A Brief Overview of Apartheid in South Africa

Apartheid was a system birthed from nearly three hundred years of history, rooted in the fear and desire for control that a minority group has regarding a feared majority.  Apartheid, meaning ‘apart- ness’ in Afrikaans, was a system that adapted  to different goals, but it was never an end in itself.

Apartheid- not just an inconvenience

The system was built law- by- law beginning in late 1948, beginning with the ban on mixed marriages, and continuing on to control the movement of the Native population through registration, residency regulation and laws prohibiting union activity and protests.  Following the 1948 election, the Nationalist Party pursued a more aggressive and proactive policy of separation with explicit ethnic grouping that dictated where members of specific groups could live, work and go to school. This policy deviated from the Union Party’s modus operandi, where separation manifested itself in class- differentiation through laws that limited jobs by ethnic group, and prevented entrance into the middle class. The aim was both economic and social; economically, the whites, Coloureds, Indians and Natives would live within their respective economies and homelands, and socially, separation would be fully achieved, reducing racial tensions.

This was part of ‘separate development’ which arose from a desire to maintain white supremacy and dominance despite the overwhelming majority of black Africans.  The basic tenets of ‘separate development’ were the creation of a mobile working class of Natives who could not own property, via controls over their mobility, local and state administrations could stem the Native urban influx and the eventual independence of the designated homelands would effectively divest the South African government of any responsibility in the matters of Natives and strip them of citizenship and claims to rights.

Urban segregation and labor are inextricably tied in the legal narrative of Apartheid. In the urban areas, the intersection of pass laws, petty apartheid, and other gross inequalities fostered the growth of the African National Congress.  The campaigns of the 1950’s, protesting Apartheid, especially the 1952 Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign were largely unsuccessful, leading to the strengthening of the Apartheid apparatus with regards to limiting Natives’ ability to organize and protest.

In 1911, under the leadership of Louis Botha, the Union Party passed the Mines and Works Act and Native Labor Regulation Act, respectively excluding blacks from skilled labor, and making it illegal for Blacks to breach contracts. Labor legislation continued, with the purpose of limiting Natives’ mobility, relegating them to unskilled work, and generally excluding them from the consumer economy.  The laws passed subsequently created separate courts to accommodate separate jurisdictions (the Native Commissioner’s Courts), granted the Governor- General the right to “recognise or appoint any person as a Chief of any Native tribe” in accordance to Section 2, Clause 8 of the Native Administration Act of 1927.  Most importantly, with respect to this discussion, the Department of Native Affairs (later, the Department of Bantu Administration and Development, and the Department of Bantu Education) was founded by this same Act.  These three acts were the foundations that the legal architecture of Apartheid was built upon: the relegation of blacks to unskilled labor, the creation of separate jurisdictions (this was the basis of Bantu Education as designated in 1953).

Louis François Botha

In 1948, the Malan and the National Party ran and was elected on a platform of apartheid policies.  This was a departure from the Union Party’s policy of class- differentiation and a shift to ethnic classification and segregation.  The rationale was that “the housing and settling of the urban Native on an ethnic basis is conducive to greater satisfaction amongst the Bantu people themselves.”

The Nationalist Party passed the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act in 1949, just one year after becoming the majority party in the National Assembly and the election of D.F. Malan as Prime Minister.  Contemporaneous to this act was the marriage between Khama Seretse, son of Sekgoma Khama II, paramount chief of the Bamangwato peoples in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, and Englishwoman Ruth Williams in June 1947.

As this union received media attention, this stoked fears among the Afrikaner constituents that Native men would see this and believe it their right to marry a white woman.  The South African government pressured the Protectorate to remove Khama Seretse from his chieftainship, threatening to withhold its gold and uranium from the British Labor government.  As this was just after the second World War, the Labour government was deeply in debt, and could not afford to lose a cheap source of gold and uranium. As a result, Khama Seretse was exiled from the Bechuanaland Protectorate in 1951.

Seretse Khama and Wife

Implicit in these events (the deposition of Khama Seretse, and the passage of the Act) is a fear of the blurring of racial and social lines as Africans (particularly men) and those of European descent married.  The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages was a preemptive act that sought to prevent inter- racial marriages that would result in offspring that would undermine the racial categories as set forth by the proposed Population Registration Act, which would require all those living within South African soil to register as either White, Coloured or Native beginning in 1950.  This law enabled the execution of the Group Areas Act.

In the same year, the Group Areas Act parceled out areas for exclusive use by racial groups.  Whites were given about 70% of the land, although they were only 12% of the total population of South Africa at the time.  Conversely, Natives were given 13% of the land, despite making up 76% of the nation’s inhabitants.  The mass displacement of Africans led to a surge in the number of squatter camps outside of urban areas where employment was concentrated.  In response, the National Assembly passed the Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act in 1951, empowering local magistrates to evict squatters in urban areas.

The majority of those residing in these squatter areas were Native workers and their families.  Behind these laws was an understanding that “the majority of urban locations were a menace to the inhabitants and indirectly to the health of those in the towns (generally Europeans.)” due to “inadequate sanitary practices and lack of proper water supply.

This echoes the “sanitation syndrome” that Paul Maylam alludes to in his discussion of South African urban historiography; essentially, black Africans and Indians were driven out of urban areas (Transvaal, Natal, Port Elizabeth) as early as 1834, because they were viewed as vectors of disease.

The administrations in both cases acceded no culpability in the conditions endured by the inhabitants of the urban areas.

Another form of regulation was the pass law.  Pass Laws mandated that Africans carry passes (known in Afrikaans as the bewysboek), in both rural and urban areas.

These bewysboeken served the dual purpose of tracking Natives’ movement and forcing Natives into wage labor.  The passes could be checked at any time by any white official.  These passes contained documents certifying that the person in question was employed, with signatures from the local magistrates and their current employers.  These passes had be renewed frequently, as the average term of employment for Africans was about 17 months.

the pass

In 1952, the African National Conference (ANC) headed up a defiance campaign (officially called the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign) protesting the pass laws and other minor Apartheid laws.

The campaign began as a mass demonstration in Red Square in Johannesburg (now called Freedom Square), on April 6, 1952, the tercentennial date of Van Riebeeck and the first white settlers’ arrival to the Cape in response to a letter written by Prime Minister Daniel François Malan, rebuking the ANC for addressing him instead of bringing their grievances to the Minister for Native Affairs.  The letter to Malan was written by the leadership of the ANC, “demanding the repeal of certain specific laws by February 29, 1952,” threatening a passive resistance campaign if this did not happen.

Prime Minister Malan’s letter indicated that the government had no intention of repealing the laws, and promised to use the full force of the law if the ANC and its allies attempted to push for change.   In early March, 1952, the respective presidents of the ANC and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC), Drs. Moroka and Dadoo called for ten thousand volunteers to defy the pass laws peaceably, and if feasible, a general strike.  Within weeks, Drs. Moroka and Dadoo were charged in violation of the 1950 Suppression of Communism Act, and the first of the eight thousand defiers were sentenced to four to six months imprisonment with the option of a fine.  According to Henry Nxumalo, writer for the magazine Drum, “the fines were refused.”

Among the defiers were the leaders Yusuf Cachalia and Nelson Mandela.

Yusuf Cachalia

Yusuf Cachalia

In response to the Defiance Campaign, the National Assembly passed the Public Safety Act in 1953, declaring a state of emergency, giving officials the right to detain any person for reasons of public safety.  This law indicates that the Nationalist government felt that their laws were insufficiently enforced, simultaneously undermined by individuals who flouted the Pass Laws.  In a national sweep, 98 whites, 36 Coloureds, 90 Asians, 11,279 Africans were detained.

Note that the number of Africans arrested far exceeded the eight thousand who participated in the Campaign.  Additionally, Army Reserves (the Active Citizen Force and the Skiet Commandos) were mobilized and placed on patrol near African townships surrounding Cape Town.  The trend was a  movement toward stricter enforcement of existing laws, and the passage of a battery of legislation aimed at stemming the ability of Africans to mobilize and demonstrate for rights.  The 1952 Defiance Campaign Against Unjust Laws faltered and lost steam “as campaign leaders were charged under laws that had been framed for the suppression of Communism, and new and severer laws against protest were introduced into the South African Parliament.”

The Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act passed October 9, 1953 was one such law, amending the 1937 Industrial Conciliation Act, providing for the prevention and settlement of Native labor disputes.

The increased use of force by the government, coupled with the limited means of the African workers necessitated an end to the strike.  Simultaneously, there was a loss of morale among the working- class supporters of the Campaign, as economic concerns superseded what they saw as less immediate needs, such as the repeal of laws differentiating between “Native” and “European.”  Among the middle class, intellectual elite leadership of the ANC, there was a rising awareness of the shortcomings of civil disobedience as a tool.  Lower in the ranks, the younger, politicized generation began to view the failure of the Campaign “as a betrayal of the principles of African nationalism.”

In a sense, this campaign was detrimental to the cause, as it became an exercise in bolstering the strength of the Apartheid apparatus in the face of protest.

The Apartheid system of South Africa was not simply an inconvenience, rather, it was a pervasive set of laws and social constructions that regulated the minutiae of Africans’ lives most particularly.  However innocuous the pass laws and petty apartheid appeared to outsiders, they were no mere nuisance; the passes were a constant reminder of the ever- increasing reach of the South African apartheid state and a detriment to the mobility of blacks in urban areas.  With this in mind, it is not surprising that the 1952 Defiance of Unjust Laws campaign targeted these laws initially.  More importantly, one result of the Defiance Campaign was the strengthening of the legal mechanism of Apartheid with regard to protests in urban areas and labor disputes.  The mobilization of a reserve army, and the passage of a battery of laws in the National Assembly limiting the ability of Natives to organize and protest severely hindered militancy among the working class blacks who were most effected by the strike.  Among the middle- class, intellectual leadership of the African National Congress, there was a realization of the decreasing effectiveness of civil disobedience.  The Campaign was a turning point in South African legal history, because it was one of the first mass challenges to the newly placed Apartheid government, and it set the pace for the 1959 Industrial Conciliation Amendment Act, preventing African workers from forming labor unions, and the 1962 General Law Amendment (Sabotage Act) which granted the president greater power to declare organizations illegal and amend laws, redefining sabotage as “jeopardizing law and order.”

Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign (1952)

Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign (1952)

The latter Act’s 1963 amendment added the “Sobukwe clause,” calling for 12 months detainment for all political offenses, and giving officials the right to hold people in prison for 90 days without access to a lawyer.  The 1965 Criminal Procedure Act allowed for 180 days of detainment of all possible witnesses in criminal procedures regarding political and common law offenses.  The ever- further reaching hand of South African law is seen in the passage and enforcement of these laws, and it all goes back to the 1952 Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign and the government response.

Works Cited:
  1. H.R. Hahlo and I.A. Maisels, “The Rule of Law in South Africa,” (Jan, 1966, Virginia Law Review), Vol. 52, No. 1, p. 1- 31
  2. Alex Lichtenstein, “The Hope for White and Black’? Race, Labour and the State in South Africa and the United States, 1924- 1956 (Mar, 2004, Taylor and Francis, Ltd.), pp. 133- 154
  3. Laurine Platzky and Cherryl Walker (for the Surplus People Project,) Surplus People: Forced Removals in South Africa,, Ravan Press, 1985, Johannesburg
  4. H.J. Simons, African Women: Their Legal Status in South Africa, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 196 –see Part IV of the book
  5. Robert Price, The Apartheid State in Crisis: Political Transformation in South Africa 1975- 1990, (Oxford University Press, New York, 1991)
  6. Edward Feit, Urban Revolt in South Africa 1960- 1964: A Case Study, (Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1971)
  7. Melunsky, and Du Randt, Native Law, Davis, (Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Grotius Publications, 1959)
  8. William Pick and Diane Cooper, “Urbanisation and Womens’ Health in South Africa,” African Journal of Reproductive Health/ La Revue Africaine de la Sante Reproductive, Vol. 1, No. 1,  (March 1997, pub. Women’s Health and Action Research Centre (WHARC)), p. 45- 55
  9. Alex Lichtenstein, “Making Apartheid Work: African Trade Unions and the 1953 Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act in South Africa,”  The Journal of African History, Vol. 46, No. 2, (2005, Cambridge University Press), p. 293- 314
  10. Edward Feit, “Generational Conflict and African Nationalism in South Africa: The African National Congress, 1949-1959, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, (1972, Boston University African Studies Center), 181- 202
  11. Robert Price, The Apartheid State in Crisis: Political Transformation in South Africa 1975- 1990, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1991), 102
  12. Davis, Melunsky and Du Randt, Urban Native Law, (Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Grotius Publications, 1959) iv, v
  13. George M. Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1981)
  14. Clare Rider, “The ‘Unfortunate Marriage’ of Seretse Khama,” The Inner Temple Yearbook 2002/2003, http://www.innertemple.org.uk/archive/khama.html, (October 31, 2008)
  15. “Seretse Khama: 1921- 1980, A Brief Biography of Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana’s First President,” http://www.thuto.org/ubh/bw/skhama.htm
  16. George M. Houser, No One Can Stop the Rain: Glimpse of Africa’s Liberation Struggles, (New York, Pilgrim Press, 1989), 22
  17. Uma Shakar Jha, South Africa and the Non- Aligned Movement: An Agenda for the 21st Century, (1985, Association of Indian Africanists, Delhi),
  18. Paul Maylam, “Explaining the Apartheid City: 20 Years of South African Urban Historiography,” Journal of Southern African Studies. Vol. 21, No. 1, Special Issue: Urban Studies and Urban Change in Southern Africa, (March 1995), 19- 38
  19. Nelson Mandela, “We Defy’: Ten Thousand Protest Against ‘Unjust Laws’: A Statement of the Campaign’s Aims, Drum (August 1952), text found at: http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/Mandela/1950s/defiance/html
  20. Donald Crummey, ed., Banditry, Rebellion & Social Protest in Africa, Julia Wells, “The War of Degradation: Black Women’s Struggle Against Orange Free State’s Pass Laws” (New York, James Currey Ltd, 1986), 253- 270


Filed under Current Events, History, Law, Politics, Popular Culture, Post-Colonialism, Race, The Continent of Africa

11 responses to “A Brief Overview of Apartheid in South Africa

  1. aconerlycoleman

    apologies- my works cited came out funky =/

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  3. SAC

    In 1964, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment after what remains the most sensational treason trial in South African history.

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  6. Opal Atwood

    You’ve done it again! Great writing.

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  9. I want to say thank you for writing such excellent posts. I’m writing a research paper at the moment and your blog has been most helpful with finding sources and getting background information. Bloggers like you, that post substantial, interesting posts are so valuable!

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  10. Edie Blount

    Beautifully put together! Very informative. Thanks!!

  11. :D I have to tip my virtual hat to you! Your post helped me answer a question to my Philosophy of Law final. Thank you!!!


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