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South Africa holds first multiracial election

This Day in World History

April 26, 1994

South Africa holds first multiracial election

April 26, 1994 marked the beginning of the end of a period of monumental change in South Africa. On that day, for the first time in the nation’s history, more than 17 million black South Africans began casting their votes for government officials. When the election ended four days later, the vote made Nelson Mandela South Africa’s first black president.

For decades, the white minority had ruled South Africa. Since the 1940s, those whites had consolidated their power by creating a system of strict racial segregation called apartheid. Later developments that forced black South Africans to live only in certain parts of cities or in rural regions called “homelands” reinforced that system.

As a result of these policies and others — favoring whites and putting black South Africans at a disadvantage — the two groups were sharply different in socioeconomic status. Denied voting rights, black South Africans could do nothing to change the laws within the system.

Equal rights activists — among them Mandela — tried various forms of protest to push the government to change. Nations around the world joined in the effort, imposing sanctions on certain economic transactions with South Africa and banning South African cultural figures and athletes from international events.

Not until 1990 though, did this pressure have an effect. Then, South African President F. W. de Klerk began dismantling the laws that supported apartheid. He also negotiated with Mandela — who had been in prison for decades — to arrange his release from prison and cooperation with the creation of a temporary government to lead the country for five years while a new multiracial constitution was written.

Prior to the historic election, some analysts feared that violence would mar the voting process. Nothing of the kind took place. Instead, millions of South Africans went to the polls, some standing in lines that stretched a mile or more, thrilled to take part in an historic vote.

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