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It always seems impossible until it’s done.

Nelson Mandela (1918 - present)

Apartheid, an Afrikaans word meaning ‘the status of being apart’ becomes government policy in 1948. It separates whites from ‘natives’, ‘coloureds’ and ‘Asians’, in every area of life from the buses they travel to work on, to the beaches where they holiday. Resistance, like the 1952 Defiance Campaign during which Mandela burns his pass book, is initially non-violent. In 1955 the ANC campaign for the human rights Freedom Charter. The following year, 156 of its supporters are tried for high treason. This five year trial will be the longest in South African history but all of the accused will be acquitted.


In 1960, a State of Emergency is declared after police kill 69 unarmed anti-apartheid protesters. Detention without trial is introduced and the ANC declared illegal. A new underground armed wing is formed and Mandela joins. As sabotage increases on the streets, internationally, the UN General Assembly calls for sanctions against South African. In 1962, Mandela is arrested and is later sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1966, the ‘architect of apartheid’, Prime Minister Verwoerd is assassinated by a white man appalled by apartheid. He escapes the death penalty as he’s considered insane.

The governments that follow become more draconian. An attempt to impose the Afrikaans language in 1976 causes nationwide violence. And tragedies, like the beating to death in police custody of the student leader, Steve Biko, characterise the 1970s and the following decade. Both sides experience such loss, commit such atrocities, and become so entrenched that despite massive, overwhelming internal and international opposition to apartheid, few believe it will end in their lifetime.

But in 1986, President Botha secretly begins talks with Mandela leading to the latter’s release in 1990. The years between this and the country’s first free elections in 1994 see some of the worst bloodshed in the country’s history.

The ANC, once illegal, is elected and goes on to win the next three elections.

Did you know?

Nelson Mandela spent a total of 27 years in prison from 1964 to 1990. The majority of his imprisonment was spent at a prison on Robben Island, an island about 4 miles off the coast of Cape Town.