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Apartheid in South Africa – The Long Walk to Freedom

A Transformative Learning Journey on the Evolution of a Democracy

The late Nelson Mandela is synonymous with the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the new democracy. His autobiography, ‘A long walk to freedom’, shares his life story, but more than that takes us on a journey through the struggle that transformed a nation. His role in South Africa’s road to democracy is fundamental and a great case study of how strong leadership contributes to the push for political change.

Throughout South Africa, there are traces of Nelson Mandela’s footsteps. As a representative of the struggle, we can simply follow in these footsteps to learn about the revolutionary change that came about in South Africa, without the expected civil war. By looking at some of these traces that were left behind, we can uncover the journey that South Africa’s political climate had to take to convert from a plural society to a more multicultural society, a rainbow nation of sorts, where all citizens of a democratic society have equal rights.

Many of our faculty-led study abroad programs in South Africa choose to visit key historical landmarks and engage with those willing to tell their stories related to the apartheid struggle. We look at various landmarks and important moments in history that create a timeline of events to understand the intricate processes that set South Africa’s transition into motion.

The Parliament – Cape Town

We start our journey outside South Africa’s Parliament building. On 2 February 1990, Apartheid came to a full circle. President FW de Klerk’s speech signaled the beginning of the end of the Apartheid system, and the start of a democracy. It was here where the first laws were signed to enforce the system of segregation, and now President De Klerk lifted the ban on major anti-apartheid organizations and announced the intent to release Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. This is not where Nelson Mandela’s story started, but it is where his last steps toward becoming South Africa’s first democratically elected president began. This moment falls within the so-called ‘crucial phase of transition’ (1989 – 1991), a time of negotiation and crucial changes in the political domain of South Africa.

The District Six Museum

To fully understand the impact of the segregation policy and the consequent forced removals that came with the Apartheid policy, a visit to the District Six Museum is integral. Here the memories of those who had to leave their beloved childhood homes for the sake of Apartheid’s processes of social engineering come to life. Displays of what once was, coupled with the voices of those who can still remember – District Six throws light on the trauma that social engineering caused for families of color throughout South Africa. The museum also gives opportunities for the voices of the past to be heard, thanks to South Africa’s new democracy. It offers a reminder of the freedom that was lost, but also of the newly found freedom in a democratic society; albeit a work in progress, it remains a reflection of South Africa’s social transformation in motion.

Robben Island

Robben Island can be counted as probably the most significant landmark in South Africa’s journey to democracy. In stark contrast to the thriving Victoria and Alfred Waterfront from where one departs, the island reminds us of a political struggle and personal sacrifice of individuals to change the status quo of the discriminatory political paradigm that was Apartheid.

It is in on this island that Nelson Mandela spent most of his imprisonment. Jailed for his political role in challenging the Apartheid government, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison before he was released. To gain insight into this experience, students can spend an evening with an ex-prison guard and overnight on the island.

Cape Town City Hall Balcony

After Nelson Mandela’s release on 11 February 1990, he delivered his first speech from the City Hall balcony. His message of peace and reconciliation set the tone for future negotiations (Groote Schuur Minute, 1990; Pretoria Minute, 1990 and the National Peace Accord, 1991) that led to the peace agreement between the ANC and the existing government. This moment in time set in motion the relatively peaceful transition from a minority state to a democracy. It is this phase that contributed to the writing up of the new Constitution of South Africa, and finally the inclusive elections of April 1994. This is seen as the ‘maturity phase’ of South Africa’s transition to democracy (1991-1994).

Newlands Rugby Stadium

Here we relive a moment when South Africa’s new multi-racial democracy became tangible on international television. It was the 1995 semi-final Rugby World Cup. The victory of a national sports team (considered a white man’s sport) and the acknowledgment of a newly elected black president symbolized the consolidation of the democratic society. Here began the ‘Consolidation Phase.’

Apartheid Museum

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg completes the journey. Through the integration of multi-media displays and architecture, the museum showcases the transition of South Africa as a nation. It also plays a role in the consolidation of the country’s democracy through displays that grapple with the country’s oppressive past in order to move into an inclusive future.

Sources consulted: Sang-Hyun, SEO, 2008. A study on democratic transition in South Africa: A democracy through compromise and institutional choice. (Dphil) UNISA.


Explore our customizable Faculty-led program, Humanity & Social Injustice, or our educational School program, History & Culture in South Africa.  Students will experience this illustrative journey and unpack the Political Science within these transitional phases in more detail.