South Africa-Apartheid to Democracy (Part- 1)

(a) The formation of the Union of South Africa

South Africa has had a complicated history. The first Europeans to settle there permanently were members of the Dutch East India Company who founded a colony at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. It remained a Dutch colony until 1795, and during that time, the Dutch, who were known as Afrikaners or Boers (a word meaning ‘farmers’), took land away from the native Africans and forced them to work as labourers, treating them as little better than slaves. They also brought more labourers in from Asia, Mozambique and Madagascar.

In 1795 the Cape was captured by the British during the French Revolutionary Wars, and the 1814 peace settlement decided that it should remain British. Many British settlers went out to Cape Colony. The Dutch settlers became restless under British rule, especially when the British government made all slaves free throughout the British Empire (1838). The Boer farmers felt that this threatened their livelihood, and many of them decided to leave Cape Colony. They moved northwards (in what became known as ‘the Great Trek‘) and set up their own independent republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State (1835-40). Some also moved into the area east of Cape Colony known as Natal.

In the Boer War (1899-1902) the British defeated the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and in 1910 they joined up with Cape Colony and Natal to form the Union of South Africa. The population of the new state was mixed: Approximately 70 per cent were black Africans, known as Bantus; 18 per cent were whites of European origin; of these about 60 per cent were Dutch, the rest British; 9 per cent were of mixed race, known as ‘coloureds’; 3 per cent were Asians. Although they made up the vast majority of the population, black Africans suffered even worse discrimination than black people in the USA.

  • The whites dominated politics and the economic life of the new state, and, with only a few exceptions, blacks were not allowed to vote.
  • Black people had to do most of the manual work in factories, in the gold mines and on farms; the men mostly lived in barracks accommodation away from their wives and children. Black people generally were expected to live in areas reserved for them away from white residential areas. These reserved areas made up only about 7 per cent of the total area of South Africa and were not large enough to enable the Africans to produce sufficient food for themselves and to pay all their taxes. Black Africans were forbidden to buy land outside the reserves.
  • The government controlled the movement of blacks by a system of pass laws. For example, a black person could not live in a town unless he had a pass showing that he was working in a white-owned business. An African could not leave the farm where he worked without a pass from his employer; nor could he get a new job unless his previous employer signed him out officially; . many workers were forced to stay in difficult working conditions, even under abusive employers.
  • Living and working conditions for blacks were primitive; for example, in the goldmining industry, Africans had to live in single-sex compounds with sometimes as many as 90 men sharing a dormitory.
  • By a law of 1911, black workers were forbidden to strike and were barred from holding skilled jobs.
  • The Natives’ Land Act of 1913 severely restricted the ownership of land by blacks; at that stage natives controlled only 7% of the country.

In 1931 the union was fully sovereign from the United Kingdom with the passage of the Statute of Westminster, which abolishes the last powers of the British Government on the country.

In 1948, the National Party was elected to power. It strengthened the racial segregation begun under Dutch and British colonial rule.

(b) Dr Malan introduces apartheid

After the Second World War there were important changes in the way black Africans were treated. Under Prime Minister Malan (1948-54), a new policy called apartheid (separateness) was introduced. This tightened up control over blacks still further.

Apartheid as an officially structured policy was introduced after the general election of 1948. Legislation classified inhabitants into four racial groups—”black”, “white”, “coloured”, and “Indian”, and residential areas were segregated. Until then, most settlements had people of different races living side by side. Group Areas Act of 1950 put an end to diverse areas and determined where one lived according to race.

(For political reasons, the classification of “honorary white” was granted to immigrants from Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea— countries with which South Africa maintained diplomatic and economic relations.)

Why was apartheid introduced?

  • When India and Pakistan were given independence in 1947, white South Africans became alarmed at the growing racial equality within the Commonwealth, and they were determined to preserve their supremacy.
  • Most of the whites, especially those of Dutch origin, were against racial equality, but the most extreme were the Afrikaner Nationalist Party led by Dr Malan. They claimed that whites were a master race, and that non-whites were inferior beings. The Dutch Reformed Church (the official state church of South Africa) supported this view and quoted passages from the Bible which, they claimed, proved their theory. This was very much out of line with the rest or the Christian churches, which believe in racial equality. The Broederbond was a secret Afrikaner organization which worked to protect and preserve Afrikaner power.
  • The Nationalists won the 1948 elections with promises to rescue the whites from the ‘black menace’ and to preserve the racial purity of the whites. This would help to ensure continued white supremacy.
  • The first grand apartheid law was the Population Registration Act of 1950, which formalised racial classification and introduced an identity card for all persons over the age of 18, specifying their racial group.

(c) Apartheid developed further

Apartheid was continued and developed further by the prime ministers who followed Malan: Strijdom (1954-8), Verwoerd (1958-66) and Vorster (1966-78).

The main features of apartheid:

  1. There was complete separation of blacks and whites as far as possible at all levels. In country areas blacks had to live in special reserves; in urban areas they had separate townships built at suitable distances from the white residential areas. If an existing black township was thought to be too close to a ‘white’ area, the whole community was uprooted and ‘re-grouped’ somewhere else to make separation as complete as possible. There were separate buses, coaches, trains, cafes, toilets, parks benches, hospitals, beaches, picnic areas, sports and even churches. Black children went to separate schools and were given a much inferior education. But there was a flaw in the system: complete separation was impossible because over half the non-white population worked in white-owned mines, factories and other businesses. The economy would have collapsed if all non-whites had been moved to reserves. In addition, virtually every white household had at least two African servants.
  2. Every person was given a racial classification and an identity card. There were strict pass laws which meant that black Africans had to stay in their reserves or in their townships unless they were travelling to a white area to work, in which case they would be issued with passes. Otherwise all travelling was forbidden without police permission.
  3. Marriage and sexual relations between whites and non-whites were forbidden; this was to preserve the purity of the white race. Police spied shamelessly on anybody suspected of breaking the rules.
  4. Under the homeland system, the government attempted to divide South Africa into a number of separate states, each of which was supposed to develop into a separate nation-state for a different ethnic group. The Bantu Self-Government Act (1959) set up seven regions called Bantustans, based on the original African reserves. It was claimed that they would eventually move towards self-government. In 1969 it was announced that the first Bantustan, the Transkei, had become ‘independent’. However, the outside world dismissed this with contempt since the South African government continued to control the Transkei’s economy and foreign affairs. The whole policy was criticized because the Bantustan areas covered only about 13 per cent of the country’s total area; over 8 million black people were crammed into these relatively small areas, which were vastly overcrowded and unable to support the black populations adequately. They became very little better than rural slums, but the government ignored the protests and continued its policy; by 1980 two more African ‘homelands’, Bophuthatswana and Venda, had received ‘independence’.
  5. Africans lost all political rights, and their representation in parliament, which had been by white MPs, was abolished.

(d) Opposition to apartheid

1. Inside South Africa

Inside South Africa, opposition to the system was difficult. Anyone who objected – including whites – or broke the apartheid laws, was accused of being a communist and was severely punished under the Suppression of Communism Act. Africans were forbidden to strike, and their political party, the African National Congress (ANC), was helpless. In spite of this, protests did take place.

  • Chief Albert Luthuli, the ANC leader, organized a protest campaign in which black Africans stopped work on certain days. In 1952 Africans attempted a systematic breach of the laws by entering shops and other places reserved for whites. Over 8000 blacks were arrested and many were flogged. Luthuli was deprived of his chieftaincy and put in jail for a time, and the campaign was called off.
  • In 1955 the ANC formed a coalition with Asian and coloured groups, and at a massive open-air meeting at Kliptown (near Johannesburg), they just had time to announce a freedom charter before police broke up the crowd. The charter soon became the main ANC programme. It began by declaring: ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and no government can claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people.’ It went on to demand:
  1. equality before the law;
  2. freedom of assembly, movement, speech, religion and the press;
  3. the right to vote;
  4. the right to work, with equal pay for equal work;
  5. a 40-hour working week, a minimum wage and unemployment benefits;
  6. free medical care;
  7. free, compulsory and equal education.
  • Church leaders and missionaries, both black and white spoke against apartheid. They included people like Trevor Huddleton. a British missionary who had been working in South Africa since 1943.
  • Later the ANC organised other protest including 1957 bus boycott: instead of paying a fare increase on the bus route from their township to Johannesburg ten mile, away, thousands of Africans walked to work and back for three month until fares were reduced
  • Protest, reached a climax in 1960 when a huge demonstration took place again the pas laws at Sharpevilile, an African township near Johannesburg. Police fired on the crowd, killing 67 Africans and wounding many more. After this 15 000 Africans were arrested and hundred of people were beaten by police. This was an important turning point in the campaign: until then most or the protest had been non-violent; but this brutal treatment by the authorities convinced many black leaders that violence could only be met with violence.
  • A small action group of the ANC, known as Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), or MK, was launched; Nelson Mandela was a prominent member. They organized a campaign of sabotaging strategic targets: in 1961 there was spate of bomb attacks in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban. But the police soon clamped down, arresting most of the black leaders, including Mandela, who was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben island. Chief Luthuli still persevered with non-violent protests, and after publishing his moving autobiography Let My People Go, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was killed in 1967, the authorities claiming that he had deliberately stepped in front of a train. Discontent and protest increased again in the 1970s because the wage of Africans failed to keep pace with inflation.
  • In 1976, when the Transvaal authority announced that Afrikaans (the language spoken by whites of Dutch descent) was to be used in black African school., massive demonstrations took place at Soweto, a black town hip near Johannesburg. Although there were many children and young people in the crowd, police opened fire, killing at least 200 black Africans. This time the protest did not die down; they spread over the whole country. Again government responded with brutality: over the next six months a further 500 Africans were killed; among the victims was Steve Biko a young African leader who had been urging people to be proud of their blackness. He was beaten to death by police (1976).

Note: A Xhosa born to the Thembu royal family, Nelson Mandela became involved in anti-colonial politics, joining the ANC and becoming a founding member of its Youth League. After the Afrikaner minority government of the National Party established apartheid in 1948, he rose to prominence in the ANC’s 1952 Defiance Campaign, was appointed superintendent of the organisation’s Transvaal chapter and presided over the 1955 Congress of the People. Working as a lawyer, he was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and, with the ANC leadership, was unsuccessfully prosecuted in the Treason Trial from 1956 to 1961.

2. Outside South Africa

Outside South Africa there was opposition to apartheid from the rest of the Commonwealth. Early in 1960 the British Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan. had the courage to speak out against it in Cape Town; he spoke about the growing strength of African nationalism: ‘the wind of change is blowing through the continent · · · our national policies must take account of it’. His warnings were ignored, and shortly afterwards, the world was horrified by the Sharpeville massacre. At the 1961 Commonwealth Conference, criticism of South Africa was intense, and many thought the country would be expelled. In the end Verwoerd withdrew South Africa’s application for continued membership (In 1960 it had become a republic instead of a dominion, thereby severing the connection with the British crown; because of this the government had had to apply for readmission to the Commonwealth) and it ceased to be a member of the Commonwealth.


  • The “Wind of Change” speech was a historically significant address made by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Parliament of South Africa, on 3 February 1960 in Cape Town. He had spent a month in Africa visiting a number of British colonies. The speech signaled clearly that the Conservative-led British Government intended to grant independence to many of these territories, which indeed happened subsequently, with most of the British possessions in Africa becoming independent nations in the 1960s. The Labour governments of 1945–51 had started a process of decolonisation but this policy had been halted by the Conservative governments from 1951 onwards. Macmillan said:”The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact”

3. The UN and OAU

The United Nations and the Organization of African Unity condemned apartheid and were particularly critical of the continued South African occupation of South West Africa. The UN voted to place an economic boycott on South Africa (1962), but this proved useless because not all member states supported it. Britain, the USA, France,West Germany and Italy condemned apartheid in public, but continued to trade with South Africa. Among other things, they sold South Africa massive arms supplies, apparently hoping that it would prove to be a bastion against the spread of communism in Africa. Consequently Verwoerd (until his assassination in 1966) and his successor Vorster (1966-78) were able to ignore the protests from the outside world until well into the 1970s.


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