Uncovering Apartheid: The Conclusion

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

Content Warning: This blog post contains an image of a mortally wounded child. 

By Ian Cata

This article is the third of a three-part series that dives deep into the nearly five decades of Apartheid in South Africa and the movements of non-violence that impacted it. If you have not already read the first two articles, I suggest exiting this article and doing so as it will provide additional context and clarity.

Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement

As the 1960s were coming to an end, the anti-apartheid movement was in bad shape. After the events of Sharpeville, the leading resistance groups, the ANC and PAC, decided to create paramilitary wings to physically fight against the government. This decision was ultimately disastrous as it led to the arrest of several leaders of the movement such as Nelson Mandela and led the government to effectively ban the ANC and PAC altogether.[1] The anti-apartheid movement was in desperate need of a new direction and a new leader. Enter Steve Biko, a university student who saw that anti-apartheid organizations were dominated by white students. Biko sought to form a new group outside of the conventional organizations. In 1969, he founded the South African Students Organization (SASO), a group that sought to welcome all students classified as non-white by the South African government. Within SASO, Biko coined a new concept, “Black consciousness”, which he defined as an awakening of self-worth in Black populations. Biko and other leaders of the movement sought to encourage members of the Black community to no longer view their race as an obstacle or burden but as a positive unifying trait. Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) soon spread to universities across South Africa. In 1972, the Black People’s Convention (BPC) was launched with the goal of spreading the BCM to workers’ unions. Over the next few years, the BCM spread even further and Steve Biko was cemented as the new face of the anti-apartheid movement.[2]

The Soweto Uprising

In 1975, the South African government decreed that African schools must begin teaching classes in Afrikaans. Influenced by the BCM and SASO3, students began mobilizing in protest as many were taught subjects in English and saw Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor.[3][4] On June 16th, 1976, in Soweto, over 20,000 students, consisting mostly of children and teenagers, marched peacefully down the street, protesting against the government.[5] They were soon met with heavily armed police officers who began firing tear gas and live munitions into the crowd.[6] As students fled in every direction, photographer Sam Nzima saw a teenager running for help carrying a young boy in his arms, he quickly snapped a picture. The boy was Hector Pieterson, the youngest killed at 13 years old.[7] At the end of the day, the official tally was 23 dead, most were shot in the back and younger than 23.[8] The public responded with rage and fury as riots ravaged the nation for ten days with a final tally of 176 dead, and thousands injured.[9] Unrest continued throughout the year and by the end of the year, police had killed over 450 people.[10] The image Sam Nzima took on that first day was soon splashed across front pages across the globe. The world could no longer turn a blind eye to Apartheid. Activists across the world began to lobby for instituting economic sanctions on South Africa.[11]

Black and white image of children running away from a disturbance, the boy is carrying another child.
Eighteen-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo carries a mortally wounded Hector Pieterson, as Hector’s sister, Antoinette, runs beside him.[12]

The Beginning of the End

The South African government responded to the uprising by arresting and killing BCM leaders who they believed were responsible for the uprising. On August 17, 1977, Steve Biko was arrested and for the next 25 days was tortured by police until he passed away on September 12th from a brain hemorrhage.[13] His death drew further protests and global attention. His funeral was attended by over 15,000 people including the American ambassador as well as other diplomats. The South African government responded by banning open-air gatherings, arresting members of BCM-adjacent organizations, banning 18 different organizations, and instituting further restrictions on newspapers requiring they follow a strict code of conduct.[14] On November 4th, 1977, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution that instituted a mandatory embargo on South Africa.[15] Isolated by the international community and economically flailing, the South African government needed to make some changes.

Cosmetic Reforms

In the 1980s, Prime Minister and then Executive President, P.W. Botha instituted a series of reforms aimed at breaking up the anti-apartheid movement through small concessions.[16] They included legalizing interracial relations, allowing a small number of Blacks into the middle class, and creating a new tri-cameral system where Indians and other minorities had limited representation, excluding Blacks.[17] The Botha Reforms as they soon were called, were seen as largely cosmetic by the populace as the Black population continued to be oppressed. The shallow reforms did not convince the international community either, the mandatory embargo continued and was strengthened to close up any loopholes.[18] In response to the Botha reforms, over 500 community groups merged to form the United Democratic Front.[19] They began a campaign of protests, boycotts, and strikes, and in 1985 conducted a boycott of white-owned businesses in Port Elizabeth. The boycott was so effective that the government instituted a state of emergency and began a three-year campaign of oppression on Black communities, patrolling neighborhoods in armed cars beating, detaining, and killing thousands.[20] However, the government’s attempts at halting the apartheid resistance did little to deter the movement. In 1988, a three-day strike of over three million Black workers and students economically paralyzed the nation.[21][22]

Return of The Defiance

In 1989, the South African government had completely isolated itself and was experiencing severe economic troubles as well as constant unrest. The government had completely exhausted its resources attempting to oppress the majority Black population and yet they refused to submit, it soon became clear that Apartheid had failed. The resistance effectively ended in 1989 with multiracial peace marches held across the country. White business leaders as well as the mayor of Cape Town joined in on the movement as well.[23]

The End of Apartheid

Image of Nelson Mandela holding the hand of F.W. de Klerk, raiding their arms in the air.
Recently elected, President Nelson Mandela with former President F.W. de Klerk.[26]

Recently elected F.W. de Klerk saw that for South Africa to move forward as a nation, Apartheid must end. In his opening speech to parliament in February 1990, he announced the lifting of the ban on the ANC and other Black liberation parties, the return of freedom of speech, and the release of all political prisoners.[24] After 27 years, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison on February 11th, 1990. de Klerk spent his term rolling back Apartheid laws, repairing relations with the rest of the world, and instituting true democratic elections where everyone is represented. In 1994, the first openly democratic elections were held, the once-banned ANC won a majority of seats in the parliament and Nelson Mandela was elected president.[25]


The ultimate end of Apartheid one could argue was nothing more than an inevitability. The Soviet Union was collapsing, colonization was over, and globalization was increasing; one could say that with all of these factors in mind de Klerk had no choice but to end Apartheid. I would vehemently deny this argument, yes all of the above served as factors in the ending of Apartheid, but there would never have been an end if it weren’t for the brave men, women, and children who refused to be treated less than the human beings they are. Over 50 years, time and time again when beaten down by the government, military, and police they kept getting back up and not with hate in their hearts but hope and faith in a better future. The Apartheid and the long battle against it serve as an important case study of how responding to violent regimes with nonviolent tactics works.

[1]RESISTANCE TO APARTHEID,” Apartheid Museum.

[2] Roland Martin, “Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) | Steve Biko, Anti-Apartheid, Aims, & Impact,” Britannica, 2023.

[3]The June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising,” South African History Online, 2013.

[4] Aryn Baker, “Soweto Uprising: How a Photo Helped End Apartheid,” Time, 2016.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mary Alexander, “The 16 June 1976 Soweto students’ uprising – as it happened,” South Africa Gateway, 2022.

[7] Baker, “Soweto Uprising.”

[8] Alexander, “The 16 June 1976 Soweto students’ uprising.”

[9]The Soweto Uprising leaves 174 blacks and two whites dead following 10 days of rioting,” South African History Online, 2012.

[10] Alexander, “The 16 June 1976 Soweto students’ uprising.”

[11] Baker, “Soweto Uprising.”

[12] Sam Nzima. June 16, 1976.

[13]Black Consciousness Movement (BCM),” South African History Online, 2011.

[14] Ibid.

[15] United Nations Security Council Resolution 418.

[16]South Africa – Apartheid, Democracy, Equality,” Britannica.

[17]Apartheid – The early 1980s,” South African History Online, 2019.

[18]The United Nations in South Africa,” United Nations in South Africa.

[19]Apartheid – The early 1980s.”

[20] Lester Kurtz, “The Anti-Apartheid Struggle in South Africa (1912-1992) | ICNC,” International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2010.

[21] Ibid.

[22] John D Battersby, “WIDE DISRUPTION IN SOUTH AFRICA STRIKE,” The New York Times, 1988.

[23] Kurtz, “The Anti-Apartheid Struggle in South Africa (1912-1992).”

[24]Milestones: 1989–1992 – Office of the Historian,” Office Of The Historian.

[25] Ibid.

[26](1994) Nelson Mandela’s Inaugural Address as President of South Africa,” Blackpast, 2009.