The 100th anniversary of the Union of South Africa comes around on May 31. It is one of two of the country's almost unmentionable milestone birthdays. The other is the 50th anniversary of the Republic of South Africa on 31 May 2011. Both symbolize the extreme policies of racial segregation involving political, legal, and economic discrimination against nonwhites that became known as apartheid. They represent a then-and-now way to measure progress in post-apartheid South Africa.
Before 1910 "South Africa" was a geographical term for the southern end of the African continent. Apart from the native population, it was inhabited by Britons and Boers, the Dutch settlers who were later referred to as Afrikaners. The discovery of diamonds and gold spurred wealth and immigration and intensified the subjugation of the native inhabitants. Though the Boer War of 1899-1902, described as a guerrilla conflict between British mounted troops and Boer irregulars, gave the British control of the area, the British and the Afrikaners ruled together after Union. It became a sovereign state within the British Empire in 1934. On 31 May 1961, after a whites-only referendum, it became a republic and left the British Commonwealth of Nations. South Africa's first democratic election was held on 26-28 Apr 1994, with victory going to the African National Congress in an alliance with the Communist Party and the country's preeminent labor union, Cosatu. Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president on May 10, with FW de Klerk and the ANC's Thabo Mbeki as deputy presidents. Mandela's government negotiated a new constitution, started restructuring the civil service and took other measures to address the results of apartheid. It also set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate wrongs of the apartheid era. The then-and-now yardstick shows a country elbowing its way through massive obstacles towards the creation of a single diverse nation with common purpose. The journey is incomplete: the dissolution of apartheid has not solved problems of poverty of the non-white population. (Written Mar/10)
Date written/update: 2010-05-31