Multimedia: South Africa, the United Nations and apartheid

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22 June 1990: Nelson Mandela, newly freed from jail and then the deputy president of the African National Congress, addresses the Special Committee Against Apartheid in the UN General Assembly Hall. It was the first time Mandela spoke at the UN. (UN Photo/P Sudhakaran)


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Mary Alexander

It is now 20 years since South Africa rejoined the global community when it resumed its place in the United Nations after the end of apartheid. On 23 June 1994, following the country’s first democratic elections in April, the General Assembly approved the credentials of the South African delegation and removed “apartheid” from its agenda.

Almost 20 years before that, in November 1974, the assembly suspended South Africa from all UN activities – “so long as it continues to practice apartheid”.

South Africa was one of the original 51 founding members of the UN, established on 24 October 1945 after the end of the Second World War. Indeed, the South African statesman Jan Smuts was instrumental in setting up the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations.

Watch a montage of Nelson Mandela’s speeches at the United Nations:

But almost from the start the policies of racial segregation, later codified into apartheid, made South Africa an uneasy fit in the UN. In 1948 the white electorate chose the National Party as its new government, and apartheid was on its way. Also in 1948, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 1 of the declaration reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article 2 makes this explicit: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

When the vote on the declaration was taken, the then Union of South Africa abstained – as did the Soviet countries, and Saudi Arabia. Things were not going to go well.

It didn’t take long. Just two years later, on 2 December 1950, the General Assembly officially took the position that apartheid was racism, with the declaration that “a policy of ‘racial segregation’ (apartheid) is necessarily based on doctrines of racial discrimination”.

The Sharpeville massacre and beyond

But it took another decade for the UN to start putting real pressure on the apartheid state. On 21 March 1960, in the small town of Sharpeville south of Johannesburg. South African police opened fire on a peaceful crowd demonstrating against the hated pass laws. In what became known as the Sharpeville massacre, 69 unarmed protestors were killed and at least 180 injured.

Watch historical footage of the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre:

International condemnation was swift. Just nine days later, on 1 April 1960, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 134 after a complaint by 29 member states regarding “the large-scale killings of unarmed and peaceful demonstrators against racial discrimination and segregation in the Union of South Africa”. The resolution voiced the council’s anger at the policies and actions of the South African government, and called on it to abandon apartheid. With world authority behind it, UN Resolution 134 became a powerful weapon for the international anti-apartheid movement.

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8 July 1963: Patrick Duncan, a spokesperson for the banned Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania, addresses a meeting of the UN Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid, in which he suggests an oil embargo against South Africa. (UN Photo/TC)

Over the next three decades the UN ramped up its pressure on apartheid South Africa, with a number of committees, resolutions, hearings, seminars and international agreements and conventions.

In November 1962 the UN General Assembly Resolution 1761 declared apartheid to be a violation of South Africa’s obligations under the UN Charter and a threat to international peace and security. It also asked UN members to break off diplomatic relations with South Africa, stop trading with the country, and deny passage to South African ships and aircraft. Finally, it established the UN Special Committee against Apartheid.

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9 March 1964: Exiled South African singer Miriam Makeba appears as a petitioner before the UN’s Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid. (UN Photo/Teddy Chen)

August 1963 saw the beginning of the international arms embargo, when Security Council Resolution 181 called on all UN states to stop the sale and shipment of arms, ammunition and military vehicles to South Africa. The embargo was eventually made mandatory in 1977.

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4 August 1967: Simon Kapwepwe, Zambian foreign minister, addressing a UN Seminar on Apartheid, Racial Discrimination and Colonialism in Southern Africa in Kitwe, Zambia. (UN Photo)

Oil sanctions were the next weapon, starting in November 1963 when General Assembly Resolution 1899 urged all states to stop supplying petrol to South Africa – the first of many similar efforts over the years.

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15 June 1968: Swedish writer Per Wasteberg with exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo at a UN Apartheid Committee meeting in Stockholm, Sweden. (UN Photo)

Sport and the arts followed. On 22 December 1968 the General Assembly requested all UN states and organisations “to suspend cultural, educational, sporting and other exchanges with the racist regime and with organisations or institutions in South Africa which practice apartheid”.

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1 May 1969: “The segregated stands of a sports arena in Bloemfontein, South Africa, are a reflection of an entire nation divided by the issue of race,” the contemporary UN caption to this photo reads. (UN Photo/H Vassal)

On 30 November 1973 members of the General Assembly agreed to the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The convention came into force on 18 July 1976.

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20 May 1964: A UN Special Committee on Apartheid meeting in Dublin, Ireland, celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. (UN Photo/J Riedel)

South Africa’s final suspension from the UN came in 1974, when the Tunisian representative, as head of the African Group at the UN, asked the Security Council to review the UN’s relationship with South Africa. He stated that “the political and social system practised in South Africa was in total violation of, and in flagrant contradiction with, the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. In his declaration, he asked that the UN invoke Article 6 of its Charter and expel South Africa from the UN.

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26 March 1981: A minute of silence is observed in memory of the victims of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre during a UN special meeting discussing the plight of women and workers under apartheid. (UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata)

Many member states – mostly African, but also Australia, the USSR, Iraq and others – supported the call for expulsion. But opposition from powerful countries such as the US, UK and France resulted, after the final vote, in South Africa merely being suspended from UN activities, until it put an end to the policies of apartheid.

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22 June 1990: During his first visit to UN headquarters in New York, Mandela meets US boxers who contributed to the fight to end apartheid. From left, Mike Tyson, Jose Sulaiman, Mandela, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mayor David Dinkins of New York City, and Joe Frazier. (UN Photo/Milton Grant)

The UN’s work in increasing pressure on South Africa continued for the next 15 years, culminating in the General Assembly adopting the Declaration on Apartheid and its Destructive Consequences in Southern Africa on 14 December 1989, which called for negotiations to end apartheid and establish a non-racial democracy.

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24 September 1993: Mandela addresses a press conference at UN headquarters in New York, flanked by Ibrahim Gambari (right), chair of the Special Committee against Apartheid, and David Dinkins, mayor of New York. (UN Photo/John Isaac)

Then, in 1990, it all started to change: liberation movements such as the African National Congress were unbanned, and political prisoners – including Nelson Mandela – freed. Four difficult and often violent years followed, but finally, in April 1994, South Africans voted in their first democratic, inclusive election.

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27 April 1994: Mandela votes at Ohlange High School near Durban during South Africa’s first democratic elections. (UN Photo/Chris Sattlberger)