The Anti-Apartheid Movement in the United States

Created By

Joel Breakstone, Stanford History Education Group

  • Post-WWII Domestic Confidence and Unrest, 1945-1968
  • Conservative Resurgence and Social Change, 1964–2000

Introduction & Context

In 1948, the ruling Nationalist Party of South Africa began a system of institutionalized racial segregation that came to be known as apartheid. It built on earlier segregationist policies that Britain had implemented under colonial rule. Under apartheid, South Africans were placed into different racial categories with vastly different rights accorded to each group. White South Africans were at the top of this racial hierarchy. The government forced millions of Black South Africans to leave their homes and live in designated areas that were generally less desirable and had fewer modern services. Apartheid laws disenfranchised Black South Africans and restricted their movement within the country. The Nationalist government harshly repressed efforts to resist apartheid, with thousands imprisoned and killed. The African National Congress, a leading opposition group, was banned by the Nationalist government and many of its leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were jailed. During the Cold War, many Western countries provided aid to the apartheid government because they saw South Africa as a bulwark against the spread of communism in Africa. Government killings of protesters in Sharpeville in 1960 and in Soweto in 1976 drew international attention and condemnation. Following the Sharpeville Massacre, the United Nations passed the first of a series of resolutions calling for the end of apartheid. In the 1980s, many nations imposed sanctions against the South African government, and a campaign to divest from South Africa garnered broad support. Apartheid was dismantled in the early 1990s. In 1994, the country held a general election in which all South Africans were allowed to vote, and Mandela was elected president.

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Teaching Tips Download PDF

This source set includes a series of videos related to the anti-apartheid movement in the United States. It features politicians from the United States advocating for and against additional action against the apartheid government of South Africa. This set also includes the voices of South Africans detailing the atrocities of apartheid and advocating for greater intervention by the United States. The suggested activities below prompt students to consider the relationship between different sources in this set and to analyze the sources given the historical context in which they were produced.

Background Information

Before engaging with this resource set, students should be familiar with the following:

  • South Africa’s colonial history
  • The apartheid system in South Africa
  • The African National Congress and other groups within South Africa opposed to apartheid
  • The concept of economic sanctions
  • The African American Civil Rights Movement in the United States

Essential Question

How did activists seek to end apartheid in South Africa?

General Discussion Questions

  • How were Black South Africans oppressed? Why were they oppressed?
  • How did activists connect apartheid in South Africa to issues in the United States?
  • What were the reactions to Reagan’s 1985 sanctions? Why might the reactions have varied?
  • What were the strengths and limitations of the different strategies that activists used to try to bring about the end of apartheid?

Classroom Activities

1) Topic: The nature of apartheid

Ask students to listen to and watch the following sources:

How do the speakers in these sources describe conditions under apartheid? How are their descriptions similar or different? What rhetorical strategies do they use to further their arguments about the nature of apartheid?

2) Topic: Reactions to Reagan's sanctions

Ask students to watch the following sources:

What were the reactions to President Ronald Reagan’s sanctions against South Africa? How were they similar? How did they differ? How might the backgrounds of the different speakers help to explain the differing reactions?

Additional Resources

  • Have You Heard From Johannesburg, Independent Lens / PBS
  • Life Under Apartheid, PBS LearningMedia
  • Confronting Apartheid, Facing History & Ourselves
  • Citation

    Breakstone, Joel. "The Anti-Apartheid Movement in the United States." WGBH and the Library of Congress.