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The racial segregation in South Africa known as apartheid, in place for nearly fifty years, faced resistance from the beginning, causing the country to loose its U.N. vote and its Olympics slot. Apartheid finally ended in 1991, and South Africa has been working to repay and repair emotional damages incurred by the white minority’s supremacy over the black majority.
Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning “apartness” or “separateness” and refers to a system of racial segregation practiced by the white minority against a black majority in the Republic of South Africa from 1948 to 1991. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the term has acquired a generic meaning, much like holocaust and diaspora, and is used to describe other situations around the world in which one group of people deny basic human and civil rights to another group based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. Thus, one hears of apartheid against women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, apartheid against Palestinians in areas controlled by Israel, and apartheid against homosexuals in various countries.
The notions of white supremacy and racial segregation came to South Africa with the first European settlers. The Dutch East India Company imported slaves from East Africa and Malaysia soon after establishing a small colony at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Although the British abolished slavery shortly after annexing the Cape Colony in 1806, they maintained various institutions and practices that guaranteed white political and economic control over the black majority. By the early twentieth century Britain controlled all of modern-day South Africa, with political power nearly entirely in the hands of people of European descent. With the Act of Union in 1910, South Africa gained dominion status within the British Empire and limited self-rule. Between 1910 and 1948 Union governments passed numerous laws that severely restricted black rights. Blacks were denied equal citizenship through such measures as pass laws (laws requiring blacks to carry identification pass books), job reservations, restricted voting rolls, and the right to form unions. The Native Areas Acts of 1913 and 1936 relegated the African majority to native reserves, forcing roughly 85 to 90 percent of the population in theory (although never in fact) to live on less than 14 percent of the land. The remaining 86 percent of the land was reserved for whites only.
Thus, when Daniel F. Malan (1874–1959) and his Afrikaner Nationalist Party won the 1948 general election on a platform that officially endorsed apartheid, the concept was not alien to either the white or black populations. Ironically, at a time when Europe and North America were ending legalized discrimination against racial minorities, white South Africans began to implement one of the harshest, most total systems of racial discrimination in world history.
The philosophy of apartheid was based on four major points: the “separate development” of the four official racial groups in the country; white control of every aspect of government and society; white interests overruling black interests, with no requirement to provide equal facilities for all groups; and the categorization of “whites” (people of European descent) as a single nation and Africans as members of several distinct nations or potential nations.
Under apartheid there were four official racial groups. The Africans (sometimes designated as Bantu) made up about 78 percent of the total population and, although of common ancestry, were divided into nine distinct nations: Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Tsonga, Pedi, Tswana, Swazi, Ndebele, and Sotho. Colored was the name given to people of mixed black, Malayan, and white descent who traced their origins to the earliest days of European settlement. Asians, mainly of Indian ancestry, were a third official group. Coloreds and Asians made up roughly 10 percent of the population. The remaining 12 or 13 percent were whites, with about 60 percent of Dutch descent and 40 percent from the British Isles, although immigrants from nearly every European nation were represented in this single “nation.”
The apartheid system was sometimes described as having two aspects, so-called grand and petty apartheid. Grand apartheid refers to those racially discriminatory policies that related to land and politics. Petty apartheid refers to the everyday examples of racial discrimination, such as marriage restrictions and segregated facilities and amenities, housing, jobs, transportation, and education. During the first decade following the 1948 elections, apartheid policies developed in a rather crude manner under the label of baaskap. This Afrikaans term roughly translates as “mastery,” or white supremacy, with a very explicit notion of a master (the “boss”) and servant relationship between white and black. The Afrikaners’ obsession with cultural survival and almost pathological fear of the swart gevaar (“black peril”) resulted in a series of laws enforcing strict segregation and white supremacy. These included the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949); the Immorality Act (1950), which made sex between people of different racial groups illegal; the Population Registration Act (1950), requiring everyone to be registered in one of the official groups; the Group Areas Act (1950); the Suppression of Communism Act (1950), which effectively identified anyone who opposed the government as a Communist; the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953); and the Bantu Education Act (1953). This last denied government support to private and church-run (often mission) schools and placed the entire national education system under the government’s direction, resulting in a significant decline in the quality of black education.
The Baaskap Period and Hendrik Verwoerd
During this baaskap period, the apartheid government set about enforcing a strict separation between the races in urban areas. Thousands of Africans, Asians, and coloreds were forcibly removed from so-called white areas and relocated to dreary, desolate townships outside the cities. These harsh measures are best exemplified by the forced removal of an entire colored community living in “District Six” in Cape Town, and the destruction of the African township of Sophiatown, near Johannesburg, which was then rebuilt as a white town, to be renamed Triomf (Afrikaans: “Triumph”). It is estimated that from the passage of the Group Areas Act in 1950 to the end of forced removals in the late 1980s, more than 3.5 million people were forcibly relocated by the government.
In 1958 Hendrik Verwoerd (1901–1966) became prime minister. He is remembered as the chief architect of apartheid. Under Verwoerd, apartheid evolved away from baaskap and toward a more sophisticated racist policy called separate development. Under separate development, each of the nine African (or Bantu) groups was to have its own nation, or Bantustan, located roughly on the 14 percent of land set aside in the Native Land Acts of 1913 and 1936. The remaining 86 percent of the country was reserved for whites only; that land included the best farmland, the main urban areas, and major mineral deposits and mines. The underlying philosophy of separate development was that Africans should return to their independent homeland, and there develop socially, economically, culturally, and politically according to their own freely determined desires. The argument went that in this way, all South African nations—the white “nation” and the nine black “nations”—would have self-determination and not be forced to live under alien rule.
Self-determination only began, however, once the Africans entered their homeland. They were not given a choice of whether to move or not, though many of them had lived for generations in cities and never been near their designated homeland. Furthermore, many Africans came from diverse ancestries, with (for example) a Xhosa grandfather and a Sotho grandmother, or some other combination of the nine different groups. Now, however, they found themselves with a pass book that officially labeled them as belonging to one group or another and as citizens of that homeland. They were aliens in South Africa—a country that theoretically now had a white majority population.
Verwoerd’s policy of “separate development” raised apartheid to a new level of systematized racism. This began the era of truly “grand” apartheid: not only did the petty racism of “whites only” park benches and beaches affected everyday life, now every moment of one’s life was determined by one’s racial classification, from racially designated hospitals for one’s birth to racially designated cemeteries for one’s burial. Coloreds, Asians, and Africans could not move freely about the country, could not freely choose their place of residence or employment, and could not vote or own land. African workers in cities and on the mines were considered transients, and had to return regularly to their “homeland.” Only those with permits could live in “white” areas, and they were not allowed to bring with them their spouse or family, thus contributing to the breakdown of African family life. Blacks were forced to live in African, Asian, or colored townships on the perimeter of urban areas. Africans, coloreds, and Asians (but not whites) were required at all times to carry pass books, known as “Books of Life” because they contained all of a person’s identity, including marriage and driver’s licenses, birth certificate, and work permit.
In 1963 the apartheid regime granted the first of the Bantustans, the Transkei (a Xhosa “homeland”), limited self-government. Between 1976 and 1981, the Transkei, Bophuthatswana (Tswana), Venda (Venda), and Ciskei (Xhosa) were granted “independence” by the government, although no other government in the world ever recognized these “nations.” KwaZulu, KwaNdebele, Lebowa, KaNgwane, Gazankulu, and Qwa Qwa were declared “self-governing” in the 1970s. None of the homelands were ever economically viable. They consisted mostly of poor, eroded land; few had any mineral deposits of note, urban areas, or industry. Families were left dependent on migrant laborers to send home their earnings from work in white areas. All of the homelands were abolished in 1994 and the land reincorporated into the Republic.
Opposition to apartheid began immediately after the 1948 elections. Armed with the Suppression of Communism Act, which, despite its racist policies, earned South Africa support during the Cold War from the United States and Great Britain, the apartheid regime successfully crushed most resistance, however. The leading black opposition group was the African National Congress (ANC), whose members included Albert Luthuli (1898–1967; winner of the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize), Walter Sisulu (1912–2003), Oliver Tambo (1917–1993), and Nelson Mandela (b. 1918). In 1955 a Congress of the People adopted a Freedom Charter that called for a multiracial, democratic South Africa; the charter was adopted by the ANC.
By the early 1960s, as dozens of African nations gained their independence, South Africa faced increasing international condemnation. In 1961 South Africa left the British Commonwealth rather than abandon apartheid. In that same year the Dutch Reformed churches of South Africa left the World Council of Churches. South Africa also lost its vote in the United Nations and was banned from the Olympic Games as well as many international organizations. Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, the ANC formed a military wing in 1961, Umkonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) that resorted to violence in its resistance to apartheid. In 1963 Mandela and seven others were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The government now banned nearly all opposition organizations and placed many individuals either in prison or under house arrest. Verwoerd was assassinated in 1966, and under his successor, John Vorster (1915–1983), some aspects of petty apartheid were relaxed. The government’s decision in 1976 to require mandatory instruction in Afrikaans in black schools, however, sparked off riots, first in the black township of Soweto and then across the country. The following year South African police murdered the Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko (1946–1977). In 1978, P. W. Botha (1916–2006) became prime minister and, while continuing to relax many apartheid policies, he took a tough stand against any opposition to the government. He also began to tinker with the apartheid system, giving coloreds and Asians limited political rights. He hoped thereby to co-opt these two groups, appease world opinion, and allow whites to remain in power.
Following Zimbabwe’s independence in 1981, South Africa and Namibia were the only remaining white-ruled countries in Africa, and tremendous pressures were building, both internally and externally, for change. South Africa faced increasingly strict international economic sanctions, which included U.S. corporations’ divestiture of their South African holdings. Internally, the need for more skilled labor led to the lifting of limits on black wages and the legalization of black labor unions with the right to strike. These and other factors required more than cosmetic changes to the apartheid system.
The End of Apartheid
In 1989 F. W. de Klerk (b. 1936) became prime minister and immediately announced the release of many black political prisoners. In February 1990 he declared in Parliament that apartheid had failed, that the bans on all political parties would be lifted, and that Nelson Mandela would be released after twenty-seven years of imprisonment. In 1991 all the remaining apartheid laws were repealed. After three years of intense negotiation, all sides agreed in 1993 to a framework for a multiracial, multiparty transitional government. Elections were held in April 1994, and Nelson Mandela became the first freely elected, majority president in South African history. In 1995 President Mandela formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu (b. 1931) as chair, to investigate human rights abuses suffered by the South African people under apartheid. The commission’s stated purpose was not to punish but to help the country come to terms with its past, making it unique in human history. In 2003 President Thabo Mbeki (b. 1942, in office 19902008) announced that the South African government would pay 660 million rand (around $85 million at the time) to about 22,000 people who had been detained or tortured, or who were surviving family members of those murdered during the apartheid era.
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