South Africa is preparing for local elections March 1, the fourth set of elections since the demise of the country’s notoriously racist system of apartheid a little over a decade ago.

From about 1948 to 1994, South Africa was home to one of the most oppressive governments in the world. The system of apartheid, which means “separation” or “apartness” in the language of the white Afrikaner settlers, was the law of the land.

Under apartheid, all people were classified by race, with the white minority at the top of the pyramid. Blacks were systematically denied a wide range of civil and human rights, including the right to vote or to hold office. Segregation was brutally enforced in schools, public transportation, trade unions and social relations.

Apartheid laws also affected economic life. Blacks were the lowest paid. Black residential areas were the poorest, and Black homes rarely had plumbing or electricity. Hospitals and ambulances were segregated. In the 1970s, each Black child’s education cost the state only one-tenth of each white child’s.

In 1949, the African National Congress was founded and launched a series of mass campaigns against apartheid. These included resistance in the form of strikes, acts of public disobedience and protest marches, often resulting in violent clashes with the police. An international solidarity movement, including a boycott of South African goods, helped weaken the racist system.

The struggles led by the ANC, in alliance with the South African Communist Party, mushroomed in the 1980s and resulted in the eventual dismantlement of the apartheid laws in the early 1990s. The struggles culminated in the freeing of Nelson Mandela, a top ANC leader, after nearly 30 years of imprisonment, and his election as president in 1994.

Since that time the ANC has won every major election, typically with 50 percent to 70 percent of the vote. ANC-led governments have paved roads and provided streetlights for streets that were never paved or lighted before. Water and electricity have become more accessible to the Black majority. More homes and recreational facilities have been built, and services such as waste removal have improved. New education and training opportunities have been developed.

But serious problems remain. Four million South Africans are still without employment. Those who do work are oppressed by management and sometimes physically brutalized. Millions continue to live in poverty. Five million South Africans are living with HIV and of that number 500,000 have AIDS.

In the current campaign, the ANC is pledging to speed up the delivery of clean water and sanitation services, expand the number of households that have electricity, improve the housing stock, build the economic infrastructure through public works and create more job opportunities. It is also placing emphasis on strengthening ward committees and other forms of local self-government.

The ANC has worked with its partners, the South African Communist Party, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Civics Organization (SANCO), at every level of planning for this election.

Following its 2005 guidelines, 50 percent of the ANC’s candidates are women. Its candidates have been asked to take an oath and sign the “Code of Conduct of ANC Councillors,” which states that they will (1) serve the community; (2) not seek material advantage or personal gain; (3) fight corruption; (4) listen to the community and hold report-back meetings at least four times a year; and (5) live in the community that has elected them.

The ANC’s opponents include the Democratic Alliance, which is linked to white elements in the capitalist class with links to the apartheid past, and the Inkatha Freedom Party, led by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The IFP, among other things, has been linked to death squads that persecuted the ANC during the apartheid era.

In a disturbing development, Nsizwazethu (Sethu) Thusi, the ANC’s candidate for Ward 6 of the Umshwathi Municipality, was recently assassinated in his home.

The SACP, in a statement, called on “workers and poor, on professionals and progressives, on teachers and students” to “come out in our millions on March 1st — to Vote ANC!” It called for “a strong, unified, developmental state; mobilized people’s power — where we live and where we work.”