top of page

Tracing History: March, Part 2

Natalie Petit

“History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view,

to be useful to the modern traveler.” – Henry Glassie, US Historian

Welcome to a new TalkDiplomacy series that aims to trace the roots of current events, issues,

triumphs and failures to important historical happenings. Twice a month, readers will receive a

snapshot of several influential events that occurred during the corresponding time period in

modern history, and an analysis of how these decisions, actions, and ideas have shaped the

course of events leading up to present day. A special emphasis is placed on events that

influenced current-day diplomacy all over the world.

11 minute read


March 17 th , 1992: Referendum ends apartheid in South Africa

March 19 th , 1911: The first International Women’s Day is observed

March 29 th , 1974: Chinese farmers discover the Terracotta Army

March 17 th , 1992

Referendum ends apartheid in South Africa

History Translated from the Afrikaans word for “apartness,” apartheid was the government-sanctioned racial segregation in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s. The Afrikaner Nationalist Party, comprised mostly of descendants of Dutch settlers, came into power with the aim of reinforcing social and economic control over the country. This manifested in race laws that institutionalized segregation and allowed the white minority population to govern and oppress the non-white majority.

Four racial categories were created: “native” or Black, “colored” or mixed race, “Asian” or of Indian descent, and “white.” All South Africans were mandated to carry racial identification cards at all times, intermarriage and friendships between whites and non-whites were prohibited, and every public space was delineated between the races. Countless Black families were forcibly removed from residential areas and relocated to “tribal homelands” according to their ethnicity. To reenter South Africa, passports were required; much of the native population had been denationalized. Apartheid regulations were “separate but equal” on paper, much like the Jim Crow segregation laws in the southern United States, but in reality, this was far from true.

By the mid-1980s, domestic and international pressure began to weaken the National Party’s stance. Protests and political mobilization over the last decade had been met with government violence and thousands of people were killed and arrested, which attracted outside attention. Nelson Mandela is perhaps the most well-known anti-apartheid activist. He challenged the non-violent view of the African National Congress (ANC) after the organization was banned by the government in 1960. His reputation grew and he became a symbol of resistance after he was imprisoned for life for plotting to overthrow the government, and repeatedly refused to concede his political position to secure his release.

At this time, the country risked being shunned by the international community and faced a potential civil war within its borders. The tides turned when Frederick Willem de Klerk became president in 1989. He released Mandela from prison and began public negotiations with him and the ANC to rewrite the constitution, free of apartheid-era discrimination. On March 17, 1992, the results of a whites-only referendum, which asked whether voters did or

did not support the negotiations about dismantling apartheid, were announced. Nearly 70% of

voters chose “Yes” – there was majority support for continuing talks on constitutional reform.

President de Klerk (who won the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela) commented that the referendum “closed the book on apartheid.” South Africa was on its way to democratic rule.

Present Recently, political scandals have rocked the South African government. Cyril

Ramaphosa, who became president in 2018 and was known prior as an activist against

apartheid alongside Mandela, was accused of corruption and covering up the real reason nearly half a million dollars was found stuffed inside a sofa in a farmhouse he owns. His party, the reinstated and reshaped ANC, is divided over the next steps to take – force Ramaphosa to step down, impeach him, or believe him. Regardless, the incident has destabilized the country’s national politics.

In international politics, South Africa continues friendly relations with Russia amidst the war in Ukraine, including hosting military exercises with China and Russia just this month. Why does South Africa have such ties with Russia? Unfortunately, during the anti-apartheid era and Cold War period, the United States designated the ANC and its supporters, including Mandela, “terrorists” for their actions against the state. Historical hostility does not “get erased overnight,” as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, but rather remains under the surface and manifests in times like this. Blinken voiced hopefulness, though, that South Africa was “on a trajectory” away from Russia and its allies (Soy, 2023).

Sources, and to learn more about…

The 1992 referendum, visit

Frederick Willem de Klerk, start by visiting

Current events in South Africa, start by visiting

Cyril Ramaphosa scandal, read this BBC article

South Africa and Russia ties, read Anne Soy’s BBC article,


March 19 th , 1911

The first International Women’s Day is observed

History While you may recognize March 8 as International Women’s Day (IWD), March 19

was originally honored by women worldwide as a common day to voice concerns and demands, push for progressive legislation, and celebrate achievements. The occasion was initially observed in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Denmark in 1911. It was the first time a

communal women’s day was recognized transnationally, and a triumph for women’s rights

visibility around the world.

During the early 1900s, discontent with regressive social norms, unfair regulations, and

oppression was simmering amongst women in several countries, particularly the United States

and Western European nations. Campaigns, rallies, and marches became more frequent as

women banded together to protest against gender inequalities, such as pay disparities,

atrocious working hours and conditions (have you heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire?), prohibition of political participation, and generally old-fashioned attitudes toward women. During the second International Conference of Working Women, held in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1910, the idea of a day of unity for women all over the world was proposed and accepted without hesitation. The first IWD occurred the following spring and saw over one million Europeans participating in rallies for women’s rights.

Present In 1975, the United Nations recognized IWD for the first time and also authorized a “United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace” to be observed annually by member states. However, by the turn of the century, the fervor surrounding women’s issues had faded into the background in many countries.

Former Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström created the concept of feminist diplomacy in 2014. Also referred to as feminist foreign policy, it is a branch of foreign outreach aimed at addressing gender inequality worldwide through public policies and grants. Reducing sexual and domestic violence, aiding economic independence of women, and lessening education disparities are the top priorities. Additionally, increasing the number of women in leadership, political decision-making, and peace negotiations remains at the top of the agenda for many nations, particularly emergent economies. Earlier this month, Germany announced new feminism-focused guidelines that will shape its diplomacy, including a new position of “ambassador for feminist foreign policy.” Canada, Mexico, France, and Spain have also adopted similar aims and policies, suggesting a renewed interest in such issues (Reuters, 2023).

The benefits of these efforts are not limited to women and girls but reach entire populations. Forexample, during a 2022 IWD event, UN Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized that feminist diplomacy helps to build and maintain stronger democracies. How can increasing gender equality lead to more stable governance? United Nations data suggests that when women participate in peace talks, the resulting agreements are 35% more likely to last 15 years than without female involvement (UNRIC, 2022). Well-known activists like Malala Yousafzai have inspired countless people to speak up for gender equality and take notice of the atrocities many women face, but the work is far from over. Ideally, feminist foreign policy will become normalized to the point that it no longer needs a specific label. Rather, it would simply be the standard for foreign policy in the future.

Sources, and to learn more about…

The history of IWD, visit

Current initiatives and events that are part of IWD, visit

United Nations feminist diplomacy, visit

Germany’s feminist foreign policy, read Laura Alviz and Sarah Marsh’s article for Reuters,


Current-day gender equality activists around the world, begin by reading Salva Mubarak’s 2021 article for Vogue,


March 29 th , 1974

Chinese farmers discover the Terracotta Army

History In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huangdi declared himself the first emperor of China. As a young ruler, he conquered surrounding kingdoms until he reached the edges of what was then considered the civilized world, and unified it under his control. Though the Qin dynasty is

believed to have lasted for only four years after his death, the first emperor constructed an

unprecedented network of roads, standardized currency, ordered the reinforcement of the

northern border which later became the foundation of the Great Wall, and commissioned the

creation of one of modern-day China’s most alluring tourist sights.

More than two thousand years later, the first of thousands of life-size clay figures surrounding Emperor Qin’s tomb, buried in deep pits and underground cavern networks, was discovered unwittingly by farmers digging a well near the city of Xi’an in northwest China. Known today as the Terracotta Army, it not only includes battalions of lifelike soldiers guarding the emperor as they did while he was living, but also government officials, acrobats, musicians, horses, chariots, and even ducks, all crafted with stunning individuality. The head of the excavation team, Duan Qingbo, as quoted in a 2009 article by Smithsonian Magazine, said that the underground realm mimicked the true organization of the dynasty. Hiromi Kinoshita, an exhibit curator, mentioned that the unique features of each clay person represented the various types of people who lived in different regions of the empire. Studying the Terracotta Army has opened a treasure trove of historical information for archaeologists, including debunking widely-taught myths about the emperor and his successors and providing information about early Chinese peoples. Around 2,000 of an estimated 7,000 existing ceramic figures have been unearthed, and most are preserved at a museum not far from their original location.

Present The Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism deploys a national Tourist Attraction Rating system to guide tourists toward the best-rated attractions (for cleanliness, safety, ease of access, number of visitors, etc.). The Terracotta Army, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is given the highest rating alongside the Great Wall and Forbidden City. It has welcomed more than 100,000 visitors since it opened in 1979 and in 2018 it was dubbed "the most influential intellectual tourist attraction” in China (The Nation Thailand, 2019).

The tourism sector can play a critical role in a country's public diplomacy, though it is often overlooked or downplayed as reaping solely economic benefits. The University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy describes this category as the interactive dimension of diplomacy involving many different outlets and actors. Through this, many nations foster relationships that do not come only from the top levels of government, but also from the ordinary interactions that build trust and respect between citizens of different places, sharing cultures, traditions, and knowledge. This definition is certainly vague, but the malleability adds to its usefulness. Without pinning public diplomacy to a certain area or activity, global citizens are free to practice public diplomacy anytime, anywhere. Be a public diplomat on your next vacation – a respectful representative of your home country and an active consumer of knowledge about the culture you are visiting.

Sources, and to learn more about…

The history and discovery of the Terracotta Army, visit


Terracotta Army tourism, visit

UNESCO World Heritage Sites, visit

Public diplomacy, begin by visiting



bottom of page