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Apartheid is a word in Afrikaans that originally meant “apartness” or “separateness.” Now it is the internationally recognized term for the policies of strict racial segregation and political and economic domination of blacks (Africans, “Coloreds,” and Asians) pursued by the National Party government of South Africa from 1948 until its exit from power in the early 1990s.
Apartheid catapulted to prominence as a catchword used by the National Party in its successful 1948 electoral campaign to oust Prime Minister Jan Smuts and his United Party, who were accused of undermining racial segregation. The National Party, headed successively by Prime Ministers D. F. Malan, J. G. Strydom, H. F. Verwoerd, B. J. Vorster, P. W. Botha, and F. W. deKlerk, implemented an interlocking set of policies that together comprised apartheid: intensified segregation, “separate development,” and harsh political repression.
Intensified segregation was manifested in a plethora of new laws. Starting with the prohibition of marriage and sexual liaisons between races (Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949, and Immorality Act, 1950), the National Party government defined criteria for racial categorization of individuals (Population Registration Act, 1950), mandated racially based residential segregation (Group Areas Act, 1950), required segregation of public facilities (Separate Amenities Act, 1953), established separate education for Africans (Bantu Education Act, 1953), banned trade unions from representing Africans in labor negotiations (Native Labour Act, 1953), and empowered government to reserve specific jobs for particular racial groups (Industrial Conciliation Amendment Act, 1956). State power confronted blacks at almost every turn.
“Separate development” distinguished post-1948 National Party policies from previous segregation in South Africa. All blacks were segregated residentially and commercially under the Group Areas Act. Millions of blacks were forcibly removed from urban “white” areas into crowded “black” areas. Additionally Africans were assigned to ten ethnic “homelands” (based upon existing “tribal reserves”) that were to be the sole legitimate space for black political expression and representation under the Bantu Authorities Act (1951) and the Promotion of Bantu Self Government Act (1959). From 1976 onward four “homelands” (Transkei, Bophututswana, Venda, and Ciskei) were granted fictive independence, recognized only by South Africa. “Coloreds” and Asians were granted nominal representation in separate political bodies.
Opposition to apartheid in the 1950s centered around the African National Congress (ANC), led by Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo. The ANC organized nonviolent campaigns of defiance and boycott in alliance with the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured People’s Organization, and radical whites in the Congress of Democrats. In 1955 representatives of the congresses, led by the ANC, adopted the Freedom Charter, a document demanding full civil rights for all South Africans, an end to racial discrimination, and major economic reform, including selected nationalization. In 1959 the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) broke from the ANC, accusing it of subservience to non-Africans and insufficient militancy. It echoed the ANC in calling for demonstrations against passes, the hated government control document carried by all Africans.
Following widespread demonstrations protesting the Sharpeville massacre of 1960—in which sixty-nine unarmed Africans were shot after responding to a PAC call to turn in passes and submit to arrest—the government embarked on sustained repression of opposition. Prior to 1960 it had generally respected legal norms, relying upon the Riotous Assemblies Act (1914) and its amendments (1927, 1929), under which the government could declare a state of emergency and ban individuals from political activity, and the Suppression of Communism Act (1950), which granted additional powers to block political activity deemed communist under a broad definition. In 1960 the government enacted the Unlawful Organizations Act, under which it banned the ANC and the PAC. It followed with General Laws Amendment Acts in 1962 and 1963 and the Terrorism Act of 1966, which legalized house arrest and detention without habeus corpus and provided greater penalties up to death for sabotage and terrorism. Concomitantly police adopted the practices of solitary confinement, physical and mental torture, and assassination.
In the view of the government, harsh police state measures were a necessary response to the decision of the ANC in 1961 to abandon nonviolence for armed struggle—to be led by Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a military organization jointly directed by leaders of the banned ANC and the clandestine South African Communist Party (SACP)—and to attacks on whites by POQO, an offshoot of the PAC, in 1962–1963. Relentlessly deploying its strengthened arsenal of repression, the government successfully decimated its internal opposition, as symbolized by the imprisonment in 1964 of ANC leaders, including Mandela and Sisulu, on Robben Island. Tambo, who had left the country in 1960, peripatetically undertook the difficult creation of ANC and MK structures in exile.
The Soweto uprising of June 1976 and the nationwide unrest that followed exploded the government’s hopes that blacks might acquiesce to apartheid. The government responded with both reform and repression. African trade union rights were recognized in 1980 and 1981, a new constitution was enacted in 1984 granting subordinate voting privileges to “Coloreds” and Asians, and there was selective relaxation of rigid segregation, including the abolition of the pass system in 1985. Repression of opposition was intensified, however, as symbolized by the 1977 death in police custody of Steve Biko, the charismatic leader who founded the Black
Consciousness movement in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, opposition inside the country grew. Post-1976 boycotts, strikes, and township demonstrations metamorphosed in the 1980s into open nationally organized opposition, led by the ANC-oriented United Democratic Front (UDF), a burgeoning trade union movement, and prominent church leaders, most notably the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Numerous acts of sabotage and armed attacks—organized by the resurgent ANC/MK underground and the ANC mission in exile— were carried out, complementing the external opposition of the worldwide antiapartheid movement and increasingly extensive economic sanctions.
On February 11, 1990, the newly elected president deKlerk freed Mandela and other ANC leaders from prison and legalized the PAC, ANC, and SACP. Negotiations between the National Party, headed by deKlerk, and its erstwhile antiapartheid opponents led by the ANC, headed by Mandela, commenced in mid-1990, leading in late 1993 to agreement upon a new nonracial democratic constitution. In 1993 the last apartheid laws were repealed.
In South Africa’s first election under the new constitution in April 1994, the ANC won a majority of votes, and Mandela became president. Mandela vigorously pursued a policy of reconciliation with those who had supported apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Tutu, exposed the workings of the apartheid police state. The ANC-led government adopted policies to reverse the consequences of decades-long apartheid, but apartheid’s entrenched legacies of inequality and black poverty proved hard to overcome.
- Adam, Heribert. 1971. Modernizing Racial Domination: South Africa’s Political Dynamics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Beinart, William, and Saul Dubow, eds. 1995. Segregation and Apartheid in Twentieth-Century South Africa. London and New York: Routledge.
- MacDonald, Michael. 2006. Why Race Matters in South Africa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Price, Robert M. 1991. The Apartheid State in Crisis: Political Transformation in South Africa, 1975–1990. New York: Oxford University Press.
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