Pass Laws During Apartheid

Group protesting racial discrimination in Apartheid-era South Africa

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South African pass laws were a major component of apartheid that focused on separating South African citizens according to their race. This was done to promote the supposed superiority of White people and to establish the minority White regime.

Legislative laws were passed to accomplish this, including the Land Act of 1913, the Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, and the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950—all of which were created to separate the races.

Designed to Control Movement

Under apartheid, pass laws were designed to control the movement of Black Africans, and they are considered one of the most grievous methods that the South African government used to support apartheid.

The resulting legislation (specifically Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents Act No. 67 of 1952) introduced in South Africa required Black Africans to carry identity documents in the form of a "reference book" when outside a set of reserves (later known as homelands or bantustans.)

Pass laws evolved from regulations that the Dutch and British enacted during the 18th-century and 19th-century enslavement economy of the Cape Colony. In the 19th century, new pass laws were enacted to ensure a steady supply of cheap African labor for the diamond and gold mines.

In 1952, the government passed an even more stringent law that required all African men age 16 and over to carry a "reference book" (replacing the previous passbook) which held their personal and employment information. (Attempts to force women to carry passbooks in 1910, and again during the 1950s, caused strong protests.)

Passbook Contents

The passbook was similar to a passport in that it contained details about the individual, including a photograph, fingerprint, address, the name of his employer, how long the person had been employed, and other identifying information. Employers often entered an evaluation of the pass holder's behavior.

As defined by law, an employer could only be a White person. The pass also documented when permission was requested to be in a certain region and for what purpose, and whether that request was denied or granted.

Urban areas were considered "White," so a non-White person needed a passbook to be inside a city.

Under the law, any governmental employee could remove these entries, essentially removing permission to stay in the area. If a passbook didn't have a valid entry, officials could arrest its owner and put him in prison.

Colloquially, passes were known as the dompas, which literally meant the "dumb pass." These passes became the most hated and despicable symbols of apartheid.

Violating Pass Laws

Africans often violated the pass laws to find work and support their families and thus lived under constant threat of fines, harassment, and arrests.

Protests against the suffocating laws drove the anti-apartheid struggle—including the Defiance Campaign in the early '50s and the huge women's protest in Pretoria in 1956.

In 1960, Africans burned their passes at the police station in Sharpeville and 69 protesters were killed. During the '70s and '80s, many Africans who violated pass laws lost their citizenship and were deported to impoverished rural "homelands." By the time the pass laws were repealed in 1986, 17 million people had been arrested.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Pass Laws During Apartheid." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, February 16). Pass Laws During Apartheid. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Pass Laws During Apartheid." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).