Group Areas Act No. 41 of 1950

South Africa's Apartheid Segregation Act

Police Dragging Protestor at Anti-Apartheid Demonstrations in Soweto

 William Campbell/Getty Images

On April 27, 1950, the Group Areas Act No. 41 was passed by the apartheid government of South Africa. As a system, apartheid used long-established race classifications to maintain the dominance of the colonial occupation of the country. The primary purpose of apartheid laws was to promote the superiority of whites and to establish and elevate the minority white regime. A suite of legislative laws was passed to accomplish this, including Group Areas Act No. 41, as well as the Land Act of 1913, the Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950: all of these were created to separate the races and subjugate nonwhite people.

South African race categories were set up within a few decades after the discovery of diamonds and gold in the country during the mid-19th century: native-born Africans ("Blacks," but also called "kaffirs" or "Bantu"), Europeans or European-descended ("Whites" or "Boers"), Asians ("Indians") and mixed raced ("Coloured"). The 1960 South African census showed that 68.3% of the population were African, 19.3% were White, 9.4% Coloured, and 3.0% Indian.

Restrictions of the Group Areas Act No. 41

The Group Areas Act No 41 forced physical separation and segregation between races by creating different residential areas for each race. Implementation started in 1954 when people were first forcibly removed from living in "wrong" areas, leading to the destruction of communities.

The Act also restricted ownership and the occupation of land to groups as permitted, meaning that Africans could neither own nor occupy land in European areas. The law was also supposed to apply in reverse, but the result was that land under black ownership was taken by the government for use by whites only.

The government set aside ten "homelands" for relocated non-white residents, mostly scattered bits of unwanted territories, based on ethnicity among the black communities. These homelands were granted "independence" with limited self-rule, the main purpose of which was to delete the homeland residents as citizens of South Africa, and cut back on the government's responsibility for providing housing, hospitals, schools, electricity, and water supplies.

Implications

However, the Africans were a significant economic source in South Africa, in particular as a labor force in the cities. Pass Laws were established to require non-whites to carry passbooks, and later "reference books" (similar to passports) to be eligible to enter the "white" parts of the country. Worker's hostels were established to accommodate temporary workers, but between 1967 and 1976, the South African government simply stopped building homes for Africans at all, leading to severe housing shortages.

The Group Areas Act allowed for the infamous destruction of Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg. In February 1955, 2,000 policemen began removing Sophiatown residents to Meadowlands, Soweto and established the suburb as an area for whites only, newly called Triomf (Victory). In some cases, the nonwhites were loaded onto trucks and dumped into the bush to fend for themselves. 

There were serious consequences for people who didn't comply with the Group Areas Act. People found in violation could receive a fine of up to two hundred pounds, prison for up to two years, or both. If they didn't comply with forced eviction, they could be fined sixty pounds or face six months in prison.

Effects of the Group Areas Act

Citizens tried to use the courts to overturn the Group Areas Act, though they were unsuccessful each time. Others decided to stage protests and engage in civil disobedience, such as sit-ins at restaurants, which took place across South Africa during the early 1960s.

The Act hugely affected communities and citizens across South Africa. By 1983, more than 600,000 people had been removed from their homes and relocated.

Colored people suffered significantly because housing for them was often postponed because plans for zoning were primarily focused on races, not mixed races. The Group Areas Act also hit Indian South Africans especially hard because many of them resided in other ethnic communities as landlords and traders. In 1963, approximately a quarter of Indian men and women in the country were employed as traders. The National Government turned a deaf ear to the protests of the Indian citizens: in 1977, the Minister of Community Development said that he wasn't aware of any cases instances in which Indian traders who were resettled that didn't like their new homes.

Repeal and Legacy

The Group Areas Act was repealed by President Frederick Willem de Klerk on April 9, 1990. After apartheid ended in 1994, the new African National Congress (ANC) government headed by Nelson Mandela was faced with an enormous housing backlog. More than 1.5 million homes and apartments in the urban areas were located in informal settlements without property titles. Millions of people in rural areas lived in terrible conditions, and urban blacks resided in hostels and shacks. The ANC government promised to build one million homes within five years, but most of them were of necessity located in developments on the outskirts of cities, which have tended to sustain existing spatial segregation and inequality.

Great strides have been undertaken in the decades since apartheid ended, and today South Africa is a modern country, with an advanced highway system and modern homes and apartment buildings in the cities available to all residents. While nearly half of the population was without formal housing in 1996, by 2011, 80 percent of the population had a home. But the scars of inequality remain. 

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