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Apartheid in South Africa


While Black South Africans fought for their basic rights, British and Boer South Africans continued fighting each other for control of the country and its people. Political parties such as the National Party and secret fraternities such as the Afrikaner Broederbond (AB) worked to implement and uphold apartheid. The system affected all areas of society by stripping the majority of the population of its civic and civil rights to ensure a variety of advantages for a minority of the population.


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The National Party (NP)

Following the end of the South African War, people from rural areas began streaming into urban areas. With the start of World War I, South Africa was drawn into the fight between Britain and Germany with its troops called upon to occupy the German colony of what is now Namibia. The orders were met with resistance from soldiers, poor Boer farmers, and former Boer generals. Several hundred people died when the revolt was put down by government troops. The combination of economic strife, ongoing wars, the pressure to assimilate, and other changes in society increased Boer nationalism.

While Black South Africans fought for their basic rights, British and Boer South Africans continued fighting each other for control of the country and its people. In 1914, J.B.M. Hertzog founded the National Party with the intent of pushing back against British influence on South Africa’s politics, economy, and culture. The party lured some Boers from the more general political parties by attracting those who had a desire to remain independent of the British. The Afrikaner Broederbond (AB), founded in 1918, was a secret fraternity that was created to unify and serve the interests of the Boers.

Over the next decade, Hertzog’s party would continue to grow in power with each election cycle. Its early major wins in the 1920s were achieved in part by promising voters separate school systems for White students, one which used Afrikaans and the other English. When Hertzog was elected prime minister in 1924, it signaled the start of an era that would see South Africa become increasingly independent of Britain.

The Balfour Report, which Hertzog played a role in developing, would redefine the rights and liberties of nations within the British Empire. Insights and recommendations from the report formed the laws that became the 1931 Statue of Westminster which defined the British Commonwealth. These changes saw South Africa become a peer rather than a subordinate of Great Britain. South Africa now had complete control over its foreign and domestic interests and could not be compelled to adopt any British laws that it did not want or to which it did not agree.

As the perceived threat of British domination became less of a concern, the Boers focused their attention on solidifying their control over South Africa. New legislation was introduced which was built on previous laws that restricted Black voting, property, and legal rights. 1913’s Land Act relegated Black people who comprised the majority of the population to reserves which amounted to less than 10% of the country’s land. A decade later, Black people were prevented from moving into cities as a result of residential areas becoming legally segregated.

In 1929 and 1930, voting rights were expanded for the White population but was not extended for the rest of the population. In actuality, the number of eligible Black voters had been systematically reduced over decades by changes to the terms of Black voter eligibility. New laws restricted Black voter rights in the Cape by moving their registration from the general voter roll to a separate roll. As a result, the relatively few Black people who were eligible to vote were limited to only voting for a handful of White representatives for select offices.

Apartheid Law

Technically, apartheid began in 1948 but it had been in existence since about two decades earlier. The 1930s saw a lot of political movement with splits and alliances taking place between leaders of the major political parties. They might have differed on the details but agreed on the primary interest of all being providing support for White citizens while holding Black South Africans in check. The National Party remained in existence but when Hertzog departed for the newly formed United Party it lost some power.

The South African government made large investments into the economy and society. This included tariffs and subsidies which gave local businesses a competitive advantage. Poverty was still an issue within the White population but state-run industries and a minimum wage meant they had some options for decent stable jobs. These improvements did not lead to equitable progress for Black people. Instead, their rights were increasingly curtailed as segregation became more entrenched in society.

South Africa’s rich mineral deposits enabled it to export natural resources such as gold and diamonds. Long-existing industries flourished while new industries emerged which helped the country as it modernized and developed a greater focus on trade and commerce. These rising tides did not raise all boats as Black miners received a fraction of the salary of their White counterparts.

Once again, war led to upheaval in South Africa though it was political rather than violent this time. The leaders of the United Party split over the decision to remain neutral or join the Allies in World War II. It was decided that South Africa would join the war which led to opponents joining the National Party. South African mines and manufacturing contributed to the war effort which allowed those industries to grow with little external competition. The demand for resources and booming industries created jobs that attracted Black people to cities.

Black people were not exactly welcomed into towns so they created shanty camps on the outskirts and quickly grew to outnumber White city dwellers. Unfair wages and living conditions inspired political activism. The resulting protests and strikes were not completely successful but brought about some minor changes. Yet even this was deemed too much which led to some Boers regarding the United Party as being too accomodating of Black people.

The National Party took advantage of this in the 1948 election and Daniel F. Malan, the party’s leader, promoted a pro-White platform. Its campaigns promised to uphold white supremacy through “apartheid”, the Afrikaans word for “apartness”. The election was won by a small margin but those margins increased with each election cycle.

The Broederbond had been and would remain active for several decades with members limited to those who were White, Protestant, and male. It’s membership mostly consisted of government officials and other individuals in high ranking positions who were dedicated to upholding a White supremacy agenda. While many of the early Boers were primarily Dutch, the group also included people who were of German and French Huguenot descent.

Apartheid in Practice

New laws were introduced to further divide South Africans by categorizing the population into race-based groups of Bantu (Black), White, Asian (Indian or Pakistani), and Coloured (mixed race). Individuals were registered and required to carry passes which contained information about their identity, race classification, current employer, police record, etc. The group to which they were assigned would dictate where they could go, how they should be treated, what resources they could use, what types of jobs they could have, etc.

The official implementation of apartheid created a hierarchy with Black people at the bottom, White people at the top, and Coloured and Asians in the middle. But the race classifications were decided by local officials and based on their opinions. Some people have features that easily align with stereotypical race-based traits while others are more ambiguous. To classify these unclear cases officials used ridiculous tests that weren’t based on any kind of science. They might test hair texture, examine the color of genitals, require paternity tests, etc.

People could also petition to have their classification changed and a person’s classification could be challenged by others. This meant that a person could be reclassified multiple times in their lifetime. And each move into or out of a group would affect where they could live, if they could continue to live with their family, where they could go to school, where they could work, etc. Having your classification challenged could mean possibly losing everything.

Also, when sex and marriage between Whites and non-Whites were outlawed, it was not implemented as a rule going forward. It was a rule that applied to present and pre-existing interracial relationships. And because race classifications were applied to the individual, a parent’s race did not necessarily extend to their children. For example, in a situation where there was a White father, Black mother, and thus Coloured children the family could be legally required to separate with one of the parents being forced to leave the household.

Theoretically, apartheid was to function as a system where its people were separate but equal. In practice, this was not the case. Racial groups were not allowed to live in proximity to each other or have interactions. The government did not provide them with the same resources and actively blocked non-White efforts to make progress. Some Black people who lived in areas that had been set aside for White people were removed and relocated to reserves. In effect, this meant that Black people were forced out of cities into ramshackle townships on the outskirts that were overcrowded and where they could not own property.

Initially, only Black men over the age of 16 were required to carry passbooks but eventually, women were required to carry passbooks as well. To remain valid, amongst other items, a passbook needed to have the signature of the bearer’s current employer. Combined with laws that prohibited Black people from striking, this essentially guaranteed a steady supply of Black labor. As it meant that to avoid arrest Black people would have to maintain employment regardless of the work conditions.

Passes also dictated where Black people could go as they were required to live on the city outskirts or the more distant homelands. Moving about within White cities would be difficult if a passbook did not list the individuals as being employed in the area. Checkpoints and roadblocks were set up to ensure that Black people who worked in the city did not also live there or attempt to remain overnight. This effectively turned cities into state-sanctioned sundown towns.

Many Black women did not have employment options that would provide the necessary validation that would allow them to maintain their passbooks. The police would often raid the Black townships and being found without a pass could result in arrest and/or fines. So even if a husband was able to find work in the city and live on the outskirts he might still have to live separately from his wife and children. Most often, women and children remained on the reserves surviving as best as they could and only saw their husbands and fathers when circumstances allowed.

Apartheid didn’t just separate South Africa by race. Before the arrival of colonists, the indigenous people who inhabited South Africa were not the monolith, “Black.” They consisted of various tribes that were spread out across the land. The group that was referred to as Bantu (Black) accounted for the majority of South Africa’s population. To guard against a potentially overwhelming uprising, the government retribalized Black South Africans. They were divided by tribe and pushed on to specific reserves in often remote areas which would come to be known as “Bantu Homelands” or “Bantustans.” The land which they formerly inhabited was sold at a discount to White farmers. These sales generated no revenue for the former Black owners and having lost their land which was often their livelihood, they were left poverty-stricken.

With both direct and indirect assistance from the government in the form of competitive restrictions on other racial groups, most White South Africans were fairly comfortable. Relegated to less desirable jobs, land, schools, etc. Black South Africans and other groups faced great difficulties just trying to survive. As was to be expected, they had been fighting back and would continue to resist.

Fighting Back Against Apartheid

Several groups and organizations had formed over the years in opposition to laws and initiatives that were intended to relegate Black South Africans to the lowest rungs of society. One of the most prominent and enduring was the African National Congress (ANC) which was originally comprised of educated Black people. With its relatively elitist beginnings, the group began by lobbying those in power going so far as to send a delegation to London which proved unsuccessful.

Back at home, the ANC continued its work to improve conditions for Black people in South Africa. During the 1940s a group of young activists would emerge within the group and go on to become prominent figures in the fight against apartheid. Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and others would play key roles in the ANC. In response to the legalization of apartheid in 1948, the ANC would launch the Programme of Action one year later.

The ANC planned to fight back against apartheid through peaceful protests, demonstrations, marches, strikes, and other forms of civil disobedience. They upped the ante with their Defiance Campaign a few years later, where participants broke apartheid laws intending to be arrested and overwhelming the prison and judicial system. Over the years thousands of protesters would be arrested and prominent ANC members would be harassed and put on trial repeatedly. The group would come to represent and work towards a South Africa that provided all citizens equal rights regardless of race and an equal share of the country’s resources and wealth.

History often focuses on the achievements and contributions of men. And the story of the fight against apartheid in South Africa is sometimes told through this lens. But, the reality was that many women were a part of the anti-apartheid movement. Of course, there were women such as Winnie Mandela and Albertina Sisulu who were the well-known wives of ANC leaders and activists in their own rights. But there were also women such as Miriam Makeba, Charlotte Maxeke, Josephine ‘Josie’ Palmer (Mpama), and Madie Hall Xuma.

Sharpeville Massacre (1960)

By the late 1950s, some members of the ANC felt that the organization’s efforts were not producing enough results. A key point of disagreement was that the ANC collaborated and allied itself with other groups that represented the interests of White, Coloured, and Indian South Africans. Robert Sobukwe and a group of other members broke away to establish a new more militant organization, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).

PAC would be an all-Black African organization working towards the goal of Black self-rule and the return of land to Black Africans rather than a multi-racial South Africa. It would ally itself with other like-minded groups across the continent. The group also established, “Poqo”, a military unit that if felt would be more effective against apartheid than non-violent means.

The year after its founding, PAC announced its plans for a demonstration on March 21, 1960, in Sharpeville, a township in Transvaal. It was intended to be a peaceful demonstration where protesters would present themselves at the local police station for arrest in violation of the pass laws.

On the agreed-upon day, several thousand unarmed protesters arrived at the station without their passes. It was fully expected for at least some people to be arrested. But instead, the police opened fire on the crowd, killing at least 67 Black people and wounding more than 180. Most of those who were struck by bullets had been shot in the back which indicated that they were in the process of running away.

The event would come to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre. A day of mourning was observed on March 28, 1960, where several hundred thousand Black South Africans stayed home from work in protest. Large-scale marches were held in major cities and there was an open rebellion in rural areas across the country. In response, the government utilized emergency powers to mobilize the army, arrest 11,000 people, and ban both the ANC and PAC. The Sharpeville Massacre and government response would lead the ANC to also believe that nonviolent protests were not enough and they too would form a military branch, Spear of the Nation.

While the ANC and PAC bombed government buildings, they were unable to obtain the quantity or types of weapons needed to be a credible threat to the South African government. Yet, by the mid-1960s most of the organizations’ leaders had been tried, convicted, and sentenced to long prison terms on Robben Island. Some had managed to escape to other countries where they worked to bring international attention to apartheid or simply created new lives for themselves.

Soweto Student Uprising (1976)

In the late 1960s, new student-led organizations emerged in the fight against apartheid. Steve Biko and others helped to introduce an ideology where Black people would take pride in their culture. The Black Consciousness (BC) Movement as it was sometimes called worked with the South African Students Movement (SASM) which was focused on bringing attention to student issues.

Inequality had been one of the building blocks of apartheid with the government building more schools for and spending more money on White students compared to Black students. Lacking sufficient funding due to an economic depression, the Bantu school system removed a grade from primary schools in 1975. This resulted in a large number of students being eligible for the upper schools but without enough schools to accommodate them. The school system then decided to add insult to injury by introducing a plan that would require classes for Black students to be taught in Afrikaans.

School children in Soweto, a Black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg held a protest against having to learn in Afrikaans on June 16, 1976. The police responded with teargas and live bullets. Protests erupted across the country to which the government responded with violent repression. Over the next year, Biko and an estimated 500 to 600 people were killed by the police.

The End of Apartheid

South Africa had left the British Commonwealth and declared itself a republic in 1961 after being criticized by other members for its apartheid policies. During the turmoil of the 1960s, some companies and entities temporarily divested from South Africa though some eventually returned. But the country’s continued repression and violent responses to nonviolent protests drew increasing attention and condemnation from around the world.

While the Soweto Uprising did not have an immediate direct impact on apartheid, it garnered international attention. Three years earlier, the UN General Assembly had denounced apartheid and placed an embargo on the sale of arms to South Africa in 1976. The National Party had been in power for decades at this point with several old-guard leaders moving in and out of offices while the overall structure remained the same.

Some reforms were implemented and laws were repealed but there was little in the way of substantial change. Instead of appealing apartheid, Pieter W. Botha, the prime minister at the time built up the military and extended the requirement for reserve duty. This was intended to be a show of force that would hold internal and neighboring dissent at bay. The country became involved in nearby wars, entered neighboring countries in search of ANC satellites, produced nuclear weapons, etc.

In the 1980s, America and Great Britain were pressured to take diplomatic and economic action against South Africa. Attempts to negotiate fell apart and Congress eventually intervened to ban trade with and investments in South Africa. Entertainers, companies, and countries were increasingly called on to condemn apartheid and not visit or do business with South Africa. The country was isolated on an international level and a period of recession and high inflation hurt its internal economy.

The internal fight had also continued throughout the 1980s with the government attempting to turn non-Whites against each other by making concessions for some while ignoring the concerns of others. Facing mounting pressure from all sides, the government called a state of emergency in the middle of the decade and implemented a plan to eradicate any anti-apartheid activism. Law enforcement and the military were sent to patrol townships where they would arrest and murder Black people at will all while there was a ban on media coverage.

Yet, the resistance continued.

With mounting economic losses, it became obvious that apartheid was no longer sustainable. When talks began with the still imprisoned Nelson Mandela, Botha continued to hold out. His refusal to grant Black South Africans voting rights and participation in the civic system led to him being replaced by F.W. de Klerk. By the end of the decade, South Africa would begin the process of repealing apartheid.


Nelson Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990, and many of the other political prisoners had been released or would be released shortly after. Mandela, de Klerk, and other political leaders spent the next four years creating a new constitution. The two reached an agreement at the end of 1993 for which they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

South Africa had its first democratic election in 1994 which saw the ANC win the majority of the vote with Mandela becoming president. Labor disputes, violent clashes between groups, a weak economy, and a large portion of the population in dire need of basic rights and resources meant there would be a lot to address.

Despite the official end of apartheid, the system which had existed for decades would have lasting repercussions for South Africa. While a lot of attention has been paid to the legal repeal of apartheid the same can not be said for righting the economic wrongs that had been systematically committed against Black people.

The White minority which at the time constituted about 10% of the population still controlled almost 90% of the country’s land at the end of apartheid. Plans to redistribute land have not been implemented, with deadlines being missed and postponed. Decades of inequality have led to deeply rooted wealth disparities that still exist to this day. In recent years, South Africa has suffered from corruption in the form of state-owned assets being used to generate revenue for private entities and individuals while unemployment remains high. And many Black people still live in the underserved townships that the end of apartheid was supposed to help them escape.

The more things change…


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