Nelson Mandela's great legacy springs from his role in ending the apartheid system in South Africa, and his pursuit to reconcile blacks and whites so that his resources-rich country could move on and prosper despite its brutal past.
The system he fought had its roots in South Africa's colonial history, beginning in the 1600s. It ended after South African activists and freedom fighters were joined by an international movement that spread the word and pushed for boycotts of South African goods through film and music.
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South Africa was first colonized by Dutch Europeans, known as Boers and later Afrikaaners, who imported slaves from other parts of Africa and India and later subjugated South Africa's indigenous blacks. When diamonds were found on Boer land, black laborers were given poor pay and housing and were brutally prevented from organizing. British settlers fought to establish control over the territory, but the Boers continued their racist policies, claiming racial superiority.
Apartheid was implemented in 1948 after the nation became independent from Great Britain. It was a legal system that institutionalized the separation of races and white dominance in economic and political affairs. The government banned intermarriage between races required people to be classified as white, black or colored, a classification for other races and people who were mixed-race. Blacks were required to carry passbooks and permits when entering white neighborhoods, and the best jobs, education and economic opportunities were reserved for whites.
worked as a lawyer and political activist in the 1950s and 1960s to dismantle white minority rule. He began by emulating the non-violent methods of India's Mahatma Gandhi but later led the armed wing of the then-outlawed African National Congress. A bombing campaign against government targets led to a life sentence and 27 years in prison. His writings and letters from prison called attention to abuse of power and political persecution and recognized the few whites who were fair to him and other blacks. These writings inspired a movement to free him that grew in South Africa and gained worldwide support. Eventually, South African President FW de Klerk freed Mandela in 1990 to lead negotiations on the end of apartheid.
World pressure played a decisive role in ending apartheid. Activists around the world launched boycotts of South African goods, countries banned South African imports and a divestiture movement pressured companies to pull capital out of South Africa. The movement crippled the South African economy and weakened the government. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of South African blacks participated in non-violent demonstrations, civil disobedience and an insurgency to seek equal treatment and opportunity. Some say instability related to the unrest was the main driver for foreign companies fleeing South Africa.
Artists, especially popular musicians, played a major role in spreading the word and applying pressure on South Africa's apartheid government. The rock band U2 and rockers Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and R&B performer Stevie Wonder were among many who sang or spoke out against apartheid and for Mandela's release from prison. The film world also embraced the cause with titles likeCry the Beloved Country, Cry Freedom and Sarafina!, which starred Whoopi Goldberg.
U.S. policy toward South Africa was supportive of the government, which was seen as a bulwark against Communism, which inspired many of the African National Congress leaders, including Mandela. Despite an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations since 1963, and trade embargoes by two dozen countries dating to the 1970s, the U.S. did not impose its own sanctions on South Africa until 1986, when Congress overrode then-President Ronald Reagan's veto. The move was joined by Japan and the European Community, together South Africa's three largest trading partners. After his release from prison, Mandela toured the world and the U.S. urging countries not to lift sanctions until apartheid was completely dismantled.
Apartheid was repealed in 1991.