Understanding South Africa's Apartheid Era

Common Questions About South Africa's Racial Segregation

A man sitting on a bench labelled NON-WHITES ONLY
A reminder of how things used to be in South Africa.

nicolamargaret / Getty Images

During most of the 20th century, South Africa was ruled by a system called Apartheid, an Afrikaans word meaning 'apartness,' which was based on a system of racial segregation and justified by white supremacist ideology. 

When Did Apartheid Start?

The term Apartheid was introduced during the 1948 election campaign by DF Malan's Herenigde Nasionale Party (HNP - 'Reunited National Party'). But racial segregation had been in force for many decades in South Africa. In hindsight, there is something of an inevitability in the way the country developed its extreme policies. When the Union of South Africa was formed on May 31, 1910, Afrikaner Nationalists were given a relatively free hand to reorganize the country's franchise according to existing standards of the now-incorporated Boer republics, the Zuid Afrikaansche Repulick (ZAR - South African Republic or Transvaal) and Orange Free State. Non-whites in the Cape Colony had some representation, but this would prove to be short-lived.

How did this system of white supremacy come to be in what is, essentially, a Black country with a majority Black population? The answer lies in centuries of violence, colonization, and slavery, inflicted by white Europeans since the 1600s. Over the course of centuries, European settlers (mostly Dutch and British) seized South African resources and brutally used systems of state-sanctioned segregation and violence to suppress the existing South African population, whose tribes had lived on the land for thousands of years. Treaties made with local tribes were cast aside by the European settlers as soon as they were no longer convenient, land was seized under the claim of being "empty" when it was in fact home to Black Africans, resources were likewise seized and exploited, and local populations that resisted were met with violence, enslavement, or outright genocide. By the time apartheid systems were given a name, the foundations had been laid for hundreds of years.

Who Supported Apartheid?

The Apartheid policy was supported in South Africa by various Afrikaans newspapers and Afrikaner 'cultural movements' such as the Afrikaner Broederbond and Ossewabrandwag.

Outside the borders, the entire European/Western world either implicitly or explicitly supported the policy, having an economic and ideological stake in South Africa. The country was important for resources like gold and coal, as well as serving as a market for goods manufactured in the West. During an age where Western countries were prioritizing anti-communist strategies, South Africa also was considered of strategic value and too important to "lose" to communist powers. The apartheid government, of course, leaned into all of that in order to ensure that any anti-apartheid movements, at home or abroad, did not have enough support to succeed.

How Did the Apartheid Government Come to Power?

The United Party actually gained the majority of votes in the 1948 general election. But due to the manipulation of the geographical boundaries of the country's constituencies before the election, the Herenigde Nasionale Party managed to win the majority of constituencies, thereby winning the election. In 1951, the HNP and Afrikaner Party officially merged to form the National Party, which became synonymous with Apartheid.

South Africa's system of government was implemented by British Parliament under the South Africa Act of 1909. Under this system, a parliamentary system similar to Britain's was instituted, but the right to vote was almost completely restricted to white men; in most areas, Black people could not vote, and they were barred from being elected to parliament. As a result of this deliberate exclusion of the Black majority, elections - like the election of 1948 - only reflected the interests of the white minority.

What Were the Foundations of Apartheid?

Over the decades, various forms of legislation were introduced which extended the existing segregation against Black people, Indian people, and other non-white communities. The most significant acts were the Group Areas Act No 41 of 1950, which led to over three million people being relocated through forced removals; the Suppression of Communism Act No 44 of 1950, which was so broadly worded that almost any dissident group could be 'banned;' the Bantu Authorities Act No 68 of 1951, which led to the creation of Bantustans (and ultimately 'independent' homelands); and the Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act No 67 of 1952, which, despite its title, led to the rigid application of Pass Laws.

What Was Grand Apartheid?

During the 1960s, severe racial discrimination applied to most aspects of life in South Africa and Bantustans were created for Blacks. The system had evolved into 'Grand Apartheid.' The country was rocked by the Sharpeville Massacre, the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned. Eventually, British opposition to Apartheid played a significant role in South Africa's withdrawal from the British Commonwealth; it declared itself a Republic.

Apartheid functioned as something akin to genocide, if more indirect, in South Africa during this time. The intense racial discrimination meant restricting Black people's access to healthcare, quality food, safe homes, and other human rights that keep people alive. South Africa, of course, was not the only country to codify severe racism into law: during the same era, Jim Crow laws and Black Codes in the United States served the similar purpose of restricting the quality of life and even necessities of life in order to force Black people into a legal, political, economic, and social under-class.

What Happened in the 1970s and 1980s?

During the 1970s and 80s, Apartheid was reinvented—a result of increasing internal and international pressures and worsening economic difficulties. Black youth was exposed to increasing politicization and found expression against 'Bantu education' through the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

Anti-apartheid activists and Black political leaders were targeted, imprisoned, and even outright assassinated. Afrikaner police admitted to killing activist Steve Biko, the government imprisoned Nelson Mandela for nearly 30 years for condemning apartheid, Winnie Mandela was tortured in a South African prison, and the list goes on and on. In short, the South African state did its best to eliminate any Black people who challenged its authority and fought against apartheid.

When Did Apartheid End?

In February 1990, President FW de Klerk announced Nelson Mandela's release and began the slow dismantling of the Apartheid system. In 1992, a whites-only referendum approved the reform process. In 1994, the first democratic elections were held in South Africa, with people of all races being able to vote. A Government of National Unity was formed, with Nelson Mandela as president and FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki as deputy presidents.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Understanding South Africa's Apartheid Era." ThoughtCo, Oct. 12, 2021, thoughtco.com/common-questions-about-apartheid-era-4070234. Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, October 12). Understanding South Africa's Apartheid Era. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/common-questions-about-apartheid-era-4070234 Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Understanding South Africa's Apartheid Era." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/common-questions-about-apartheid-era-4070234 (accessed May 26, 2022).