p. 292). Simultaneously his wife, Winnie Mandela, surfaced in the 1950s and 1960s, symbolizing the struggles faced by non-whites and women during apartheid (Chalhang, 2020, p. 34). Subjected to government harassment for years, Winnie Mandela was eventually banned, compelling her to relocate to the Orange Free State in the 1970s (Chalhang, 2020, p. 34). Prior to Mandela’s imprisonment in 1962, he was a central figure of the ANC and its faction known as “Umkhonto we Sizwe” (Olesen, 2015, p. 46). The Rivonia trial was a symbolic demonstration of his anti-apartheid values and principles as he was sent off to prison as he was sentenced for treason (Olesen, 2015, p.  46). At the Rivonia trial, he made a four-hour-long speech detailing his commitment to a liberated and democratic African society and one he would die for (Olesen, 2015, p. 46).


Tutu’s roles varied from priest to professor, leader of the South African Council of Churches, and then to Archbishop (McCarty, 2012, p. 978). His character and words had the power to sway public opinion and drive change. For example, in March 1975, he was even elected the first black dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral, which was made up of white parishioners (McCarty, 2012, p. 980). With this election, he was allowed to reside in the white district where the church was constructed; this allowance was technically in direct violation of the Group Area Act which separated whites from non-whites (McCarty, 2012, p. 980). However, in an act of nonviolent resistance, he refused the offer to live in the white community and stated “I do not want to apologize for my blackness” (McCarty, 2012, p. 980). In other efforts to ensure peace and political change, Tutu issued letters to the Prime Minister of South Africa in the 1970s, stating that without change, violence would ensue (McCarty, 2012, p. 980). During this time, Nelson Mandela was taken to jail as a prisoner (Olesen, 2015, p. 45). From 1962-1990, Nelson Mandela would remain in prison in South Africa at Robben Island (Olesen, 2015, p. 45).  After he and fellow ANC members were imprisoned between 1962 and 1964, populations inside as well as outside of South Africa saw these imprisonments as a means to silence anti-apartheid activists (Olesen, 2015, p. 46).


Women & Anti-Apartheid

Women played a crucial role in the emerging nonviolent resistance movements in South Africa, actively participating in various protests such as bus ticket boycotts, squatter movement protests, and pass-law demonstrations, as documented by Chalhang (2020, p. 33). The backdrop of their struggle included the oppressive Immorality Act of 1927, which criminalized "extra-marital sex across racial frontiers" (Luiz, 1998, p. 51). The years 1930 and 1937 witnessed municipal attempts to restrict African women from finding employment, reflecting a challenging period for their economic prospects (Chalhang, 2020, p. 32). In 1943, Madi-hall Xuma became the African National Congress Women’s League president; a major milestone under her guidance was to protest the Communism Act of 1950 which allowed government leaders to “ban” citizens for committing specific acts (Chalhang, 2020, p. 33).


Throughout the 1950s, additional legislation further excluded women while also segregating blacks from whites, particularly in settlements and education (Luiz, 1998, p. 52). In 1952, official exclusion of women from employment without authorities' permission became a stark reality, accompanied by the implementation of "rigid legislation," such as passbooks and restrictions on staying in urban areas for more than 72 hours without permission (Chalhang, 2020, p. 32). In response to these oppressive pass laws, women developed a form of "passive resistance" (Chalhang, 2020, p. 32). The discriminatory environment expanded with the introduction of acts like the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, the Immorality Act of 1950, the Separate Representation of Voters Act of 1951, and the 1953 Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (Luiz, 1998, p. 52).

Figure 4: 20th century ANC Women's League poster (Speak Magazine, 2024).

In response to these hardships, the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) was established in 1954, providing a platform for women to engage in more formal nonviolent protests against the discriminatory Pass laws (Chalhang, 2020, p. 33). The FSAW's impact was notably evident in the 1956 march to Pretoria, where 20,000 women showcased their defiance against unjust laws (Chalhang, 2020, p. 33). The government, under the National Party's rule, enforced stringent laws penalizing those who questioned or opposed racial statutes, including the banning of The Natives Representative Council in 1951 (Luiz, 1998, p. 52).

Pan Africanist Congress

In contrast to the ANC's nonviolent stance, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) emerged in 1957, advocating armed resistance to challenge apartheid (Zunes, 1999, p. 139). The PAC's commitment to violent actions, exemplified by the Umkonto We Sizwe or “Spear of the Nation” bombings and campaigns causing harm to children and black government supporters, marked a departure from nonviolent civil resistance (Zunes, 1999, pp. 139-140).


Simultaneously, the National Party (NP) initiated the "homeland system" in the 1960s, establishing ten self-governing lands with the aim of severing South African connections (Luiz, 1998, p. 53). Transkei became a self-governing land in 1963 and gained independence in 1976, followed by Bophutatswana, Venda, and Ciskei (Luiz, 1998, p. 53). During this period, the NP perceived the ANC as a threat, prompting the creation of repressive laws such as the Unlawful Organisations Act (1960), the Sabotage Act (1962), and the Internal Security Act (1976), hindering opposition to the apartheid movement (Luiz, 1998, p. 53).

Figure 5: Founding members of the Pan Africanist Congress, 1957 (Wikipedia, 2021).

From 1963 to 1983, the NP legally displaced 3.5 million "coloreds, Asians, and Africans" to self-governing territories (Luiz, 1998, p. 53). However, the PAC's turn to violent tactics during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s had negative consequences for the broader anti-apartheid movement (Zunes, 1999, p. 139). Despite early support, the PAC's adoption of violence undermined the nonviolent civil resistance movement, revealing the challenges posed by the military advantage of the white South African government (Zunes, 1999, p. 139). By 1977, approximately 540,000 individuals were white and employed in the "public service" sector, with the top 10% of positions predominantly held by Afrikaners (Luiz, 1998, pp. 66-67). Additionally, white South Africans possessed a formidable army of 180,000, with the potential for reinforcements totaling 500,000 men (Zunes, 1999, p. 139). Moreover, they ranked among the highest globally in guns per capita, and the South African airforce boasted an unparalleled arsenal of aircraft, tanks, vehicles, and firearms (Zunes, 1999, p. 140). Ultimately, by 1978, the South African police force comprised 55% white members, particularly in the security sector, where they frequently persecuted those politically opposed to the apartheid state (Luiz, 1998, pp. 66-67).


Sharpesville Massacre and the Soweto Uprising

Two pivotal events underscored the nonviolent civil resistance movement during apartheid: the Sharpesville Massacre and the Soweto uprising (Chalhang, 2020, p. 34). On March 21, 1960, the Sharpesville Massacre unfolded in Transvaal as hundreds peacefully protested pass-laws outside the police station (Chalhang, 2020, p. 34). In a mere 40 seconds, the police responded with fatal force, initiating a chain reaction of violence and legislative acts aimed at suppressing anti-apartheid sentiments, including the “Unlawful Organisations Act of 1960, Defence Act, Police Amendment Act, and the General Laws Amendment Act of 1961” (Chalhang, 2020, p. 34). Simultaneously, in Sharpesville, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) rallied against labor issues, culminating in the Sharpesville Massacre on March 21, 1960 (Ayubi, 2023, p. 127). The police's lethal response resulted in 69 deaths and over 180 injuries, triggering widespread protests and strikes nationwide, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency (Ayubi, 2023, p. 127-128). In the aftermath, the ANC and PAC faced a ban imposed by the South African government (Ayubi, 2023, p. 128).

Figure 6: Sharpesville Massacre, 1960 (Divestment for Humanity, 2015).

The 1970s witnessed the Soweto uprising, rooted in educational disparities, where the South African government mandated Afrikaans as the official language in African schools, replacing English (Chalhang, 2020, p. 34). African students, perceiving this as a further infringement on their rights, congregated at Orlando West High School on June 16, 1976, to protest the language substitution (Chalhang, 2020, p. 34). The situation escalated when the police, in a panicked response, fired shots without hesitation, resulting in the tragic death of 13-year-old Hector Peterson (Chalhang, 2020, p. 34). This incident fueled widespread rioting across various townships, amplifying the fervor of the anti-apartheid movement (Chalhang, 2020, p. 34).



After being released from prison in 1990, Mandela entered the global circuit and prepared a speech at Wembley Stadium in London; his words were gracious as he thanked the anti-apartheid activists and the world figures who helped free him (Olesen, 2015, p. 52). Similar to Tutu’s vision of reconciliation, Mandela stated that he saw a future for South African politics rooted in democracy and nonviolence, one focused on the very humanity of people (Olesen, 2015, p. 54).

On February 2, 1990, President de Klerk of South Africa took a historic step by dismantling all laws that prohibited resistance against apartheid and subsequently releasing Nelson Mandela just a few days later (Chalhang, 2020, p. 35). The pivotal moment marked a significant turning point in South Africa's political landscape. Exactly a year later, on February 1, 1991, apartheid was officially abolished, marking the advent of a new political era commonly referred to as the "transition" (Chalhang, 2020, p. 35).

Figure 7: Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela ceremoniously walking after being released from prison, 1990 (Torchia & Eliason, 2013).

In 1993, Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize (Olesen, 2015, p. 55). In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa (Hughes, 2023, p. 33). This new government symbolized a united nation with a new constitution focused on reconciliation and moving forward from the injustices imposed on the black population in the preceding decades (Hughes, 2023, p. 33). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was created by Tutu in 1995; it became a driving force for change and the recognition of past violence and political suppression (Hughes, 2023, p. 33). Serving as the Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Tutu assumed a pivotal role as a symbol and leader of democracy and nonviolence (McCarty, 2012, p. 972). The TRC, a groundbreaking initiative in South Africa, signified a legal commitment to democratic change through nonviolent means, representing the first of its kind globally (McCarty, 2012, pp. 972 & 977). Established to address the social and political wrongs committed during apartheid, the TRC aimed at achieving reconciliation (McCarty, 2012, p. 977). From the TRC, "legacy projects" emerged as symbols of South Africa's newly founded democratic principles (Hughes, 2023, p. 34). One such project included transforming Robben Island, where Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned, into a museum in 1997 (Hughes, 2023, p. 34). Another legacy project, initiated in 1999, was Freedom Park, resulting in a museum and a symbol of reparation in Pretoria, completed in 2013 (Hughes, 2023, p. 34).



In South Africa, the white ruling power hinged on both its black citizens and Western nations during the apartheid era, creating a system that endured due to this interdependence (Zunes, 1999, p. 138). Without any true legality, apartheid continued to persist from 1948 until the 1990s solely due to social, political and economic control (Ayubi, 2023, p. 125). The nonviolent resistance witnessed during apartheid focused not only on areas where whites were successful but specifically targeted the infrastructure of their dominance (Zunes, 1999, p. 138). This strategic approach aimed to challenge the very foundations of the oppressive system. Nonviolent action, as defined by Zunes (1999, p. 138), involves purposeful change through unusual acts of peaceful protest that avoid causing harm. The overarching issue prevalent under the apartheid government was its profound dependency on the passivity of its black citizens (Zunes, 1999, p. 138). In contrast to other theorists, Gene Sharp believed that even in a government as institutionally racist as that of South Africa, it remained reliant on the "consent" of its people (Zunes, 1999, p. 138). Sharp further argued that by educating the black majority, they could effectively and peacefully fight back against the oppressive system (Zunes, 1999, p. 139). In essence, the nonviolent resistance illuminated the power of strategic dissent, targeting the roots of oppression rather than merely reacting to its manifestations (Zunes, 1999, p. 138). Consequently, this approach not only challenged the apartheid system's endurance but also underscored the transformative potential inherent in meaningful nonviolent actions.

Bibliographical References

Ayubi, A. (2023). Apartheid policy in South Africa. International Journal of Science and Society, 5(1), 124-131. 

Chalhang, K. (2021). An assessment of women’s involvement in the antiapartheid struggle in South Africa. International Journal of Political Science and Governance, 3(1), 32-36. 

Freund, B. (2014). The shadow of Nelson Mandela, 1918–2013. Review of African Political Economy, 41(140), 292-296. 

Hughes, H. (2023). Public Histories in South Africa: Between Contest and Reconciliation. Public History Review, 30, 31-42. https://doi. org/10.5130/phrj.v30i0.8374

Luiz, J.M. (1998). The Evolution and Fall of the South African Apartheid State: A Political Economy Perspective. Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 26(2-3), 49-72. 10.5070/F7262-3016619

McCarty III, J.W. (2012). Nonviolent Law? Linking Nonviolent Social Change and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. West Virginia Law Review, 114, 969-1005.

Olesen, T. (2015). Global political iconography: The making of Nelson Mandela. American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 3(1), 34-64.

Rensburg, R. (2002). Archbishop Desmond Tutu as moral sage and servant leader: A compassionate zealot. Verbum et Ecclesia, 23(3). 

 Zunes, S. (1999). The Role of Non-Violent Action in the Downfall of Apartheid. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 37(1), 137-169.

Visual Sources

D.W. (2012).Mandela turns 94. [Photography] DW.

Figure  1: Wikipedia. (2024). History of the African National Congress. [Photography] Wikipedia.

Figure  2: Facing History. (2018). Afrikaner Identity. [Photography] Facing History & Ourselves.

Figure  3: Mail & Guardian. (2013). Tutu: We thank God for Madiba. [Photography] Mail & Guardian.

Figure  4: Speak Magazine. (2024). Speak: ANC Women’s League. [Photography] Speak Magazine.

Figure  5: Wikipedia. (2021). Founding members of the Pan Africanist Congress in 1957. [Photography] Wikipedia.

Figure  6: Divestment for Humanity. (2015). The Sharpeville Massacre, 1960. [Photography] Divestment for Humanity.

Figure 7: Torchia, C. & Eliason, M. (2013). Nelson Mandela was global symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation. [Photography] Columbia Missourian.


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Alexandra Gimpel

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