The South African Apartheid: The Effects upon the Next Generation

Written by Lucy Stewart

The South African apartheid ended in the early 1990s. It was a system of laws that held segregationist policies where non-white South Africans were pushed to live in the suburbs. Since it has been faded out, South Africa has become known as one of the most psychologically ill countries in the world. Consequently, the effect that the segregation laws have had upon the new generations are significant.  

There is an immense difference between the mental health issues of White and Black children; mostly due to the economic disparity. The Dohrenwends found that the highest rates of mental illness are among those who are at the lowest end of the social ladder. This clearly suggests that not having the ability to provide basic health needs and space has a direct and dramatic impact. Furthermore however, it was also found that the average Black child operates in a personal space that is not much larger than a double bed, with an average of around sixteen people also living in the same dwelling.  White children, while they are still affected by the country’s ‘pathology’, are far better off than Black children. They are known to be able to afford extensive holidays and luxuries and can receive significant mental health support both within and outside their schools. The main reason for these disparities in income and health status is ultimately the grand apartheid, where the separation of non-white Africans from the rest of the population ensured that they were effectively disenfranchised from society.  

The ‘birth to twenty’ study has given important insight into the biological effects that the stress of apartheid had upon children who were in utero at that time. It was discovered that the adverse psychiatric effects of prenatal anxiety were stronger in children with younger mothers. This is perhaps due to a younger mother being less equipped to not only deal with the stress of the apartheid but also the concerns over becoming a mother for the first time. Therefore, these children who were exposed to prenatal stress in utero were more likely to have flattened diurnal cortisol slopes which increased their likelihood to develop depression (specifically more common among females). Therefore, not only is there a social and economic effect that the next generation has to live, with but also a biological one. This reiterates just how devastating the apartheid legislation was to South Africa.  

The apartheid catalysed a cycle of poverty for the non-white Africans. Specifically, lack of education results in poorly paid jobs and consequently the inequality gap can be extremely difficult to close. In 1985 there were only forty-six special schools for Black Africans, where only 3,180 pupils were enrolled, whereas there were 32,297 White African children enrolled. Furthermore, around 30 percent of Black children failed their first year and around 50 percent left illiterate. Consequently, this not only limits the opportunities that are available in their future, but it also reiterates the ultimately devastating impacts that apartheid has had for consequent generations. As the Carnegie Report states, ‘nowhere else in the world is the gap between the affluent and the poverty stricken as glaring’ as in South Africa.  

While the actual apartheid laws have been demolished, there is still a considerable lack of understanding about the realities of the country, specifically amongst White children. There was very selective reporting in the news as they have ‘drawn a veil’ over the issues previously discussed. This therefore simply perpetuates the deeply problematic ideals from apartheid, thus the result of this kind of education is an aggressive xenophobia. It is clear that apartheid has created a deeply divided country where racial affiliation becomes a source of shame rather than pride. 

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in 2005 stated that ‘racism and intolerance by and large remain an inedible feature of South African social landscape’. The segregation laws of apartheid created significantly negative ideals surrounding race association for most Black South African children and as a result, the country remains heavily divided. Carter reminds us that racism can be a source of ‘intergenerational stress, trauma and emotional injury’, all of which are directly relative to the effects of apartheid upon South African society.  

Furthermore, White people’s influence upon racist attitudes in South Africa simply perpetuates the segregation. A participant in research done by Adonis stated that ‘White people refuse to change their racist beliefs and practices, and even pass these on to their children’. Therefore, this refusal to change such problematic views keeps the country stuck in a cycle of tenuous partition. It is not only clear how apartheid has such long lasting effects upon the country, but it is also difficult to see how these effects will lessen unless racist attitudes change.  

It is widely accepted that the significant inequality in South Africa stems from these historical injustices like colonialism and apartheid. Thus, according to Holborn and Eddy the legacy of apartheid is adding to the financial status and wellbeing of the current generation of Black people. Therefore, the same fate is expected to befall the next few generations.  

It is ultimately not until the inherently racist views of some South African people change that we will be able to see a difference in the social, political and economic inequality that was a direct result of apartheid.   


Joyce Hickson and Susan Kriegler, Childshock: The effects of the apartheid on the mental health of South Africa’s children – (International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 1991). 

Andrew Wooyoung Kim, Rihlat Said Mohamed, Shane A Norris, Linda M Richter, Christopher W Kuzawa, Psychological legacies of intergenerational trauma under South African apartheid: prenatal stress predicts greater vulnerability to the psychological impact of future stress exposure during late adolescence and early adulthood in Soweto South Africa (Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, July 2022). 

John Dommisse, Apartheid as a public mental health issue, (International Journal of Health Services, 1985). 

Cyril K Adonis, Generational victimhood in post-apartheid South Africa: perspectives of descendants of victims of apartheid era gross human rights violations (International Review of Victimology, October 2017). 

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