Lessons And Activities On Apartheid

Lessons and Activities on Apartheid

Adapted from the lessons from

Dana Garrison and William Bigelow

Activity 1: An Apartheid Simulation

Standard: SS7H1:

b. Explain how nationalism led to independence in South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria.

c. Explain the creation and end of apartheid in South Africa and the roles of Nelson Mandela and F.W.de Klerk.

Essential Question: How did ethnocentrism influence the treatment of the Bantu people in South Africa and set up a complete separation of the Bantu and the Afrikaner/British people in South Africa?

Materials: self-adhesive name tags, scrap paper, yarn, chart paper, markers, M&Ms (56 oz will cover 8 classes, 84 oz for 3 teams of 4 classes)

Part 1-Intro:  (5 min) Have students define together what discrimination means, what it looks like, how it feels, etc. Also, discuss what segregation means, what it looks like, how it feels, etc. See how much they know about the US’s Civil Rights Movement. (Prior knowledge)

Part 2-Segregation Simulation:  (Set up/segregate into groups and students read the basic instructions: 15 min. Running the activity: 20 min)

  1. Before class:  using painter or masking tape, outline a small space designated for the Bantu (approximately 20% of the room) a small space for “jail”, and the rest of the room is designated for the Afrikaner/British. Make sure to make the Bantu space away from the door, pencil sharpener, trash can, and anything else useful.
  2.  Identify a way to separate students. (Suggestion: students choose out of a paper bag a poker chip. 30 students = 4 chips of one color representing the minority Afrikaner/British population, 26 chips of a different color representing the majority Bantu population.)
  3. Place students in separate areas of the classroom according to their classification. Explain that for the rest of the class period they will be kept separate from each other.
  4. Hand out the instruction sheets to each student according to their classification and have them read their instructions for the period while you hand out name tags.
  5. Issue name tags to the students that they must wear for the remainder of the period. Pass out self-adhesive name tags to the minority group, and pass out name tags made out of scrap paper and yarn to hang around the necks of the majority group. This illustrates the difference between ID cards and pass books. Tell them that if they lose their name tags, they will be removed from the activity and be place in the “jail” area.
  6. Explain that there are certain areas of the classroom that are only accessible to the minority group. Make sure they have more space. Play up the preferential treatment of the minority group and continue the segregation for the duration of the period. Explain to the majority group that under no circumstances may they go outside their designated areas unless given permission from you or one of the “privileged minority” or they will be sent to “jail.” Explain that you will enforce the orders given by the privileged minority.
  7. Explain that in this simulation the “M&M”s will represent income. Explain further that to succeed at this exercise each student must be in possession of at least 2 “M&M”s by the end of the simulation.
  8. Give 57 “M&M”s to each of the privilege minority. 12 are to be kept at all times until the end of the activity, the others can be used as wages for the rest of the class. (To determine the total number of M&Ms available for these wage packets, multiply the number of the majority students by 1.5.) This simulates the roughly 8 to 1 Afrikaner/British income to the Bantu.) The Majority get none. They must “work” for their wages.
  9. Tell students that some people in this society make more than others, but if they haven’t made enough to survive they can go to work for the privileged. Suggest certain jobs around the room that students can “work for”, such as empting the trash, cleaning the board, moving books, straightening desks, etc. Make certain the minority demands proper respect from the others.
  10. Encourage the minority to write any laws on the board, such as no talking back, no talking between groups, etc. If students break the laws, then they are placed in “jail” and all wages are confiscated.
  11. Allow the majority to resist and refuse to cooperate as long as it’s peaceful. Violent protesting will result in “jail” time.

During the Simulation, You as the teacher are mimicking some well known events in Apartheid.

  1. Students who are labeled Afrikaner Minority will be giving “jobs” to the students who are labeled “Bantu.” Jobs can be physical. Encourage Privileged to “pay them only 1-2 beans per job.
  2. Periodically take up “taxes” from people who have money. 1 bean at a time, though, and not from everyone.
  3. All of a sudden, announce that there is a new law and randomly put people into homelands based upon “parameters,” such as everyone with shorts or Capris on go to Homeland # 1, Those wearing Green, go here…
  4. You as the teacher randomly check “pass books” of people outside of the homelands. Of course no one has them, so send them to “jail.”
  5. Announce that someone has been “beaten in Jail” and have the students sit just outside the door. They have to pay $20 M&Ms to be “seen” by a Dr. If they are in there more than 2 mins, announce that that person died of their injuries.
  6. To “Get out of Jail” it’s 25 M&Ms. Students must stay in jail until someone “pays” you for their release.
  7. Declare one of the Homelands “condemned” and “bulldoze” the homeland, then put people into jail who are “out of their homeland.”
  8. Any “M&Ms “ that are paid to get out of jail, Dr/hospital, or Taxes, divide it between the Afrikaners.

Part 3- Discussion:  Have students write the answers, and then discuss as a whole group. (20 min + 5 min writing/reflecting.)

  1. Who succeeded in acquiring at least two M&Ms? (Point out that the privileged succeeded before the activity even began!)
    1. Those of you with 6 or more M&Ms have enough money to 1. pay for rent, 2. buy food, 3. buy clothing, and 4. pay for education.
    1. Those of you with 3-5 M&Ms, you must decide which 3 out of the 4 things above you’ll pay for.
    1. Those of you with 2 M&Ms, you must decide which 2 out of 4 you will pay for or go without.
    1. Those of you with 1 M&M, you must decide which 1 out of 4 you will pay for or go without.
    1. Those of you with no M&Ms, you’ve died of starvation.
    1. What did you have to do to get the wages?
  2. (Ask the Majority representing Bantu)
    1. Did anyone end up with no wages at the end? Why was this so? What made it hard to earn wages?
    1. Did you think the privileged minority preferred things the way they were?
    1.  Did you speak out, complain, or demand any changes?
    1.  How did the minority respond to your effort? Why did they respond that way?
    1. If you didn’t speak up, why not?
    1. How did you feel about being separated from the other students in the class based on something outside your control?
    1.  If this type of separation would continue, what would you do to change it?
  3. (Ask the Minority representing the Afrikaner/ British)
    1. How did you deal with people who were uncooperative or tried to change the system?
    1. If you knew the members of the majority were dissatisfied, why didn’t you try to make the situation more fair?
  4. (Whole group) Were there any conflicts among people in the majority groups? What caused these? (overcrowding, competition for jobs?)
  5. Did the privileged minority do anything to try to increase the conflict between people in the majority?
  6. What reasons might the majority have for prohibiting protest and change? Can you make any general statement about the connection between repression and a system which is blatantly unequal?
  7. How does this relate to the era of apartheid and the struggle for change?
  8. Distribute Student Handout #2 Map so students can see the actual locations and size of the “homelands” for Bantu South Africans.
    1. Why are these areas so chopped up into so many pieces?
    1. How might this make it difficult for a united movement for equality and justice?

Student Handout 1:

Privileged Minority Representing the Afrikaners/British in South Africa

You have been given a number of privileges which the other students in the class do not have:

  1. You will not be forced to squeeze into the small areas like the rest of the class.
  2. You may wonder the room freely. (Except behind my desk.)
  3. You will receive a packet of “M&M”s. 12 of them will be kept at all times. This represents your inherited wealth. You will use the rest of them to hire members of the unprivileged majority to work for you. Obviously you will receive many more “M&M”s than the other students.
  4. You are privilege. You look down on the unprivileged and call them “Bantu.” They must call you “boss” if they want to work for you.
  5. As mentioned, your responsibility is to make other people (the less privileged) work for you. Use the candy to pay out wages. Think up a number of jobs which need to get done (books moved to another part of the room, the floor swept, desk cleaned or moved, enforcing the law that other “Bantu” don’t step out of their separate areas, etc.) You may want to talk with the other privileged students before deciding on the jobs to be done and what you’ll pay. Don’t pay too much for a job. You don’t want to spoil them! Start out with paying 1-2 per job.
  6. Make sure that the under privileged students don’t step outside the areas they are confined to unless it is work for you. When the job is done, they should return to their areas. Remember, the unprivileged must treat you with respect at all times or they will go to “jail.”
  7. Should any of the underprivileged students fail to obey orders, leave their designated area, protest their treatment, not show you their passbook/id card, or not show you enough respect, you may punish them by sending them to “jail.” Designate one or more of you, or even some of the unprivileged students, as police in order to watch out for troublemakers.

Unprivileged Majority Representing the Bantu

  1. You are, unfortunately, representing the under privileged group in South Africa. They minority (Afrikaners and British) have passed laws that restrict your freedoms within the class.
  2. You are restricted to the taped off section of the room. You may NOT leave this area for any reason without being asked or hired by the minority. If you leave the designated area, then you will be sent to “jail.”
  3. You have been given a name badge. That represents your pass book. You must present it to the minority whenever asked. If you lose it or damage it, then you will be sent to “jail.”
  4. You must who the minority respect no matter what, even if they are mean to you. You must call the minority “boss” at all times and do whatever they ask of you without complaint. If you don’t, then you are sent to “jail”.
  5. The minority have received packets of M&Ms representing their wealth. Notice you don’t have any! Their wealth is inherited, but you must work for your earnings. Volunteer as much as you can to be “hired” for the various jobs they give you. Remember, the faster and better job you do the higher wages you get! Also, you are competing with every other member in your group! You don’t have M&Ms at the end of the activity, then you cannot pay rent, feed your family, buy clothing, etc! Also, if you are sent to jail, it’s impossible to work!
  6. Remember, protesting your treatment or job will land you in jail! Your goal is to earn as many M&Ms as you can… more candy = more wealth!

Student Handout: 2

Apartheid in South African Society

Bantu (Black) Afrikaner/British (Whites)
Assigned to 13% of land designated as “Homelands” Own/Occupy 87% of land
Income less than 1/8 of whites Income 8 times that of Bantu
Social/Occupational subordinates Social/Occupational superiors
No vote or voice in lawmaking, but must obey laws Makes laws which everyone must follow
Must have permission to live in the 87% of South African designated “white” areas Control through laws who may or may not live in “white” South Africa
Must carry passbooks at all times or be arrested or beaten Carried IDs like a driver’s licenses but don’t have to carry it
  • Virtually all protest, non-violent or otherwise, is outlawed. Even to meet together is illegal.
  •  People may be detained without trial indefinitely. Thousands are in jail without having been convicted, or even accused of any crime.
  • According to human rights groups, 70% of these have been physically tortured. Hundreds have been shot in the streets by police and army.
  • There is very little arable farm land in the Homelands. For example, only 15% of the Ciskei is arable, 89% of Ciskei children suffer from malnutrition.
  • According to The Economist, on average 50,000 children died every year during apartheid from the effects of malnutrition, while South Africa exported over $1 billion worth of food annually.
  • None of the Homelands has significant mineral resources.
  • Only 3% of practicing doctors in South Africa are Bantu (black). Infant mortality among rural blacks is 282 per 1,000 births while among whites 12 per 1,000.
  • According to the South African Council of Churches, 3. 5 million Bantu have been forcibly removed from “white” South Africa to the Homelands since 1960.

Lesson 2:  PowerPoint on brief history of South Africa.

Standard: SS7H1:

b. Explain how nationalism led to independence in South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria.

c. Explain the creation and end of apartheid in South Africa and the roles of Nelson Mandela and F.W.de Klerk.

Essential questions:

  • How did ethnocentrism play a part in the segregation and discrimination of the Bantu people and how did it influence the laws and government structure of South Africa? What events led up to apartheid?
  • What is apartheid? What was its purpose?
  • How were the black South Africans treated and how does it compare to the treatment of the black Americans prior and during the Civil Rights Movement?

Part 1: (5 min)

  1.  Discuss how laws are a reflection of cultural norms and personal values/point of view of the people who live in the land and have the power to write laws. 
  2. Have students come up with examples.
  3. Discuss who writes the laws in an autocracy, oligarchy and a democracy.
  4. Discuss how looking at the past/history helps us understand why people think and behave the way they do and why the Afrikaners created the laws that they did in South Africa.

Part 2:

  1. View PowerPoint on brief history of South Africa up to the 1st assignment
  2. Show video links when noted in the PowerPoint.

Part 3: Students look deeper into how the System worked. Students are given the Human Rights Fact Sheet and ask them to take out a sheet of paper, create 4 boxes to take notes on.

  1. Divide students into 8 groups. Assign 2 groups per section to read and take notes and be able to share with the class. Students will write down the key points and ideas of their section.
  2. Students debate/discuss which laws were the
    1. Most restrictive
    1. Most hurt self esteem
    1. Impacts education

Part 4: Give ½ the room the Worksheet “Learning was Defiance” and the other half “South African Student.” Students are to read and write a summary paragraph on the article, then an additional paragraph on their thoughts, feelings, and reactions of the article. (6-8 sentences per paragraph) Be prepared to share with the class what your article was about. (Formative assignment)

Part 5- Activity/product: (Formative: Homework) Students will create a protest poster illustrating apartheid.

 You are a reporter in South Africa during the Apartheid protest demonstrations. You have taken a “picture” of the scene that you are witnessing. You see mass amounts of people, mostly Bantu but there are a few Afrikaners/British there. They are all shouting and holding up protest posters and banners. Create a picture that shows this scene: protestors holding up signs and banners. Include 4 restrictions on the banners that the Afrikaners are doing that restrict your rights as a black South African. Make it colorful and creative! You want to draw people’s attention! Below, write a paragraph explaining your picture and the 4 things that are being protested on your banners.

Picture: _______5 points accurately showing protest                          _____ 5 points: Colored and appealing                                      _____ 20 points for showing 4 different restrictions protested (5 points for each different restriction)                           _____ 60 points for paragraph accurately describing the restrictions (15 points each)                                                           ______ 10 points punctuation and spelling

Antoinette Sithole and Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying and 12-year-old Hector Pieterson moments after he was shot by South African police during a peaceful student demonstration in Soweto, South Africa

File:Hector pieterson.jpg
File:Hector pieterson.jpg


File:Hector pieterson.jpg
File:Hector pieterson.jpg

Human Rights Fact Sheet

“Because I’m black, I’ve got to suffer just because of my skin.” Black student, Witness to Apartheid

A. How the System Worked

  • All people are classified by the government by race. The four racial categories are white, Bantu (black), Colored (mixed races), and Indian. A person does not determine his or her own race, the government decides.


Total: 30,780,000        African: 22,500,000     White: 4,400,000        Colored: 3,000,000     Indian: 800,000

  • The Group Areas Act declares that South Africa is to be separated into white, Bantu, colored, and Indian areas. Individuals from each group are legally allowed to live only in areas determined by the government. No black, Indian, or colored may reside legally in a “white” area without permission. 87% of the country’s land, including that with the most resources, minerals, and the best farmland, is reserved for whites only.
  • Those people who are living in white areas illegally are subject to arrest and imprisonment. Although blacks are no longer required by law to carry passbooks, they still must have official permission to live in the black townships surrounding the cities. There is a severe shortage of housing for blacks. However, black without housing may be arrested for vagrancy. Decisions to build or not to build new housing are made by the government.
  • According to the South African Council of Churches, between 1960 and 1985 an estimated 3.5 million black South Africans were forced to move to barren tribal reserves, called “homelands.” Families are frequently broken up with the men working in factories located in areas designated “white.” By law, 97% of black South African mine workers must be migrant laborers, they are prohibited from bringing their families with them.
  • Blacks have no vote in South Africa. The white controlled government decides who may live where, how much money will be spent on schools, hospitals, parks, etc.

B. Schooling

  • All public schools in South Africa are strictly segregated. No black child in South Africa may legally sit in a classroom with a white child.
  • The government spends over seven times as much to educate a white child as it spends to educate a black child.
  • On average, there is one teacher in each white South African school for every 18 students. In black schools the ratio is one teacher for every 43 students.
  • Many black schools in South Africa are occupied by heavily armed government troops. Soldiers with automatic rifles often sit and observe inside the classrooms. No white schools are occupied. Many black schools have been closed by the government.

C. Healthcare

  • If you are white in South Africa, you can expect to live 72.3 years. Bantu can expect to live 58.9 years, unless they live in the rural areas where life expectancy is much lower. Coloreds live an average of 56.1 years and Indians, 63.9 years.
  • An average of 136 black children died every day from the effects of malnutrition (starvation). (South Africa is on e of the top seven food exporting nations in the world! Every year, the country exports over $1billion worth of agriculture products, including grain, beef, vegetables, and fruit.)  The major cause of death for black children in South Africa is disease brought on by malnutrition: for white children the major cause of death is swimming pool accidents.
  • Government hospitals, even ambulances, are classified by race.
  • The Government may arrest anyone at anytime for any reason and keep them for any length of time. No one need to be notified of an individual’s arrest. Under a State of Emergency (announced June 12, 18986) more than 30,000 people have been arrested as of April 1987; 9,000 of these are children under 18 years old.
  • According to independent reports, torture is widespread and systematic in South African prisons. Many of those tortured are children. A recent survey by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights found that 83% of all detainees held by South African government authorities have been physically abused.
  • In the last two years, hundreds of blacks have been killed by the South African security forces. Many of these people were children. Under the regulations of the State of Emergency, policemen and soldiers who beat and even kill people are immune from prosecution.

D. Political Repression: Preserving the Apartheid System

Because most people in South Africa suffered from Apartheid, many were involved in trying to change it. The minority that benefited from apartheid used whatever means it could to secure submission and preserve the system:

  • The two major liberation organizations, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC) are outlawed, as are many other student and community organizations.
  • NO outdoor political meetings may be held, including many funerals. In fact, almost all forms of protest were outlawed. The press is even barred from reporting any acts of resistance unless the government first gives permission.
  • It is against the law for anyone to urge foreign companies to stop investing in South Africa. (Against the law to encourage economic sanctions.

Learning Was Defiance, by Demisani Kumalo

I began school in Evalton, a village twenty miles south of Johannesburg. When I went to school, white education was compulsory and virtually free, and still is today. Yet, I, like other black students, had to pay school fees to the government. If your parents could afford the fees you could get an education. But, if your parents could afford the fees, but not the uniforms, you couldn’t get an education. If your parents could afford a uniform and school fees, but no books, then you still couldn’t get an education.

And then, even if all the fees were paid, you couldn’t go to school if you didn’t have a “Christian” name, meaning a name that whites could pronounce. We would often lead dual lives. At home I was Dumissani. At school I became Shadrack. Every so often the government inspectors would come and check the school register for Christian names and if we had paid our school fees. Those that hadn’t paid were sent away.

In spite of the fees paid to the government, black education of often left up to the community. In other words, the government didn’t build schools for black students, so my parents had to help build mine. They had to buy the furniture, they had to buy the books, the chalk and help pay the teacher’s salary.

The school I went to was just for mud walls and a corrugated iron roof. During the summer the school was like an oven because there were only little holes for window. When it rained, or hailed, we couldn’t hear each other speak because o the corrugated iron roof. We had to wear uniforms, black gym dresses and white shirts for the girls, black pants and white shirts for the boys. But we had no chairs, so we had to sit on the ground, the dusty ground. We had nothing. I left home wearing a nice pressed white shirt and nice pants, but I came home dusty and dirty.

We had one teacher for a class of 129. All the grades were mixed up together. The teacher, who had one small piece of blackboard to teach us with, divided us into two shifts, one from 7-1 o’clock and the rest from 1-5. Teachers were tough. They waned to make sure we learned as much as we could in that short time. The teacher in my school was paid $20 a month to teach 120 kids per day (under rotten conditions.) Teaching was something done out of love. It was a career. It was a calling.

When I started school in 1953, African could be taught in English. But the following year, they changed th4e law and Bantu Education was introduced. Now black children could be taught just enough to become the “better tool of the white man.” This meant that we had to be taught in our “mother tongue.” In other words, if you were a Zulu, you had to be taught in Zulu. But the trick was that there were no books in Zulu. We had to read a book in English, translate it in our heads into Zulu, and then write in Zulu.

                But we always wanted to learn. Since the government made it so difficult to get an education, we had to prove that we could. Learning became defiance for us. It was the one of the few things they couldn’t take away. In old Zululand, a man’s worth was judged by the amount of land he tilled and the amount of cattle he had. My father saw all his father’s land and cattle taken from him, and so, education was seen as something irrevocable. (Couldn’t’ take away) They could take away our land, they could lock us up in jail, but they couldn’t take away what’s in our head. This was our strongest motivation for learning.

It wasn’t until I was in junior high school that I became more politically aware and, as a result, more rebellious. This was around the time of the Sharpeville Massacre (Children’s massacre) and I had begun demonstrating with my father. We stared having strikes at school over issues as trivial as food. That was just an excuse, of course, a way to begin to voice our anger. The police would come and beat us, but we didn’t care. It didn’t matter. We could be out there again the next day.

I remember very clearly one incident that made us go on strike. One thing whites used to do for amusement on Friday nights was to get very drunk and drive out to the rural areas with rods and hooks. They would drive past black people  and “hook” them anywhere they could and drive away. One day they hooked the sweetest guy at our school. They badly tore up his face and made us strike with anger.

Black education suffers continually from government indoctrination and the oppression and this is why students in South Africa are very politicized. In the English/ Afrikaans dictionary, for example, the word “haas” (the subservient word for master_ was defined as “white man,” “hero” and “clever man.” I grew up being taught the praises and heroes of Bloodriver, I mean our heroes. But when I went to school, the teacher told me that the Zulus lost in Bloodriver. I was so upset that after school I ran home as fast as I could. I went to my aunt who was the oldest member of my family (or as we put it, she had seen more winters than anyone else among us.) “How come you told me there were heroes in Bloodriver, yet the teacher says we lost to the Borers?” I asked in confusion. “Never say that again,“ my aunt replied forcefully. “We never lost the war, it was postponed until we got our own fire sticks,” For some time after that, I lost interest in history and took up math. I figured they couldn’t’ change the numbers.

The main problem in South Africa, then, is not that there aren’t enough schools. It is the nature of the education itself. That’s what we are struggling against. We don’t wan the rotten education they are feeding us. The fundamental problem is not simply that black children are given a different education from the whites, but that it is inferior. That’s what the poison is. It’s not that for two school year we didn’t have a classroom and had to sit under the sun in the summer. It’s what they taught us. The indoctrination is the issue. While we are learning to become the “better tool of the white man” white children are learning that we are inferior and potentially terrorists.

About the Author:  Demisani Kumalo, A South African in exile, was formally the director for the American Committee on Africa in New York. This article is reprinted courtesy of The Council, an interracial books for Children.
South African Student

You are 16 years old and live in Soweto, a black township near Johannesburg with a population of around two million people. You are a high school student there. Your family is very poor. Your mother is a domestic (maid). She cares for a white family with two children in Johannesburg. You see her only once a week on her day off. Your father is unemployed and even though he is experienced in many kinds of factory work, he cannot find a job. You are not hopefully about finding a good job after you graduate from school.. In fact, you fear you wont find any kind of job.

Your school is very run down. Many windows are broken, the playgrounds are duty fields, the dirt road that runs in front of your school has garbage piled high. Classes in your school are filled to capacity. Sixty or more students is not uncommon., though classrooms are much too small to handle so many people. Some of the teachers in your school care about giving a good education and try hard. But many are poorly trained and don’t really know ho to teach. Others are insensitive to students, and lazy an at times even threaten female students with a failing grade if the girls don’t agree to have an inappropriate relationship with them. This behavior outrages you, but the principal won’t do anything to stop it.

Some of your teachers use corporal punishment and beat students with sticks. You watched a friend of your beaten just because he questioned why a teacher never had you read books by black authors. Of course, schooling in South Africa is strictly segregated. No African may attend a government run white school. There are also separate schools for Indians and people of mixed races, the so called “colored” people. These segregated schools are so separate they even have different vacations and different departments of education which control them. It’s not that you want so badly to go to a white school. What angers you is that you have no say over any of these educational policies and that the whites have reserved a good education for themselves.

Your school curriculum and the curriculum for all black schools was written by white South Africans who want everyone to believe their version of history. According to your textbook, South Africa’s history began with the coming of the whites in 1652. The books say almost nothing about the long history of African sin the country before the arrival of the white settlers. And all the history after that is also told only from the point of view of the whites. Even literature classes are taught as if white people were the only ones who ever did anything. You want to read black writers who talk about freedom and justice like Alex La Guno, Dennis Brutus, Mutuzeli Matshoba and Can Themba. You’ve coined a phrase to sum up your feelings about schooling you receive. You call it “gutter education.”

Because you are dissatisfied with the conditions at your school and the quality of your education, you feel the need for some kind of elected organization to represent your views and complaints in order to win better conditions. For a long time, students at your school and other black schools in the country have called for democratically elected Student Councils. Unfortunately, the government refuses to recognize these councils and has suggested a different kind of student organization which, in your opinion, would be more like establishing a kind of student police force.

Black students in South Africa, like yourself, have not merely complained about the bad conditions, they’ve organized to change them. Up until just recently you had been a member of COSAS, the Congress of South African Students. The COSAS was a national organization set up to fight for a “free,” dynamic and compulsory education for all and was part of the larger struggle for a nonracial democracy in South Africa. Your organization was seen as a threat to the system by the South African government was outlawed in August of 1985, cut off in mid stream before COSAS had a chance to develop a strategy. Even though COSAS is now banned, you are still committed to working to change the whole system of apartheid education, and apartheid itself. What good would it be to have a good school in a rotten system? Even if school changed, the rest of your life would still be like slavery. You’re told where you can and cannot live, when you can and can’t work, and you have no vote. When you get work, which is not often these days, you work in the worst conditions for the lowest pay.

But even though you know there must be change and that someday there will be change, it is difficult for your fellow students to know exactly what to do. Every day you are faced with difficulty choices, choices which hare sometimes dangerous.

Lesson 3:  A Deeper understanding of Apartheid

Standard: SS7H1:

b. Explain how nationalism led to independence in South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria.

c. Explain the creation and end of apartheid in South Africa and the roles of Nelson Mandela and F.W.de Klerk.

Essential Question: How did Apartheid personally affect the people of South Africa?

Materials: Internet access, video analysis worksheets and print-outs of essays linked below from www.overcomingapartheid.msu.edu (may want to print articles if you don’t have access to a computer lab)

Part 1-Intro: Review some of the Apartheid laws discussed. Which laws were the most restricted? Explain why.

Part 2-Activity: Students are to analyze each video clip, noting how each person was affected by apartheid.

  1. Ayesha Hoorzook Apartheid: http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/video.php?id=65-24F-DA
  2. Ayesha Hoorzook: Racial Classification http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/video.php?id=65-24F-DD
  3. Obed Bapela Pass Books: http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/video.php?id=65-24F-5C
  4. John Biyase Education: http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/video.php?id=65-24F-DB
  5. John Biyase Detention without trial http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/video.php?id=65-24F-DC
  6. Ahmed Kathrada Dream for Post-Apartheid http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/video.php?id=65-24F-A1

Part 3– assign students to small groups and have each group read an essay from the following links which goes deeper into the events during apartheid. Students are to write the main ideas/points that the articles are trying to express. Present to the class findings.

  1. Bantu Education- http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/sidebar.php?id=3
  2. Soweto Education- http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/sidebar.php?id=5
  3. Detentions Without Trial- http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/sidebar.php?id=12
  4. Life as a Political Prisoner- http://overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/sidebar.php?id=11

Part 4- Formative/ Homework: Imagine you are a citizen of South Africa during Apartheid. Write a letter to a government official explaining what changes you think should be made in the country. Include an intro, two changes and a conclusion. (6-8 sentences in the body paragraphs.)

Bantu Education

“In 1953 the government passed the Bantu Education Act, which the people didn’t want. We didn’t want this bad education for our children. This Bantu Education Act was to make sure that our children only learnt things that would make them good for what the government wanted: to work in the factories and so on; they must not learn properly at school like the white children. Our children were to go to school only three hours a day, two shifts of children every day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, so that more children could get a little bit of learning without government having to spend more money. Hawu! It was a terrible thing that act.”

Baard and Schreiner, My Spirit is Not Banned, Part 2

The 1953 Bantu Education Act was one of apartheid‘s most offensively racist laws. It brought African education under control of the government and extended apartheid to black schools. Previously, most African schools were run by missionaries with some state aid. Nelson Mandela and many other political activists had attended mission schools. But Bantu education ended the relative autonomy these schools had enjoyed up to that point. Instead, government funding of black schools became conditional on acceptance of a racially discriminatory curriculum administered by a new Department of Bantu Education. Most mission schools for Africans chose to close rather than promote apartheid in education.

Centralization of schools under a new government department was not in and of itself opposed by school administrators, parents, and students. What the African community vehemently opposed was the creation of a separate and unequal system of black education rather than a single public schooling system for all South Africans. The white government made it clear that Bantu education was designed to teach African learners to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for a white-run economy and society, regardless of an individual’s abilities and aspirations. In what are now infamous words, Minster of Native Affairs, Dr. Hendrik F. Verwoerd, explained the government’s new education policy to the South African Parliament:

There is no space for him

[the “Native”]

in the European Community above certain forms of labor. For this reason it is of no avail for him to receive training which has its aim in the absorption of the European Community, where he cannot be absorbed. Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his community and misled him by showing him the greener pastures of European Society where he is not allowed to graze. (quoted in Kallaway, 92)

The ideological framework for Bantu education had its origins in a manifesto crafted in 1939 by Afrikaner nationalists. Based on the racist and paternalistic view that the education of blacks was a special responsibility of a superior white race, this document called for “Christian National Education” and advocated separate schools for each of South Africa’s “population groups”-whites, Africans, Indians, and Coloureds. Segregated education disadvantaged all black groups, but was particularly devastating for Africans. In a pamphlet released in 1948, the organization asserted: “… the task of white South Africa with regard to the native is to Christianize him and help him culturally… [N]ative education and teaching must lead to the development of an independent and self-supporting and self-maintaining native community on a Christian National basis” (quoted in Hlatshwayo, 64).

Bantu education served the interests of white supremacy. It denied black people access to the same educational opportunities and resources enjoyed by white South Africans. Bantu education denigrated black people’s history, culture, and identity. It promoted myths and racial stereotypes in its curricula and textbooks. Some of these ideas found expression in the notion of the existence of a separate “Bantu society” and “Bantu economy” which were taught to African students in government-run schools. This so-called “Bantu culture” was presented in crude and essentialized fashion. African people and communities were portrayed as traditional, rural, and unchanging. Bantu education treated blacks as perpetual children in need of parental supervision by whites, which greatly limited the student’s vision of “her place” in the broader South African society (Hartshorne, 41).

Bantu education schools suffered terribly from government’s neglect. Enormous disparities in funding between white and black schools and student-teacher ratios adversely affected the quality of education for black students. The Bantu Education Account of 1955 made matters worse by mandating that African education be funded by the general poll tax collected from Africans rather than from the General Revenue Account used to fund white education. Even after the separate account was abolished in 1972, education of African children still remained grossly under-resourced, receiving one-tenth of the money afforded to whites and struggling with 56:1 student-teacher ratios (Hartshorne, 41).

Dilapidated school buildings, overcrowded classrooms, inadequate instruction, poor teacher training, and a lack of textbooks plagued African education. Students struggled to learn under such conditions. As former teacher Eddie Daniels observed, even the sports fields at white schools were far superior to those at black schools: “the first thing that strikes me at both [white] schools was these huge stretches of green fields. Hell man! And in black schools you’ve got nothing, and I look at this it’s just vast. You’ve got huge playing fields, tennis courts… It’s painful, painful.” Watch Daniels interview segment]

In an interview in 2006, Obed Bapela described his experience in overcrowded Bantu education schools in Alexandra township (in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs):

… the school that I went to was an overcrowded school, there were quite many of them in Alexandra that were overcrowded, there were not enough schools to take care of all of us so we used to share classes. There would be a morning class that goes up to 11 o’clock and then we’ll go home and then other kids of the same grade will come after 11 o’clock up to 2 o’clock and therefore the teachers will then run two sets of class … in some situations they will even use a tree in the schoolyard… We were around 70 to 80 [pupils in class] when I was in grade 1 and grade 2. [Watch Bapela interview segment]

A racist educational system perpetuated South Africa’s social hierarchy in which skin color was very closely correlated to class. But Bantu education also brought a huge increase in the number of pupils attending primary (and later secondary) schools. Black students rose in protest in 1976 when the Department of Bantu Education mandated that higher primary and junior secondary students would have to learn some key subjects in Afrikaans – the language of the oppressor. This decision sparked a youth uprising in Soweto, which then spread nationwide and become a watershed event in the struggle against apartheid.


Baard, Frances, and Barbie Schreiner. My Spirit Is Not Banned. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1986. http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/library-resources/online%20books/baard/

Hartshorne, K. B. Crisis and Challenge : Black Education 1910-1990. Cape Town: New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Hlatshwayo, Simphiwe A. Education and Independence : Education in South Africa, 1658-1988. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Hyslop, Jonathan. The Classroom Struggle: Policy and Resistance in South Africa, 1940-1990. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1999.

Kallaway, Peter. Apartheid and Education : The Education of Black South Africans. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1984.

Kallaway, Peter, ed. The History of Education under Apartheid, 1948-1994 : the Doors of Learning and Culture shall be Opened. New York: P. Lang, 2002.

Soweto Student Uprising

On the morning of June 16, 1976, thousands of students from the African township of Soweto, outside Johannesburg, gathered at their schools to participate in a student-organized protest demonstration. Many of them carried signs that read, ‘Down with Afrikaans‘ and ‘Bantu Education – to Hell with it;’ others sang freedom songs as the unarmed crowd of schoolchildren marched towards Orlando soccer stadium where a peaceful rally had been planned. The crowd swelled to more than 10,000 students. En route to the stadium, approximately fifty policemen stopped the students and tried to turn them back. At first, the security forces tried unsuccessfully to disperse the students with tear gas and warning shots. Then policemen fired directly into the crowd of demonstrators. Many students responded by running for shelter, while others retaliated by pelting the police with stones.

Text Box:

That day, two students, Hastings Ndlovu and Hector Pieterson, died from police gunfire; hundreds more sustained injuries during the subsequent chaos that engulfed Soweto. The shootings in Soweto sparked a massive uprising that soon spread to more than 100 urban and rural areas throughout South Africa.

The immediate cause for the June 16, 1976, march was student opposition to a decree issued by the Bantu Education Department that imposed Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in half the subjects in higher primary (middle school) and secondary school (high school). Since members of the ruling National Party spoke Afrikaans, black students viewed it as the “language of the oppressor.” Moreover, lacking fluency in Afrikaans, African teachers and pupils experienced first-hand the negative impact of the new policy in the classroom.

The Soweto uprising came after a decade of relative calm in the resistance movement in the wake of massive government repression in the 1960s. Yet during this “silent decade,’ a new sense of resistance had been brewing. In 1969, black students, led by Steve Biko (among others), formed the South African Student’s Organization (SASO). Stressing black pride, self-reliance, and psychological liberation, the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s became an influential force in the townships, including Soweto. The political context of the 1976 uprisings must also take into account the effects of workers’ strikes in Durban in 1973; the liberation of neighboring Angola and Mozambique in 1975; and increases in student enrollment in black schools, which led to the emergence of a new collective youth identity forged by common experiences and grievances (Bonner).

Though the schoolchildren may have been influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s, many former pupils from Soweto do not remember any involvement of outside organizations or liberation movements in their decision to protest the use of Afrikaans at their schools. In his memoir, Sifiso Ndlovu, a former student at Phefeni Junior Secondary School in Soweto, recalls how in January 1976 he and his classmates had looked forward to performing well in their studies but noted how the use of Afrikaans in the classroom significantly lowered their grades. (Hirson 175-77; Brooks and Brickhill 46) Echoing Ndlovu, current Member of Parliament Obed Baphela recalled: “It was quite difficult now to switch from English to Afrikaans at that particular point and time.” [Watch Bapela video segment] The firing of teachers in Soweto who refused to implement the Afrikaans language policy exacerbated the frustration of middle school students, who then organized small demonstrations and class boycotts as early as March, April and May (Ndlovu).

As the mid-year exams approached, boycotts took place in many Soweto schools (Ndlovu). It was around that time that the older students of the South African Students Movement (SASM) decided to organize a mass protest in Soweto. In a 1977 interview, Tebello Motapanyane, then secretary general of SASM, provided an account of the action committee’s decision to launch the protest:

We took a decision to inform the staff that we totally reject the half-yearly examinations and were not going to write the exams until our demands were met. The Naledi branch called a meeting under SASM on Sunday, June 13 where it was actually decided that there should be positive action from all the high schools and secondary schools in Soweto. We discussed Afrikaans and how to make the government aware that we opposed their decision. The delegates decided that there should be a mass demonstration from the Soweto students as a whole. [Read full interview.]

The brutal killing of the school children on June 16, 1976, shocked the international community. Newspapers across the world published Sam Nzima’s photograph of a dying Hector Peterson on their front page. In the meantime, South African security forces, equipped with armored tanks and live ammunition, poured into Soweto. Their instructions were to shoot to kill, for the sake of “law and order.” By nightfall another eleven more people had been shot dead (Bonner). Students in Soweto responded by pelting the police with stones and attacking what they regarded to be symbols of the apartheid government. Across much of Soweto government buildings and liquor stores were looted and burned.  

On the second day of the uprising, the violence spread to African townships in the West Rand and Johannesburg. At the University of Witwatersrand, police broke up a group of 400 white students who had been marching to express their solidarity with the pupils of Soweto. On the third day, police began placing youth protestors in jail; students later testified to being tortured while imprisoned. What began as a local demonstration against the Afrikaans language decree quickly turned into a countrywide youth uprising against apartheid oppression. Kgati Sathekge, current Director for Communications and Marketing for the Ministry of Social Development, was one of thousands of students from Atterridgeville, an African township near Pretoria, who took part in the protests in that region. In his 2006 interview, he explained:

We could not accept that type of behavior . . . personally it was a great shock. We started organizing protests . . . On June 21 when students came to school we mobilized them and said we’re not going to go to school that day, we’ll engage in protest marches throughout the township . . . Different government offices were targeted and burned down including . . .buildings seen as symbols of oppression

[such as]

government stores, bottle (alcohol) stores, beer halls. [Watch Sathekge interview segment.][Watch second interview segment with Sathekge

The police shootings and the defiant response of African students in Soweto emboldened youth throughout the country to wage protests. Students in Port Elizabeth mobilized in their schools, leading to a conflict between the police and a crowd of 4,000 high school students and township residents en route to the local soccer stadium that left eight residents dead. Shepi Mati, who arrived in Port Elizabeth at the end of 1976 to attend high school, recalls the violence and tension of that time:  On any given day, you would just hear this sound – it was a very ominous sound – you could feel it in the air. And suddenly there would be a Caspir that comes past, a police armored car – woosh – throwing tear gas or shooting as it goes past. This was really my welcome to Port Elizabeth. [View Mati interview segment.

Protest was not limited to African students, as Yusuf Omar describes from his perspective in an Indian township of Johannesburg: “It’s a virtual world when it comes to emotion … We weren’t seeing the truth, but we got it from comrades… In our own schools, we did what we could.” [Watch Omar video segment]

In the Cape, Coloured and African high school students expressed solidarity with students in Soweto, while black students at the University of the Western Cape boycotted their classes for a week and clashed with police and university authorities. Demonstrations also took place in rural boarding schools and black University campuses all over the country (Brooks and Brickhill; Karis and Carter 172-73).  

To sustain resistance, leaders of the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC, founded in August 1976) decided to involve adults in the protests in order to build inter-generational unity and to strike an economic blow against apartheid. From August through December 1976, SSRC leaders organized a number of campaigns, including stay-at-homes (short strikes) for adult workers, marches to Johannesburg, anti-drinking campaigns, mass funerals (which became politically charged and often turned into protest rallies), and a Christmas consumer boycott. In preparation for the stay-at-homes, the SSRC printed flyers urging adults to participate. One read, “…the scrapping of BANTU EDUCATION, the RELEASE of Prisoners detained during the demos [demonstrations], and the overthrowal of oppression, we the students call on our parents to stay at home and not go to work from Monday” (Karis and Carter 591; Hirson 248-61). Sporadic clashes between students and police continued into 1977; by the end of the year, the government acknowledged that nearly 600 people had been killed, although recent research showed that at least 3,000 people died. Thousands more were imprisoned and many black South Africans fled into exile or joined the armed struggle.  

The student uprising marked a decisive turning point in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. Roseberry Sonto, an activist in Cape Town at the time, regarded the student uprising as a “gift” that reinvigorated organizing efforts: “That was after which we started lots of things like bus boycotts, rent boycotts, meat boycotts – all kinds of boycotts just tp drive the point home.” [Watch Sonto video segment]

The student uprising of 1976 was recognized as a watershed by the previous generation of activists. Ahmed Kathrada, convicted in the Rivonia Trial and imprisoned on Robben Island since 1964, learned of the student activism only in August when student leaders began to be sent to the Island. Then he and other prisoners understood its significance:

Especially after our sentence in 1964, the rest of the ‘60s was fear among the people… End of ’69, the Black Consciousness movement came in, and the beginning of the ‘70s there was a revival of the trade union movement, so that gave us hope that things are changing. But come ’76, when the students of Soweto came into the streets unarmed and they were killed in the hundreds – nobody knows how many of them were killed – that changed history. Fear was now driven out. [Watch Kathrada video segment]

The politicization and activism of young South Africans in Soweto and beyond galvanized the liberation movements and set in motion a series of transformations that ultimately led to the demise of apartheid (Karis and Carter 180-84).


Bonner, P. L. “The Soweto Uprising of June 1976: A Turning Points Event.” Turning Points in History: People Places and Apartheid. http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/governence-projects/june16/extract-soweto-uprising.html

Brooks, Alan, and Jeremy Brickhill. Whirlwind before the Storm: The Origins and Development of the Uprising in Soweto and the Rest of South Africa from June to December 1976. London: International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, 1980.

Hirson, Baruch. Year of Fire, Year of Ash : The Soweto Revolt, Roots of a Revolution? London: Zed Press, 1979.

Hlongwane, Khangela Ali, Sifiso Ndlovu and Mothobi Mutloatse. Soweto ’76: Reflections on the Liberation Struggles. Houghton [South Africa]: Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust, 2006.

Karis, Thomas, and Gwendolen Margaret Carter. From Protest to Challenge; A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1964. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1972.

Ndlovu, Sifiso Mxolisi. “The Soweto Uprisings: Counter-Memories of June 1976.” Ravan Local History Series. Ed. Monica Seeber and Luli Callinicos. Randberg: Ravan Press, 1998.

Detentions without Trial during the Apartheid Era By Robert Vassen

Throughout most of the English-speaking world, the writ of habeas corpus was adopted, respected and practiced. Habeas corpus is a Latin term translates as “let us have the body” and was issued to any detaining authority to produce the detained person in court and show just cause for holding this person in detention. If the authority believed it had just cause, a formal charge had to be laid and evidence brought to court to prove the case. If the authority could not justify the detention, the person had to be set free.

In South Africa, this writ was practiced without exception until the end of the 1950s. In fact, the only meaning given to, or associated with, ‘detention’ related to school children in primary or high schools who were held back after regular school hours as punishment or in some cases as a ‘last chance’ to complete unfinished homework assignments.

In 1963, the then Minister of Justice, B.J.Vorster, gave new meaning to ‘detention.’ On the 10th July, 1963, the most senior members of the African National Congress, The High Command, most of whom had been living “underground,” were caught at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia. To accommodate the capture of these senior ANC members, the General Laws Amendment Act, Number 37 of 1963 was rushed through Parliament and applied retroactively to June 27th 1962, mainly but not exclusively so that the people arrested at Rivonia could be detained and held in solitary confinement. On the 6th October, 1963, these Rivonia Trialists were formally fingerprinted and charged. Nelson Mandela, who was already serving a five-year sentence on Robben Island, was brought back to join these senior members and all were eventually sentenced to life imprisonment and flown to Robben Island on the 13th June, 1964 to serve their sentences. It should be remembered that as political prisoners, a life sentence meant life, with no chance of parole.

Under this General Law Amendment Act, the security police, also known as the Special Branch, were given the authority to arrest anyone they suspected of being engaged or involved in any act against the State and to hold them incommunicado for 90 days at a time. The once highly respected and almost sacred habeas corpus fell away. This act, usually referred to as the 90-Day Act, was passed to give the Special Branch the authority to interrogate and to extract information, and the public was not entitled to any information including even the identity or whereabouts of people being detained. Detainees could literally and effectively “disappear.” If no charges were to be laid, the Special Branch had to release the individual or individuals after 90 days. At the time, Vorster boasted that this was repeatable “until this side of eternity.”  

In her book, 117 Days, Ruth First gave a vivid account of this repeatable process: of how she had been handed her clothing and possessions and told she was free only to be re-arrested as she exited the police station where she was being held. When this process of being released and then re-arrested proved to be too cumbersome, the government introduced and passed the 180-Day Detention Act (the Criminal Procedure Amendment Act, Number 96 of 1965). Eventually, this 180-day law would be replaced yet again by the Terrorism Act, Number 83 of 1967, which allowed the government to detain individuals indefinitely until all questions had been answered satisfactorily or no further purpose could be achieved by holding the detainees.

The primary aim of the government was to extract as much information from detainees as possible, and the Special Branch resorted to all means possible to get this information. Endless hours of interrogation, where detainees were deprived of sleep, was commonplace. Leaving the lights on 24 hours a day to disorient detainees was another form of coercion. Forcing detainees to stand on their toes with protruding nails on a wooden strip placed under the heels was another form of torture. Where these methods did not work, physical assaults were common. The Special Branch often worked in twos: the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy’ taking turns to inflict both physical and mental torture.

The aim of the detainee was to resist at all costs. This was the most difficult part of detention. Alone and subjected to all sorts of humiliation and physical and mental torture, it was difficult to remain steadfast. Always uppermost in the mind of the detainee was: “Will they break me? Will I cave in and give them what they want to know?” Some did not succumb, while others did. Two who did not ‘break’ were Mac Maharaj and Laloo Chiba, cadres in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress, who served their sentences on Robben Island. Ahmed Kathrada, who was imprisoned with them on Robben Island, wrote:

Both had been severely tortured with electric shocks and beatings, made to stand on the same spot for days on end and verbally abused. It disturbed us greatly to hear how Mac, desperate not to break under this onslaught ‘of the most sadistic and obscene nature’ had tried to slit his wrists with shards of broken eggshell. It was not until Laloo testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that I realized how much he had suffered, but neither man betrayed their comrades. (Ahmed Kathrada, Memoirs, pp. 208-209; 155) It remains a great moral dilemma how the ones who broke and gave information should be regarded. History will have to deal with that.

The other important factor in detention for the detainees was how to hold on to one’s sanity. These people were in solitary confinement and held under the worst of conditions with only a copy of the Bible. In such circumstances, how does a person retain their sanity and try to remain rational? Stories abound of individuals reciting all the poems they had ever learned in school; others made chess boards with whatever was at their disposal and spent hours playing. Yet others, who could find nothing to make marks with, played mental chess. Stories are told of detainees singing all the songs they heard or remembered. Whatever came to mind they would utilize just to keep a firm grip of reality and the world outside.

Tragically, a great many detainees would be killed in detention while under intense interrogation and torture. It was not uncommon for the authorities to inform the press that so-and-so had slipped on a bar of soap, suffered concussion and died, while others had purportedly committed suicide. Hundreds came to such tragic ends; Kathrada wrote about one of them, Suliman ‘Babla’ Saloojee, who was his close friend:

Suliman Saloojee, my dearest friend Babla, was dead, killed by the police. This most gentle of men, this inveterate prankster, my comrade and source of strength, had been picked up under the ninety-day detention law, brutally interrogated and tortured to death – by the sadistic Rooi Rus Swanepoel – then flung from a window on the seventh floor of Gray’s Building, Johannesburg headquarters of the security police, on Wednesday 9 September 1964…

Not surprisingly, the so-called inquest accepted the police version that Babla had committed suicide by jumping to his death. I have never doubted, however, that he died under interrogation, and that his body was then thrown out of the window… The magistrate found that ‘nothing in the evidence suggested that Saloojee had been assaulted or that methods of interrogating him were in any way irregular. He found that no one was to blame for his death. Ahmed Kathrada, Memoirs (p. 207)

In his notes in Memoirs, Ahmed Kathrada notes: “In later years, inquest after inquest – in the cases of Imam Haron, Ahmed Timol, Neil Aggett, to name but a few – returned verdicts of suicide. I cannot recall a single case among the scores of deaths under 90-day detention in which an inquest magistrate held the security police responsible” (page 384).

There were others who were more fortunate and were eventually released. Many threw themselves back into the struggle while others went into exile, either on orders or self-imposed. In exile, the vast majority continued to be active in working for the struggle.

                          Life as a Political Prisoner   By Robert Vassen

We, that is the Rivonia group [Mandela, Mbeki, Sisulu, Kathrada, Mhlaba, Mlangeni, and Motsoaledi], arrived on Robben Island on the 13th of June 1964. It was a Saturday – cold, windy, raining. We cannot forget the first months at the quarry where we mined stone – we came back with blisters, bloody hands, and sore muscles. And we cannot forget the dozen years or more when we were forced to sleep on the cold cement floors with three blankets and a thin sisal mat. Also we cannot forget the cold showers for 13 or 14 year. There is so much more that one can recall, much more that we have found in ourselves to forgive, but these we will never forget.

Ahmed Kathrada on opening the “Esiqithini: The Robben Island Exhibition” 26 May 1993

The prison authorities had told these political prisoners sentenced to life in 1964 at the Rivonia Trial and other political prisoners that work in the quarry would be for a few months only. They would work there for 13 years. Another form of hard labor was breaking stone. In his Memoirs, Kathrada recounts how from 8:00am to 4:00pm daily they would sit on concrete blocks breaking stones into gravel, which was then used for construction. He wryly remarks that, “in effect, the prisoners built their own jail”. (Memoirs, (p. 205)

Those cold cement floors on which they slept measured about 6 by 8 feet; in one corner stood a bucket for ablutions, which had to be emptied and cleaned first thing every morning. The only other item in the cell was a basin of water for drinking, washing, and shaving. The water for showering was cold sea water of the Atlantic.

When they arrived on the island they were given prison garb, and even here, apartheid was in evidence: the non-Africans were given long trousers and socks, while the Africans were given short trousers and no socks. This was both calculated and sinister in intent. In the South Africa of the time, all Africans regardless of age were referred to, and often even called, “girls” or “boys.” The message was loud and clear: “Boys wear short trousers!” To complete this wardrobe, all prisoners were given a canvas jacket, a shirt, and a jersey (or sweater).

When political prisoners entered prison they were automatically placed in “D” category, while common-law prisoners, including murderers, bank robbers, and rapists, were placed in the higher “B” category. Every six months the political prisoners would appear before a prison board of senior police officials. The prisoners would be questioned, reports from their warders would be considered, and an assessment and decision would finally be made: they could be promoted to the next category or demoted, or remain the same. In a letter to a friend, Eddie Daniels, who served a 15-year sentence, wrote that it took him four years to be promoted from “D” to “C” and that, within months, he was demoted back to “D”. Those who got to “A” category, and who had the financial means, could buy additional foods such as cookies, candy, and beverages. They also could purchase tobacco and newspapers and magazines.

Just as with discrimination in clothing, there was also discrimination in the food prisoners were given depending on their “racial classification”: the non-Africans received a teaspoon of sugar with their morning “pap” (finely ground corn) while the Africans got only a half teaspoonful. Coffee or tea was given twice a day to non-Africans, while Africans got only one cup a day. For lunch, non-Africans were given mealie rice (grits) while Africans got boiled corn. For supper, non-Africans received bread and Africans got none. Non-Africans and Africans were given meat or fish four times a week, but while non-Africans were given 110 grams, Africans got only 60. The one ‘deprivation’ the Africans felt more than any of the others was not being allowed to have bread. In the B-section of the prison, which held more than 30 political prisoners, including the Rivonia group, the non-Africans were able to share their bread with their fellow African comrades. In later years the African political prisoners were allowed one slice of bread a week, and this improved later to three slices a week: one on Wednesdays, one on Saturdays, and one on Sundays. Eventually the political prisoners won the day when everyone was made equal for all of them irrespective of “racial classification”!

One of the boasts of the apartheid government after the Rivonia Trial was that they would see to it that, in a short period of time, South Africa and the world would have forgotten about the Mandelas, the Mbekis, the Sisulus and others. To realize this boast, contact with the outside world was virtually non-existent, while laws in South Africa forbade any information or images from appearing in the media. For the political prisoners this meant no newspapers, no radios, no watches, no television, no books and only a very limited number of no-contact visits by blood relatives only. One 30-minute visit was allowed every six months; only family matters could be discussed and this was closely monitored. Furthermore, no children under 16 were allowed. Of all the privations the people suffered, none was worse than the total absence of children in their confined, male, adult, gray, world. Often permits to visit were ‘mislaid’ by the authorities and the prisoners were powerless to do anything but to accept this with dignity, painful as it was.

When it came to letters, the prison authorities were even more blatant. All letters, incoming and outgoing were heavily censored and in some cases not given to the prisoner or sent on to its destination. Ahmed Kathrada, one of the Rivonia group often quotes the letter sent by his brother in 1964. Kathrada only received it in 1982. The reason it has been withheld for 18 years was because of its political content: the offending sentence in the letter was that there had been a change of government in Britain and Harold Wilson of the Labor Party had come into power.

Quotas and restrictions clogged the lives of all the political prisoners, and letters were not an exception. A prisoner could write one 500-word letter every six months and receive one 500-word letter in the same time period. It was not unusual for wardens to count off what they considered 500-words in an incoming letter and snip off the rest. But soon the wardens tired of this counting and changed and the regulation which allowed for 1 ½ sides. Prisoners soon learned to write in small print. As censorship was so stringent, prisoners soon found ways round this problem: write in code. This was by and large successful and, in this way, the prisoners were able to keep in touch from time to time with what was happening in the outside world and know what SAMAD’S attitude was to AMRIT, or to decode: What America (=Samad=Sam=Uncle Sam) felt about the African National Congress.

Letters from Robben Island [MSU Press 1999], a selection of letters written by Ahmed Kathrada to family and friends, provides the interested readers with a range of areas of interest from education to religion to language to youth, including coded messages and covers the period of his incarceration from 1964-1989. While authorities and the government were bent on breaking the spirits of the prisoners, the prisoners viewed their incarceration as a continuation of their struggle against apartheid on a different terrain.

By the 1980s, the political prisoners had a library; many had studied for and were successful in earning degrees; they had television, magazines, and could order full-length movies. They even put on their own Christmas shows and concerts and were able to cultivate vegetable gardens. After 20 years, Kathrada was allowed to hold a child in his arms! In May 1991, the last political prisoners were removed from the island.

While quarry work was exclusive to Robben Island, conditions generally were similar in the prisons that held white political prisoners – men and women. The association of “white” with “privilege” was unquestionable, that is, until it came to white political prisoners. Just the opposite was true: the white political prisoners were given the most menial, humiliating, and degrading tasks that could be found. They were seen by the white warders and wardresses as traitors to their own people, as people who had thrown in their lot with the swart gevaar (black danger) and the godless communists. Punishment for them was swift, and no allowances were made. Bram Fischer, who was dying of cancer, was not spared from his duties. On the eve of his death, he was allowed to be placed in his brother’s care. And after his funeral, the Security Police stipulated that his ashes had to be returned to the Department of Prisons – his remains were their “property.”

Robert Vassen wrote this essay specifically for South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid, Building Democracy. Vassen is editor of Letters from Robben Island: A Selection of Ahmed Kathrada’s Prison Correspondence, 1964-1989.

Lesson 4: Struggle for Equality

SS7H1C: Explain the roles of Nelson Mandela and F.W. DeKlerk in South Africa

SS7G4C: Evaluate how the literacy rate affects the standard of living

Materials: 2nd ½ of PowerPoint

Essential questions:

  1. What did F.W. DeKlerk and Nelson Mandela do to end apartheid?
  2. What were their roles in the new government?
  3. How did denying black South Africans the same education during apartheid impact today’s South African economy and standard of living?

Part 1- Intro: Show second video and PowerPoint slides from 2nd ½ of PowerPoint

Part 2- As a whole group,

  1. Discuss the similarities and differences between the US’s Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Apartheid movement.
  2. Create a Venn diagram comparing MLK to Mandela

Part 3– Summative Written activity: Students will write a newspaper article

  • You are living in South Africa at the time of the abolishment (outlawing) of apartheid. Write a newspaper article describing what Nelson Mandela and F.W. DeKlerk are doing to create equal rights.
  • Describe what rights the black South Africans now have due to the new republic and abolishment of apartheid.
  • Include an illustration (picture) and a headline announcing the “main idea” of your article.
  • Article needs to be at least 4 paragraphs long. (1st = life like under apartheid 25 pts, 2nd = Mandela’s role in abolishing apartheid (25 pts), 3rd= DeKlerk’s role in abolishing apartheid (25 pts), 4th =  what life is like in South Africa Today (25 pts).  (Summative assignment)

Lesson 5: Democracy Today in South Africa

SS7G2C: Students will explain the structures of the modern governments of Africa

Essential Question: What was the government of South Africa like after the abolishment of Apartheid?

Materials: Copy of the Declaration of Independence and the US constitution, The book Awesome South Africa

Part 1-Intro: Review what a democracy means. Have students give examples of democracy.

Part 2- Activity: Students review documents in small groups

  1. Share with students the excerpts from South Africa’s constitution that is in the book Awesome South Africa (pp.62-63).
  2. Students are to look for language that is similar to what would be found in the US Constitution and the US Declaration of Independence.
  3. Ask students if they think both exhibit beliefs and ideas that are expressed in the founding documents of our own democracies.

Part 3- Discussion: Are your thoughts and opinions of our government similar to or different from the South Africans’ thoughts and opinions?

Model Worksheet for Learning from an Interview

Download this activity in PDF format

Before listening to the interview: Note what you already know about the subject and/or person. Make predictions about what information this person will give you; write down any questions you have. What would you like to know about/from this person?

While listening to the interview: Note any answers to your questions you obtain from the interview, the impressions you had, the emotions you felt, and any other facts or insights you can get from the source. Also note the information or statements that you did not expect or were new to you.

After listening to the interview: Comprehension, Evaluate, and Create

Comprehension questions should test understanding of the key facts and memories provided by the interviewee or the topics addressed.

Evaluation questions may include: Is the source credible? Does s/he contradict or support other sources? Is the interview helpful in giving a sense of the history you are studying? How does the source help you understand how historians write history? How does this person’s personal experience influence his or her perspective? Does the amount of time that has elapsed between the event an interviewee is speaking about and the time of the interview influence how he or she describes that event? If so, how?

Create something, such as a journal entry or poem about the source and your reaction to it; an illustration of something the source describes; an essay describing how this source fits into the historical period; or a fictional personal letter or newspaper article drawing on information obtained from the source.

Photograph Analysis Worksheet

Download this activity in PDF format

Step 1. Observation

A. Study the photograph for 2 minutes. Form an overall impression of the photograph and then examine individual items. Next, divide the photo into quadrants and study each section to see what new details become visible.

B. In three columns, list people, objects, and activities in the photograph.

Step 2. Inference
Based on what you have observed above, list three things you might infer from this photograph.

Step 3. Questions
A. What questions does this photograph raise in your mind?

B. Where could you find answers to them?

Adapted from worksheet designed and developed by the Education Staff, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC 20408 (with permission).

Resource page:

Adapted from the work of

Bigelow, William. “Witness to Apartheid: A Teaching Guide.” The Southern Africa Media Center. SanFrancisco,

CA, 1987.

Campbell, Derryn. Awesome South Africa, Awesome SA Publishers, 2010.

Garrison, Dana. “South Africa’s Journey to Democracy: A Cross-Curricular Unit for Grade 6.” Ohio. 2010.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *