Apartheid Essay

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Apartheid (literally “apartness” in Afrikaans and Dutch) refers to a system of racial segregation enforced in South Africa by the white National Party from its election in 1948 until the first election open to all races in 1994. A high degree of de facto racial separation existed before 1948, including controls on black movement originally introduced by the British in the Cape Colony during the 19th century, the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936 limiting black land rights, and the “civilized labor” policies introduced in 1924-26 to protect poor whites, leading some to use the term apartheid in relation to earlier periods. More recently, the term also describes policies or systems of racial segregation elsewhere in the world, but it remains associated primarily with South Africa, where its application amounted to an ambitious attempt to remold the country’s social, economic, and political geography to enable “separate development” of four designated race groups—white, colored (mixed-race), Indian, and black African or “Bantu”—in a manner that ensured continuing white domination.

The Nature of Separation

Separation affected all spheres of life, including marriage and sexual intercourse (illegal between whites and other races), health and welfare, education, job opportunities, recreation, transport, and much more. Inter-racial social mixing was difficult and, when it did occur as in some of the English-speaking churches, was often self-conscious, given the essentially separate lives that people led. Geographically, apartheid was applied at three spatial scales, all of them distinguishing primarily between white and non-white. Micro-scale or “petty apartheid” measures segregated facilities and amenities such as transport, beaches, post offices, cinemas, and even park benches. Meso-scale segregation involved racial zoning in urban areas, using the Group Areas Acts of 1950 and 1966 to segregate whites, coloreds, and Indians. Macro-scale segregation allocated 10 Bantustans (“homelands”) to the officially recognized black ethnic groups and attempted to minimize the black population elsewhere to that which was indispensable to the white economy. Rural black spots—small areas of black settlement surrounded by white farms—were excised, with their inhabitants resettled in the homelands, while many blacks were expelled from urban areas if they did not qualify to remain there. Altogether, 3.5 million people were forcibly relocated under apartheid policies between 1960 and 1983.

The homelands gradually became self-governing, and four of them became officially independent but recognized only by South Africa. As descendants of earlier colonial policies creating reserves for those depending on subsistence agriculture, all the homelands were peripheral to the major centers of the South African space economy and, with the partial exception of Bophuthatswana (a significant platinum producer), all remained economically dependent on South Africa for both financial subventions and employment.

Macro-scale territorial segregation of coloreds and Indians was impracticable given their high levels of urbanization, although interprovincial movement of Indians was restricted until 1975, and Indians were prohibited from living in the Orange Free State and northern Natal until 1985. The policy of parallelism established colored and Indian political institutions whose representatives were initially nominated and subsequently elected but essentially advisory to an all-white national government elected only by whites. In 1984, a new constitution created separate Indian and colored houses of parliament with sovereignty over their own affairs, including education, health, and welfare. These houses depended on budgetary allocations from the national government, and their territorial authority, based on the Group Areas Act of 1950, was highly fragmented. Only a small minority of eligible Indians and coloreds voted in elections for these bodies in 1984 and 1989.

Urban segregation involved the forcible movement of some 125,000 families, mainly colored and Indian, under the group areas legislation, together with an unrecorded but probably larger number of blacks moved under pre-apartheid legislation to designated townships. Whites received disproportionately large areas of each city or town, including the most desirable parts, with blacks typically located close to the industrial areas where they worked. Attempts also at ethnolinguistic segregation of black groups met with limited success. Some blacks—5.5 million by 1986 when racially discriminatory influx controls were repealed—acquired rights to permanent urban residence, giving them better placement in terms of employment. For the majority, the operation of influx control strongly discouraged in-movement to the cities, with large numbers arrested under the pass laws. Special restrictions applied to black movement to the western Cape Province, home to most colored people and designated a colored labor preference area between 1962 and 1985. Elsewhere, blacks from homelands or white rural areas could seek employment in the mines or the towns only as migrant laborers, leaving their families behind in their designated homelands. However, many managed to stay in urban areas illegally, lodging with township families, while natural increase led to continuing growth of the black urban population. From 1968 onward, municipalities were expected to meet black housing needs across homeland boundaries wherever possible. This led to large black formal and informal settlements in homeland areas close to major cities, such as Mdantsane (Ciskei, near East London), and in the Winterveld of Bophuthatswana, where nearly half the homeland population lived within 50 kilometers of Pretoria. Frontier commuters who crossed daily into white South Africa to work numbered 773,000 by 1982.

Pressures Leading to Transition

President P. W. Botha attempted to reform apartheid in the 1980s, to make it more acceptable to blacks as well as coloreds and Indians who had benefited materially from the “own affairs” budgets of their new houses of parliament. The main incentives were rapid increases in black education spending (but no end of segregated schools), repeal of influx control and major indirect state support for black housing, and the creation of regional services councils mandated to spend new sources of taxation where the need was greatest.

Such material improvements were unlikely to satisfy black aspirations, both economic and political. Black resistance, hitherto largely repressed by the banning of the African National Congress (ANC), Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1960 and harsh security laws within the country, increased massively from 1984 to 1986. It not only tested the state security apparatus but attracted world attention, leading to the escalation of sanctions and other pressures against the apartheid regime. The refusal in 1986 by American and European banks to roll over short-term loans led to a net outflow of capital in the late 1980s and accelerated already serious economic problems. A new president, F. W. de Klerk, stunned the country in February 1990 by announcing the unbanning of the ANC, PAC, and SACP and the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners with a view to negotiations on a new political dispensation. These negotiations took 4 years, with many setbacks and much violence, some of it probably sponsored by the dying apartheid regime, but South Africa’s first open elections in April 1994 ended the apartheid era and ushered in a Government of National Unity comprising the ANC, which won 62 percent of the poll, the National Party, and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party.

The legacy of apartheid will pervade South Africa for many decades. It remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with class gradually replacing race but intra-racial inequalities increasing since 1994. Desegregation is certainly occurring in residential areas and schools, but almost entirely “up” the apartheid racial hierarchy, leaving most blacks as poor (or poorer) and as segregated as before. Politically, however, the achievement of relatively peaceful political transition has been consolidated through three democratic general elections, in 1994, 1999, and 2004.


  1. Beinart, William. 2001. Twentieth-Century South Africa. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Lemon, Anthony. 1987. Apartheid in Transition. Aldershot, England: Gower.
  3. Lemon, Anthony. 1991. Homes Apart: South Africa’s Segregated Cities. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  4. Posel, Deborah. 1991. The Making of Apartheid 1948-1961. Oxford, England: Clarendon.
  5. Smith, David M. 1982. Living under Apartheid. Boston: Allen & Unwin.

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