Rise of Apartheid: A Nightmare in Living Memory

Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shake hands at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum held in Davos in January 1992. Copyright World Economic Forum

Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shake hands at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum held in Davos in January 1992. Copyright World Economic Forum

Nelson Mandela has passed away.

I had planned on having a weekly segment on the blog called History in the News. The idea is to demonstrate history’s relevance and impact on our daily lives while simultaneously forcing myself to write about topics I wouldn’t normally tackle. The vast majority of what I’ll cover on the blog will be from the distant past. With the idea in place, all I needed was a current event to fall into my lap. Shortly before the publication of my first post, Mandela passed away after 95 years, and the choice became obvious. The world does not lack for tributes to the great South African statesman in the wake of his death. There’s really no need for me to add another to the mounting multitudes. I’ve decided to give a quick look at the system whose dismantling he would grow to symbolize: apartheid.

I’ll link to some biographies and tributes below, for those of you that are interested.

I’m 36 years old and I can remember apartheid. I remember its fall and can remember Nelson Mandela being released from prison after 27 years of captivity. Apartheid is what I think of when I think of South Africa, even now that I live in Australia and the African nation has become a chic travel destination for many of my acquaintances. Apartheid will always be what I think of when I think of South Africa. It will be different for my son, born recently. These crimes won’t form a part of his consciousness, won’t tinge his view. When he asks, I’ll gladly tell him, because it was a nightmare for those who lived through it.

The original architects of apartheid. From the Apartheid Museum archives.

The original architects of apartheid. From the Apartheid Museum archives.

In the early part of the last century, whites made up 22% of South Africa’s population, a number that has dwindled to 9% in the latest census. Despite their numerical inferiority, they held a disproportionate level of power since the Dutch first established permanent settlements for the refueling of their trade empire, beginning in 1652. The British annexed the Cape Colony in the early 1800’s and, as with any colonization, conflict and war with the indigenous populations ensued. Wars were fought between the British and the Boers (a term that means farmer in Dutch, but came to represent the Afrikaners migrating inland to escape British rule) as well as the British and Zulus. The Union of South Africa was created in 1910 but remained a British possession. The Union became independent in 1931.

Segregation had always been informally enforced, but now laws began to appear to make it legally binding. The Natives Land Act of 1913 was imposed to restrict ownership of land by blacks. The National Party’s rise to power in 1948 was accompanied by a rise in oppression. Law after law was enacted to affix the status quo, in a move reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws of the American South after Reconstruction.

  • In 1949, the Mixed Marriages Act prohibited marriages between people of different races.
  • The Population Registration Act of 1950 saw everyone classified by race as either white, black, coloured or native. Racial Classification Boards were established to officially determine races.
  • The Group Area Act, also of 1950, separated the races and where they could live. Townships were created for blacks on the outskirts of town, including the famous Soweto Township.
  • The Immorality Act banned sexual relations between people of different races.
  • 1952 saw the New Passes Law enacted, which required natives to carry passes at all times or face imprisonment.
  • The Native Law Amendment Act resulted in undesirable natives being removed to reserves.
  • 1953’s Separate Amenities Act maintained that the races had to be separated in public.

Other absurdities included:

  • Bantustans were set up for undesirables. They were autonomous regions in that if you lived there, citizenship in South Africa was revoked.
  • The classification of Taiwanese, Japanese and South Korean immigrants as ‘honorary whites’ based on their respective countries’ decisions to maintain relations with the South African apartheid regime.
  • Television was not introduced until 1976 and upon introduction, the channels were segregated.
“For use by white persons” – sign from the apartheid era

“For use by white persons” – sign from the apartheid era

Apartheid continued until the early 90’s, when a series of negotiations saw it finally reach its end. In 1994, universal elections were held for the first time in the nations history and Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa.

There are many details omitted in this account as apartheid’s cruelty has been well documented. One fact I tried to include, but found a hard time locating, was the number of black deaths incurred under the regime. Searches on the internet return sites like these, apartheid apologists, that obfuscate the numbers, claim blacks were better under apartheid and make cases for the good sides of the system.

One of the scariest lessons to take away is how small the minority was that imposed the system. White South Africans made up around 20% of the population at the time of its implementation. Apartheid had a decidedly Afrikaner feel to it, yet they made up just over half of the white population.. The party of apartheid was the National Party and one of their tenets was Afrikaner nationalism. We’re looking at around 10% of the population imparting a brutal system of control and inequality on 80% of the nation. Scarily enough, there are still many that would support the idea today, proof that a recurrence is never too far from the horizon.

Separate laws for separate people within the same land will never end well. Blacks suffered immensely under apartheid and now, many white South Africans, the very people who benefited from it’s implementation, are unhappy with the ANC and black rule, as evidenced by the reduction of the white population in the years following Mandela’s election, due to emigration. The aftermath is messy, but what came before it was unacceptable.

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7 thoughts on “Rise of Apartheid: A Nightmare in Living Memory

  1. June says:

    Excellent and thorough research–great work!

  2. jarretr says:

    Very nice post. I’m struck by how much South Africa is identified with the idea of “Apartheid,” yet the U.S., which had an equally odious system of racial segregation, has escaped that association. Granted, South Africa employed what seems to have been a far more state-enforced form a racial oppression, but then again, slavery was enshrined in the U.S. constitution, and we fought a war over it. Interesting stuff.

    • As a white American I can say that I associate the US with many things, one of which is slavery. I live overseas now, and have for 10 years, and the negatives seem to fade for me over time. I spent much of my ‘American’ adult life in Oakland, and the association with, and repercussions of, slavery were frequently at the forefront of discourse and the consciousness of the people. It may not be the same in North Dakota or Vermont.

      As for South Africa’s reputation, they did nothing to enhance it. They defiantly pushed themselves into international isolation, allowing the western countries to write the public history of their nation. The US, on the other hand, maintained relations with everyone, fought the ‘evil commies’ for the world’s freedom and allowed MGM, Rock N Roll and other cultural exports to craft their global image.

      Both are shameful episodes, and I’ll be sure to teach my children about both.

      • jarretr says:

        Yeah that makes sense. I’m a generally proud American, even though I live in Canada now, but people need to learn from America’s faults and its best aspects. We Yankees aren’t perfect, but damn if we haven’t overcome a lot of our worst historical inclinations.

  3. jarretr says:

    By the way, I’m adding you to my blog roll.

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