South Africa's Apartheid Era Population Registration Act

Black and white photo of an anti-racism sign.


South Africa's Population Registration Act No. 30 (commenced on July 7) was passed in 1950 and defined in clear terms who belonged to a particular race. Race was defined by physical appearance and the act required people to be identified and registered from birth as belonging to one of four distinct racial groups: White, Coloured, Bantu (Black African), and Other. It was one of the "pillars" of Apartheid. When the law was implemented, citizens were issued identity documents and race was reflected by the individual's Identity Number.

The Act was typified by humiliating tests which determined race through perceived linguistic and/or physical characteristics. The wording of the Act was imprecise, but it was applied with great enthusiasm:

A White person is one who is in appearance obviously white — and not generally accepted as Coloured — or who is generally accepted as White — and is not obviously Non-White, provided that a person shall not be classified as a White person if one of his natural parents has been classified as a Coloured person or a Bantu...
A Bantu is a person who is, or is generally accepted as, a member of any aboriginal race or tribe of Africa...
A Coloured is a person who is not a White person or a Bantu...

Racial Test

The following elements were used for determining the Coloureds from the Whites:

  • Skin color
  • Facial features
  • Characteristics of the person's hair on their head
  • Characteristics of the person's other hair
  • Home language and the knowledge of Afrikaans
  • The area where the person lives
  • The person's friends
  • Eating and drinking habits
  • Employment
  • Socioeconomic status

The Pencil Test

If the authorities doubted the color of someone's skin, they would use a "pencil in hair test." A pencil was pushed in the hair, and if it remained in place without dropping, the hair was designated as frizzy hair and the person would then be classified as colored. If the pencil dropped out of the hair, the person would be deemed white.

Incorrect Determination

Many decisions were wrong, and families wound up being split and/or evicted for living in the wrong area. Hundreds of colored families were reclassified as white and in a handful of instances, Afrikaners were designated as colored. In addition, some Afrikaner parents abandoned children with frizzy hair or children with dark skin who were considered outcasts.

Other Apartheid Laws

The Population Registration Act No. 30 worked in conjunction with other laws passed under the apartheid system. Under the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, it was illegal for a white person to marry someone of another race. The Immorality Amendment Act of 1950 made it a crime for a white person to have sex with someone from another race.

Repeal of The Population Registration Act

The South African Parliament repealed the act on June 17, 1991. However, the racial categories set forth by the act are still ingrained in the culture of South Africa. They also still underlie some of the official policies designed to remedy past economic inequalities.


"War Measures Continuation. Population Registration." South African History Online, June 22, 1950.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "South Africa's Apartheid Era Population Registration Act." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2020, August 28). South Africa's Apartheid Era Population Registration Act. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "South Africa's Apartheid Era Population Registration Act." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).