History Of Apartheid In South Africa Essay

123 | Next Page

Unit 1. Introduction

Apartheid describes a system of laws and policies of total racial segregation in South Africa that began in 1948, when the National Party came to power, and ended in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected President in the first democratic elections. This online, multimedia educational resource explores apartheid (“apartness” in the Afrikaans language) and its historical roots, and the successful popular struggle waged against it. Personal stories told through evocative and original video and audio interviews, documents, photographs and other sources bring this remarkable history to life.

The fight against apartheid led to one of the most important democratic transformations of the 20th century. That the negotiated transfer of power in South Africa in the early 1990s did not unleash a racial bloodbath is especially striking considering the violent nature of apartheid and the crucial role of armed struggle in the history of the liberation movements. The victory over apartheid was an African success story: South Africans provided their own solution to institutionalized racism and intolerance, creating a pluralistic state out of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity.

Today, South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world; it guarantees the human and civil rights of all its people. Of the 48 million people living in South Africa, an estimated 79 percent is Black African, 9.6 percent is white, 8.9 percent is “Coloured, ” and 2.5 percent is Indian. There are eleven official languages: isiZulu, isiXhosa, English, Afrikaans, Sesotho, SePedi, Setswana, Tshivenda, isiNdebele, SiSwati, and Xitsonga. About 60% of the population lives in urban areas, including large, modern cities such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban, but a sizable minority of the population lives in rural areas. Despite being the most industrialized country in Africa, South Africa still faces complex health, housing, and employment problems, and the region as a whole suffers from periodic droughts.

Paths to Pluralism: South Africa’s Early History

The history of South Africa constitutes and informs crucial aspects of world history. South Africa’s past is marked by changing interactions among a broad diversity of peoples. Indigenous African peoples include Khoikhoi (or Khoekhoe) herders and San hunter-gatheres, as well as Bantu-speaking mixed farmers from two main linguistic groups: the Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Ndebele) and Sotho-Tswana. White South Africans are primarily people of Dutch (known as Afrikaners) and British origins. In 1652, the Dutch East India Company established a permanent “refreshment” station at the Cape of Good Hope. At first, they had no intention of colonizing or settling the area, but that would soon change. In about 1688, the French Huguenots arrived. In search of a better life, and, understanding the Mediterranean climate of Cape Town, they introduced wheat and wine to the Western Cape, which was gradually integrated into the expanding world economy. Imperial Britain wrested final control of the Cape Colony from the Dutch East India Company in 1806. The 1820s saw the arrival of British settlers in the Eastern Cape and Natal. The racial and cultural diversity of South Africa is perhaps most notably embodied in the hybrid ethnic group labeled as “Coloureds,” a designation for South Africans of mixed race that gained primacy in the late 19th century. Finally, a small but significant portion of South Africans are people of Asian descent, mainly Indians brought to Natal as indentured workers in the 1860s and other “free” or “passenger Indians” from the merchant classes.


123 | Next Page

Background and policy of apartheid

Before we can look at the history of the apartheid period it is necessary to understand what apartheid was and how it affected people.

What was apartheid?

Translated from the Afrikaans meaning 'apartness', apartheid was the ideology supported by the National Party (NP) government and was introduced in South Africa in 1948. Apartheid called for the separate development of the different racial groups in South Africa. On paper it appeared to call for equal development and freedom of cultural expression, but the way it was implemented made this impossible. Apartheid made laws forced the different racial groups to live separately and develop separately, and grossly unequally too. It tried to stop all inter-marriage and social integration between racial groups. During apartheid, to have a friendship with someone of a different race generally brought suspicion upon you, or worse. More than this, apartheid was a social system which severely disadvantaged the majority of the population, simply because they did not share the skin colour of the rulers. Many were kept just above destitution because they were 'non-white'.

In basic principles, apartheid did not differ that much from the policy of segregation of the South African governments existing before the Afrikaner Nationalist Party came to power in 1948. The main difference is that apartheid made segregation part of the law. Apartheid cruelly and forcibly separated people, and had a fearsome state apparatus to punish those who disagreed. Another reason why apartheid was seen as much worse than segregation, was that apartheid was introduced in a period when other countries were moving away from racist policies. Before World War Two the Western world was not as critical of racial discrimination, and Africa was colonized in this period. The Second World War highlighted the problems of racism, making the world turn away from such policies and encouraging demands for decolonization. It was during this period that South Africa introduced the more rigid racial policy of apartheid.

People often wonder why such a policy was introduced and why it had so much support. Various reasons can be given for apartheid, although they are all closely linked. The main reasons lie in ideas of racial superiority and fear. Across the world, racism is influenced by the idea that one race must be superior to another. Such ideas are found in all population groups. The other main reason for apartheid was fear, as in South Africa the white people are in the minority, and many were worried they would lose their jobs, culture and language. This is obviously not a justification for apartheid, but explains how people were thinking.

Original architects of Apartheid Image source

Apartheid Laws

Numerous laws were passed in the creation of the apartheid state. Here are a few of the pillars on which it rested:

Population Registration Act, 1950This Act demanded that people be registered according to their racial group. This meant that the Department of Home affairs would have a record of people according to whether they were white, coloured, black, Indian or Asian. People would then be treated differently according to their population group, and so this law formed the basis of apartheid. It was however not always that easy to decide what racial group a person was part of, and this caused some problems.

Group Areas Act, 1950This was the act that started physical separation between races, especially in urban areas. The act also called for the removal of some groups of people into areas set aside for their racial group.

Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act, 1959This Act said that different racial groups had to live in different areas. Only a small percentage of South Africa was left for black people (who comprised the vast majority) to form their 'homelands'. This Act also got rid of 'black spots' inside white areas, by moving all black people out of the city. Well known removals were those in District 6, Sophiatown and Lady Selborne. These black people were then placed in townships outside of the town. They could not own property here, only rent it, as the land could only be white owned. This Act caused much hardship and resentment. People lost their homes, were moved off land they had owned for many years and were moved to undeveloped areas far away from their place of work.

Some other important laws were the:

Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949
Immorality Amendment Act, 1950
Separate Representation of Voters Act, 1951

Resistance before 1960

Resistance to apartheid came from all circles, and not only, as is often presumed, from those who suffered the negative effects of discrimination. Criticism also came from other countries, and some of these gave support to the South African freedom movements.

Some of the most important organizations involve din the struggle for liberation were the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the United Democratic Front (UDF). There were also Indian and Coloured organized resistance movements (e.g. the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), the Coloured People's Organisation), white organized groups (e.g. the radical Armed Resistance Movement (ARM), and Black Sash) and church based groups (the Christian Institute). We shall consider the ANC.


The ANC was formed in Bloemfontein in 1912, soon after the Union of South Africa. Originally it was called the South African Native National Congress (SANNC). It was started as a movement for the Black elite, that is those Blacks who were educated. In 1919 the ANC sent a deputation to London to plead for a new deal for South African blacks, but there was no change to their position.

The South African Native National Congress delegation to England, June 1919 Image source

The history of resistance by the ANC goes through three phases. The first was dialogue and petition; the second direct opposition and the last the period of exiled armed struggle. In 1949, just after apartheid was introduced, the ANC started on a more militant path, with the Youth League playing a more important role. The ANC introduced their Programme of Action in 1949, supporting strike action, protests and other forms of non-violent resistance. Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu started to play an important role in the ANC in this period. In 1952 the ANC started the Defiance Campaign. This campaign called on people to purposefully break apartheid laws and offer themselves for arrest. It was hoped that the increase in prisoners would cause the system to collapse and get international support for the ANC. Black people got onto 'white buses', used 'white toilets', entered into 'white areas' and refused to use passes. Despite 8 000 people ending up in jail, the ANC caused no threat to the apartheid regime.

The ANC continued along the same path during the rest of the 1950s, until in 1959 some members broke away and formed the PAC. These members wanted to follow a more violent and militant route, and felt that success could not be reached through the ANC's method.

0 thoughts on “History Of Apartheid In South Africa Essay”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *