What Was Apartheid in South Africa?

Segregated bus in South Africa

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Apartheid is an Afrikaans word that means "separation." It is the name given to the particular racial-social ideology developed in South Africa during the twentieth century.

At its core, apartheid was all about racial segregation. It led to the political and economic discrimination which separated Black (or Bantu), Coloured (mixed race), Indian, and White South Africans.

What Led to Apartheid?

Racial segregation in South Africa began after the Boer War and really came into being in the early 1900s. When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 under British control, the Europeans in South Africa shaped the political structure of the new nation. Acts of discrimination were implemented from the very beginning.

It was not until the elections of 1948 that the word apartheid became common in South African politics. Through all of this, the White minority put various restrictions on the Black majority. Eventually, the segregation affected Coloured and Indian citizens as well.

Over time, apartheid was divided into petty and grand apartheid. Petty apartheid referred to the visible segregation in South Africa while grand apartheid was used to describe the loss of political and land rights of Black South Africans.

Pass Laws and The Sharpeville Massacre

Before its end in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela, the years of apartheid were filled with many struggles and brutality. A few events hold great significance and are considered turning points in the development and the fall of apartheid.

What came to be known as "pass laws" restricted the movement of Africans and required them to carry a "reference book." This held identification papers as well as permissions to be in certain regions. By the 1950s, the restriction became so great that every Black South African was required to carry one.

In 1956, over 20,000 women of all races marched in protest. This was the time of passive protest, but that would soon change.

The Sharpeville Massacre on March 21, 1960, would provide a turning point in the struggle against apartheid. South African police killed 69 Black South Africans and injured at least another 180 demonstrators who were protesting the pass laws. This event earned the opprobrium of many world leaders and directly inspired the start of armed resistance throughout South Africa. 

Anti-apartheid groups, including the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan African Congress (PAC), had been forming demonstrations. What was meant to be a peaceful protest in Sharpeville quickly turned deadly when police fired into the crowd.

With over 180 Black Africans injured and 69 killed, the massacre caught the attention of the world. In addition, this marked the beginning of armed resistance in South Africa.

Anti-Apartheid Leaders

Many people fought against apartheid over the decades and this era produced a number of notable figures. Among them, Nelson Mandela is probably the most recognized. After his imprisonment, he would become the first democratically elected president by every citizen—Black and White—of South Africa.

Other notable names include early ANC members such as Chief Albert Luthuli and Walter Sisulu. Luthuli was a leader in the non-violent pass law protests and the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1960. Sisulu was a mixed-race South African who worked alongside Mandela through many key events.

Steve Biko was a leader of the country's Black Consciousness Movement. He was considered a martyr to many in the anti-apartheid fight after his 1977 death in a Pretoria prison cell. 

Some leaders also found themselves leaning toward Communism amidst South Africa's struggles. Among them was Chris Hani, who would lead the South African Communist Party and was instrumental in ending apartheid before his assassination in 1993.

During the 1970s, Lithuanian-born Joe Slovo would become a founding member of an armed wing of the ANC. By the 80s, he too would be instrumental in the Communist Party.

Legal Implications

Segregation and racial hatred have been witnessed in many countries throughout the world in various ways. What makes South Africa's apartheid era unique is the systematic way in which the National Party formalized it through the law.

Over the decades, many laws were enacted to define the races and restrict the daily lives and rights of non-White South Africans. For instance, one of the first laws was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 which was meant to protect the "purity" of the White race.

Other laws would soon follow. The Population Registration Act No. 30 was among the first to clearly define race. It registered people based on their identity in one of the designated racial groups. That same year, the Group Areas Act No. 41 aimed to separate the races into different residential areas.

The pass laws that had previously only affected Black men were extended to all Black people in 1952. There were also a number of laws restricting the right to vote and own property.

It was not until the 1986 Identification Act that many of these laws began to be repealed. That year also saw the passage of the Restoration of South African Citizenship Act, which saw the Black population finally regain their rights as full citizens.

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Thompsell, Angela. "What Was Apartheid in South Africa?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/apartheid-definition-4140415. Thompsell, Angela. (2021, February 16). What Was Apartheid in South Africa? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/apartheid-definition-4140415 Thompsell, Angela. "What Was Apartheid in South Africa?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/apartheid-definition-4140415 (accessed June 6, 2023).