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The term apartheid (from the Afrikaans word for "apartness") was coined in the 1930s and used as a political slogan of the National Party in the early 1940s, but the policy itself extends back to the beginning of white settlement in South Africa in 1652. After the primarily Afrikaner Nationalists came to power in 1948, the social custom of apartheid was systematized under law.

The implementation of the policy, later referred to as "separate development," was made possible by the Population Registration Act of 1950, which put all South Africans into three racial categories: Bantu (black African), white, or Coloured (of mixed race). A fourth category, Asian (Indians and Pakistanis), was added later. The system of apartheid was enforced by a series of laws passed in the 1950s: the Group Areas Act of 1950 assigned races to different residential and business sections in urban areas, and the Land Acts of 1954 and 1955 restricted nonwhite residence to specific areas. These laws further restricted the already limited right of black Africans to own land, entrenching the white minority's control of over 80 percent of South African land. In addition, other laws prohibited most social contacts between the races; enforced the segregation of public facilities and the separation of educational standards; created race-specific job categories; restricted the powers of nonwhite unions; and curbed nonwhite participation in government.

A road sign in Johannesburg. 1956

The Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 and the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959 furthered these divisions between the races by creating ten African "homelands" administered by what were supposed to be reestablished "tribal" organizations. The Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 made every black South African a citizen of one of the homelands, effectively excluding blacks from South African politics. Most of the homelands, lacking natural resources, were not economically viable and, being both small and fragmented, lacked the autonomy of independent states.

The father of modern South Africa. Nelson Mandela. A great man. Not because he was the leader of the blacks ANC but because he and de Klerk freed the country from apartheid without civil war.

Though the implementation and enforcement of apartheid was accompanied by tremendous suppression of opposition, continual resistance to apartheid existed within South Africa. A number of black political groups, often supported by sympathetic whites, opposed apartheid using a variety of tactics, including violence, strikes, demonstrations, and sabotage - strategies that often met with severe reprisals by the government. Apartheid was also denounced by the international community: in 1961 South Africa was forced to withdraw from the British Commonwealth by member states who were critical of the apartheid system, and in 1985 the governments of the United States and Great Britain imposed selective economic sanctions on South Africa in protest of its racial policy.

As antiapartheid pressure mounted within and outside South Africa, the South African government, led by President F. W. de Klerk, began to dismantle the apartheid system in the early 1990s. The year 1990 brought a National Party government dedicated to reform and also saw the legalization of formerly banned black congresses and the release of imprisoned black leaders. In 1994 the country's constitution was rewritten and free general elections were held for the first time in its history, and with Nelson Mandela's election as South Africa's first black president, the last vestiges of the apartheid system were finally outlawed.

A policeman checks the pass of a black citizen. Blacks needed a pass to travel to work in 'white' area


It all started when the Dutch east India Company founded a colony at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. The Dutch settlers were called Afrikaans or Boers ("farmers"). They took away the land from the native Africans and made them work on the farms as slaves.

In 1795 the Cape was captured by the British during the French Revolutionary Wars. The Dutch settlers were uneasy living under British rule especially after the British government made all slaves free throughout the British Empire in 1838. So the Boers moved northward and set up their own independent republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State (1835-40). During the Boer War (1899-1902) the British defeated these states and the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910.

The situation of blacks was pathetic compared  even to slaves in the United States.
  • Blacks were not allowed to vote
  • Blacks were to work in factories and farms and living in reserved areas. 70% of South Africa was black and they were forced to live in reserves which made up of only 7% of the land.
  • The movement of blacks was controlled by the government with the pass laws. A black needed a pass to travel in a whites area
  • The blacks lived in primitive conditions
  • In 1911 a law was passed according to which the blacks were not allowed to strike and barred from skilled jobs
Successive prime ministers Malan (1948-54), Strijdom (1954-8), Verwoerd (1958-66) and Vorster (1966-78) made apartheid even more stringent and harsher.
  • Blacks were totally segregated from the whites. Separate buses, coaches, trains, cafes, toilets, park benches, hospitals, beaches, schools for children, picnic spots, and churches.
  • Travelling was forbidden for blacks outside their reserves without police permission
  • Marriages between whites and non-whites was forbidden
  • The Bantu Self Government Act (1959) formed the seven regions called Bantustans for blacks. But these reserves were too small and not economically sustainable
The Suppression of Communism Act was used by the government to stop any protests against apartheid. The African National Congress was helpless

 1960. The Sharpeville Massacre. The police suppressed protests brutally. 67 people died, many were injured. Thousands were arrested.

The killings at Soweto. 1976. The government announced that Afrikaans was to be taught in all black schools. In the police firing on protesters 200 died at Soweto.


For over 20 years, it seemed that the National Party government and its policies of apartheid were immune to the normal processes of economics and politics. Especially, in the 1960s with the savage repression following Sharpeville and the State of Emergency, the government seemed able to determine the future with absolute certainty. It ignored a great deal of international condemnation and suppressed almost all opposition at home.

- as surprising was the immunity from economic factors. Growth rates were good during the 1960s and inflation remained very modest. White living standards rose quite dramatically, at least partly because of the fact that African living standards remained very depressed near the low levels to which they had been pushed during the 1950s.

- the one glaring failure of apartheid was the fact that although African migration to the cities had undoubtedly been slowed, it had not been stopped, let alone reversed. In fact, economic integration was continuing, stimulated significantly by government policies. In order to reduce the impact that economic sanctions might have if they ever came to be applied, the government stimulated the development of manufacturing and an oil from coal industry. The result was a growing need for Africans both as labour and as customers.

- nevertheless, by the beginning of the 1970s, problems were beginning to mount, although it took almost another 20 years before it completely unraveled. We cannot give a complete analysis of all the factors, but we can give an outline of the more important ones.


- although the National Party government claimed to be committed to capitalism, apartheid involved massive interference in the market; there was little ‘free market’ under apartheid. The colour bar was a massive undermining of free markets. It is true that the government tried to ensure that employers had large quantities of cheap labour as compensation, but contrary to marxist analyses, it was not business who wanted it. Moreover, because business was required to maintain a ratio of white employees to black employees, business growth created a growing demand for white employees that drove white wages and salaries to very high levels. Because of the high incomes paid to whites in private business, government employment became less attractive. That is why beginning in the 1960s, the government eventually came to break its own laws by employing non-whites in jobs that were supposed to be filled by whites. For many years, the government repeated the fiction that these non-white government employees were ‘temporary’ in spite of the fact that their numbers continued to grow steadily.

- however, by the early 1970s, the problems in private industry were becoming even more severe than that. Economic growth was greatly expanding the need for educated and skilled workers. By that point, the white population had pretty much reached its capacity for providing such people; apartheid was inhibiting the non-white population from filling the gap. The non-white educational systems were grossly underfunded; Bantu Education was especially notable for its inadequacies. Moreover, white unions controlled access to skilled trades by limiting apprentices to whites. The results were often enormous shortages of skilled workers. In 1971, one study concluded that South Africa was 6,000 auto mechanics short of its requirements. Researchers’ projections of future needs indicated even more horrendous shortfalls. Thus, the demands by economists and businessmen (including Afrikaners) began to be very insistent that the barriers be scraped. Big companies even began to raise quite large sums of money privately to build schools for Africans in the urban areas. This was not charity but self interest.

-however, in some areas (especially newly developing ones), Africans were increasingly doing semiskilled jobs. This was especially noticeable in construction which was mechanizing; most drivers and operators of heavy equipment and trucks were Africans or Coloureds.

- because of these and other problems, the economy began to perform badly—high inflation together with stagnation or ‘stagflation’. In the wake of the sharp rise in oil prices, most industrialized countries experienced this in the late 70s and early 80s. However, South Africa was already in this mode before the oil crisis; the latter just worsened it. South Africa has not really been able to get out of the mode. When the Rand was created in the late 1960s (half of its predecessor, the pound sterling), it was worth about $1.80. As of the end of 2006 it is worth about Can. $0.16-0.17 and worth even less in US funds. (However, the Rand has stabilized in the last couple of years and recently gained a bit against the US dollar.) The failure symbolized by the currency decline was already beginning to affect white incomes and wealth even in the 1970s.

- Afrikaner farmers had been an important source of political support for the National Party and the connection with the land had always been a fixation with Afrikaner nationalists. As a result, policies had favoured farmers with large marketing boards and other forms of protectionism. By the 70s, these farm protection measures were contributing noticeably to rising prices and inflation.

First Cracks

- the first cracks in the government’s ability to enforce its will absolutely appeared in 1971-72. Two incidents, although not very big in themselves, were portents:

The South West Africa Strike

- the strike arose because of opposition by the Ovambos to the government system of labour control. Workers who signed on to go to work in Windhoek or the mines had no say in what jobs they would get. They were simply assigned arbitrarily by the bureaucrats. It could make a huge difference. Domestics received only about R10-15 per month in addition to room and board. Mine workers, although it was much harder physical labour, were paid R30-40 per month. The system ensured that white madams had a continuing supply of very cheap servants.

- the government responded to the strike in its usual fashion by firing all strikers and shipping them back to the reserve—over 4,000. Then, it had to find replacements. White boys stepped in to help collect the garbage for a few days, but the novelty soon wore off and they went back to school. After searching high and low throughout South Africa, the government was able to come up with barely 2,000 replacement workers. Soon employers, especially mining companies, were demanding a solution. Finally, the government had to negotiate and make some concessions. The concessions were not large, but this was the 1st time in 20 years that the government had ever negotiated or made concessions.

The Durban Municipal Workers Strike

- this took place only a couple of months later. Again, the government tried to fire everyone. Durban is located in a warm, humid area (like Florida). As the garbage piled up, the stench mounted also. Finally, the government agreed to increase wages by a small, but significant amount. Again, the significance was that it was forced to do it at all. By experience, Africans had learned not to put forward leaders or spokesmen who could be arrested; instead, they had learned to act together.

- strikes began to take place in private industry. Construction was early hit. Strikes, whether or not described by that term, were illegal, but increasingly, arresting and prosecuting people did not get results. Buildings did not get built if the workers were locked up in jail. Nor could the drivers and operators be quickly replaced. It would take months or even years to train new ones. The key point was that workers were beginning to acquire leverage—not a lot, but enough that the government could no longer absolutely enforce its will. Although it was a number of years before the government changed the laws and began to allow Africans to form trade unions of their own, it increasingly was having to recognize reality.

- white trade unions too began to see the writing on the wall. With the shortages in many trades, it was clear that sooner rather than later, non-whites would have to be allowed into the trades (in fact most of the real work was already done by non-whites anyway; the white tradesmen mostly just supervised non-white workers). Union leaders began to argue that it was better to take non-whites into the unions than to see the non-whites form their own unions; the former would at least give them a bit of control. As a result, some of their voices were added to those demanding change.

- at first, in making changes, the government was trying to maintain apartheid as much as possible. Thus, rather than abolish the colour bar, they tried to get by with simply raising it. Thus, they altered laws and regulations in semiskilled jobs or government jobs that were already being filled by non-whites anyway and maintained that apartheid was still alive and well. Of course, white domination was not immediately threatened by these early changes. The significance lay in the fact that the government was beginning to lose its ability to control the future and how it was evolving.

Afrikaner Unity Cracks

- there had always been a few Afrikaner dissidents: a handful of communists on the one hand; on the other, a Rev. Beyers Naud√© (a former NGK clergyman), a few writers and artists, etc. Nevertheless, Afrikaners had been remarkably united. Two solid bastions of support had always been the poor whites and the farm vote. The poor whites were rapidly disappearing as education, government programmes and the colour bar gave them high incomes. Also, most of them were now urbanized for 2 generations. Although the ideology of Afrikaner nationalism was that the Afrikaner nation was basically rural and tied to the land, it increasingly was at odds with the realities of their lives. Even more significantly, with the stagflation in the 1970s, urban Afrikaners’ incomes began to be affected negatively by the subsidies and protectionism given to Afrikaners in agriculture. Thus, there was a growing conflict of interests between these two pillars of the National Party.

- other splits began to occur as well. As a result of the programmes favouring Afrikaner owned and managed business (some was voluntary, but some was a result of government programmes), many more Afrikaners were involved in business. These business people were confronted by the same inefficiencies and hindrances created by apartheid as English business people; they also began to react the same way in urging changes. Thus, Afrikaners in business began to urge modification and even dismantling of apartheid.

- there was also growing disenchantment of Afrikaner intellectuals. Afrikaner social scientists, many educated abroad, began to investigate the social consequences of apartheid and migratory labour. Their work began to build a growing body of critical research showing not only the economic and social consequences of apartheid, but also the moral consequences (the disruption of African family life, infant mortality rates that in some reserves reached over 30% in the first year of life, high incidence of nutritional deficiency diseases, high rates of tuberculosis linked to poverty, etc.). Proponents of apartheid had always claimed that there were short term costs, but that in the long run everyone would be better off (short term pain for long term gain—of course, critics had pointed out that all the pain was being borne by the non-whites). By the 1970s it was clear that the ideal of separate development was farther away than when apartheid was started in the late 1940s. The only results of apartheid had been to increase the suffering of Africans immensely.

- during the 1970s, the growing splits began to be reflected in the National Party. The 2 sides came to be dubbed the ‘verligtes’ (enlightened ones) and the ‘verkramptes’ (closed, cramped ones). The verkramptes wanted to hold the line and maintain apartheid as much as possible. For many of these people, apartheid had never been about separate development anyway; it had always been about domination and baasskap (‘bossship’—’white man boss’). Thus, the fact that apartheid had always been a pipe dream did not matter; domination was still the goal to be maintained. In 1981, some of the leading verkramptes, led by Dr. Treurnicht (the man responsible for the Afrikaans language policy that sparked the SOWETO riots in 1976) were forced out of the National Party and took over the recently formed Conservative Party. Its support was concentrated heavily in rural areas.

Foreign Involvements

- South Africa tried to build and maintain a barrier along its borders against possible attacks from independent Africa. Thus, it resisted an insurgency led by South West Africa Peoples’ Organization (SWAPO) in South West Africa for many years. It supported the Ian Smith regime in Rhodesia. With the end to the Portuguese empire in Mozambique and Angola, South Africa supported guerrilla groups in both countries against leftist governments which came to power. These involvements cost quite a bit, especially for an economy that was already having difficulties.

- however, even more serious was the cost in lives; especially by the 1980s, even some Afrikaner young men began to resist conscription and Afrikaner parents were showing unwillingness to see their sons coming home in body bags.

- also, after excluding them for so long, the South African Defense Forces began to accept non-whites into the military in the 1970s. Soon the logic of that began to be expressed; how can we expect them to fight and die for the country if they are second-class citizens? This had been a major reason why they had been excluded, but the needs of the military had forced a change.

Foreign Pressures

- foreign pressures began to have some effect; campaigns, especially in the US and Britain, were launched against companies that did business in South Africa. A number of them began to sell out and leave South Africa. This disinvestment further had negative effects on the Rand and on the economy generally. I don’t think it caused the growing economic problems, but it certainly added to what was already there.

- as an alternative to disinvestment, pressure was put on foreign companies to agree to abide by a code of conduct in their South African operations—e.g., move to equal pay for non-whites doing the same work as whites; employment and promotions based on ability, not on race.

- boycotts were also launched in Europe and North America against South African products (fruit, wines, etc.).

- finally, when South Africa was forced to borrow money abroad (the output of gold had enabled South Africa to avoid having to do this for many years but balance of payments deficits had become persistent in spite of the gold), demands for more changes in policies could not be resisted and options were running out.

Internal Resistance

- the generation that had fought apartheid in the 1950s was exhausted, in prison or in exile during the 1960s. In the face of government repression, it was impossible to gain any momentum. The police seemed able to bribe or to coerce informers and were able to infiltrate most organizations or groups trying to organize any opposition or resistance to apartheid. Even white opponents, who had more leeway than opponents in other groups, were constantly harassed and intimidated, many ultimately being driven into exile as the alternative to imprisonment.

- the emergence of Steve Biko and the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) in 1969 was a big step in renewed resistance. Biko seems to have been influenced by Anton Lembede as well as the Black Power movement in the United States in the 1960s. He was banned and then arrested and charged under the Terrorism Act; although he was not convicted of the most serious charges, he was jailed briefly.

- then in June 1976, the school children in SOWETO began demonstrating and then clashing with police in what became known as the SOWETO riots. These were very significant because African resistance, which had been largely stomped out and suppressed after Sharpeville, burst out again and was never able to be suppressed again. What was especially significant is that these teenagers and young people were entirely products of Bantu Education, a system designed and intended as indoctrination. We’ll return to discuss the long term effects, but the outbreak of the protests and riots were an indication of the failure of Bantu Education to indoctrinate Africans into accepting the roles and status intended for them by the formulators of apartheid.

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