How Apartheid Worked

The Rise of Apartheid

Moving into the 1900s, southern Africa was a British colony governed by Dutch settlers who were not the same people who'd arrived in 1652. Over the course of a century, they'd adopted a new identity: They were Afrikaners, spoke a hybrid language called Afrikaans, and felt it their right to manage the non-white underclass the way they saw fit [source: Williamson]. The birth of Afrikaner nationalism was a critical element in the rise of Apartheid [source: MSU].

Seeking a more official, independent form of control, in 1908, the Afrikaner government sent a constitution overseas. In 1910, the British approved it and responded with the South Africa Act. This was a turning point.

The South Africa Act unified the various regions of the British colony into a single South Africa presided over by a now-centralized Afrikaner government. A core founding principle of the new South Africa was dominion of whites over non-whites. Notably, black and other non-white Africans were banned from holding political office. A delegation of black Africans travelled to Britain in protest, where they were ignored [source: UN].

Under its new governing rights, the first government of the unified South Africa allotted about 93 percent of the nation's land whites, who made up 20 percent of the population [source: UN].

Enacted under the leadership of Gen. Louis Botha, South Africa's first prime minister, the Native Lands Act of 1913 was the beginning of the end of any semblance of social, political and economic independence for non-whites. The 80-percent majority would now be living on about 7 percent of the nation's least-desirable land, where drastically insufficient housing and resources led to the quick spread of disease and famine [sources: UN, MSU]. Under the same law, non-whites were prohibited from buying land outside their allotted territories and from entering white territories unless in the service of white employers [source: MSU].

Between 1910 and 1948, often referred to as the "segregation period," the Afrikaner prime ministers Botha, Smuts and Hertzog passed an onslaught of policies to further subjugate, restrict and generally remove non-whites from any meaningful participation in South African society, economy and politics. Black access to education was dramatically limited; blacks were fired from jobs in favor of whites; and the few apprenticed craftsmen left in the black population were prevented from working in their fields of training [source: MSU].

In the 1920s, non-whites lost the right to unionize. In the 1930s, they lost the right to vote [source: CBSNews].

By 1934, when an all-white government declared and achieved South Africa's independence from British rule, the Afrikaner Nationalist movement had evolved into an organized, increasingly extreme political party [source: Britannica]. It was this version of the movement that ran on a platform of racial apartheid and white supremacy in the 1948 elections, winning control of the government.