International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid

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International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid


By: United Nations General Assembly

Date: November 30, 1973

Source: United Nations General Assembly. International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. General Assembly Resolution 3068 (XXVIII). New York: United Nations, November 30, 1973.

About the Author: The phrase "United Nations" was used during World War II (1939–1945) to describe the dozens of nations allied together to fight Germany and Japan, most notably including China, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States of America. These allies decided to develop a new organization to facilitate international cooperation and help prevent future wars. It would replace the League of Nations, which had failed to prevent World War II. They called it the United Nations (UN). The UN Charter was ratified on October 24, 1945. In the years since, the UN has served as a forum for international negotiation and cooperation on many issues, including international security, human rights, trade and economics, and the environment. The General Assembly is the primary bosy for deliberation within the United Nations, in which all member nations have a seat.


South Africa, a nation with a long history of colonization by western countries, gained its independence from Great Britain in 1934. Until the 1940s, when the Afrikaner National Party gained political control, South Africa remained a country divided politically and socially. When the ANP gained political control, it initiated apartheid to solidify and extend racial separation and maintain ANP (i.e. white domination) control. The unifying control that the ANP brought to South Africa was exclusively one-sided—its programs favored whites.

In 1948, racial discrimination and separation laws took effect throughout South Africa. These laws encompassed almost every facet of daily life. Among other things, the new laws prohibited marriage between blacks and whites, and they classified individuals into one of three racial categories. These categories of white, black (African), and colored (mixed heritage) stemmed from the 1950 Population Registration Act, aimed at solidifying job, housing, financial, and political restrictions. In 1951, these racial divisions were further codified by the Bantu Authorities Act, which established African "homelands" and assigned each African in South Africa to one of these homeland states. These homeland states acted with nominal independence within the larger nation of South Africa, but once a person resided within a homeland he or she lost citizenship rights within South Africa. Furthermore, all voting and political functions were connected to these homelands. Between 1976 and 1981, the ANP established four homeland states that denationalized nine million Africans. Yet, these restricted homeland zones within South Africa only showcase a small percentage of the civil rights that apartheid systematically violated.

ANP legislation was designed to repress blacks in South Africa, and these legal measures continued to strengthen racial divisions. In 1953, the Public Safety Act and the Criminal Law Amendment were passed. These pieces of legislation allowed the government to declare states of emergency (as it deemed fit), imposed increased penalties for protesting, and made it a crime to support the repeal of a law. In 1960, several blacks from Sharpeville tested these laws by refusing to carry their passes. A state of emergency was declared for 156 days; sixty-nine individuals died and 187 were wounded. The Sharpeville incident was not the only black resistance action or the only time that a state of emergency was declared in response to the apartheid policy. The South African government intermittently declared states of emergency until 1989. To make these acts of governmental repression more objectionable, individuals could be detained without hearings or trials for up to six months, and the condition of the detention centers was reported to be horrendous. Detainees who survived their experiences often reported the lack of food, water, clean areas for rest, and fresh air in jails and detention centers. They also testified that some detainees died from various forms of torture, and some detainees received life sentences for minimal crimes or actions of governmental dissent.

One of the most noted resisters against the apartheid system is Nelson Mandela. Mandela was born in July 1918 and was educated at the University College of Fort Hare. Throughout his college years, he participated in and led student organizations, and his rapid progression to national politics in the 1940s and 1950s stemmed from his collegiate activities. Mandela was an active member of the African National Congress, a group that denounced apartheid and promoted equality throughout Africa, and he eventually held key positions within the organization. As a result of his fight for racial equality, he faced several criminal trials, and, in 1952, he was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence and confined to Johannesburg for six months. He received a light sentence because he and his co-accused advocated nonviolent opposition to white rule. Mandela then joined the legal profession, and he continued his political work. His continual public addresses and advocacy for racial equality made him a target of governmental suppression throughout the 1950s. To avoid detection and imprisonment, he adopted many disguises and his followers named him the "Black Pimpernel" for his many successful and creative evasions of the police. After illegally leaving the country in 1961 to give several international addresses on the state of South African politics and social life, he returned to South Africa. He was arrested and received a five-year prison sentence for his political actions. While serving this sentence, he was charged with sabotage in the Rivonia Trial. Mandela was found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The plight of Mandela, and other South Africans, became a growing point of contention with world leaders. More importantly, spies within the country and South African defectors forced the world to hear about (and see) the crimes apartheid committed against individuals. In 1973, the United Nations brought apartheid to the forefront of the political arena again. Since arms and financial embargos do not convince the regime of the need to change, the UN created the International Convention on the Supression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.


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Apartheid officially ended in February 1990, when President F. W. de Klerk released Mandela from prison and began dismantling apartheid. Mandela left prison on February 11, 1990, and a temporary truce was called on fighting against apartheid. The ANC and other African groups agreed to the truce in a good faith effort toward the government. Since Mandela and other political prisoners had been released, they felt it appropriate to give the newly emerging democratic government time to reform political and social orders.

Governmental reforms took hold fairly quickly throughout South Africa. The nine million Africans who had been denationalized regained their South African citizenship. Housing zones (for blacks and whites) were abolished and job segregation slowly began to end. Non-whites no longer had to carry pass books, and publicly segregated areas like beaches became areas where everyone could gather. Finally, racial divisions and stereotypes began to ease within African society, and the initial days of protests by whites demanding a re-instatement of apartheid and by blacks demanding an end to the racial system subsided.

Key political leaders also saw the need to step down and let a new generation of leaders take control of the government, and, in 1999, Nelson Mandela retired from public life. His retirement, along with many of his allies, demonstrated faith in South Africa's new democratic leadership.



Clark, Nancy L., and William H. Worger. South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. New York: Longman, 2004.

Wilson, Richard A. The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.


Stultz, Newell M. "Evolution of the United Nations Apartheid Strategy." Human Rights Quarterly 13 (February 1991): 1-23.

Web sites

United Nations. "Human Rights: Historical Images of Apartheid in South Africa." 〈〉 (accessed May 1, 2006).

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International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid

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International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid