Johannesburg Stories and Tips

Apartheid Revisited

Though the bitter South African government policy of apartheid became history in 1994, if you visit Johannesburg its lingering effects can still be seen almost anywhere you go in the city. Ragged women holding babies in their laps beg on street corners, fences around middle-class homes bristle with signs warning of alarms and guard dogs, and closed-circuit surveillance cameras stare back at you everywhere.

Though apartheid is no longer the law of the land, its legacy is the crime, poverty, and desperation many residents of Jo’burg (a nickname for the city) still face daily. In the early 1990s, the so-called "Group Areas Act" (1950), which had reserved the city center and suburbs for whites, was finally scrapped. Thousands of poor, under-educated, and unemployed native people previously restricted to surrounding black townships like Soweto (home of Nelson Madela) and Alexandra soon flooded into the city, closely followed by urban blight. In addition, because Johannesburg was South Africa’s most northerly big city, it has become a magnet for uncounted immigrants from other African countries fleeing poverty and war.

Crime skyrocketed, especially assault, robbery, and even murder. Landlords abandoned many buildings in the city, particularly in high-density areas such as Hillbrow. Many corporations and institutions, including the country’s principal stock exchange, moved their headquarters away from the city center to relatively secure suburbs like Sandton. By the late 1990s, Johannesburg was ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

Today, reviving the city center has become is one of the main aims of Jo’burg’s government. Concerned about the effects of crime on the economy, quality of life and tourism, the city has taken drastic measures. In the central business district more than 200 surveillance cameras have been installed; all streets are now monitored around the clock by an army of operators. Cameras can spot "bad guys" and follow them around street blocks. The city’s automatic teller machines (ATM) are also constantly being watched. Though crime is still an issue here, the number of robberies and thefts has considerably decreased since these crime-fighting measures were put in place over the past decade.

Such problems have plagued Jo’burg because of the bitter residue of pain and desperation decades of apartheid rule left behind in South Africa.

In Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch whites who settled in South Africa in the 17th century, the word apartheid means "separateness". It described the rigid racial separation between the governing white minority population and the nonwhite majority population that was the law here from 1948-1994. Though these laws no longer exist, apartheid's social, economic, and political inequalities have left white and black South Africans with a pounding hangover.

Apartheid classified people according to three major racial groups: white, Bantu or black Africans, and colored or people of mixed race. Later Asians were added as a fourth category. Laws dictated where members of each group could live, the jobs they could hold, and the education they could receive. Apartheid also forbade most social contact between races, authorized segregated public facilities, and denied nonwhites representation in the government. South Africans who openly opposed apartheid were tagged Communists and the government passed strict security legislation, essentially turning the country into a police state.

Sadly, even before apartheid became official policy, South Africa had a long history of racial segregation and white supremacy. In 1910, the country’s parliament became all-white and in 1913, it passed legislation limiting black land ownership to 13% of South Africa's total area. Not surprisingly, most native Africans opposed these discriminatory policies, which made it virtually impossible for them to get an education, make a living and live where they wanted.

To fight these policies, the African National Congress (ANC) was founded in 1912. In the 1950s, after apartheid was made law, the ANC declared that "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white," and began working to abolish the system. In March 1960, at least 180 blacks died during bloody riots against apartheid in Sharpeville, S.A., causing the government to ban all black African political groups, including the ANC.

From 1960 to the mid-1970s, the South African government tried to make apartheid a policy of so-called "separate development." Blacks were forced to live in newly established, destitute homelands called Bantustans, intended to eventually become sovereign states. Meanwhile, more than 80% of South African land remained in white hands. Increasing violence, strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations by apartheid opponents, along with the overthrow of colonial rule by native people in Mozambique and Angola, finally forced the government to relax some of its restrictions in the late '70s.

By 1980, as public opinion worldwide turned decisively against the apartheid regime, the government and most white South Africans increasingly began to feel their country was a haven besieged by communism and radical black nationalists. Considerable effort was put into getting around international sanctions and the government even began developing nuclear weapons.

However, by 1990, South Africa's white government had finally begun to see that apartheid not only was depressing its economy but bankrupting its soul. In February, the country's last white President F.W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela, the revered ANC freedom fighter, from decades of imprisonment, amid jubilation across the land. In 1993, Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president following democratic elections.

Today, majority rule is a fact of life in the country but South Africa's proud people still struggle daily to shake off the bitter legacy of apartheid.

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