A Brief History of South African Apartheid

A timeline of this system of racial segregation

Entrance to Apartheid Museum
The entrance to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Raymond June/Flickr.com

Although you've likely heard about South African apartheid, you may not know its full history or how the system of racial segregation actually worked. Read on to improve your understanding and see how it overlapped with Jim Crow in the United States.

A Quest For Resources

The European presence in South Africa dates back to the 17th century when the Dutch East India Company established the Cape Colony outpost. Over the next three centuries, Europeans, primarily of British and Dutch origin, would expand their presence in South Africa to pursue the land’s abundance of natural resources such as diamonds and gold. In 1910, whites founded the Union of South Africa, an independent arm of the British Empire that gave the white minority control of the country and disenfranchised Black population.

Although South Africa was majority Black, the white minority passed a series of land acts that resulted in them occupying 80 to 90 percent of the country’s land. The 1913 Land Act unofficially launched apartheid by requiring the Black population to live on reserves.

Afrikaner Rule

Apartheid officially became a way of life in South Africa in 1948, when the Afrikaner National Party came into power after heavily promoting the racially stratified system. In Afrikaans, "apartheid" means “apartness” or “separateness.” More than 300 laws led to apartheid’s establishment in South Africa.

Under apartheid, South Africans were categorized into four racial groups: Bantu (South African natives), colored (mixed-race), white, and Asian (immigrants from the Indian sub-continent.) All South Africans over the age of 16 were required to carry racial identification cards. Members of the same family often were categorized as different racial groups under the apartheid system. Apartheid not only banned interracial marriage but also sexual relations between members of different racial groups, just as miscegenation was banned in the United States.

During apartheid, Black people were required to carry passbooks at all times to allow them entry into public spaces reserved for whites. This occurred after the enactment of the Group Areas Act in 1950. During the Sharpeville Massacre a decade later, nearly 70 Black people were killed and nearly 190 wounded when police opened fire on them for refusing to carry their passbooks.

After the massacre, leaders of the African National Congress, which represented the interests of Black South Africans, adopted violence as a political strategy. Still, the military arm of the group did not seek to kill, preferring to use violent sabotage as a political weapon. ANC leader Nelson Mandela explained this during the famous 1964 speech he gave after being jailed for two years for inciting a strike.

Separate and Unequal

Apartheid limited the education the Bantu received. Because apartheid laws reserved skilled jobs for whites exclusively, Black people were trained in schools to perform manual and agricultural labor but not for skilled trades. Fewer than 30 percent of Black South Africans had received any kind of formal education whatsoever by 1939.

Despite being natives of South Africa, Black people in the country were relegated to 10 Bantu homelands after the passage of the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959. Divide and conquer appeared to be the purpose of the law. By splitting up the Black population, the Bantu could not form a single political unit in South Africa and wrest control from the white minority. The land Black people lived on was sold to whites at low costs. From 1961 to 1994, more than 3.5 million people were forcibly removed from their homes and deposited in the Bantustans, where they were plunged into poverty and hopelessness.

Mass Violence

The South African government made international headlines when authorities killed hundreds of Black students peacefully protesting apartheid in 1976. The slaughtering of the students came to be known as the Soweto Youth Uprising.

Police killed anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko in his jail cell in September 1977. Biko’s story was chronicled in the 1987 film “Cry Freedom,” starring Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington.

Apartheid Comes to a Halt

The South African economy took a significant hit in 1986 when the United States and Great Britain imposed sanctions on the country because of its practice of apartheid. Three years later F.W. de Klerk became president of South Africa and dismantled many of the laws that allowed apartheid to become the way of life in the country.

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after serving 27 years of a life sentence. The following year South African dignitaries repealed the remaining apartheid laws and worked to establish a multiracial government. De Klerk and Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their efforts to unify South Africa. That same year, South Africa’s Black majority won rule of the country for the first time. In 1994, Mandela became South Africa’s first Black president.


HuffingtonPost.com: Apartheid History Timeline: On Nelson Mandela’s Death, A Look Back At South Africa’s Legacy Of Racism

Postcolonial Studies at Emory University

History.com: Apartheid - Facts and History

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "A Brief History of South African Apartheid." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-south-african-apartheid-2834606. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, July 31). A Brief History of South African Apartheid. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-south-african-apartheid-2834606 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "A Brief History of South African Apartheid." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-south-african-apartheid-2834606 (accessed April 1, 2023).