The End of South African Apartheid: The Basics

First day of the elections in South Africa
Millions of South Africans voted in the nation's first free and democratic general election, marking the end of centuries of apartheid rule. Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress (ANC) was elected as the first black President of South Africa. Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

The word "apartheid" loosely means "apart-hood", and it referred to the system of laws instituted in 1948 to ensure the strict segregation of South African society along racial lines and the domination of the Afrikaans-speaking white minority. Early resistance to these laws led to further restrictions, including the banning of the influential African National Congress (the ANC), a political party known for spearheading the liberation movement.

Why Apartheid Ended

Within South Africa, there was continued resistance to apartheid and apartheid laws. The Treason Trial, Sharpeville Massacre, and Soweto Student Uprising are just three of the most well-known moments in a worldwide fight against apartheid that grew increasingly fierce in the 1980s as more and more people around the world spoke out and took action against white minority rule and the racial restrictions that left many non-whites in dire poverty. During the Cold War, an apartheid South Africa could count on some support from the West, but as that ended, its few remaining supporters folded. By 1985, South Africa faced economic and political sanctions, and many multinational companies began to pull out of the country.

How and When Apartheid Ended

In February 1990, President FW de Klerk announced Nelson Mandela's release from prison and that he was lifting the ban on the African National Congress, as well as other anti-Apartheid organizations.

The slow dismantling of the Apartheid system followed, with laws being changed and restrictions lifted over several years. In 1992, a whites-only referendum approved the reform process. A new constitution was ratified that gave all people the right to vote, and on ‚ÄčApril 27, 1994, the first democratic elections were held in South Africa.

The African National Congress won 62.65% of the vote. The National Party 20.39%, Inkatha Freedom Party 10.54%, Freedom Front 2.2%, Democratic Party 1.7%, Pan Africanist Congress 1.2%, African Christian Democratic Party 0.5%. A total of nineteen political parties participated and 22 million South Africans voted.

A Government of National Unity was formed, with Nelson Mandela as president and FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki as deputy presidents.