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close this bookCountry Report South Africa - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 70 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAbout the People on War Project
View the documentCountry context
View the documentCountry methodology
View the documentExecutive summary
Open this folder and view contentsThe conflict over apartheid
Open this folder and view contentsExperiencing the conflict: horror and disruption
Open this folder and view contentsLimiting the scope of the conflict
Open this folder and view contentsCivilians and prisoners at risk
Open this folder and view contentsBreakdown of limits
Open this folder and view contentsGeneva Conventions and the rules of armed conflict
Open this folder and view contentsInternational and non-governmental institutions
View the documentLooking forward
View the documentAnnex 1: General methodology
View the documentAnnex 2: Questionnaire *

Country context

In 1948, one year before the nations of the world gathered to sign the Geneva Conventions to impose limits in war, the white voters in South Africa elected a National Party government to create a racial order called apartheid. It marked the beginning of a period of growing conflict, that turned increasingly violent as the decades unfolded.

Racial segregation had marked South Africa since the formation of the State in 1910. Indeed, segregation in access to land had deep roots in the colonial period. Yet before 1948 there had at least been a limited political space for better-educated segments of the population that were not white. Coloureds could vote. Black South Africans had a limited franchise. 1 Some unions represented coloured and black South African workers. A number of organizations advocated civic equality. The new government, however, ran on a programme of rigid segregation, known as apartheid, and quickly formalized and intensified the country’s system of racial separation and domination.

1 For the purposes of this report, the term “blacks” encompasses, as it commonly does in South Africa, three groups - blacks, coloureds (mixed race) and Asians - all of whom were subject to varying degrees of racial discrimination under apartheid. When wishing to refer to the black sub-group alone, the report uses the term “black South Africans”. There are 30.7 million black South Africans (76 per cent of the total population); 3.4 million coloured (8 per cent); 1 million Asians (3 per cent) and 5.2 million white South Africans (13 per cent) - Thompson, Leonard, A History of South Africa, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995, p. 278.

What characterized South Africa after World War II was not a civil war that would have brought this conflict within the purview of the Geneva Conventions, but a set of repressive practices that imposed a kind of order, at least for a time. The apartheid regime eliminated the franchise for black South Africans, then coloureds. It devised elaborate racial classifications and a pass system for black South Africans. It created racial group areas in the urban areas and began forced removals that ultimately displaced millions. It froze black South African land ownership in white areas and created rural homelands, or “bantustans”, which were intended to accommodate black aspirations. At the same time, the State barred black South Africans from trade unions and suppressed the black political opposition. 2

2 Thompson, Leonard, A History of South Africa, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995, pp. 191, 226.

The black resistance to apartheid, at least until 1960, involved mostly non-violent protests - including the growth of the African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912, and later, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). After 1948, the groups expanded their efforts to include civic protests, such as bus boycotts, refusal by black women to carry passes and adoption of a Freedom Charter in 1955. 3

3 Thompson, Leonard, A History of South Africa, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995, p. xvii.

In 1960, however, the dynamics between the apartheid state and the black majority changed fundamentally. On 21 March, police opened fire on protesters in Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, killing 67 and wounding 186. Further demonstrations followed, and the government cracked down on the protest movement. It declared a state of emergency, banned the ANC and PAC, mobilized the army reserves and arrested well over 10,000 blacks, including much of the protest movement’s leadership. 4

4 Thompson, Leonard, A History of South Africa, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995, p. 210.

The years that followed this crackdown were marked by effective repression of the opposition. The sheer efficacy of the apartheid state, especially from 1961 to 1976, precluded widespread civic disorder. In fact, until its demise in the early 1990s, the apartheid state largely preserved domestic order in white areas, maintained control over the rural areas, and confined military incursions by the ANC/PAC to particular areas and to occasional urban attacks.

Yet the system of apartheid was being challenged, even as it was being elaborated after 1960. At least three major factors helped contribute to the eventual downfall of the apartheid regime nearly a quarter century later. The first was the decision of the previously peaceful protest movements to create military wings, such as the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation” or “MK”) established in 1961. After the collapse of colonial regimes in neighbouring States, these military wings had somewhat broader areas in which to operate, and the South African military mobilized in order to confront them. Over the next three decades, the extended opposition was to undertake hundreds of bombings on governmental and sometimes non-governmental targets and attacks on police, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries.

A second, non-military, and even more direct challenge to the apartheid order came from within South Africa, especially its urban areas. Semi-skilled and unskilled black workers, who were greatly increasing in number, joined a trade union movement that was difficult to contain. Moreover, a range of civic groups began to form. And most important, young black South Africans - many schoolchildren - joined township protests in places like Soweto, that turned violent. The police responded forcefully to what they considered riots. In the initial wave in 1976 over 500 protesters died, a quarter of them under age 18. Yet, in many ways, the regime never fully regained control. The urban disorder soon involved prolonged school boycotts. In some areas, informal black South African groups gained control of the townships at the neighbourhood level.

A third reason for the downfall of the apartheid regime was its increasing isolation within its region and the broader international community. As colonial regimes fell throughout Africa, South Africa became surrounded by black-led States that condemned its apartheid policies. Starting in 1952, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed annual resolutions condemning apartheid, and in 1973 declared apartheid to be a “crime against humanity”. In 1977, the UN Security Council imposed a mandatory arms embargo on the country. While these actions initially had limited impact, the increasing tide of international opinion eventually led to the divestment of investment capital, which encouraged some members of the business elite in South Africa to search for a negotiated end to the apartheid regime.

By the mid-1980s, the regime was increasingly relying on force to retain its grip. In 1983, the ANC and more than 500 other organizations created the United Democratic Front. The pace of demonstrations grew, and with it, the number killed by police. In June 1986, the government imposed a nationwide state of emergency, which gave the police broad powers of arrest without warrant, empowered them to ban meetings and curtailed media coverage of protests. Tens of thousands were arrested and detained. 5 Many were tortured. Trade unions were banned. The repression escalated, but in reality heralded the erosion of state control.

5 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, Volume 1, Chapter 1, Executive Summary.

As 1989 marked the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end for the Soviet empire, so it marked the beginning of the end for the apartheid regime. A growing black population, continuing recession and widening domestic unrest continued to cut into the foundations of white rule. The end of the Cold War undermined the last basis for Western support for white domination in Pretoria. In 1989, Prime Minister P.W. Botha suffered a stroke and relinquished power to F.W. de Klerk, who decided to seek reforms. On 2 February 1990, he lifted the bans on the ANC, PAC and other organizations. Nine days later, Nelson Mandela emerged from prison a free man after 27 years in prison. Over the next three years, Mandela and de Klerk led the country’s array of parties and organizations along a rocky but ultimately successful path that achieved a peaceful transition to democracy. 6

6 Based on the chronology of events in Thompson, Leonard, A History of South Africa, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995, pp. xv-xx.

The relaxing of apartheid’s iron grip did not, however, bring instant relief. As the white regime began to lose control, informal black structures formed in its place. It was an environment in which violence and crime were rampant. Housed in separate hostels, migrant workers, mostly from KwaZulu, clashed with the urban residents of the urban townships around Johannesburg. While pulling back from direct control, the white government frequently worked to encourage political violence among blacks, particularly in the towns of KwaZulu. In the years leading up to multiracial elections, competition between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP, founded in 1975 by Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi) fuelled the violence in some townships and in KwaZulu. According to various estimates, close to 10,000 people died in the township violence. 7

7 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, Volume 1, Chapter 1, Executive Summary.

Not until South Africa’s first non-racial elections in 1994 did the country start to see the beginnings of civil peace. The late April elections were peaceful, and observers deemed them free and fair. On 10 May 1994, nearly a half century after the National Party had imposed its apartheid regime, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first President of a new South Africa. Since then, the country has grappled with a range of challenges, including economic reconstruction, one of the world’s highest crime rates and the difficulties of reconciling South Africa’s people across racial lines while seeking accountability for those who engaged in brutality during the apartheid era. The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), led by Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, issued its five-volume report in 1998 based on testimony from over 23,000 persons.

South Africa’s march from apartheid to democracy was painful and costly. From 1960 to 1994, over 2,500 people - 95 per cent of them black South Africans - were hanged for political crimes. An estimated 80,000 people were detained without trial. 8 Millions were forcibly displaced. Thousands died in protests, and thousands more in the later political violence among black South Africans. Hundreds of supporters of the apartheid regime died in bombings and armed attacks by black militant organizations. As whites struggled to maintain their domination and blacks struggled to acquire basic political rights, South Africa’s urban communities became unconventional battlefields. It is in such circumstances that civilians inevitably find themselves in the line of fire. That is precisely what happened in South Africa.

8 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, Volume 1, Chapter 1, Executive Summary.