United Nations Sanctions South Africa for Apartheid Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid was adopted by the United Nations in 1973, placing the global organization at the forefront of the battle against apartheid.

Summary of Event

The apartheid system in South Africa evolved over time as the African and European populations fought for control over this area. From 1910 to 1939, a racial order evolved that kept the African majority outside the central decision-making institutions in society. The year 1948 marked the ascension of the National Party to power in South Africa and the introduction of the formal apartheid policy. International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, U.N. (1973) United Nations;apartheid South Africa;human rights abuses Apartheid;U.N. conventions and declarations Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations [kw]United Nations Sanctions South Africa for Apartheid (Nov. 30, 1973) [kw]South Africa for Apartheid, United Nations Sanctions (Nov. 30, 1973) [kw]Apartheid, United Nations Sanctions South Africa for (Nov. 30, 1973) International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, U.N. (1973) United Nations;apartheid South Africa;human rights abuses Apartheid;U.N. conventions and declarations Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations [g]North America;Nov. 30, 1973: United Nations Sanctions South Africa for Apartheid[01340] [g]United States;Nov. 30, 1973: United Nations Sanctions South Africa for Apartheid[01340] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Nov. 30, 1973: United Nations Sanctions South Africa for Apartheid[01340] [c]Human rights;Nov. 30, 1973: United Nations Sanctions South Africa for Apartheid[01340] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 30, 1973: United Nations Sanctions South Africa for Apartheid[01340] [c]United Nations;Nov. 30, 1973: United Nations Sanctions South Africa for Apartheid[01340] De Klerk, F. W. Nyerere, Julius Kaunda, Kenneth

The apartheid system rested on two laws passed in 1950. One was the Population Registration Act, Population Registration Act (South Africa, 1950) which categorized every individual living in South Africa as belonging to one of four racial groups: whites (14 percent, about three-fifths of whom were Afrikaners); blacks (73 percent); mixed-race “Coloureds” (10 percent); and Indians (3 percent). The other was the Group Areas Act, Group Areas Act (South Africa, 1950) which required each racial group to live in a segregated area. Whites were separated from nonwhite townships by distances of more than five miles.

Black resistance to apartheid took different forms after the end of World War II. Black Africans in South Africa adopted the Gandhian method of nonviolence as a strategy of change throughout the 1950’s. The African National Congress African National Congress, South African (ANC) spearheaded the defiance campaign protesting against the repressive apartheid laws. During a demonstration on March 21, 1960, in front of a police station in Sharpeville, police killed sixty-nine unarmed protesters. Sharpeville Massacre (1960) This event sparked widespread protest throughout South Africa against the killings. The government banned the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress Pan-Africanist Congress[Panafricanist Congress] (PAC) from any political activity inside South Africa. At this juncture, the ANC, under Nelson Mandela’s leadership, launched a guerrilla campaign and gave up on the nonviolent approach to changing South Africa. Mandela was arrested in 1962, along with leaders of several other organizations, on the charge of treason. He was sentenced to life in prison.

From 1946 to 1960, the Western nations controlled the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council. They supported South Africa’s claim that the racial situation and the apartheid policies were a domestic affair. The West, in general, was defensive with reference to racial and colonial issues. The Sharpeville Massacre was a critical event that changed the world’s perception of Pretoria’s apartheid policies from being considered a domestic issue to violating various United Nations human rights conventions and threatening international peace.

On April 1, 1960, the Security Council passed Resolution 134, condemning apartheid. The change in the tone and thrust of the United Nations at this juncture was the result of the admission of eighteen newly independent African states in 1960. The new membership altered the balance of voting power within the U.N. General Assembly and gave a new salience to the Afro-Asian movement’s demands to end colonialism, racism, and apartheid. Starting in 1963, the Organization of African Unity began to press the United Nations to take a bolder stand against apartheid and move toward isolating South Africa from the international community. Such efforts resulted in the United Nations vote for the suppression and punishment of the crime of apartheid on November 30, 1973.

In the late 1960’s, black people began to respond to their oppression through the Black Consciousness movement. Black Consciousness movement This movement was influenced by Stephen Biko, Biko, Stephen Barney Pityana, and Harry Nengwekhulu. The obvious philosophical contributions of black consciousness derived from contemporary African Americans (Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Bobby Seale), and the writing of Frantz Fanon were pivotal to the development of this new political generation. This movement sought to address and change the Afrikaner definition of nonwhites in South Africa. This ideology challenged the Afrikaner attempt to divide the nonwhite population along racial, linguistic, and ethnic lines. Following the tradition of the Haitian revolution, the Black Consciousness movement redefined all nonwhites as black.

In June, 1976, student uprisings began in Soweto against requiring the Afrikaans language in secondary schools. Soweto student rebellion (1976) Student protest spread to other townships around the country. Biko was arrested in May, 1977, and died in police custody, provoking widespread protest throughout the country and from the international community. The government responded by banning all Black Consciousness organizations from political activity.

The government crackdown on the Black Consciousness movement created a political vacuum that was filled by a labor movement, the United Democratic Front, and the ANC in the late 1970’s. As a result of a number of wildcat strikes and pressure from the business community, the government moved to recognize trade unions. The government’s attempts to co-opt the black trade unions and get them to focus on shop-related issues met with little success. Activists began to demand the release of Nelson Mandela. Mandela, Nelson

The United Democratic Front United Democratic Front (South Africa) evolved in the mid-1980’s into a potent political force which included a multiethnic and multiracial coalition. The Reverend Desmond Tutu Tutu, Desmond and the Reverend Allan Boesak Boesak, Allan became major players in this organization and in exporting the antiapartheid struggle beyond the borders of South Africa. The government responded to challenges by imposing a state of emergency in thirty-six areas, most of them black townships. In August, 1985, international banks refused to extend credit to Pretoria, causing serious economic dislocation. The government repealed the pass laws, which had restricted the freedom of black South Africans to travel within the country, and lifted the state of emergency as a response to domestic and international critics. In June, 1986, a new state of emergency was declared nationwide. Antiapartheid forces were successful in getting the United States and the European Economic Community to impose economic sanctions on the apartheid regime.

Between 1986 and 1989, the economic sanctions began to take their toll on the South African economy. In August, 1989, South African president F. W. de Klerk replaced President Pieter W. Botha, Botha, Pieter W. who had suffered a stroke. The business community and many other sectors of the white population began to articulate the need for the government to enter negotiations with the ANC to resolve the political and economic crises. The new president outlined several conditions under which negotiations with the ANC could begin.

The demise of communism in Eastern Europe and the retreat of Soviet support for Third World radicalism provided the de Klerk government with an advantageous bargaining position vis-à-vis the ANC. The Soviets and Cubans had agreed to depart from the region and cease supporting the ANC through Angola as part of the political settlement leading to black majority rule in Namibia. The ANC agreed to close its bases in Angola as part of the settlement.

Nelson Mandela was released on February 11, 1990, after serving twenty-seven years in prison. The ANC and representatives of the de Klerk government entered into negotiations to bring an end to apartheid and to work out an arrangement for black empowerment. In 1991, South Africa repealed a number of apartheid laws but avoided releasing political prisoners and enacting policies allowing black participation in the political process. Some elements of the de Klerk government were engaged in covert support of Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi’s Buthelezi, Mangosuthu Gatsha Inkatha movement, Inkatha Freedom Party (South Africa) which countered the ANC, in an attempt to keep Nelson Mandela from consolidating his position and getting a political foothold among black South Africans. Buthelezi, in return, expected to participate in the negotiations.

In July, 1991, U.S. president George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;South Africa removed U.S. sanctions against South Africa, stating that Pretoria was making satisfactory progress toward eliminating apartheid. After more than three centuries of growing political, economic, and social domination by a minority of white European settlers, South Africa finally adopted a system of nonracial democracy in 1994, and Nelson Mandela was elected president of the country.


The 1973 United Nations International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid globalized the struggle against apartheid policies in South Africa. In 1976, the U.N. General Assembly welcomed the coming into force of this international convention and proclaimed June 16 as the International Day of Solidarity with the Struggling People of South Africa. The action by the General Assembly in 1973 placed this international institution at the forefront in the global battle against apartheid. After the 1973 convention, the United Nations emerged as the most dynamic international institution mobilizing world opinion against South Africa’s continued violation of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.N. (1948) through apartheid laws and regulations. The 1973 convention played a decisive role in making the attainment of human rights in South Africa a United Nations issue as well as one concerning the global community.

The African National Congress, the Pan-Africanist Congress, and other South African antiapartheid movements were able to mobilize support on a global scale in their efforts to end apartheid as a direct result of the General Assembly action. Opponents of apartheid initially encountered a number of bottlenecks in their efforts to deploy sanctions and arms embargoes through the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The mid-1970’s, however, witnessed the growth and escalation of a broad, multiracial coalition in the United States and to some extent in Western Europe. This coalition was successful in mobilizing opposition to continued U.S. corporate investment in South Africa. It was also successful in getting local and state municipalities, and in some cases university pension funds, to divest themselves of relationships with companies doing business in South Africa.

In the mid-1980’s, this coalition was able to build bipartisan and multiracial support for a veto-proof sanction bill in the U.S. Congress. This same group employed direct action strategies against the South African diplomatic corps in the United States. Its success in generating economic sanctions contributed to a decline in South Africa’s fortunes as banks and multinational corporations began to divest. Western economic support for the apartheid regime was dealt a mortal blow by the ability of the ANC and other South African antiapartheid liberation movements to build a broad-based coalition within the United States, the Commonwealth, and to some extent the European Economic Community.

The African Group pressed its case against apartheid in a variety of international institutions, ranging from the Nonaligned Movement to the Group of 77. The African Group joined forces with other Third World nations and launched a concerted campaign to isolate Pretoria from the international community and press it to abandon its racist policies. This effort bore fruit in the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. These actors could also count on support from the Soviet bloc. The African Group was also successful in mobilizing support in the Arab League, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization. The Special Committee Against Apartheid and the U.N. Centre Against Apartheid also emerged as important diplomatic instruments in the battle against apartheid. Through such efforts, the apartheid issue was kept before the international community, thereby creating an environment conducive to the eradication of this gross violation of human rights. Not to be discounted in the end to apartheid were the major changes in international politics, including the demise of communism, and the successful, if painstaking, negotiations and settlements of other conflicts in Southern Africa, such as those in Angola and Namibia, which eased pressures in South Africa itself, paving the way for the momentous and peaceful transition to black majority rule. International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, U.N. (1973) United Nations;apartheid South Africa;human rights abuses Apartheid;U.N. conventions and declarations Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beinart, William, and Saul DuBow, eds. Segregation and Apartheid in Twentieth-Century South Africa. New York: Routledge, 1995. This volumes compiles ten important essays on the development and growth of segregation and apartheid in South Africa. Includes a helpful glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Callaghy, Thomas M., ed. South Africa in Southern Africa: The Intensifying Vortex of Violence. New York: Praeger, 1983. Examines the South African conflict with reference to Pretoria’s aggressive posture in the Southern African region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Nancy L., and William H. Worger. South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. New York: Longman, 2004. Clearly written history of apartheid. Contains a chronology, a glossary, and a list of leading figures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denoon, Donald, and Balam Nyeko. Southern Africa Since 1800. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1984. Provides a critical and insightful history of the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hanlon, Joseph. Apartheid’s Second Front: South Africa’s War Against Its Neighbors. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Examines South Africa’s policy of low-intensity war against its neighbors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Özdemir, Özguer. Apartheid: The United Nations and Peaceful Change in South Africa. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Transnational, 1982. Examines the role of United Nations agencies in pressing South Africa toward peaceful resolution of the conflict concerning apartheid.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Leonard M. A History of South Africa. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. A thorough review of the apartheid era. An indispensable tool for understanding the history of the conflicts in South Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations. The United Nations and Apartheid, 1948-1994. New York: Author, 1994. An account of the campaign against apartheid in South Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Worden, Nigel. The Making of Modern South Africa: Conquest, Segregation and Apartheid. 3d ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. A detailed examination of the primary issues that have shaped South Africa. Includes a bibliography and an index.

South African Government Suppresses Soweto Student Rebellion

South African Government Kills Biko

United Nations Imposes an Arms Embargo on South Africa

U.N. Declaration Condemns Apartheid

South African Rugby Team Tour Provokes Protests

South Africa and Mozambique Sign Nkomati Accord

Tutu Receives the Nobel Peace Prize

South African Black Workers Strike

Namibia Is Liberated from South African Control

Mandela Is Freed

Categories: History