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All About Jazz: South Africa

South African Jazz: Political History

By Published: April 19, 2004

After the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, the South African government instituted its first State of Emergency; hundreds of thousands of people were arrested in the coming years. This militant response drove the ANC to abandon nonviolent protest in favor of armed revolt. Nelson Mandela, who had been active in nonviolent protest up until this point, began to participate with the MK, the ANC's military wing. He was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. The next year, the South African police raided the MK's secret headquarters and Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served much of his term in Robben Island Prison.

A student revolt in 1976 (amplified by the death of activist Steve Biko in police custody) led to the second State of Emergency in South African history. Relations between blacks and the Afrikaner government reached a historical low point. And in 1985, township leaders staged a nonviolent protest. This led to a third State of Emergency, accompanied by constant violent skirmishes between police and black youths. The government declared a National Emergency, and its ruthless police response led to the arrest and detainment of hundreds of thousands of people.

By this point, international attention had begun to focus on apartheid in South Africa, resulting in severe economic and cultural boycotts. Apartheid was weakening. By 1990, Predident F.W. de Klerk un-banned political organizations and announced the release of political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela. Mandela would soon be elected President of the ANC, and he shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk.

Within four years, after negotiations with the ANC, free elections were held in South Africa. In 1994, Nelson Mandela became President, and the ANC won the majority of votes. The government drafted a new Constitution in late 1996. After a new round of elections in 1999, Thabo Mbeki was elected President.

The day free elections were held in South Africa (April 27, 1994) has been declared its national holiday: Freedom Day.

South African political history tells a unique story. European colonists recognized the strategic and economic importance of the region, assuming and enforcing control by legal and forceful means. After a century of formal repression, Africans (now called blacks) assumed peaceful control of the country (which is 75% black by population today). Today's South Africa remains a dynamic and turbulent place, but it's a quantum leap ahead of the dim dark days of apartheid: everyone has the right to vote.

And that's the meaning of Freedom Day.

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