15 facts about the referendum that ended apartheid in South Africa

Twenty-five years ago, South African whites voted in a historic referendum that put an end to privileges they enjoyed and the centuries-old discriminatory policy of apartheid.

Photo by: Reuters (Archive)
Photo by: Reuters (Archive)

Twenty-five years after raising a new flag following the end of apartheid, a racially-blind South Africa remains a distant dream.

1. Apartheid means ‘apartness’: The policy became law in South Africa after the colonial power, Britain, left the region in 1948. Apartheid called for the separate development of different races in South Africa. 

A policy of segregation had existed in South Africa prior to 1948, and the region had been under white control for the three preceding centuries, but the legislation crystallised the discrimination and separate development for different races.

2. Rights of people: The laws enacted during the apartheid era demanded the registration of people according to their race. It created the physical separation between whites and non-whites in public areas such as parks and bathrooms.

It also forced non-whites to live in different areas, and created a separate educational system for them. Additionally, the policy prohibited mixed race marriages, and banned and censored publications and political parties.

3. ANC banned and Mandela arrest: The government banned the African National Congress, a political party that had been campaigning against apartheid, in 1960. Nelson Mandela, a prominent leader of the ANC, was arrested in 1962, and was handed down a life sentence in 1965.

4. International Isolation: As a result of its discriminatory laws, South Africa was facing international isolation, including suspension of UN and Commonwealth membership, as well as a cultural and sports boycott.The country was also placed under an arms embargo, with Israel being the most notable exception, among a few others, to flout the arms sanctions.

5. Internal turmoil: Internally, South Africa was at the brink of civil war with rampant communal violence, crime and a crackdown on political parties and activists seeking equal rights.

6. ANC legalised: The then ruling National Party’s President de Klerk, on February 2, 1990, legalised the African National Congress and other banned anti-apartheid groups. He also went on to free Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, clearing a path for the referendum on a negotiated constitution and shared transfer of power.

Nelson Mandela, left, accompanied by his wife Winnie, walks out of the Victor Verster prison in February 1990, near Cape Town, after spending 27 years in apartheid jails, Feb. 11, 1990. (Reuters/Archive)

7. Population composition: At the time the referendum took place, about 12 percent of the population (4.2 million) was white. The rest of the population was comprised of 28 million blacks and 4.5 million coloured/Asian and other races. Even though whites constituted a minority of the total population, 87 percent of the land was reserved for them.

Population of South Africa in 1992.

8. Referendum held: The referendum held on March 17,1991, asked white voters whether or not they supported the negotiated reforms begun by State President F. W. de Klerk two years earlier, in which he proposed to end the apartheid system that had been implemented since 1948. 

Results of South Africa's referendum broken down by region. Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies. (Creative commons)

In a landslide victory for change, the government swept the polls in all four provinces, and all but one of 15 referendum regions. Only whites were allowed to vote in the referendum.

The government won 68.6 percent of the vote in a record turn-out, which in some districts exceeded 96 percent. 

Break up of registered voters and votes cast.

It was also a test of President de Klerk’s government.

South African President F.W. de Klerk poses outside his office while displaying a copy of a local newspaper with banner headlines declaring a "Yes" result in the referendum in Cape Town, South Africa on March 18, 1992. (AP/Archive)

If the referendum outcome had been negative, de Klerk would have resigned and general elections held.

10. First multiracial polls: Two years after the referendum, South Africa held its first multi-racial elections on April 27, 1994, which resulted in a huge victory for the African National Congress and made Nelson Mandela the first black president of South Africa.

This brought with it a lifting of sanctions, restored membership of the Commonwealth, along with South Africa retaking its seat in the UN General Assembly after an absence of 20 years.

11. Nobel Peace Prize: Both Mr Mandela and Mr de Klerk won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their very different but effective assaults on apartheid and the progress of South Africa.

Nelson Mandela and South Africa's last apartheid President, Frederik de Klerk, display their Nobel Peace Prizes in Oslo, Norway, in December 1993. (AFP/Archive)

12. South Africa under Mandela: Mandela signed South Africa’s new constitution into law on December 10, 1996, that went into effect in February 1997, putting an end to all discriminatory laws from the apartheid era.

13. Changes after end of apartheid: Demographically there wasn’t much change in South Africa and it remains divided along racial lines as far as income gap is concerned. The most significant change is the increase in the growth rate of its black population. 

The lifting of sanctions also resulted in an increase in the per capita income of whites and Asians (mostly of Indian descent).

Over the years since the end of apartheid, the country did see development with regards to the number of people living in proper houses and number of households with access to electricity.

Murder rates have fallen but rape has been a persistent crime, according to Statistics South Africa. 

14. Right direction for South Africa: South Africans in general feel more satisfied with the country’s direction, the highest number since 1994 which marked the end of apartheid and Mandela's rise to power, according to a Pew satisfaction survey on South Africa.

Corruption does remain a major concern for citizens.

15. Change in land ownership:  Black people make up 80 percent of the 54 million population yet, two decades after apartheid, most of the economy in terms of ownership of land and companies remains in the hands of white people, who account for 8 percent of the population.

TRTWorld and agencies