The Origins of Apartheid in South Africa

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The doctrine of apartheid ("separateness" in Afrikaans) was made law in South Africa in 1948, but the subordination of the Black population in the region was established during European colonization of the area.

In the mid-17th century, White settlers from the Netherlands drove the Khoi and San people out of their lands and stole their livestock, using their superior military power to crush resistance. Those who were not killed or driven out were forced into enslavement.

In 1806, the British took over the Cape Peninsula, abolishing slavery there in 1834 and relying instead on force and economic control to keep Asian people and Black South African people in their "places."

After the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, the British ruled the region as "the Union of South Africa" and the administration of that country was turned over to the local White population. The Constitution of the Union preserved long-established colonial restrictions on the political and economic rights of Black South Africans.

Codification of Apartheid

During World War II, a vast economic and social transformation occurred as a direct result of White South African participation. Some 200,000 White males were sent to fight with the British against the Nazis, and at the same time, urban factories expanded to make military supplies, drawing their workers from rural and urban Black South African communities.

Black South Africans were legally prohibited from entering cities without proper documentation and were restricted to townships controlled by the local municipalities, but strict enforcement of those laws overwhelmed the police and they relaxed the rules for the duration of the war.

Black South Africans Move Into the Cities

As increasing numbers of rural dwellers were drawn into urban areas, South Africa experienced one of the worst droughts in its history, driving nearly a million more Black South Africans into the cities.

Incoming Black South African people were forced to find shelter anywhere; squatter camps grew up near major industrial centers but had neither proper sanitation nor running water. One of the largest of these squatter camps was near Johannesburg, where 20,000 residents formed the basis of what would become Soweto.

The factory workforce grew by 50 percent in the cities during World War II, largely because of expanded recruitment. Before the war, Black South African people had been prohibited from skilled or even semi-skilled jobs, legally categorized as temporary workers only.

But the factory production lines required skilled labor, and the factories increasingly trained and relied on Black South African people for those jobs without paying them at the higher-skilled rates.

Rise of Black South African Resistance

During World War II, the African National Congress was led by Alfred Xuma (1893-1962), a medical doctor with degrees from the United States, Scotland, and England.

Xuma and the ANC called for universal political rights. In 1943, Xuma presented the wartime Prime Minister Jan Smuts with "African's Claims in South Africa," a document that demanded full citizenship rights, fair distribution of the land, equal pay for equal work, and the abolishment of segregation.

In 1944, a young faction of the ANC led by Anton Lembede and including Nelson Mandela formed the ANC Youth League with stated purposes of invigorating a Black South African national organization and developing forceful popular protests against segregation and discrimination.

Squatter communities set up their own system of local government and taxation, and the Council of Non-European Trade Unions had 158,000 members organized in 119 unions, including the African Mine Workers' Union. The AMWU struck for higher wages in the gold mines and 100,000 men stopped work. There were over 300 strikes by Black South African people between 1939 and 1945, even though strikes were illegal during the war.

Police Action Against Black South Africans

Police took direct action, including opening fire on demonstrators. In an ironic twist, Smuts had helped write the Charter of the United Nations, which asserted that the people of the world deserved equal rights, but he did not include non-White races in his definition of "people," and eventually South Africa abstained from voting on the charter's ratification.

Despite South Africa's participation in the war on the side of the British, many Afrikaners found the Nazi use of state socialism to benefit the "master race" attractive, and a Neo-Nazi gray-shirt organization formed in 1933, which gained increasing support in the late 1930s, calling themselves "Christian Nationalists."

Political Solutions

Three political solutions for suppressing the Black South African rise were created by different factions of the white power base. The United Party (UP) of Jan Smuts advocated the continuation of business as usual and said that complete segregation was impractical, but added there was no reason to give Black South African people political rights.

The opposing party (Herenigde Nasionale Party or HNP) led by D.F. Malan had two plans: total segregation and what they termed "practical" apartheid. Total segregation argued that Black South African people should be moved back out of the cities and into "their homelands": only male 'migrant' workers would be allowed into the cities, to work in the most menial jobs.

"Practical" apartheid recommended that the government intervene to establish special agencies to direct Black South African workers to employment in specific White businesses. The HNP advocated total segregation as the "eventual ideal and goal" of the process but recognized that it would take many years to get Black South African labor out of the cities and factories.

Establishment of 'Practical' Apartheid

The "practical system" included the complete separation of races, prohibiting all intermarriage between Black South African people, "Coloureds" (mixed race people), and Asian people. Indian people were to be repatriated back to India, and the national home of Black South African people would be in the reserve lands.

Black South African people in urban areas were to be migratory citizens, and Black trade unions would be banned. Although the UP won a significant majority of the popular vote (634,500 to 443,719), because of a constitutional provision that provided greater representation in rural areas, in 1948 the NP won a majority of seats in the parliament. The NP formed a government led by D.F. Malan as PM, and shortly thereafter "practical apartheid" became the law of South Africa for the next 40 years.


  • Clark Nancy L., and Worger, William H. South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Routledge. 2016, London
  • Hinds Lennox S. "Apartheid in South Africa and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Crime and Social Justice No. 24, pp. 5-43, 1985.
  • Lichtenstein Alex. "Making Apartheid Work: African Trade Unions and the 1953 Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act in South Africa." The Journal of African History Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 293-314, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.
  • Skinner Robert. "The dynamics of anti-apartheid: international solidarity, human rights and decolonization." Britain, France and the Decolonization of Africa: Future Imperfect? UCL Press. p 111-130. 2017, London.
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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "The Origins of Apartheid in South Africa." ThoughtCo, Oct. 18, 2021, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, October 18). The Origins of Apartheid in South Africa. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "The Origins of Apartheid in South Africa." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).