Conversation Starter: What Does Apartheid Mean?

Can you imagine having to go to a different school than your friends because of your skin color? You probably know that before America’s civil rights movement changed American society, this would have been the case. South Africa’s apartheid law was not so different. 

Four hundred years ago, Dutch people sailed to South Africa and set up a white colony, which later came under British rule. South Africa had fertile farmland and when gold was found, the country was rich, though most black South Africans remained poor and worked as servants on farms, in factories, or in mines. There were many wars between all the different groups of people and in 1948, South Africa’s white government made an unfair racial segregation law called ‘apartheid’ which lasted nearly fifty years.

Apartheid means ‘apartness’ or ‘separateness’ in the Afrikaans language. The law said non-white people weren’t allowed to be friends with or marry white people, do the same jobs, use the same parks or swimming pools, and non-white kids weren’t even allowed to learn alongside white kids! Millions of black people lost their rights and were made to leave their homes and move to one of the new homelands reservations, which were horrible places to live. All South Africans had to carry around an identification card showing which ‘racial’ group they belonged to.  

Racial Discrimination

How Did Apartheid End?

People of all backgrounds protested against apartheid for many years and lots of people were thrown into jail for disagreeing with the laws. One of the main campaigners was a man called Nelson Mandela who often had to hideout to avoid arrest but was found and spent many years of his life in prison. However, his case did show the world what was going on in South Africa and lots more people joined the campaigns to end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela. 

In 1973 the United Nations General Assembly said that apartheid was unfair. Countries around the world started to limit their trade with South Africa, which led to the government very slowly changing the laws. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released and became South Africa’s first black president four years later when apartheid was ended. 

A Better World!

Nelson Mandela believed in equality, opportunity and education for everyone and said that we each have the power to make a better world! Can you think of other people like him?

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This article and its images were first published on, a website that helps parents to explain the world to kids, to inspire them to make a difference and to raise true global citizens.

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