A Short History

Apartheid (which means ‘apartness’ in Afrikaans) was a system of entrenched racial segregation. It was the law of the land in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.

The roots of apartheid can be found in Dutch and British colonialism. The Dutch East India Company established the first European settlement in southern Africa in 1652 at Table Bay (now Cape Town). The majority of these early settlers were farmers. They seized land from indigenous Africans and established a system of slavery so they could grow crops and raise livestock on a bigger scale. These early Dutch speaking settlers developed a distinct language known as Afrikaans and were often referred to as Afrikaners or Boers (farmers).

Britain first took control of the region in 1795, later establishing the Cape of Good Hope Colony. With the imposition of British rule and laws, around 13,000 Afrikaners left the settlement in the 1830s – embarking on what would become known as ‘The Great Trek’. This resulted in the establishment of the independent Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in the interior of South Africa, far away from the Cape Colony. While the Dutch and British were colonial rivals, the laws and customs they enacted were all based around the exploitation of the indigenous African population. This effectively lay the groundwork for apartheid in the mid-twentieth century. The system of apartheid began in May 1948, when the National Party (NP) came to power in a narrow election victory. The NP represented the interests of the white Afrikaans speaking population.

Image courtesy of the Anti-Apartheid Movement Archives.

A Whites Only Park Bench – image courtesy of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) Archives.

Responding to the racist fears of this white minority over increased levels of Black migration to South African cities, the new government wasted little time imposing laws that further regulated the lives and movementd of the African, Coloured (a term used to refer to people who were ‘mixed race’) and Indian populations. While segregation was already the norm in South Africa, apartheid rigidly enshrined this as government policy and led to the increased persecution of the country’s ‘non-white’ majority.

Image courtesy of the Anti-Apartheid Movement Archives. Design by International Defence and Aid Fund – 1980

Laws such as Group Areas Act (1950) gave classified specific areas according to race. While the 1952 Natives Act made it mandatory for all “non-whites” to carry passes and  determined what areads they could live and work in. White control over the African population was further extended by legislation such as the Bantu Authorities (1951) and the Natives Resettlement (1954) acts, which were aimed at the ‘retribalisation’ of the African population in rural areas and provided the legislative framework for the state to remove Africans from urban spaces and to further redistribute land to white people.

This poster (in blue), shows how the Bantustans were made up of small and fragmented parcels of land. (Date: 1980 Design: International Defence and Aid Fund).

The NP also worked to control social interactions between different racial groups, passing the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) and then the Immorality Amendment Act (1950), which made extramarital sex between white people and people of other races illegal.

All of these laws were designed to maintain white power in South Africa. It effected almost every aspect of an individual’s life – determining where they could live and work, their access to education, who they could socialize with, and what they could buy. Later, many Africans were confined to barren and overcrowded ‘homelands’ in rural areas.

Under apartheid 87 per cent of South Africa was reserved for whites. Rural Africans were confined to the overcrowded Bantustans and urban Africans were treated as migrant workers. This poster shows how the Bantustans were made up of small and fragmented parcels of land.

The lack of opportunity in the ‘homelands’ meant millions of Africans had to leave every day to work in mines, on white farms, or to find employment in the city.

Other Africans lived in townships on the fringes of cities and survived by carrying our low-waged work. These efforts to restrict African movement meant millions of families were broken. Apartheid laws were brutally enforced by the police and the courts.

Indeed, by the mid-1950s a quarter of a million Africans were being sent to jail every year for violating the pass laws.

Image courtesy of South Africa Presidency archives

The following words from Dora Tamana, an African anti-apartheid activist and long-term resident of Cape Town, give a clear sense of just how intrusive and brutal apartheid was on a personal level:

“Under the system an African cannot buy land or live outside locations and reserves which are set aside for him. We make up two thirds of the population but only one tenth of the country is set aside for us. Because we have no land for our crops and our cattle we must live and work on the white man’s farms, on the mines, factories and towns.

Only in this way can we pay the taxes and school fees, buy food and clothing, and pay our doctors’ bills. Yet, we are not allowed to travel to look for work without a permit… Our country is truly a prison house.” (Dora Tamana, Speech to the Women’s International Democratic Federation Conference, 1955)

The Freedom Charter was adopted by the Congress of the People held in South Africa in 1955. In the 1980s it once again became a rallying point for anti-apartheid organisations within the country. The ANC declared 1980 the Year of the Charter. Image courtesy of the Anti-Apartheid Movement Archives.

It is important to note that apartheid was challenged throughout the entirety of its existence. The 1950s saw mass civil disobedience campaigns and protests all over the country, with women playing a particularly important role in challenging the implementation of new racist laws.

In 1955, the African National Congress (ANC), South African Indian Congress (SAIC), South African communists, and a number of other groups formed the Congress Alliance against apartheid.  These organisations collectively issued the Freedom Charter in 1955, which set out a vision for non-racial democracy in the country.

After the Sharpeville Massacre on the 21st March 1960, which saw the murder of 69 protesters when police opened fire on thousands of anti-pass protestors, the political situation in South Africa looked particularly bleak. The National Party declared a state of emergency after the massacre, arresting more than 2,000 people. They also moved quickly to ban both the ANC and Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), forcing many anti-apartheid activists underground and into exile overseas. Convinced that peaceful protest would not lead to change in South Africa, both the ANC and PAC formed armed wings and engaged in acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare against the apartheid state.

While state repression made resistance within South Africa difficult, activists continued to find ways to challenge apartheid – both domestically and internationally. The 1970s saw renewed waves of resistance in the country with the Black Consciousness Movement and the Soweto student uprisings symbolizing the militancy of a new generation of African activists. At the same time, exiled South Africans and a politically diverse range of groups continued to work on boycott, sanctions and divestment campaigns designed to political and economically isolate the apartheid state. With the apartheid economy in difficulty and amidst an explosion of mass protest throughout the country – embodied by the coordinated campaigns of the United Democratic Front – apartheid was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.

Facing internal and external pressures, National Party was forced into some reluctant reforms, and in 1990, released Nelson Mandela from Robben Island – twenty seven years after he was first imprisoned. The ANC and other anti-apartheid groups were also ‘unbanned’.

Apartheid finally came to an end in 1994, with Mandela and the ANC triumphing in the country’s first democratic elections