Apartheid in South Africa: A History

So we never forget what racism does to people.


The Apartheid Museum, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The first Europeans to reach southern Africa were the Dutch, in 1652. They established some outposts along the coast. In 1806, during the wars with Napoleon, the British arrived in the area. and established an outpost at Cape Colony to protect their southern sea lanes between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. By the end of the 19th century, the British had established the provinces of Natal and Cape Colony, while the descendants of the Dutch, who now referred to themselves as “Afrikaners” or “Boers”, controlled the Orange Free State and the Transvaal provinces. The Boers were a strongly religious group, following a particularly hardline version of Calvinism. They had migrated away from the coastal areas into the interior, dislocating the native Africans in the process–a journey which they called “The Great Trek”. These conflicts produced a sense that the Afrikaners were a “special” people, blessed by God and destined to rule this land. It also produced a deep-seated and never-ending racism in the Afrikaners towards the African natives, who they viewed as sub-human.

Incursions by the British into Afrikaner-controlled areas, particularly after the discovery of diamonds and gold in the interior, led to two conflicts at the end of the 19th century known as the Boer Wars. Also during this time, the British imported large numbers of people from India to serve as a cheap labor force.

The British Government in London attempted to solve the underlying conflict between the English and Boer colonials with the 1910 Act of Union, which brought all four provinces together into a single nation–the Union of South Africa. Under the Union plan, South Africa would remain within the British Dominion, but was granted full political autonomy.

The new Boer-dominated South African Government, under Louis Botha and Jan Smuts, quickly took steps to implement their heavily-racist Afrikaner ideology. South African society was divided into four racial groups: the Afrikaner and British “Whites”, the native African “Bantus”, the Indian “Asians”, and the mixed-race “Coloreds”–all of the non-Whites were collectively lumped together as “Blacks”. In 1923, the Pass Laws were imposed, which set up a system of internal passports carried by everyone, which restricted the movements of non-Whites. Only Whites (and, in the Cape Province, Coloreds) were allowed the right to vote, and in 1913 the Native Land Act restricted non-White ownership of land and made it illegal for all Blacks to own any land except in specified areas.

This institutionalized racism did not happen without resistance. A brief rebellion began under the Zulu leader Bombaata, but it was crushed. Indian immigrant Mohandas (later Mahatma) Gandhi began his political career in South Africa by organizing nonviolent protests among the Indian populations of Transvaal and Natal. In 1911, an American-educated African lawyer, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, called upon African leaders to form a political organization to fight back. The result was the South African Native National Congress, which in 1923 changed its name to the African National Congress.

During the First World War, the South African Government decided to enter the war on the side of the British. The ANC, hoping to gain British support for an end to the racist South African laws, also supported the war, and many South Africans, white and black, died in the trenches. Many Afrikaners, however, still resented the British, and after a failed Boer rebellion, J.B.M Hertzog formed the Nationalist Party, which preached a program of Afrikaner nationalism. By 1930, the Nationalist Party merged with the South Africa Party of Jan Smuts to form a coalition government under the new United Party. Hertzog served as Prime Minister, Smuts as Deputy Minister. In 1933, in response, a breakaway group formed by D.F. Malan split away to form the New National Party, which was even more virulent in its white supremacist nationalism.

When the Second World War started in 1939, the still-simmering conflict between the British and the Afrikaners bubbled to the surface again. Hertzog argued for neutrality, but was over-ruled in a party caucus and was replaced as Prime Minister by Smuts, and the South African Government again decided to fight on Britain’s side. Many Afrikaner nationalists, however, openly sympathized with the Nazis, and a faction formed a small underground pro-Nazi group called the Ossewabrandwag (“Ox-Wagon Sentinals”). Among its members were future South African Presidents John Vorster and P.W. Botha.

In 1948, the New National Party, dominated by Afrikaner white supremacists, won the elections, and Apartheid, or “separateness”, became the ruling ideology of the state. A flurry of laws were passed which legally enshrined racism and white supremacy. Under the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Amendment, interracial sex and marriages were outlawed; under the Abolition of Passes Act, the pass laws were actually tightened–“Blacks” were now required to carry a passbook with them at all times, and could not move from one area to another without permission. Under the Population Registration Act, the entire population of South Africa was registered by racial group. Under the Group Areas Act, land areas were assigned by racial group, and people who lived in the “wrong” areas were forcibly “resettled” (in Johannesburg, some 60,000 “Bantu” Africans were removed to the newly-built “South West Township”, known as Soweto; in Cape Town, 55,000 “Asians” and “Coloreds” were relocated from the part of town known as “District Six”). Under the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, public areas such as beaches, swimming pools and restaurants were racially segregated; under the Separate Representation of Voters Act, the right to vote was limited to Whites only; and under the Bantu Education Act, a separate education was set up for Blacks (but run entirely by Whites) to give “appropriate” education to each of the racial groups.

To enable control of the population by the tiny white minority, South Africa was turned into a police state. The Suppression of Communism Act allowed the government to outlaw any “subversive” organization, while both individuals and organizations were subject to “banning orders” which prohibited them from writing, speaking in public, or attending public meetings. The Terrorism Act established the Bureau Of State Security (BOSS) which had authority to jail “terrorists” indefinitely without trial.

The ultimate stage of the Apartheid policy was the formation of “Bantustans” or “Bantu Homelands”, which were small areas of marginal land set aside as “independent states” for the African populations. In theory, each “homeland” was to be a place where each major African tribe could have independence and self-rule, and all of the Africans were stripped of their South African citizenship and assigned to a particular Bantustan. In reality however the homelands were simply huge open-air prison camps, which functioned to keep the Africans away from the Whites until they were needed as pools of cheap labor. None of the world’s nations ever recognized the legality of the homeland “governments”.

Resistance to Apartheid soon coalesced around the African National Congress, which recognized that opposition only on a narrow ethnic basis would not be strong enough to defeat the white supremacists–only a unified mass organization made up of all the victims of Apartheid (as well as sympathetic Whites) would have the ability to challenge the Afrikaner power structure. Under the leadership of Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo, the ANC was heavily influenced by Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent non-cooperation. In June 1952, the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups began a “Campaign to Defy Unjust Laws”, a widespread civil disobedience protest that placed the ANC at the center of the freedom movement. One of ANC’s strongest supporters was the mostly-White South African Communist Party, which had itself been outlawed by the regime. In 1955, the ANC issued the Freedom Charter, calling for a united non-racial democratic government in South Africa.

The ANC was not without its rivals and opposition, however. In 1959, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) was formed, which rejected the ANC’s policy of working together with sympathetic Indians and Whites, and argued instead that Africans themselves must carry out the work of liberating Africans. One of the offshoots of the PAC was the Black Consciousness Movement, led by Steven Biko, which preached the South African equivalent of “Black Power”.

In March 1960, the PAC organized a mass protest against the pass laws, in Sharpeville. The unarmed crowd was fired on by police with machine guns, and at least 60 people were killed. Both the PAC and the ANC were quickly outlawed, and over 18,000 people were rounded up and arrested.

A short time later, the Apartheid regime announced its withdrawal from the British Dominion and the formation of the independent “Republic of South Africa”. In response, the ANC organized a “stay-at-home strike”, which became the target of brutal police repression.

The Sharpeville Massacre and the stay-at-home strike convinced the ANC that nonviolent protest would never be effective against a regime as brutal as the Afrikaner state, and in 1961 Nelson Mandela was given responsibility for organizing an armed wing to carry out guerrilla attacks against the regime. Known as Umkonto We Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), the guerrillas planned to target the symbolic installations of Apartheid, such as pass offices, police stations and courts. When the Western nations, alarmed by the presence of South African Communist Party members in the organization, labelled the ANC as a “terrorist group”, Mandela turned instead to the Soviet Union for weapons and training.

In 1962, Mandela, Sisulu and eight other anti-apartheid leaders were arrested in Rivonia and charged with treason and sabotage. The government asked for the death penalty, but a wave of international pressure forced them to settle for a sentence of life in prison instead. Mandela and the others were imprisoned at Robben Island, and Oliver Tambo took over as head of the ANC.

After the Rivonia trial, the Apartheid regime faced more and more international condemnation. In 1962, the UN passed resolution 1761, declaring Apartheid to be a “criminal system” in violation of international laws, and formed a UN Special Commission Against Apartheid. The International Olympics Committee voted to exclude South Africa from the Games. In 1974, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to expel South Africa completely from the UN–but that resolution was vetoed by France, Britain and the United States. In 1977, after the police massacred hundreds of unarmed protesters in Soweto, the UN placed an international arms embargo on South Africa.

By the late 1970’s, Pretoria was a virtual pariah state. The racist regime still, however, continued to be propped up by the US and Britain, particularly during the Reagan and Thatcher years. Under a policy called “constructive engagement”, American and British companies were supported in their dealings with South Africa, under the theory that they could presumably help to “influence” the regime away from Apartheid. The Pretoria government was particularly dependent upon American computer technology, without which the bureaucratic maze of paperwork produced by Apartheid’s racial classifications would not have been possible. Both Thatcher and Reagan listed the ANC as “communist” and “terrorist” organizations, and ANC members were forbidden from entering the country.

In the US, opponents of the Apartheid system organized a nationwide campaign for “divestment”, calling on companies and governments to cut off all economic ties to South Africa. Although many American corporations (and the Reagan Administration) resisted the divestment movement, thousands of local and state governments in the US passed policies forbidding economic cooperation with South Africa. There was also increased pressure to release Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists.

By the 1980’s, the growing effectiveness of the ANC, and the increasingly hostile international isolation of South Africa, led to a siege mentality within the Pretoria government. President P.W. Botha surrounded himself with military generals and police officials and became obsessed with security (his cabinet earned the mocking nickname “The Securocrats”). Botha’s actions became increasingly more militaristic. The African nations that bordered the country became known as “the frontline states”–not only were they providing refuges for ANC guerrillas, but their very existence as Black-led states was repugnant to the Afrikaners. Pretoria began giving military aid to anti-government guerrillas like UNITA in Angola and FRELIMO in Mozambique, and sent its own troops into Namibia against ANC ally SWAPO, and then into southern Angola. During this time, the Apartheid regime began a secret effort to build nuclear weapons, reportedly with the aid of Israel (which was already working with the Apartheid regime to jointly develop tanks and fighter jets).

South Africa’s deteriorating political position, however, was now matched by economic decline. In the 1960’s South Africa had a rate of economic growth almost as rapid as Japan’s, and the White elite had the highest standard of living in all of Africa. By the 1980’s, however, the enormous costs of administrating and defending the Apartheid system were a huge drain on the economy–a situation that was aggravated by international economic sanctions (by 1989 even the US and Britain had been forced to give in to international pressure and place sanctions on South Africa).

By 1983, the need to make reforms was unstoppable, and Botha introduced a new Constitution with a Tricameral Parliament, in which “Asians” and “Coloreds” would have their own elected legislative bodies, with the authority to administrate (and pay for) their own “internal affairs” such as education and health care–but national matters would still be decided by the White government. “Bantu” Africans were to have no representation at all in the new government–they were still considered to be “guest workers” from their “independent homelands”. All the new Constitution did was prompt the formation of a new multi-racial anti-apartheid group, the United Democratic Front, which was quickly banned by the regime.

Botha also began making secret overtures to Mandela in prison, hoping to use him to win legitimacy. In 1984, Botha sent word that he was willing to release Mandela if he would publicly recognize the legitimacy of his Transkei “Homeland” and live there. ¬†Mandela refused. A year later, Botha offered another deal–Mandela would be released if he publicly renounced armed struggle. ¬†Again, he refused.

In 1989, Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by FW de Klerk as President. It marked the turning point, as de Klerk recognized that the entire system of Apartheid was breaking down and simply could not be saved. Negotiations were quickly begun to withdraw from Namibia and to end South African military intervention in the frontline states. In February 1990, de Klerk lifted the banning orders on the ANC, PAC, Communist Party, and other anti-apartheid groups. Nine days later, Mandela was released from prison, and was promptly elected head of the ANC.

The collapse of Apartheid began. De Klerk agreed to the release of all political prisoners, dismantled all the legal machinery of Apartheid, and ordered the formation of a Convention for a Democratic South Africa to write up a new Constitution. On April 27, 1994, (“Freedom Day”), South Africa had its first ever democratic election, and Nelson Mandela took office as the first freely-elected President of South Africa.

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