Gandhi’s Past Raises Questions in South Africa


the defaced statue of Gandhi in Jo’burg

This week, a statue of Gandhi was defaced with white paint by a protestor in Johannesburg’s Gandhi Square.

The protest comes in the wake of the protests that have successfully removed the Cecil Rhodes statue from the University of Cape Town campus last week, as well as led to other statues being defaced, including those of Paul Kruger in Pretoria and of Britain’s King George V at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

But targeting a statue of Gandhi is particularly interesting, especially as protestors carried placards that read, “Racist Gandhi must fall”. Was Gandhi, an international symbol of peace and non-violence, racist?

Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa, first arriving in 1893. It was here that he first experienced racism and persecution because of skin color. It was here that Gandhi became an activist. It was here that Gandhi developed his philosophy of satyagraha. It was here that he first practiced civil disobedience and non-violence. Gandhi was not born a mahatma, he became one. This metamorphosis happened in South Africa: a constitutionalist converted into a revolutionary, a law-abiding citizen converted into a satyagrahi, and a loyal British citizen converted into an ardent anti-colonialist. It was here the Gandhi that we all know today was born.

As Verashni Pillay said in her article in September 2014 in the Mail & Guardian, “Gandhi’s legacy in [South Africa] became a complicated one. South African Indians love to say to those from India: ‘You gave us a lawyer, and we gave you a mahatma,’ referencing the ancient Sanskrit honorific that became part of his name. Gandhi’s spiritual renewal and key ideological changes came under pressure in South Africa…”

But while in South Africa, Gandhi also openly stated, while calling for the rights of Indians in the country, that “Whites in South Africa are and should be a dominant race.” While this viewpoint of his would eventually change, it is important to note that he did hold this view for much of his time in South Africa.

Gandhi did not fight for all oppressed people’s rights in South Africa. He solely fought for the rights of Indians, but not all rights and not for all Indians, as Nagindas Sanghavi points out in The Agony of Arrival. Gandhi was hired to work as an attorney for wealthy Indian traders in South Africa. For most of his time in South Africa, he was a leader of mostly upper and middle class Indians and their interests, as it was only in 1913 that he widened his stance and started speaking to the causes of mostly poor Indians. He also never sought the right to vote for Indians, just the right to live and trade where they chose. The image we have of Gandhi being the champion of all people was definitely not who Gandhi was while in South Africa.

While Gandhi saw Indians as equals to Europeans, he viewed Africans as inferior. As Verashni Pillay, a writer for South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, points out, “Gandhi said some spectacularly awful things about black South Africans.” In 1896, Gandhi said, “Europeans…want to degrade us to the level of kaffirs whose occupation is hunting and whose one ambition in life is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife and then to pass his life in indolence and nakedness.” By 1908, Gandhi’s views had not changed. As a result of being sent to an African jail in South Africa, he stated: “We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized — the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals … Kaffirs are intellectually backward…”

On white Afrikaners and Indians, he wrote: “We believe as much in the purity of races as we think they do.”

These are troubling comments to take in for those who view Gandhi as a saint. In reality, Gandhi was a human being, and he never was the individual that the West made him out to be. Gandhi’s views in South Africa point to his view not of all of humanity, but strictly to Indians, and not even to all Indians.  As Pillay points out, “Gandhi championed the cause of Indian people, not the African majority.”

As Verashni Pillay said in her article on Monday in the Mail & Guardian, “Mahatma Gandhi’s pacifist philosophy inspired many, but his remarks about black South Africans mean his legacy is not beyond reproach.”

Gandhi wasn’t even a pacifist during his time in South Africa. Gandhi supported the British in the Anglo-Boer War as a volunteer stretcher-bearer, and even supported the British in the crushing of the Bambatha Rebellion in 1906 by again volunteering as a stretcher-bearer where over 4,000 Zulus were killed by the British.


Gandhi needed South Africa to shake him from his colonial slumber that he had been in since going to law school in England. While it must be said that his strategies of non-violence and civil disobedience went on to greatly influence African resistance to apartheid in South Africa, Gandhi himself never championed the rights of black Africans, and in fact held similar views of their “inferiority” as the British and the Afrikaners.

Gandhi is a complex historical figure. He was not a saintly holy man, and he was not a rabid racist. He was a flawed human being, but one whose ideas inspired religious officials, political officials, and everyday citizens around the world and continue to this day.

But getting back to the statue debate in South Africa today, is Gandhi to be viewed any different than Cecil Rhodes and Paul Kruger? Granted, they did share some of the same views about black Africans. As Verashni Pillay said in her article on Monday in the Mail & Guardian:

Classing Gandhi’s racial failures alongside the likes of Paul Kruger and Rhodes may be unfair though. The latter figures were responsible for a grand and structured exploitation of the black majority.

Gandhi’s most harmful acts were his sentiments expressed about black South Africans while campaigning for Indian rights, and the fact that he did not join in a unified struggle with the country’s majority.

But his remarkable philosophies did inspire liberation movements among Africans on the continent and in the United States. It’s a complicated situation and depending on where people fall in the debate they will emphasize either his weaknesses or his strengths in terms of how he affected the struggle of the black majority.

Fallen Symbols

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, there has been a steady and consistent approach by the government of South Africa to right the wrongs of the past by removing symbols of the apartheid past and honoring those who fought to bring democracy to the nation. Many cities, streets, airports, schools, and hospitals have been renamed in South Africa since the end of apartheid.  It truly is a history lesson in itself to follow these name changes, and it certainly says a lot about how a country wants to view itself and its past.  Johannesburg’s main airport used to be known as Jan Smuts International Airport, but it was eventually renamed O.R. Tambo International Airport after the former ANC leader.  What used to be Harrow Road, a road cutting across Johannesburg’s central business district, has become Joe Slovo Drive after the former leader of the South African Communist party. And South Africa’s largest hospital, Baragwanath Hospital, has been renamed after the young Communist Party and MK leader, Chris Hani — the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.  Changes like this have been occurring regularly throughout the past 20 years, and therefore they are not usually shocking or out of the ordinary.

What has been happening over the past several weeks in Cape Town has a different tone. This is not about simply renaming an airport, road, or hospital, but is about removing a statue. And this is not a statute of an Afrikaner Nationalist like Hendrik Verwoerd or PW Botha, but of a British colonialist from the late 1800s.

The center of this recent controversy is a statue of Cecil Rhodes on the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT). So why all the furor over a British colonialist from the 19th century?

Cecil Rhodes

Cecil Rhodes was the quintessential British colonialist. Rhodes was an imperialist, businessman and politician who played a dominant role in southern Africa in the late 19th Century, driving the annexation of vast swathes of land. One of his guiding principles throughout his life, that underpinned almost all of his actions, was his firm belief that the Englishman was the greatest human specimen in the world and that his rule would be a benefit to all. Rhodes was the ultimate imperialist, he believed, above all else, in the glory of the British Empire and the superiority of the Englishman and British Rule, and saw it as his God given task to expand the Empire, not only for the good of that Empire, but, as he believed, for the good of all peoples over whom she would rule. In 1877, he said,

“I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimen of human being, what an alteration there would be in them if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence…”

Rhodes was both ruthless and incredibly successful in his pursuit of this scheme of a great British Empire. He became one of the world’s wealthiest men and the premier of Cape Colony in 1890. But he was also responsible for the beginnings of enforced racial segregation policies in South Africa, with his early drafting of the Natives Land Act which later came into effect in 1913. He acquired his massive wealth through exploiting African labor to work in his gold and diamond mines in the country. According to Martin Meredith in Diamonds, Gold, and War, Cecil Rhodes “regarded ‘natives’ as important only as an engine of labor.”

In 1897, Olive Schreiner wrote in a letter to her friend about how she viewed Rhodes: “We fight Rhodes because he means so much of oppression, injustice, and moral degradation to South Africa…”

Upon his death in 1902 Rhodes donated his fortune to setting up the University of Cape Town. But his legacy remains, beyond just a statue. He founded the De Beers diamond firm which until recently controlled the global trade. Scholarships allowing overseas students to come to Oxford University still bear his name as Rhodes Scholarships. Many institutions, including Cape Town University itself, benefited from his largesse. Both Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) were named after him.


Starting in late March of this year, students started protested for the removal of his statue saying it was a symbol of historical white oppression, leading to a well-organized #Rhodesmustfall campaign. Students even symbolized their anger and intent by throwing a bucket of excrement over the statue. Some even called for his remains to be exhumed from Zimbabwe and sent back to the UK.

zapiro 1Protesters have said the statue stands for white supremacy, racism, imperialism, and the oppression of the black African majority. Discontent quickly spread to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, named after Cecil Rhodes, where students demanded that the university change its name. At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, students defaced another colonial statue, that of Britain’s King George V. And at the city library in Port Elizabeth, a statue of Queen Victoria was defaced with green paint today.

King George V at UKZN

defaced statue of Britain’s King George V at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

The protests have prompted furious discussion across the country as to history’s place in the present. What memorials and statutes from the past should be allowed to stay, and which shouldn’t?

On Thursday, the University of Cape Town Council voted in favor of removing the Cecil John Rhodes statue on the campus.

UntitledXolela Mangcu, an academic at UCT and biographer of black consciousness founder Steve Biko, said, “It should have long been removed. Rhodes was probably one of the worst colonizers both in word and deed. His legacy speaks for itself. He laid the template through the native reserves, the pass laws and saying extremely racist things. For his statue to have pride of place is anachronistic.”

“He represents the former colonial representation of this country — supremacy, racism, misogyny,” says Ramabina Mahapa, president of the students’ Representative Council, which led the fight to remove the statue.

“Students are saying these aren’t the ideals that we want to have here,” Mahapa says. “The statue represents what is wrong with society.”

But while this may have resolved the issue on the UCT campus, the broader discussion that has spread throughout the country continues.

The Rhodes statue on the UCT campus is not the only statue in the country of an imperialist or symbol of South Africa’s former white rule. In Cape Town alone, there are a number of other statues of Rhodes, including one in Company Gardens next to the Parliament building, as well as a bust of him at the Rhodes Memorial on Devil’s Peak.

And monuments to South Africa’s colonial and apartheid rule are scattered throughout the country. In Cape Town, there is still a statue of Queen Victoria next to Parliament and a statue of Jan van Riebeeck in the main square. In Pretoria, there is both a statue of Paul Kruger in Church Square, as well as the infamous Voortrekker Monument just outside the city. In Bloemfontein, there are statues of JBM Hertzog and Christian de Wet in the city. And even on the campus of the University of the Free State, there is a hostel named after JBM Hertzog and the law building is named after CR Swart.


Zapiro political cartoon showing the statues of Rhodes, Kruger, Queen Victoria, and Jan van Riebeeck falling throughout South Africa

So what is to be done about these statues?

We have seen the important historical symbolism of countries pulling down statues of former autocratic leaders in the past, from statues of Lenin being pulled down throughout Eastern and Central Europe with the fall of the Soviet Union and statues of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Iraq after his regime was removed from power.  But South Africa did not change by a revolution, but a negotiated compromise.  And what is unique about the situation of the Rhodes statue being removed at UCT is that this did not take place with the end of apartheid in 1994, but randomly 21 years after that.  So is this really about removing symbols of past oppression, or about modern-day inequalities that still exist in South Africa?

Verashni Pillay wrote recently in the Mail & Guardian about the roots and meaning of this controversy:

I was initially ambivalent about the removal of the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT) but I’ve since come to understand, after conversations with activists and academics, why the act was necessary and even important.

First, black South Africans never had a cathartic moment where they could declare a complete victory over their oppressors that was not tainted by compromise. That compromise was necessary for the 1994 generation, which negotiated our transition to democracy with a hostile and powerful white regime – but, more than 20 years later, a more radical generation is saying it is no longer happy with compromise and wants to see meaningful change.

This is a turning point in our history and one that was inevitable. Second, we South Africans have never really had a reckoning with our colonial history. We put most of the blame for racism at the door of Afrikaner nationalism and, as Rhodes University lecturer Richard Pithouse put it, English liberalism is let off the hook, even though colonialism set up apartheid.

And, third, of course, this was never about just a statue but about the larger issue of transformation, particularly at universities such as UCT.

Another question is what these protests will lead to.  Will they transform into broader social, political, and economic protests?  Have the young people found their voice and power in this protest? What will they do with this power and momentum?

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Upcoming NCHE presentation

On Saturday, March 21st, I will be presenting a session at the National Council for History Education (NCHE) conference in St. Augustine, Florida.  My presentation, entitled “Mandela’s iPod: Music’s Role in Ending Apartheid in South Africa,” will focus on using music to teach about the resistance and activism that brought down apartheid.


my presentation - Sat., March 21st @ 8:30am

my presentation – Sat., March 21st @ 8:30am

With this presentation, educators and participants will come away with a better sense of how to effectively teach the apartheid-era in South Africa and its connection to global changes around the world and to today.  Using music as the lens to view both the oppression and degradation of apartheid, as well as the strength, resiliency, and hope of the people in resisting it, teachers can effectively help their students better understand South African culture, the social and political power that music has, and build the valuable skills of critical thinking, analyzing, and listening.

Educators and participants will come away with specific ideas, activities, and strategies of not only how to teach about South African history through music, but why it is important for students to learn about the power and effectiveness that music has always had in the fight against injustice and for change.

Some of the key questions that I will focus on include:

  • Is one form of resistance more effective than another?
  • Why is music an ideal vehicle for social criticism and political protest?
  • How can music mobilize people to action?
  • What role should musicians take in protesting or trying to influence society and politics?

South Africa is a perfect example of the power and influence music can have on society. Music is part of the vibrancy of the culture and life in South African society, and it plays an important part in the country’s violent and oppressive past.  As Amandla! director Lee Hirsh said, “Songs were solace, encouragement, and resilience. … The apartheid government took everything away from people, but it couldn’t stop them from singing.”

Although the anti-apartheid movement included many strategies and tactics, arguably one of the most powerful, inspiring, and unifying was that of protest music.  Music was used a creative outlet for those who struggled against apartheid.  Songs were sung in prison, at funerals, and during protests and marches as symbols of defiance.  It was not just the background to what was happening in the streets, it was an act of defiance and protest in itself.  The music was as diverse as the cultures in South Africa, including jazz, rock, reggae, gospel, and a capella.  It was music in various languages, too, including different musicians singing in Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, and English, showing that people from all backgrounds and cultures were in opposition to apartheid.  But anti-apartheid protest music was also prevalent around the world.  Internationally, musicians used their songs and concerts as a way to inform and educate as to what was happening in South Africa, and to mobilize audiences to put pressure on their governments to bring an end to apartheid.

The apartheid government knew how powerful music was, banning songs, musicians, and concerts.  Musicians were even imprisoned and driven into exile, but the music played on.

This will not be just a history lesson on South Africa, but an exciting opportunity to learn how to teach history through music in an effort to engage the students better and make the learning and understanding deeper and more enriching.

My presentation will feature plenty of music, from Miriam Makeba’s “A Piece of Ground” to The Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela,” as well as clips from films like “Cry Freedom,” “Amandla!”, and “Searching for Sugar Man.”  These sessions will be fun, engaging, and informative…just like the music of South Africa!  You’ll come away feeling not just inspired, but also like you want to dance.

Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa: A Historical Comparison

the_holocaust_and_apartheidTwo of the most repressive and discriminatory regimes of the 20th century were Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. Yet Jonathan Jansen, in Knowledge in the Blood, points out, “Apartheid is not the Holocaust, and the Holocaust is not Apartheid. These are two distinct events in their origins, content, trajectory, and outcomes.” But there are also a number of important similarities in how they became identified as, Santu Mofokeng has stated, “two of the most memorable evils which hypnotized the world,” according to Santu Mofokeng. In 2000, Patricia de Lille, a South African politician and Mayor of Cape Town, said, “South Africans had been suffering for 300 years. We can compare the suffering of the people in South Africa to the Holocaust.” She was by no means the first one to make this comparison, though. As Juliette Peires points out in her book, The Holocaust and Apartheid, “As early as 1945, the Non-European Unity Movement drew up a document that informed the United Nations of the similarities between the South African race laws and Nazism.”  Brian Bunting, a South African anti-apartheid activist, made the same connection when he titled his 1964 book, The Rise of the South African Reich.

So how similar are these two regimes? And why is it important to draw certain parallels between these two regimes?

While Nazi Germany from 1933-1939 closely resembled apartheid South Africa, according to Peires, “once the war started in Europe, the actions of the German government took a path down which the apartheid government never went.”

Anti-apartheid poster comparing apartheid with Nazi Germany

Anti-apartheid poster comparing apartheid with Nazi Germany

According to Peires, “Yes, there were strong similarities between Germany when ruled by Hitler’s Nazi Party and South Africa when ruled by the Nationalist Party. But there was a level of brutality, of sheer cruelty, depravity and inhumanity under Nazi rule completely lacking in Nationalist Party rule.”

As Peires points out, “Both the Nazi and apartheid governments employed similar means to disadvantage sections of the population that they governed. Both defined who was to be considered ‘superior’ and manipulated the lives of the ‘others,’ those deemed ‘inferior.’ They sought to preserve the pure identity of the advantaged groups and keep the rest in their designated places.”

But these two populations that were discriminated against and oppressed – the Jews in Germany and the black Africans in South Africa – were vastly different in their composition of their nation’s population. Jews were a vast minority in Germany, while black Africans were a vast majority in South Africa. In Germany in 1933, there were only 568,417 Jews in Germany out of a population of over 63 million people; therefore Jews made up less than 1% of the total population. In South Africa, the black population constituted a majority, with the 1946 census showing that they made up 79% of the country.

In Germany, while anti-Semitism had been apparent in German society for hundreds of years, Jews had gained full rights in 1871 with the formation of the nation of Germany. The new constitution at the time eliminated restrictions on Jews regarding residence, marriage, choice of professions and acquisition of real estate, and confirmed their right to vote. During the period of the Weimar Republic, between the end of the First World War and 1933, German Jews enjoyed a golden age. They were a highly visible minority in the professions, economy, and the arts. For example, 20% of Germany’s independent businessmen were Jews, 16% of all German lawyers were Jews, and before 1933, 11 out of 37 German Nobel Prize winners were Jews. They also flourished in academia, as evidenced by Albert Einstein who was a professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University. According to Peires, “In South Africa, however, black South Africans, who formed the majority population group, had never been part of white society.” According to Jonathan Jansen, author of Knowledge in the Blood, apartheid “was an institutionalized policy of racial oppression that preceded 1948 all the way back to the arrival of the colonists in the 17th century and continued as racial discrimination and economic exploitation over centuries.” Apartheid as an ideology, belief, and practice, is rooted in the arrival of Jan Van Riebeeck and the Dutch East India Company in 1652. Nancy Clark and William Worger, in South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, state that “racial discrimination did not begin in South Africa in 1948. Indeed, it can be traced back to the beginnings of Dutch colonization of the Cape of Good Hope in 1652.” Jansen points out, “True, the practice of racial oppression was intensified through a dense architecture of racist laws and policies when the Afrikaner nationalists came to power in 1948, but in many ways it was a continuation of other forms of racial hatred and discrimination.”

As Peires points out, “When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they embarked on a program which gradually changed the position of Jews in German society from acceptance as equals to dehumanized outcasts. When the Nationalists came to power in South Africa, the blacks continued to occupy the same segregated social position that had been their lot under the former government. The apartheid system was a refinement of the discrimination that had previously been practiced.”

Primary Focus on Race

Before World War II, the Nazis used laws to curtail the activities of Jews, similar to how the apartheid government used laws to curtail the activities of so-called “non-whites.”

According to Peries, “Race played a fundamental role in determining government policy in both Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. Both societies used the concept of race to define and exclude certain sections of the population from enjoying full human rights…”

As Peires points out, “The South Africans were bent on safeguarding the white race. The Germans were bent on safeguarding the Aryan race.”

Hitler’s obsessive hatred of Jews led him to believe that by eliminating them and their influence “he was executing the will of God.” He was assisted in his rise to power by the Catholic Church with the 1933 Reich Concordat that Hitler signed with the Vatican. Hitler was even religiously supported by the German Christian Movement, a radical wing of German Lutheranism. These pastors believed that “Hitler was above Jesus” and by seeking to synthesize Nazi ideology and Protestant tradition, oversaw the Nazification of the Church. In South Africa, many churches tacitly condoned the discrimination and human rights abuses of black citizens. Specifically, the Dutch Reformed Church not only supported the apartheid belief of segregation of the races, but theologically justified it by arguing that the Bible supported this concept.

And to “safeguard” their race, both Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa enacted laws to keep the races apart. In Germany, the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935. Part of these laws was the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, which prohibited all marriages and extramarital sex between Jews and Germans. In South Africa, legislation was also enacted aimed at preventing racial mixing. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and the Immorality Act of 1950 were the protective measures introduced, which included prohibiting marriages and extramarital sex between Europeans and non-Europeans.

1970s French anti-apartheid poster comparing South African Prime Minister BJ Vorster with Hitler: "The Real Face of Apartheid"

1970s French anti-apartheid poster comparing Vorster with Hitler: “The Real Face of Apartheid”

While both regimes primarily focused the brunt of their laws, repression, ideology, and violence towards racial groups, they were not solely the victims. Besides the Jews and black Africans, both regimes showed a willingness to execute and murder others who opposed their rule. While the victims of apartheid were predominantly black, they were not exclusively so. Dr. Rick Turner and Ruth First are two examples of white activists who were killed, as was Neil Aggett who died in detention. This shows that the apartheid regime was not solely interested in killing black Africans, but anyone who opposed their belief in white supremacy. This was similar with Nazi Germany. While the vast majority of their victims were Jews, they showed time and again that they were willing to kill anyone who opposed their regime, even if they were Germans. Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose resistance group, despite being Germans, were executed in 1943. In 1944, in the Polish uprising known as the Warsaw Rising, hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens and insurgents (not Jews), were killed for fighting back against the Nazis.

Also, both regimes used their fear and hatred of communism to also justify their actions and oppression. Both Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa were ardently opposed to communism and saw it as a threat to their very way of life and existence. Nazi Germany targeted communists with as much vitriol as they did Jews, including banning the German Communist Party (KPD), arresting thousands of communists and imprisoning them in concentration camps, and seeing the Soviet Union as their ultimate enemy, going to war against them from 1941-1945. In South Africa, communists were despised at an equal level. It was the Cold War and the Nationalists saw the Soviet Union as trying to bring down their government, therefore they banned the South African Communist Party, arrested thousands of communists, and even openly fought against the Soviet Union in Angola in the 1970s-80s. A number of anti-apartheid activists and organizations, including the ANC, saw the Soviet Union as the one country who would support their calls for independence and self-rule, and therefore actively sought out support, training, weapons, and money from them, including Nelson Mandela.

But race was the main ideological underpinning of National Socialism in Germany and apartheid in South Africa, and it was used to not just separate the “inferior” races, but also to slowly take away all rights and privileges accorded to citizens of a country.


In both Germany and South Africa, the races that were targeted for discrimination were also deprived of their citizenship. In Germany, part of the Nuremberg Laws was the Reich Citizenship Law of 1935, which stated that Jews could become citizens of the Reich. Thus Jewish Germans were summarily stripped of their citizenship. In South Africa, the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 removed South African citizenship from blacks. This act made blacks citizens of separate countries, the so-called “homelands” to which they were attached according to their ethnicity.

Cultural Life

In Germany, as a result of the Act of the Reich Chamber of Culture of 1933, Jews were also excluded from the cultural life of the Third Reich. They were restricted or banned from using playing fields and swimming pools, and were excluded from participating in sports at the national level. In South Africa racial separation for social, cultural and sporting activities had a long history rooted in colonialism and a formal policy of segregation even prior to apartheid. In 1953, the apartheid government passed the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act which made “mixed group” activities illegal. “Non-whites” were prohibited from attending places of entertainment where whites were present, and separate facilities had to be provided for each of the racial groups (including hospitals, buses, churches, restaurants, post offices, bathrooms, etc.). The Nationalists even segregated the beaches into white and “non-white” areas, and even had separate cemeteries. In sports, black Africans were also banned from being part of national sports teams.


There were employment restrictions in both Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. In Germany, the 1933 Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service stated “Civil servants who are not of Aryan extraction are to be retired.” This would eventually include teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, and other professions. In South Africa, black Africans were barred from competing for positions that were reserved for whites. The National Party that won the 1948 election endorsed the Civilized Labor Policy, originally introduced into the Public Service in 1924. Blacks who were admitted to urban areas were relegated to doing manual and unskilled labor. Positions were not given on merit, but on color.


In terms of education, both restricted the opportunities for the discriminated groups to access equal educational opportunities. When Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Jewish children were receiving a comprehensive education. The 1933 Law Against the Overcrowding of German Schools and Institutions of Higher Learning, though, restricted the number of Jewish pupils in German schools. On November 15, 1938, all Jewish children still in German schools were expelled. The Reich Association of Jews in Germany created private schools for Jews, but these had to be funded by Jews themselves. The German government refused to take responsibility or to finance any Jewish educational activity. In South Africa the apartheid policy included separate schools for whites, Coloureds, Indians, and Africans. These schools were the responsibility of the government. Prior to this time, African education was conducted mainly in mission schools. While schooling became available to many more children under apartheid, the quality of education in African schools was vastly inferior to white schools. The education of African children was directed at preparing them for what was considered to be their lot in life. According to Edgar H. Brookes in Apartheid: A Documentary Study of Modern South Africa,

“Bantu education [was] a unique system – the only education system in the world designed to restrict the productivity of its pupils in the national economy to lowly and subservient tasks, to render them to non-competitive in that world…”

The Bantu Education Act of 1953 formalized the segregation of black education. As Nelson Mandela said in 1953, “The Minister of Native Affairs, Verwoerd, has been brutally clear in explaining the objects of the Bantu Education Bill. According to him the aim of this law is to teach our children that Africans are inferior to Europeans.” By 1962, expenditure per black child per year was about R12 while the expenditure per white child was R158. Eventually, the decision was implemented to even change the medium of instruction in black schools. This eliminated instruction in native languages and declared that half of the subjects would be taught in English, and the other half in Afrikaans despite that most students and teachers in these schools could write or speak Afrikaans.

Bantu education graph

Excerpt from the book, Fighting Apartheid: A Cartoon History


Both used the media to their advantage and did not allow any freedom of the press. In Nazi Germany, patriotic fervor was aroused by German radio broadcasts. They not only burned books in public, but they also used newspapers, especially Die Sturmer, to faithfully publish the speeches of Hitler and support his policies. Josef Goebbels, as the Nazi propaganda minister, frequently used film as well for building up the spirit of the German people and for deriding those whom he wanted the people to despise. These films included such propaganda pieces as Triumph of the Will, which glorified Hitler and the Nazi Party, and Jew Suss, which depicted a deceitful Jew who perpetrated evil deeds. In South Africa until 1948, journalists were able to report matters as they saw fit, but with their ascension to power, the Nationalists started passing laws which eroded the freedom of the press. Rigorous censorship curbs were put in place that shackled the media. The Official Secrets Act prevented reports on information affecting the security of the state of police matters being published, and the Defense Act made it illegal to publish any information about military matters without permission. The government controlled radio and television, and no independent stations were given licenses. The state media (South African Broadcasting Corporation – SABC) had a monopoly on media in the country, serving as a mouthpiece for the National Party.

Physical Separation and Forced Removals

As Peires points out, “In both South Africa and Germany, the disadvantaged were told where they could or could not reside. In both South Africa and Germany, people were forcibly removed from their homes.”

Badges and Passes

In both Germany and South Africa, the targeted groups were forced to carry distinguishing identification. In 1941, the German Police Decree said “all Jews over the age of six are forbidden to appear in public without displaying the Jewish star.” This made it easy to monitor Jews’ movements and actions. In South Africa, blacks were required to carry “passes” at all times. The 1952 Black (Native) Laws Amendment Act specified that “all black persons, men and women, over the age of sixteen were to carry passes.” These contained full personal details including the name and address of employers, with space for the employer’s monthly signature. White South Africans did not have to carry these documents.

Ghettos and concentration camps vs. townships and bantustans

In Germany, Jews were forcibly relocated. In 1939, Reinhard Heydrich issued guidelines which included the planned formation of a “Jewish Reservation” in Lublin, Poland where Jews could be resettled. As Peires points out, “These guidelines envisaged a form of bantustan but with worse conditions.” The plan for the Lublin reservation failed, though, as did a plan to deport all Jews to Madagascar. Therefore, in 1940, Germany started to herd Jews into walled-off ghettos, of which there were 1,150 throughout Eastern Europe in Nazi-occupied territories. At the same time, thousands of concentration camps had been built for Jews and other populations, starting in 1933, that the Nazis wanted separate from their “ethnically pure” Germans.  In South Africa, black Africans were relocated and restricted to homelands and townships. The 1913 Native Lands Act limited Africans, the vast majority of the population, to just 7% of the land in the country called “reserves.” As A. J. Christopher notes, “the Native Land Act was officially conceived as a first stage in drawing a permanent line between Africans and non-Africans.” Sol Plaatje, a leading voice in the black community in the early 20th century, referred to the Native Lands Act in his newspaper, Tsala ea Batho, in 1913 as “extermination” of black Africans in the country.  South African President Jacob Zuma, in 2012, even referred to it as an early form of ethnic cleansing. The 1923 Native Urban Areas Act provided for towns to be segregated between the “white town” and the “black location,” or township. The Group Areas Act of 1950 divided the cities into special sections for whites, Coloureds, Asiatic/Indians and blacks. In Cape Town, for example, the Coloureds were located in places like Manenberg and Mitchells Plain. “Malays” lived in Skotches Kloof and Africans lived in Langa, Nyanga, Gugulethu, and Khayelitsha. While townships were being created in urban areas, in rural areas, black Africans were forcibly removed to “homelands,” or bantustans. In these so-called “homelands,” black Africans were attached to a specific area of the country according to their ethnicity. South Africa created 10 separate ethnic homelands for all African citizens, each based on ethnicity. These ethnic reservations included Transkei and Ciskei (for Xhosas), Bophuthatswana (for Tswana), Venda (for Venda), Gazankulu (for Tsonga), Lebowa and Qwaqwa (for Sotho), KwaZulu (for Zulu), KaNgwana (for Swazi), and KwaNdebele (for Ndebele). Starting in the 1950s, more than 3.5 million black Africans were forcibly relocated to these “homelands” during apartheid in what can only be described as ethnic cleansing. As Steve Biko stated before he was killed in prison in 1977,

“The areas where bantustans are located are the least developed in the country, often very unsuitable for agricultural or pastoral work. Not one of the bantustans have access to the sea and in all situations mineral rights are strictly reserved for the South African govt. … These tribal cocoons called ‘homelands’ are nothing else but sophisticated concentration camps where black people are allowed to ‘suffer peacefully.’”


South African “homelands” under apartheid


Both governments relied on using local collaborators to carry out their policies. In 1939, Reinhard Heydrich ordered that “Councils of Jewish Elders” were to be established that would be responsible for carrying out all German instructions. In ghettos, Jewish Councils were also established. The purpose of these Jewish Councils was to carry out Nazi orders regarding the Jewish population. They were responsible for supplying forced labor, registering candidates for work camps, and attending to deportations. They had to organize the food supply, manage housing, education, industry, health, police, and postal services. They were even empowered to levy taxes on the inmates of the ghetto in order to sustain these activities. In South Africa, urban blacks resided in townships separated from the white living areas, and the Urban Blacks Council Act of 1971 provided them with “self-government.” According to Peires, “The Black Local Authorities Act of 1982 was the means through which the white-dominated government sought to establish a stratum of privileged intermediaries between themselves and the blacks. It provided for the establishment of local communities, village councils and town councils for blacks in urban areas.” These so-called “black councils” had to implement government policy as opposed to being representatives of their electorate, and were therefore seen as collaborators as they had to do apartheid’s dirty work. They had to collect their own revenue, and they tried to do this by means of rent increases, which infuriated the local populations. In the “homelands,” the South African government installed leaders who would be allies and who would implement apartheid policies and support the South African government.

Forced Labor

Both used forced or slave labor, as well. In Nazi Germany, after 1938 prison labor was exploited to make profits for German companies.  There were a thousands of slave labor camps in Nazi Germany and in their occupied territories.  At Auschwitz alone, some 40 satellite camps were constructed near mines, foundries, and other industrial complexes. Numerous companies, like IG Farben, the world’s largest chemical and pharmaceutical company, used Jewish workers from concentration camps and directly benefited from the Holocaust. Other companies who used forced Jewish labor during the Holocaust and profited from it included BMW, Ford, General Motors, and IBM, among others. In South Africa, prison labor was also used. In Bethal in 1950, farmers were getting convicts sent from prisons to work on their farms. In just one year – 1957 – nearly a quarter of a million prisoners were sent to these farm jails as laborers. “The potato farmers had needed cheap labor, starvation labor, and the police cells and the gaols had provided a convenient reservoir,” said Helen Joseph. Some farmers were even building prisons on their farms so that they could use convicts as workers. Outside of prison labor, the South African government created a system that forced workers into the gold and diamond mines. Cheap labor and the migrant labor system with its restrictions boosted the economy, making the mines and farms more profitable than they would otherwise have been. All companies in South Africa, and those abroad who did business with South Africa, directly benefited from apartheid and the cheap labor that it offered.


It is important to note that as well as the actions of both governments, these two regimes were similar as well due to the fact that they both faced resistance from those who they were oppressing. As Peires points out, “In both Nazi Germany and South Africa, some victims of discrimination resisted the stringent measures taken against them. The kinds of resistance undertaken ranged from passive protest to the use of force.” In Germany, while resistance had little impact on the progress of the Nazi genocidal plans, numerous attempts at resistance were made nonetheless. There were Germans who protested Nazi Germany’s oppression, included the non-violent pamphlet-writing campaign of the White Rose, led by Sophie Scholl, in 1942-43, as well as more violent resistance attempts that included plots to assassinate Hitler like the July 20th Plot in 1944. Jews also rose up in resistance to Nazi Germany. Despite being confined to brutal living conditions in the Warsaw ghetto, Jews rose up in 1943 and violently took control of the ghetto in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that saw Jews fighting for their freedom. Even in death camps, Jews violently rose up in rebellion. In 1944, the Sonderkommando Uprising saw Jewish concentration camp inmates used explosives to blow up one of the camp’s crematoria and opened fire on the guards. Jews even formed partisan forces in the forests, fighting for survival against the Nazis. Between 20,000-30,000 Jewish partisans fought in the forests of Eastern Europe. One of the most well-known of these partisan forces was the Bielski partisans, who survived in the forests of present-day Belarus from 1941-1945. In South Africa, people also resisted apartheid in numerous ways. Non-violently, organizations formed to fight for their rights through means that included everything from letter-writing to speeches and marches to civil disobedience. The African National Congress (ANC) became one of the largest organizations as a voice of black Africans. Non-violent resistance from “non-whites” in South Africa included the Defiance Campaign of 1952, where Africans deliberately broke apartheid laws that they considered unjust, and thousands went to jail as a result. Another form of civil disobedience was the anti-pass campaign, where Africans publicly burned their passes in 1960 as a revolt against these symbols of oppression. Africans also instituted boycotts of everything from buses to white-owned businesses as a form of resistance to apartheid laws. There was also violent resistance, with the forming of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC, in 1961. Umkhonto we Sizwe carried out acts of sabotage, which specifically targeted symbols of apartheid and the government and not people, targeting military installments, power plants, telephone lines, and transportation links. They carried out over 200 sabotage attacks on public buildings, railroad lines, and power installations from 1961-1963, and from 1977 to 1989, there were an estimated 1,500 attacks inside South Africa carried out by MK. Umkhonto we Sizwe also undertook the forming and training of a guerrilla army in exile during apartheid, which included tens of thousands of young men and women who had fled South Africa in the hopes that they would one day be able to fight and liberate their country. Other organizations also used violence to protest apartheid in South Africa, including the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA), which also formed a guerrilla army in exile and carried out violent attacks inside South Africa. Both countries even saw church resistance. From a theological point-of-view, Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer protested what Hitler was doing in Germany, as did Beyers Naude, Desmond Tutu, Trevor Huddleston, and many others protested what the Nationalists were doing in South Africa. In South Africa, this resistance played a vitally important role in bringing the apartheid regime to the negotiating table, whereas in Nazi Germany, it did not have the same success. As Peries points out, “Resistance by the victims of the Final Solution proved ineffectual, but resistance by those discriminated against by the apartheid system of government brought about a new constitution and a new democratic South Africa.”

Key Difference: Genocide

As Peires points out, “Except for the fact that there was torture and murder in both Nazi Germany and South Africa, here the similarities end. From 1941 Nazi Germany introduced a genocidal policy, a planned destruction of Jewish people wherever they lived. There was nothing like this in South Africa. At worst the South African apartheid government resorted to the assassination of political opponents. It did not attempt to murder an entire population group.”

“Blacks in South Africa were exploited, humiliated, and treated as second-class citizens. There was no attempt to impose anything like a Final Solution,” said Peires.

In Nazi Germany, after 1941 when the decision was taken to embark on the Final Solution, the increasingly efficient scheme for mass murder of all Jews was put in place. The Nationalists did not deliberately murder black men and women of all ages. According to Peires, “In apartheid South Africa the disadvantaged were never subjected to the treatment meted out to those relocated to German concentration camps. They sought to remove those whom they considered a threat to white supremacy. Black leaders ‘disappeared’ or were locked up for indefinite periods. Many of those detained were tortured. Many died in detention. Many were killed.” But while working and living conditions were deplorable, both in the townships and in the homelands, blacks were never deliberately worked to death or housed in quarters that were liable to cause fatal illnesses. As Peires points out, unlike Jews in German ghettoes and concentration camps,

“black South Africans were not deliberately tortured, robbed and murdered. There were many systemic deaths as a result of forced removals to areas that were inadequately sourced as far as water, arable agricultural lands and shelter were concerned. But the deaths were due not to massacres but to the insensitivity of the authorities to the hardships that accompanied the removal of families to strange destinations that were unsuitable and not prepared for their reception. The Nationalist government was not motivated by the desire to liquidate every black person in Africa but by the ideology of separate development…. To the Nazis, Jews were vermin to be eradicated. To the apartheid government, blacks were second-class citizens to be exploited.”

According to Peires,

“The final intention of the two regimes was completely different. The Nazi government wanted to rid Germany and German occupied territories of all Jews. The ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish problem was the murder of every Jew, man, woman and child. Killing Jews, once the Second World War started, took preference over economic and even military needs. The intention of the apartheid government in South Africa was, under the guise of ‘separate development,’ to exploit ‘non-whites’ economically while separating them from the ‘whites’ in such a way that although they were in the majority, they would be in no position to challenge white power. … At no time was there ever the intention of killing the black labor force.”


One of the main differences between the two is the number of people who were killed by these regimes. While this is difficult to take into account for a number of reasons, it is worth exploring. As Peires says, “There were no similarities between the number of victims, the nature of their offenses or the method of murder.” The estimated number of Jews killed is approximately six million, which was 67% of the total Jewish population in Europe. The number of people who died in South Africa under apartheid, according to Peires, “is 36,815 including 4,024 deaths in detention or from individual killings and an estimated 10,000 systemic deaths. This constitutes about .14% of the total black population…” But others say the number of apartheid victims is much higher, especially when you take into account deaths due to forced removals, poor sanitation, lack of adequate drinking water, and lack of medical services. As Peires points out, “deaths did result from forced removals, inadequate health care, infant mortality and malnutrition. Deliberate killing only occurred as a reaction to black resistance as it developed in opposition to the discriminatory restrictions.” But you also have to take into account the apartheid-led “border wars” into the neighboring countries of Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Lesotho. In Tomorrow is Another Country, Allister Sparks writes that “a Commonwealth report published in 1989 estimated that South Africa’s destabilizing operations inflicted a death toll of 1.5 million on its neighbors…” These deaths are apartheid deaths as well as it was the South African government going to war in neighboring countries to maintain white supremacy. However you look at the numbers, though, numerically there is no comparison. Under the Nazis an attempt was made to murder all Jews, regardless of their status or affiliation. Most were killed en masse. Under the apartheid regime, people murdered were mainly political activists opposed to the ruling party.


According to Peires, “Both Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa tortured victims of the system. The governments knew of the torture, they sanctioned it, they legitimized it.” In Nazi Germany, though, Jews were tortured, not for information, not for a reason, but because they were Jews. In South Africa, the victims were suspected of being enemies of the regime that ruled the country. They were not tortured solely because of their skin color. While incarcerated they were liable to be tortured, either to get them to divulge information, to confess to a crime, or simply because they were anti-apartheid activists. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that “the use of torture in the form of infliction of severe physical and/or mental pain and suffering for the purposes of punishment, intimidation and the extraction of information and/or confessions, was practiced systemically,” according to Peires. The TRC concluded that the South African government, as official practice, condoned the use of torture. As Alex Boraine, Deputy Chairperson of the TRC, has written: “Torture was not something that took place in a handful of prisons, performed by perverted warders. Torture was endemic.” In South Africa, though, the torture was directed at individuals, mainly those connected to opposition of the government. In Germany, the torture was often collective and directed at a group, not at an individual.

Medical and chemical experiments

In Germany, medical and chemical experiments were carried out as one facet of the program directed at the destruction of the Jews. In South Africa the military also used chemical weapons on its own people as part of their strategy to preserve a white minority rule, but they never carried out medical or chemical experiments for research. The Chemical and Biological Warfare Program, known as Project Coast, had nothing in common with the Nazi medical program. The only similarity was that both were clandestine operations conducted with the consent and encouragement of the governments of the day. Both had their own “Dr. Death” — South Africa’s Wouter Basson and Gen. Lothar Neethling and Nazi Germany’s Josef Mengele – individuals who used their medical expertise in sadistic ways to further the government’s aims. Testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, Max du Preez even likened Neethling to Nazi geneticist Dr. Mengele. Both apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany used diseases (in Nazi Germany – typhus, yellow fever, smallpox, and cholera; in South Africa – cholera, anthrax, E. coli, Ebola, and botulism), but the Germans used them by injecting healthy patients with these to study the effects, while in South Africa, they were used to eliminate opponents of the government. In Germany, the declared objectives were the improvement and maintenance of the superior Aryan race, and the conditions for survival of troops in wartime disasters. In South Africa the program was directed at safeguarding the apartheid South African government by destroying apartheid’s opponents.


As Peries points out, “The murders and deaths that resulted from apartheid cannot be labeled a genocide. Black South Africans were not targeted for extermination. … The apartheid government never considered killing their labor force. Herein lies a cardinal difference between the two systems.”

In the end, a major difference was what caused the end of these two brutal regimes. Nazi Germany was defeated on the battlefield of World War II in 1945 by the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Apartheid ended in South Africa not on the battlefield, but through the apartheid government making the conscience choice to negotiate the end of the system and usher in democracy for the first time in the country’s history. While many Nazi leaders were tried in Allied military courts like the Nuremburg courts, justice in South Africa followed a different path: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As Jansen points out, this is a major difference:

“In the case of the Holocaust the defeat of the Nazi state was resounding and clear. The Allies and the Soviets claimed victory, occupied the territory of the Nazis, arrested major leaders and soldiers of this racist state, set up the Nuremberg courts to try the Nazis for crimes against humanity, executed and imprisoned those found guilty, required reparations from the Germans, and subjected the defeated to a process of denazification. In the case of apartheid, the end came through a negotiated settlement in which the terms of transition favored reconciliation over recompense and peace over retribution.”

Germany and South Africa are both democratic nations today, and in both states the former oppressor and the oppressed live side by side as neighbors and countrymen now. Jews are living in Germany, and black Africans are living alongside Afrikaners in South Africa. The fact that these two brutal regimes were eventually defeated and are no longer in power is perhaps the most important and promising comparison of the two, as this shows that the hatred, fear, violence, and oppression that these regimes survived on cannot outlast the desire for independence, peace and freedom.

Nazi influence in the forming of Afrikaner Nationalism in South Africa

While there are certainly a number of important historical comparisons between Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa (of which I will explore in a future post), it is also interesting to examine the influence that Nazi Germany had with the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism in South Africa.  To understand the pillars of apartheid ideology and Afrikaner Nationalism, what influenced the thinking of the men who would lead one of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century, one must look to the links of these men to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and ’40s.

The desire for an independent Afrikaner nation started long before Hitler was even born, and their views of racial superiority stemmed from their arrival in Cape Town in the 17th century, but the Nazis provided the Afrikaner nationalists with a certain model in fascism that greatly intrigued and influenced many leading Afrikaner officials.

With the ascent of the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933, many Afrikaner nationalists saw a parallel in what they wanted to achieve in South Africa. But it was not just a one-way relationship, and Nazi Germany also saw South Africa as a key potential ally.

During the 1930s, a number of Afrikaner nationalists went to Europe to study abroad. Hans van Rensburg, the future Ossewa Brandwag leader, “was an open admirer of Hitler during his student days in Germany. As head of the German-Afrikaans Cultural Union, he was received in Berlin by Hermann Goring, Joseph Goebbels, and Hitler himself,” according to Sasha Polakow-Suransky in The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. Piet Meyer, who would later become head of the Broederbond and eventually head of the SABC, led a 1934 Afrikaner National Student Union trip to Europe during which he even went skiing with Rudolf Hess in the Alps.  Dr. Nico Diederichs, eventual state president in the 1970s, also studied abroad in Germany during this time, and according to Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom in The Super-Afrikaners, even took part in the Nazi’s Anti-Komintern training school.

In addition to meeting top Nazi leaders, the Afrikaner students also took in ideas from European philosophers of the nineteenth century while absorbing the newer fascist ideas emanating from German universities. According to Sasha Polakow-Suransky, “The young students carried these concepts back to South Africa in the 1930s, where they proved particularly attractive to the men of the Broederbond, as did anti-Semitism.”

Polakow-Suransky continued: “Although racism towards blacks was an integral part of Afrikaner nationalist thought, explicit hostility toward Jews had never been part of the Christian Nationalist worldview. Exposure to fascist ideas in Europe during the 1930s changed that. Nazism provided the Broederbond with precisely the sort of scapegoat it needed to rally poor, unemployed Afrikaners, who resented the ballooning Jewish population…”

“The Broederbond began to argue that Jews were the group that ‘stands in the way of the Afrikaner’s economic prosperity,’” Polakow-Suransky points out.

As Jews fled Nazi Germany, the Broederbond’s leaders actively protested the influx of refugees. In October 1936, when a ship carrying German Jewish refugees arrived in Cape Town’s harbor, Hendrik Verwoerd, the future prime minister, joined the Nazi-aligned Greyshirt movement in protest at the docks.

During World War II, South Africa allied itself with Britain and the Allies against Nazi Germany. Partly due to the Afrikaner memories of British brutality in the Anglo-Boer War forty years earlier, some Afrikaners refused to supported and aid the British, and therefore chose to support Germany. Afrikaner culture, including ancestral and linguistic lineage, were closely aligned with Germany, and Germany had actually supported the Afrikaners in the Anglo-Boer War. But it was more than just siding with Germany due to historical connections, many Afrikaner Nationalists openly supported Hitler’s ideologies and worldview.

It was hoped that with a German victory South Africa would free itself from the British yoke that still powerfully lingered in their minds from the Anglo-Boer War, and at least achieve an independent Afrikaner republic, excluding the British and the Jews. Through a powerful broadcasting station in Germany – Radio Zeesen – pro-German propaganda in Afrikaans was pouring into South Africa over the radio, led by Erik Holm, an Afrikaner who was living in Germany at the time.

BJ Schoeman, a South African MP, summed up the feelings of Afrikaner nationalists at the time when he said the following at a National Party Congress: “The whole future of Afrikanerdom is dependent upon a German victory…”

As South Africans forces fought the Nazis in North Africa and Europe during the 1940s, extremist factions in South Africa were growing more popular. According to Sasha Polakow-Suransky, “Louis Weichardt, an unrepentant anti-Semite, led the Christian National Socialist group known as the Greyshirts; Oswald Pirow, a former defense minister, endorsed Nazi principles and launched a New Order movement; and Hitler admirer Hans van Rensburg led the most popular of these splinter movements: the Ossew Brandwag.”

OB leader Dr. JFJ Hans van Rensburg at a Stellenbosch rally, 1941

OB leader Dr. JFJ Hans van Rensburg at a Stellenbosch rally, 1941

The future prime minister, BJ Vorster, as well as his intelligence chief, Hendrik van den Bergh, served as generals in van Rensburg’s Ossew Brandwag (OB – Ox-wagon Sentinels).

The OB had been established in 1939 by Afrikaners participating in the commemoration of the Great Trek. They aimed at inculcating a “love for fatherland” and at instituting, by armed force if necessary, an Afrikaner-controlled republic in South Africa. By 1940, during World War II, while the South African army could only muster 137,000 volunteers, “the Ossewa Brandwag claimed twice that number, and at one stage, had close to 400,000 members,” according to David Harrison in The White Tribe of Africa.

OB emblem

OB emblem

Vorster, who led South Africa from 1966-1979, was unapologetic and proudly compared his nation to Nazi Germany. He declared in 1942, “We stand for Christian Nationalism which is an ally of National Socialism… In Italy it is called Fascism, in Germany National Socialism and in South Africa Christian Nationalism.”

BJ Vorster at an OB rally

BJ Vorster at an OB rally

Vorster’s brother, Reverend Koot Vorster, a Dutch Reformed Church minister, was also an OB member. He summed up the feelings of the pro-Hitler group during an address to a student group on September 15, 1940:

“Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ shows the way to greatness – the path of South Africa. Hitler gave the Germans a calling. He gave them a fanaticism which causes them to stand back for no one. We must follow this example because only by such holy fanaticism can the Afrikaner nation achieve its calling.”

In Harrison’s The White Tribe of Africa, Kowie Marais, an OB member, recalls the admiration he and his friends held for Hitler: “We thought he might rejuvenate western civilization…against the communist-socialist trends that were creeping in from the east. We thought it was the dawn of a new era.”

Harry Schwarz, who arrived in South Africa from Nazi Germany in 1934 and who eventually became South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, said, “If you read some of the stuff that somebody like Eric Louw [future Foreign Minister] said in Parliament, you can’t differentiate between that and what the Nazis said in Germany.”

anti-apartheid poster comparing apartheid and Nazism

anti-apartheid poster comparing apartheid and Nazism

According to Sasha Polakow-Suransky , in 1940, OB-chief Hans van Rensburg formally offered to provide the Third Reich with 170,000 OB members to help overthrow the South African government if Germany provided them arms. The coup never materialized, but by 1942 the Stormjaers (Stormtroopers), the military wing of the OB, had started a campaign of violence, which included blowing up pylons, power lines, post offices, shops and banks as well as beating up Jews and soldiers.

As a result of their pro-Nazi activities, Vorster and van den Bergh were declared enemies of the state and in 1942 were detained in a government internment camp during the war, a fate that over 700 OB members shared during the war.

The Germans had even hatched their own plans for a putsch in South Africa. In 1934, Hitler sent Graf von Durckheim Montmartin, a representative of Nazi Germany, to South Africa with the official intention of attending a conference on education, but it was later revealed that Hitler had sent Montmartin with the purpose of determining what support South Africa might provide to Germany in the new world order that Hitler envisioned. Montmartin met secretly with top Broederbond leaders during his trip to discuss how the Broederbond might be of service to this end.

Later, in 1941, a former South African Olympic boxer and Nazi sympathizer, Robey Leibbrandt, was transported on a German yacht to a remote area off the Atlantic coast and dispatched to assassinate Prime Minister Smuts and stage a coup.

Leibbrandt’s plan was foiled, yet even after his capture, Afrikaner nationalists continued to enthusiastically support the Nazi war effort. But this waned as the war turned and Germany was eventually defeated.

In South Africa, to get elected, DF Malan knew that he needed every white vote he could get, and thus he slowly began to distance himself from the anti-Semitism of the OB and began broadening his vision of the National Party to include all whites. But not all Afrikaner Nationalists supported this move, and many, including Vorster, van den Bergh, Meyer, and Verwoerd, went on to lead the apartheid government over the next forty years of its existence.

1970s French anti-apartheid poster comparing Vorster with Hitler: "The Real Face of Apartheid"

1970s French anti-apartheid poster comparing Vorster with Hitler: “The Real Face of Apartheid”

The influence of Nazism remained as it had provided a foundation upon which many of the Nationalist Party leaders built their political beliefs and policies. Even when Nazism collapsed, the seed of its ideology remained buried in the ideology of the Nationalist Party.

While the National Party’s victory in 1948 did signal some clear distinctions from Hitler’s National Socialism — most notably the fact that South Africa’s Jews were granted privileges of whiteness under apartheid, left unaffected by the apartheid legislation that formalized the separation of races — apartheid as state policy from 1948 onwards continued to resemble Nazism in its laws, views of racial superiority, and repression of dissent.

Brian Bunting’s 1964 book, The Rise of the South African Reich

25th Anniversary of Mandela’s Release from Prison


Twenty five years ago today, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. As he was able to triumphantly walk out of Victor Verster Prison, he took his first steps as a free man since 1962. It had been 27 years spent languishing in South African prisons before these momentous steps in what Mandela called his “long walk to freedom.”

What had started back in the mid-1980s with discussions and negotiations between the apartheid government and Nelson Mandela and the ANC culminated in the announcement by President FW de Klerk that Mandela would be released from prison on February 11, 1990.

At the age of 71, Nelson Mandela proudly walked out of prison. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela said, “My ten thousand days of imprisonment were over.”

People around the world celebrated as Mandela had been the world’s best known political prisoner.  Due to the effectiveness of the “Free Mandela” campaign, people around the world knew Mandela and advocated for his release despite his long imprisonment.


Even in South African prisons people celebrated.  Justice Bekebeke, who was in prison at the time in South Africa as part what was known as the Upington 14, said, “We used to have one hour of exercise every day but on that day we all stayed in our cells to listen to the radio. The moment the radio announced that he was walking out with Winnie, that moment was freedom for us. We forgot where we were.”

Mandela embodied the predicament of all black South Africans. In him they invested all their hopes and aspirations; he had become the personification of an entire people.  If he was now free, that meant that they all would be free, as well.

In South Africa, a raucous crowd of some 100,000 South Africans squeezed into the Grand Parade grounds outside Cape Town’s City Hall, infusing it with the energy of a rock concert. Mandela was to deliver his first speech there later that day, at what was almost certainly one of the largest black crowds ever to gather for an event in what was still formally a white city.


Mandela told the crowd, “Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today.”

But as amazing as this day was, this was not the end of apartheid by any stretch of the imagination.

As Greg Marinovich and Joa Silva said in their book, The Bang Bang Club, “Mandela’s release had been accompanied by a sustained campaign of brutal killings and terror, covertly planned, funded and executed by government security units and the police.”

Even Mandela noticed this, that as important as it was that he was now a free man, the walk to freedom was still not complete. “I might be out of jail, but I was not free,” Mandela said in Long Walk to Freedom.

“I encouraged the people to return to the barricades, to intensify the struggle, and we would walk the last mile together.”

As Mandela had said back in 1985 when he refused to take PW Botha’s offer of a conditional release, “I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom.”

Difficult days lay ahead. Political violence would claim more than 10,000 lives over the next four years. Negotiations between de Klerk’s government and Mandela’s ANC stalled and broke down on multiple occasions before the country’s first democratic election that elevated Mandela to the presidency in 1994.

But on this day 25 years ago, South Africa entered a new era.



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Top apartheid assassin released from prison

Yesterday, it was announced that Eugene de Kock will be released on parole in South Africa after serving 20 years of a sentence that included two life terms plus 212 years in prison. The former apartheid assassin and head of an infamous government death squad will be released, as South Africa’s justice minister, Michael Masutha, “in the interests of nation-building and reconciliation,” and because he had expressed remorse at his crimes and helped authorities recover the remains of some of his victims.

So who is Eugene de Kock?

De Kock work for the apartheid regime first began as a member of the South African Police (SAP).  He completed nine tours of duty in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) between 1968 and 1975, and in 1977 he was appointed station commander in South West Africa (present-day Namibia), to help in the counter-insurgency against the nationalist forces.  But he saw the need for a different approach to counter-insurgency.

In 1979 de Kock found his feet when co-founded the notorious Koevoet (“crowbar”) unit. As part of the SAP,  Koevoet was created to combat SWAPO (South West African People’s Organization; fighting for the liberation of present-day Namibia) through extra-legal means. The model for Koevoet was the Portuguese Flechas and the Rhodesian Selous Scouts. Its main task was to kill freedom fighters from SWAPO.  The name “crowbar” was aptly chosen, according to Law and Order Minister Louis le Grange said, as it is “the crowbar which prises terrorists out of the bushveld like nails from rotten wood.”

They relied on askaris, local soldiers serving in the armies of the apartheid regime. The term originated in colonial Kenya and referred to Africans who served in the armies of the British.  The British turned these askaris into units of African spies who would infiltrate nationalist guerrillas, gathering intelligence for the colonists.  Askaris of this type were widely used in Rhodesia and the Portuguese Empire. The most developed askari force was RENAMO in Mozambique, which eventually grew into a political movement. As a result, South Africa saw the importance of having askari units as part of their counter-insurgency actions both inside South Africa and in bordering states. Christi van der Westhuizen says that “Koevoet had ten to fifteen black members for every white officer.”

Koevoet members had been trained in counter-insurgency in order to meet the unit’s aims, and they quickly became one of the most effective combat forces deployed against SWAPO. As Christi van der Westhuizen says in White Power & the Rise and Fall of the National Party, “Its members, realizing that they were a law unto themselves as long as they did the National Party regime’s bidding, left a trail of horror and destruction in their wake. They raped women, brutalized civilians, including children and the elderly, …and tortured people to extract information.”

According to Denis Herbstein in The Devils are Among Us, “the dirty task of causing enemies to disappear ” had been Koevoet’s mission.

Koevoet became well known for its high assassination rate. According to Christi van der Westhuizen, “Koevoet’s ‘cash-for-corpses’ policy – members were paid a bounty for each person killed – ensured a 1:32 ratio of prisoners to fatalities. In the ten years of Koevoet’s existence, members killed or captured 3,225 SWAPO soldiers, according to De Wet Potgieter in Total Onslaught: Apartheid’s Dirty Tricks Exposed.

Herbstein even reported that, “Off duty, members of Koevoet wore T-shirts proclaiming ‘Murder is our business — and business is good.”

Koevoet continued to operate in South West Africa until 1989, but in 1983, the South African Police transferred Eugene de Kock to C10, a counter-insurgency unit based just outside Pretoria, on a remote farm known as Vlakplaas.

farmVlakplaas functioned as a paramilitary hit squad, capturing political opponents of the apartheid government and either “turning” them or executing them.

De Kock rose through the ranks and became the commander of Vlakplaas in 1985. This government hit squad became the number one death squad for killing anti-apartheid activists.

According to Max du Preez in Pale Native, “The list of murders, tortures, assaults, and kidnappings was long.”

In A Human Being Died That Night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela points out that, “The covert operations program did not “officially” exist but was clearly necessary for apartheid to survive.” And the government saw it as that important that they pumped millions in secret funds into de Kock’s unit for years, according to Gobodo-Madikizela.

According to James Sanders in Apartheid’s Friends, “Vlakplaas was not an isolated gang of psychopaths tolerated, from a distance, by the securocrats. It was a state-sanctioned death squad.”

For his role, de Kock was nicknamed “Prime Evil” for his role in the killing and maiming of activists fighting apartheid in the 1980s and early 1990s. De Kock is believed to have been responsible for more atrocities than any other man in the efforts to preserve white rule in South Africa.

the documentary Prime Evil (2010)

His crimes became emblematic of some of the worst abuses in the apartheid era. One of the trademarks of the Vlakplaas unit was the depths they went to cover up their crimes and get rid of the evidence.  After killing a target, in many cases they would incinerate, burn, or even blow up the remains so that no scrap of evidence was left.

Vlakplaas was also responsible for blowing up two buildings in Johannesburg: Cosatu House, the headquarters of the ANC-aligned trade union federation, in May 1987, and Khotso House, the South African Council of Churches’ headquarters, in September 1988. Vlakplaas also was active in supplying weapons to the Inkatha Freedom Party from the mid-1980s as part of the “Third Force” violence that spread throughout South Africa up through 1994.

According to Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, de Kock was a man who “many in the country considered the most brutal of apartheid’s covert police operatives,” a man whom she referred to as “the most notorious executor of apartheid’s most brutal methods of repression.”

“As behind-the-scenes engineer of apartheid’s murderous operations, he had been nameless and faceless,” according to Gobodo-Madikizela.

That is, up until 1994 when he was arrested on charges including murder and kidnapping related to his time as commander of Vlakplaas.

In 1996, de Kock was convicted of 89 charges, ranging from murder and attempted murder to kidnapping and fraud.  With a judge saying his actions had been cruel, calculated and without sympathy for the victims, de Kock was sentenced to 212 years in prison plus two life terms for crimes against humanity.

Trial testimony revealed details of some infamous political killings, such as the unit’s role in the 1991 murder of Bheki Mlangeni, a human rights lawyer whose head was blown off by a cassette player with explosives in the earphones. A witness in another incident described how Colonel de Kock split one victim’s head with a shovel after a gun misfired twice.

With the start of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), de Kock applied for amnesty and appeared before the commission for the first time in 1997.

Eugene De Kock speaks at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in 1999

Eugene De Kock speaks at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in 1999

Before the TRC, de Kock confessed to crimes against humanity. He specifically confessed to more than 100 acts of murder, torture and fraud, taking full responsibility for the activities of his undercover unit. His revelations shocked South Africans and revealed the length and brutal techniques the apartheid regime was prepared to take to stay in power.


This is what made de Kock unique amongst his fellow apartheid officials in the police, military, and government.  He was one of the rare individuals who came before the TRC and actually admitted to what he did.  De Kock offered thorough accounts of the torture and killing of ANC activists. His testimony helped South Africa understand the true horrors and depths that apartheid officials went to maintain white supremacy, and it helped many families find closure knowing what finally happened to their sons or daughters.

While other Afrikaner leaders maintained denial or ignorance about the crimes of humanity that had been committed, including former presidents PW Botha and FW de Klerk, de Kock not only acknowledged what he did, but he also showed remorse for it.

De Kock blamed most of the killings on senior politicians in the apartheid government, claiming he was just following orders. He added that the politicians, including former South African presidents, knew all about Vlakplaas and their crimes. He accused apartheid leaders of deserting their men who did their dity work: “They want to eat lamb but they do not want to see the blood and the guts.” In a 2007 radio interview from prison, de Kock accused FW de Klerk, the last white president, of having hands “soaked in blood” for ordering political killings. But de Klerk has continued to deny knowing anything about these crimes, saying that he never ordered them.

Political cartoon showing de Kock having taken orders from apartheid leaders, including presidents PW Botha and FW de Klerk, to carry out everything from "murder" and "torture" to "bombings" and "state terrorism."

Political cartoon showing de Kock having taken orders from apartheid leaders, including presidents PW Botha and FW de Klerk, to carry out everything from “murder” and “torture” to “bombings” and “state terrorism.”

De Klerk, appearing before the TRC, pleaded ignorance: “Many things happened which were not authorized, not intended and of which we were not aware. The recent information of atrocities I find as shocking and as abhorrent as anybody else.”

“South African leaders tried to distance themselves from the ugliness of apartheid violence by denying that it existed at all: the policy was see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil – and therefore admit no evil,” writes Gobodo-Madikizela.

“Killing apartheid’s opponents became South Africa’s dirty little family secret that everyone could see but no one openly talked about for fear that the house of cards called apartheid might come crashing down.”

In a 2001 address at Harvard University, FW de Klerk defended his own moral distancing. In “a state of war,” he said, foot soldiers in their zeal often go beyond what is legally acceptable and commit acts that are not authorized by the government.  Asked whether he thought it was reasonable that he played a role in apartheid crimes against humanity, de Klerk shot back, “My hands are clean.”  De Klerk dismissed de Kock and his colleagues as simply bad apples in a security department that was trying to cope with a war situation.

Political cartoon showing that while de Kock's testimony shed light on apartheid crimes at Vlakplaas, there were clearly more death squad farms like this that existed

Political cartoon showing that while de Kock’s testimony shed light on apartheid crimes at Vlakplaas, this was clearly just the tip of the iceberg of the secret death squads that existed during apartheid. As Antjie Krog writes in Country of My Skull, “In the beginning, the only farm we knew about was Vlakplaas. Then it came to light that similar farms existed in the old Natal, the Transvaal, the Orange Free State, and the eastern Cape.”

De Kock continued to express remorse throughout his time in jail, reaching out to the family members of those he killed, seeking forgiveness.

He has written to the mother of ANC lawyer Bheki Mlangeni, who was killed by a bomb in 1991, asking for her forgiveness, saying, “Your forgiveness will mean a lot to me, but it can in no way wash away the pain I have caused.”  He has also met with Marcia Khoza, the daughter of ANC activist Portia Shabangu, whom de Kock executed after an ambush in Swaziland in 1989.

While clearly not everyone agrees that de Kock should be getting pardoned, especially after hearing about the brutality and evil of his crimes, South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who interviewed de Kock many times while he was in jail, feels that a pardon is necessary in this case.

“De Kock made an extraordinary contribution to the TRC process, a point that is acknowledged in the commission’s final report. Most of the security police and certainly all the police generals who applied for amnesty were forced to do so as a result of de Kock’s disclosures to the commission,” Gobodo-Madikizela points out.

In her book, A Human Being Died That Night, she argued in favor of a pardon for a man she said had been a servant to a brutal regime.

Sandra Mama, widow of Glenack Mama who was killed by de Kock in 1992, said she thought the Justice Minister was also right in granting parole.

“I think it will actually close a chapter in our history because we’ve come a long way and I think his release will just once again help with the reconciliation process because there’s still a lot of things that we need to do as a country,” she said.

Desmond Tutu agreed, saying the release of Eugene de Kock represents a milestone on road to reconciliation and healing.

To read more about Eugene de Kock, check out BBC’s Profile of an Apartheid Assassin, and read Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night.