A Brief Introduction to the Apartheid

Cry, The Beloved Country, 1948

In 1910, after years of conflict and warfare, the Afrikaner community (the descendants of Dutch traders, livestock farmers and religious refugees from west Europe) and the British established a nation-state called the Union of South Africa.  The National Party was formed by the Afrikaners, while the British constituted the South African Party. These two parties shared power until 1948, when the National Party won the general election. The Afrikaners immediately established the policy known as apartheid, which means “apartness” in Afrikaans. Every population group considered non-European by the government was governed separately and subordinated at every level to white South Africans. This meant that there was separation between all communities in South Africa including the whites and non-whites; Africans and other non-whites; all African ethnic groups; and rural Africans and urban Africans. Most of these people were restricted to rural reservations called “homelands” where life was very difficult. The few who worked outside the reservations were usually young single men. They received low wages and lived in segregated rural settlements tightly controlled by whites.

Eventually the oppressed grew restless and strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations became prominent. The African National Congress (ANC) protesting apartheid, with the goal of establishing a transracial alliance to end apartheid and create a multiracial democracy. However, this task was even more difficult because there was not much unity among the non-European communities because these groups had been kept apart for so long and were not communicating. There was also not much support from the black community groups in the urban and rural areas. Because of this intense fragmentation, the apartheid regime managed to hold off its opposition through the 1960s.

However, as liberation groups grew in strength around the globe in the 1960s, the resistance movement in South Africa gained strength. Steven Biko led the South African Students Organisation (SASO) to form the Black People’s Convention in 1972. This group helped to launch the black consciousness movement. Then, in 1976, a revolt by students in Soweto against an offensive educational system spread like wildfire throughout the country. The arrest and killing of Biko in police custody also served as fuel and created a fresh outburst of public anger. In 1977, organizations associated with the black consciousness movement were banned, and many of the people involved were put into jail or forced into exile.

The 1980s were very difficult in South Africa. An international boycott and divestment campaign was started to prevent non-South African companies from investing in the country, including an attempt to ban any exports from South Africa. The way of life was affected greatly by this damaged economy. Strikes,work stoppages, boycotts, civil disobedience, and acts of sabotage all lead to the collapse of the African reservations. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished people ignored the laws and flooded into the cities in search of work, food and shelter.

Nelson Mandela, who had been involved with the ANC since the Second World War, had been sentenced for life in prison for sabotage. After 27 years as a political prisoner, he was released by President F.W. de Klerk. In the early 1990’s, Mandela led the multi-party negotiations that finally brought an end to apartheid, culminating in his becoming the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

Post Apartheid

In 1990, President de Klerk finally announced the end of the apartheid and by 1991, all apartheid laws were repealed. In response to the end of this era, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. Its purpose was to investigate acts of violence and discrimination committed by the apartheid regime. The TRC’s motto is “Truth: the road to reconciliation.” Although the intent of this commission is noble, there is some controversy over this effort to come to terms with South Africa’s past. Is it possible to reach justice? Is it worth reopening old wounds? Can the truth truly be established when everyone has a different perception of the events that took place?

Apartheid and Post-Apartheid Literature

During the final years of the apartheid era and subsequent transition to democracy, South African writers responded to the ever-present political turmoil and its daily effects on the people of that country. They chronicled or satirized state-enforced racism and explored the possibilities of resistance. Now that apartheid is over, writers are questioning the conception of reconciliation and rebuilding. Literature that embraces these issues has helped to shape definitions of ethnic identity and national unity. Apartheid and post-apartheid literature have become political narratives initiating a closer look at the juxtaposition of writing and ethics.

Disgrace, 1999
Disgrace, 1999

Selected Authors working on Apartheid-Related Themes

Summaries and Themes

Authors express their thoughts about apartheid in different ways through various forms of literature. Sometimes the word “apartheid” is never even used in a piece of writing, but it is still a prominent theme. Listed below are summaries of well-known books that discuss the topic of apartheid, which are divided by theme.

Prisoners, Exiles, Refugees

Breyten Breytenbach’s The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1983)

Breytenbach relates the seven years spent in a South African prison on charges of terrorist acts against the state.

In Memory of Snow and Dust (1989)
Breytenbach pieces together the lives of three exiles living in Paris.

Bessie Head‘s When the Rain Clouds Gather (1968)

The poverty-stricken village of Golema Mmidi, in the heart of rural Botswana, offers a haven to the exiles gathered there. Makhaya, a political refugee from South Africa, becomes involved with an English agricultural expert and the villagers as they struggle to upgrade their traditional farming methods with modern techniques.  The pressures of tradition, the opposition of the local chief, and, above all, the harsh climate threaten to bring tragedy to the community, but strangely, there remains a hope for the future.

Conflict between Races

Alex La Guma’s In the Fog of the Season’s End (1972)

In his most autobiographical novel, La Guma describes the South African struggles through characters who are involved in political resistance, unlike the lonely victims of his earlier works. Although the main character, Beukes, has reached the conclusion that collective action is essential to solving the problems of South Africa’s system, the author uses flashbacks to reveal the squalor and despair, which are the source of the political movement. The characters overcome the isolation and disconnectedness which plague the subjects in his earlier works in order to work together towards their goal.

Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country (1948)

Paton began writing this, his first and his best-known novel, in 1946 in Trondheim, Norway, and finished the book in San Francisco on Christmas Eve, the same year. It depicted the collective guilt and friendship over racial prejudices in the story of a black South African. Stephen Kumalo, an aging Zulu minister, travels from his tribal village to Johannesburg, where he finds that his only son, Absalom, has murdered the only son of a white man, James Jarvis. The tragedy connects these two men, and later they begin to work together.


Farida Karodia’s Other Secrets (2000)

A sensitively written novel that explores the complex relationships between mother and daughter and the peripheral role of a principled, hard-working father whose only fault is his futile optimism. Sisters Yasmin and Meena and their family are among those helpless to control their destinies in the arid years of apartheid, but not entirely without hope. Yasmin’s strivings bring her some of what she wants in life, but not without tragedy.

Olive Schreiner‘s The Story of an African Farm (1883)

The novel’s heroine, the fiercely independent Lyndall, is often regarded as the first example of that much-feared and much-jeered literary phenomenon- the “New Woman”. It strikes, very forcefully indeed, a deathblow at the institution of marriage. Lyndall’s frustration at the limited opportunities available to women, her bitterness at blatant gender discrimination, her refusal to commit herself to the iron contract of marriage, all find echoes in most of the other “New Women” of the 1880s and the 1890s – not least in Thomas Hardy’s Sue Bridehead. Lyndall’s disillusionment begins quite early. Driven by an insatiable hunger for knowledge, Lyndall leaves her stagnant farm life and enters a boarding school through her own sheer determination. But her experience at the boarding school, instead of opening up wider vistas of knowledge before her, only reveals how hopelessly confined is a woman’s lot (Dutta).

White Perspective (Life Paralleling Apartheid)

Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974)

The Conservationist, which won the Booker Prize for 1974, evokes the sterility of the white community. Mehring, the Afrikaner antihero whose farm is as barren as his life, conserves both nature and the apartheid system, the one to keep the other at bay. He likes to preserve nature’s variety but is in fact its exploiter; nor does nature return his sentimental love. In his moral vacuum, Mehring sees Africa returning to the possession of the blacks. Mehring is not a male chauvinist Boer; he is tolerant but no liberal, a financier using his farm as a tax-deductible expense. His leftist mistress travels the world on his money. He likes to be seen as a country gentleman, but sexually he is a colonialist as we see when he picks up a Coloured girl and takes her to an old mine property, only to be surprised by the mine guards. The corpse of an unknown African is found on the farm, silently disputing Mehring’s claim to his own clean soil. He identifies with the nameless black man under the reeds, burying him in a coffin. Yet, the corpse haunting Mehring and his house (a symbol of South Africa) is the claim on Africa by those who possess no land at all (www.nobelprize.org).

J. M. Coetzee‘s Disgrace (1999)

David Lurie is hardly the hero of his own life, or anyone else’s. At 52, the protagonist of Disgrace is at the end of his professional and romantic game, and seems to be deliberately courting disaster. Long a professor of modern languages at Cape Town University College, he has recently been relegated to adjunct professor of communications at the same institution, now pointedly renamed Cape Technical University. Twice married and twice divorced, his magnetic looks on the wane, David rather cruelly seduces one of his students, and his conduct unbecoming is soon uncovered. Refusing to play the public-repentance game, David gets himself fired – a final gesture of contempt. Now, he thinks, he will write something on Byron’s last years. Not empty, unread criticism, “prose measured by the yard,” but a libretto. To do so, he heads for the Eastern Cape and his daughter’s farm. In her mid-20s, Lucy has turned her back on city sophistications: with five hectares, she makes her living by growing flowers and produce and boarding dogs. Just as David has settled into his temporary role as farm worker and unenthusiastic animal-shelter volunteer, he and Lucy are attacked by three black men. Unable to protect his daughter, David’s disgrace is complete. Hers, however, is far worse (www.amazon.com).


Andre Brink’a The Rights of Desire (2000)

Ruben Olivier: He’s 65, a widower with mild memories, a former librarian and inveterate reader. Olivier lives in post-apartheid South Africa, amidst the bitter recriminations and confused violence outside the very doorstep of his Cape Town manse. Olivier’s life, both public and private, is a study in shelter. Olivier’s sons, worried for their father’s safety after the random murder of his best pal and chess-opponent, are committed to spiriting him out of South Africa, but Olivier won’t submit. After all, he argues, he has Magrieta, his petulant black housekeeper, to look after him, and also Antje of Bengal, the ghost of a 17th century slave executed for the poisoning of her master and lover’s wife. To appease his children, nonetheless, Olivier agrees to take in a lodger. Enter Tessa Butler: 29, caustic and carnal. From their first conversation Olivier is in love: madly, deeply, as if all the illusions and allusions in his books had shuddered to life in one blinding instant. (www.salon.com)


Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart (1990)

The first part of the book is the personal confession of a liberal young Afrikaner and the second, which takes up well over half the book, has the ironic title, ‘=”Tales of Ordinary Murder.” The third part, “A Root in Arid Ground,” tells the story of Neil Alcock and his wife Creina and of their experimental settlement at Mdukatshani across the Tugela from Msinga, the most violent rural area in the whole country. So Malanhas in fact written three books in one but he has fused the three together with a passionate and compelling logic to produce what may well come to be seen as the most starkly illuminating book to have been written about South Africa in recent times.


Athol Fugard’s My Children!  My Africa!  (1989)

Apartheid was ending and Fugard attacks the decision of the ANC to boycott schools and the damage it would cause a generation of Africans. Fugard has moved from the injustices of the South African government to the mistakes of the ANC (www.iainfisher.com).

Works Cited

Related Sites

African American Studies and Postcolonialism

Author: Sara Blyn, Fall 2001
Last edited: October 2017


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