1909 - 1993

South African HEADS of government

Africa Media Online

Leadership during the rise and fall of apartheid

South African History in the 20th Century was dominated by the rise and fall of apartheid, a form of government based on racial classification that placed power and privilege in the hands of a small minority of people of European descent and disenfranchised the large majority of the nation’s population who are of African descent.   

The bitterness of two Anglo-Boer wars, fought between the British and Afrikaners (White South Africans primarily of Dutch descent) provided soil within which the Afrikaner nationalist ideology of apartheid could grow. In the tussle between Afrikaner and English South Africans, it was ultimately, South Africans of colour who lost out.   

The men who oversaw the rise and fall of apartheid were the nation’s heads of government. In 1910 the two former Afrikaner colonies of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were united with the two British governed colonies, the Cape and Natal to form the Union of South Africa under the British Crown. From this time, the South African government was led by a Prime Minister. 

Although they were Afrikaners, the early Prime Ministers, Botha and Smuts took a reconciliatory stance between Afrikaner and English South Africans. Under Hertzog, privileges for working class Whites were entrenched and Blacks were further disenfranchised. 

Apartheid, however, only became official government policy under the leader of the Afrikaner Nationalist Party, Prime Minister DF Malan who came to power in 1948. His successors built on this policy of segregation. HF Verwoerd in particular introduced what came to be known as “Grand Apartheid” the separation of races on a macro scale. People of African descent were not allowed to own or rent land outside of small pockets of land known as "homelands." The enactment of the scheme saw the mass relocation of Black people to these homelands.

In 1961 South Africa became a Republic.  Prime Ministers continued to head up the government of the Republic of South Africa until 1984 when a new constitution was implemented and the State President became head of state.   

Louis Botha: 1910-1919
Jan Christiaan Smuts: 1920-1924 and 1939-1948
James Barry Munnik Hertzog: 1924-1939 
Daniel François Malan: 1948-1954
Johannes Gerhardus Strijdom: 1954-1958
Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd: 1958-1966. He was assassinated on September 6, 1966 at the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town
Balthazar Johannes Vorster: 1966-1978
Pieter Willem Botha: 1978-1984. The position of Prime Minister was then abolished and he became State President from 1984-1989
FW de Klerk: 1989-1994

FW de Klerk was the last President of South Africa where the system of apartheid was official policy. Pressure from the liberation movements, civil disobedience within the country, economic sanctions from the international community and condemnation by the religious community as well as pressure from the South African business community had rendered the system untenable. In 1993 De Klerk and African National Congress President, Nelson Mandela, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their efforts to bring an end to apartheid.

Apartheid was officially ended on April 27, 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected President of South Africa. In line with the Freedom Charter, Mandela called all South Africans to a common goal of a South Africa for all who live in it. Mandela even paid a courtesy visit to Hendrik Verwoerd's widow in 1995 as part of his efforts in reconciliation.

Nelson Mandela: 1994-1999
Credits: Story

Photographer — Martin Gibbs
Photographer — David Goldblatt / South Photographs
Photographer — Paul Weinberg / South Photographs
Photographic Archive — Cory Library

Credits: All media
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