How Apartheid Worked

As Apartheid disenfranchised the non-white population of South Africa, squatter camps like this one sprang up in Soweto.
As Apartheid disenfranchised the non-white population of South Africa, squatter camps like this one sprang up in Soweto.
Paula Bronstein/Liaison/Getty Images

In the aftermath of World War II, as much of the developed world was embarking on an era of increasing liberalism, South Africa was in the process of turning its policies of racial segregation into a more rigid system of oppression called Apartheid [source: MSU].

It means "apartness" in Afrikaans, the Dutch-derived hybrid language that developed in the course of European conquest in southern Africa. Apartheid was an era of extreme, legalized racism that systematically subjugated the region's black majority to white rule. Under this system, black Africans -- along with the smaller populations of Indians and people of mixed-race -- were fired from their jobs, forced onto reservations, removed from the political process, stripped of their citizenship, denied freedom of movement and speech and education and routinely humiliated by white "masters."



The Apartheid era officially began in 1948, but it was the culmination of centuries of racial discrimination. How Apartheid came about, and how it managed to survive into the 1990s, despite both internal and external pressure, hinges on a complex set of social, political and economic circumstances, but at least one aspect of the path to white dominion in South Africa is clear: It begins in 1652,the year the Dutch East India Company arrived to set up a rest station along the route from Europe to India [source: MSU].

The destruction of entire indigenous societies starts there, near the Cape of Good Hope.

This Cape Town gold and diamond mine, pictured in 1867, would have featured brutal conditions and low pay.
This Cape Town gold and diamond mine, pictured in 1867, would have featured brutal conditions and low pay.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When the Dutch set up camp in southern Africa in the 17th century, it was not to colonize [source: MSU]. The Dutch East India Company, rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, came ashore to build a supply station for its trade ships along the spice route.

Regardless of initial intentions, Dutch settlement in southern Africa rather quickly proved disastrous for the native population. Europeans (including the French and the British, who quickly followed the Dutch, but in smaller numbers) brought with them the ideology of white supremacy that was common at the time. The Dutch settlers, for their part, also brought slaves, introducing to southern Africa the concept of white domination over people of "color" [source: MSU].



At the time of the Dutch arrival, the nation of South Africa didn't exist. The region was comprised of loosely connected chiefdoms, separate societies based on farming and ranching or hunter-gathering, inhabited primarily by black Africans [source: MSU]. Oppression of the native people began within years of the Dutch arrival: When negotiating for land and goods proved difficult, Dutch raiders entered native territories on horseback, answered resistance with gunfire, and ran the indigenous peoples off their land -- people who eventually had no choice but to become servants of the Dutch, working the land that was taken from them by force [source: UN].

This is the general process that led, over the course of about a century, to widespread white domination in southern Africa as Dutch colonists moved further and further inland. They were the primary colonizing force until about mid-1700s, when British activity in the region picked up. By the end of that century, when Britain laid claim to the colony, the region was inhabited primarily by a marginalized African majority and a ruling class of slave-holding whites.

A long struggle unfolded between the Dutch and the British, with Britain ultimately gaining control in the early 19th century. Southern Africa was now a British colony, and slavery was quickly outlawed -- at which point Dutch master-slave relations were replaced with master-servant laws that put white supremacy in the region "on the books" [sources: MSU, SADE].

Meanwhile, British rule was not well-received by the large Dutch population, who defiantly continued pushing further into the interior, conquering more territory, and destroying more tribes. What's more, the discovery of diamonds and gold in the 1860s led to rapid industrialization that pushed deep into the rural interior. An increasing number Africans were forced to abandon the agrarian lifestyles that had always fed their families to earn a living in the mines [source: South African History Online].

Conditions were brutal for African miners, and they would become something of a model for oppression going forward. Living quarters were segregated and under constant surveillance. Africans were placed in the most dangerous jobs, subjected to humiliations like cavity searches and passbook requirements, and were paid so much less than their white counterparts that their families only sunk deeper into poverty [source: Williamson].

Those pass requirements, whereby blacks had to carry identification documents at all times that indicated where they were and were not allowed to enter, would spread beyond the mines and become a key component of Apartheid control.

Throughout the 1800s, another conflict was escalating, too -- this one between the Dutch and the British. It culminated in war, which left the colony in far-off British hands but the Dutch still in secondary control on the ground.

The stage was set.

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.

This photo was taken in 1948, but the effects of pre-Apartheid policies are already clear in the community of Moroka, near Johannesburg.
This photo was taken in 1948, but the effects of pre-Apartheid policies are already clear in the community of Moroka, near Johannesburg.
Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images

Many of the policies that characterized Apartheid reached back to the early 20th century, but it was in 1948, under Prime Minister D. F. Malan, ordained in the Dutch Reformed Church, that the Apartheid state was born [source: South African History Online].

In quick succession, between 1950 and 1953, several laws were passed that would define the lives of black (and all non-white) Africans for the next four decades. Of these, the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act, both enacted in 1950, are considered the most critical [source: MSU].



First, the Population Registration Act created distinct legal classifications for the races in South Africa. There were three: white, Bantu (black African) and Coloured (mixed race). (Indians were considered foreigners and therefore left unclassified, but were added later out of necessity [source: Oral History Education].) Under this Act, every single person in the country was placed in one of these racial categories, and marriage between races was outlawed.

This laid the foundation for the second act, the Group Areas Act. This law dramatically escalated segregation by allotting separate pieces of land to each of the three non-white races. Millions of (newly labeled) Bantus, Coloureds and Indians were forced onto race-specific reservations. Families comprising more than one race were separated, and leaving any racial territory required a special pass. The policy was carried out by force, and entire communities were destroyed in the process of moving inhabitants to their new homes [source: MSU].

The Group Areas Act led the way to the Bantu Homelands Act of 1951, which declared each race-specific reservation its own "homeland" and the people within it citizens of that homeland, not of South Africa. From that point on, non-whites needed passports to enter white South Africa.

Over the next several years, racial classifications narrowed to account for ethnicity and lineage and started defining race-appropriate jobs. Pass requirements grew increasingly rigid, ultimately landing millions of non-white Africans in prison when they were caught without complete documentation (or burning that documentation in protest). Public facilities in white South Africa were strictly segregated. And, after the passing of the Bantu Education Act of 1953, the South African government took full control of the education of non-whites, creating curricula designed to indoctrinate them in Apartheid ideology and create a more docile class of servants for the white populace [sources: UN, MSU].

By the end of the 1950s, South Africa's racial underclass was living in desperate conditions. Poverty, famine, disease, confinement and abuse at the hands of whites were the norm. The government appeared to have miscalculated, though, because in these early years of Apartheid, rather than sinking deeper into despair and servility, the servant class became increasingly defiant.

There had been resistance since the Dutch came ashore, and it had always been brutally suppressed. Beginning in the 1950s, though, and especially moving into the '60s, the resistance got more organized -- eventually to great effect.

The Soweto protest started after the decision to make Afrikaans the primary teaching language in upper schools.
The Soweto protest started after the decision to make Afrikaans the primary teaching language in upper schools.
Keystone/Getty Images

From the time of the Dutch arrival and ensuing conquest, isolated acts of resistance were stifled by European weaponry. In 1910, protest against the South Africa Act, carried all the way to Britain, fell on deaf ears. In 1946, when 75,000 unarmed black miners went on strike, the result was 1,000 casualties and no change in working conditions [source: UN].

But in the 1960s, around the same time the U.S. Civil Rights Movement exploded, the struggle picked up dramatically. The all-black African National Congress (ANC), of which Nelson Mandela was a prominent member, and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) played leading roles. Both organizations encouraged coordinated, widespread, peaceful resistance to Afrikaner oppression [source South African History Online].



An initially peaceful protest in 1960 proved a turning point in the fight for freedom. In March of that year, in the town of Sharpeville, thousands of black Africans left their required pass books at home and headed to the police station to turn themselves in. When the police opened fire on the crowd, 69 people were killed and hundreds were injured [source: BBC].

In the immediate aftermath, the South African government banned public gatherings, and soon banned both the ANC and the PAC [source: BBC].

Both organizations instead went underground. They established military wings, the ANC's led by Mandela, and carried out guerilla-style attacks on government facilities and projects [source: Byrnes]. In 1963, Mandela and 10 others were tried for plotting against the government and sentenced to life in prison, where they would remain for almost 30 years [source: Linder].

All of this was reported on and condemned outside South Africa. Still, despite increasing domestic unrest and an international call for reform, Apartheid policies remained firmly in place [source: MSU]. Two connected events in the mid-1970s, however, would firmly set in motion, albeit slowly, Apartheid's eventual demise.

First, in 1976, another peaceful protest: This time, thousands of students in the town of Soweto gathered to stand against a new law making Afrikaans the primary teaching language in black upper schools, despite the fact that few black students and teachers were fluent in it. When police opened fire on a group of students walking to the protest, two children were killed; and in the ensuing riots that broke out all over South Africa, somewhere between 575 and 3,000 people were killed by police [source: MSU].

As in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre, the government quickly cracked down on black political organizations, which by 1976 included the influential South African Students' Organisation (SASO), led by medical student Steve Biko. Biko founded the Black Consciousness movement, which stressed psychological and intellectual liberation, along with a return to peaceful resistance, as central to the fight against Apartheid [source: Byrnes].

Biko's arrest and subsequent death in police custody triggered much of what happened next [source: South African History Online].

South Africans celebrated in June 1994 after the country's first democratic election and Nelson Mandela's victory.
South Africans celebrated in June 1994 after the country's first democratic election and Nelson Mandela's victory.
Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

The Black Consciousness movement had spread beyond South Africa by the mid-1970s, and when, amid the turbulence following the Soweto uprising, Steve Biko was arrested, beaten and left to die from his injuries in a prison cell, outrage was far-reaching [source: UN]. Among the thousands of mourners at Biko's funeral were U.S. Ambassador to South Africa William Bowdler, U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Donald McHenry and Helen Suzman, the sole anti-Apartheid voice in South Africa's all-white parliament [source: South African History Online].

After the funeral, events unfolded quickly, though Apartheid would hang on for another 13 years.



Biko's death prompted more than 100 members of the U.S. Congress to sign a letter requesting international access to look into South Africa's handling of political prisoners. The South African government proceeded to ban the SASO along with 17 other black political organizations and two black-run newspapers. The United States, Great Britain and three other Western nations soon pulled their ambassadors out of the country, and by the early 1980s, the boycotting of all things South Africa had begun [sources: South African History Online, UN].

Apartheid thus entered its decade of decline. By the end of the '80s, political and economic boycotts by governments, bolstered by the activist-pressured exodus of private businesses operating in the region, had left South Africa politically isolated and economically devastated. Much of the non-white populace was ignoring pass requirements, territorial restrictions and segregation policies. And the world was growing impatient [source: UN].

In 1989, F.W. de Klerk became president of Apartheid South Africa, and he ended it. Between 1989 and 1993, the de Klerk government repealed every Apartheid policy on the books. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, was elected head of the new African National Congress in 1991, and became South Africa's first black president in its first democratic elections in 1994.

Mandela, in his inaugural speech, acknowledged the inhumanity of Apartheid and its devastating consequences. And then, the activist who'd been imprisoned for 27 years set the tone for a new South Africa: The BBC reported on that day, May 10, 1994, that Mandela closed by saying, in the Afrikaans language of his former oppressors, "What is past is past" [source: BBC].

De Klerk and Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their roles in what turned out to be, in the very end, a shockingly peaceful transition from Apartheid rule to democratic government. South Africa now boasts one of the most racially, ethnically, linguistically and religiously inclusive constitutions in the modern world [source: MSU].

Constitutions, of course, are easier to re-create than people, and the country's relatively recent past of brutal racist oppression is not forgotten. South African society will take longer to heal. The goal of harmony has nonetheless been stated in uncertain terms -- a first step, and a significant one. Future generations will determine what comes after.

Author's Note: How Apartheid Worked

How Apartheid Worked was not, to understate it, an easy article to write. While the policy ended rather abruptly, the circumstances leading up to it spanned more than three centuries, somehow establishing a system of racial oppression that held up so long I clearly remember "End Apartheid" bumper stickers on cars in my hometown.

I would have liked to address more of the global context, as well as some of the particulars of the early master/servant laws that closely resembled those of the slavery and immediate post-slavery periods of the U.S. South -- the separation of black men from white women, for instance, and the legal use of punishments like whipping and food deprivation for petty "offenses."

But Apartheid is a tome, and I made choices, as writers must, many of which I still question. What I produced is, at best, an in-depth overview, and those looking for a complete, detailed map of the path to Apartheid along with its implementation, long-term effects on African culture, resistance leaders and ultimate demise would be well-served to visit South African History Online and South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid, sources I found to be invaluable in my research. In particular, you may want to explore the rise of the Black Consciousness movement, Mandela's leadership of the military arm of the National African Congress and the particulars of South Africa's post-Apartheid constitution.

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