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Definition: Apartheid (Afrikaans, ‘separateness’) from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

A policy adopted by the Afrikaner National Party in 1948 to ensure the dominance of the white minority. It divided South Africa into separate areas for whites, ‘Coloureds’ and blacks, causing the country's withdrawal from the British Commonwealth in 1961 and leading to rioting, repression and isolation from other nations. Limited constitutional rights were granted to non-whites in 1985, and the remaining apartheid laws were repealed in 1991.


Summary Article: Apartheid from Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa

Apartheid means “separateness” or “apartness” in Afrikaans, the language of the Afrikaners, who are descendants of the Dutch settlers of South Africa. As an ideology and statutory framework, it referred to South Africa's notorious system of rigid racial segregation, through which the ruling Afrikaner-based National Party (NP) attempted to create separate cultural, political, and social spaces for white, African, Indian, and colored (mixed race) South Africans after its electoral victory in 1948. Apartheid policy was formalized and institutionalized during the 1950s, but its origins date back to the period when South Africa was colonized by European settlers.

From the start, the colonial enterprise in South Africa drew a sharp distinction between citizen and subject. Whites enjoyed the rights and benefits of citizenship while subjecting nonwhite peoples to economic exploitation and civic death. When the Dutch established a halfway station in Cape Town for their Indian shipping fleet in 1652, their Indian, Malay, and other “Asiatic” slaves formed part of the settlement as a subject population. As early as 1685, white colonial authorities tried to prevent sexual liaisons across the color line by banning marriages between whites, Asiatics, and indigenous Africans.

Mounting resistance from indigenous Africans, as well as conflict with English settlers, forced the Afrikaners (or Boers, as they were known) to migrate to the interior of South Africa. Four territorial entities comprised South Africa until the mid-1800s: the self-governing British colonies of the Cape and Natal, and the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange River Sovereignty. When gold and diamonds were discovered in the Boer republics in the late 1800s, the British waged a campaign to capture these territories, culminating in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899, and defeated the Boers in 1902. South Africa unified into a single political entity in 1910.

The rise of the Afrikaner National Party and its promotion of the doctrine and practice of apartheid can be understood in relation to the Afrikaners' sense of humiliation after their defeat in the Anglo-Boer War. The British had employed ruthless tactics during the war, holding thousands of Afrikaner women and children in concentration camps, an estimated 28,000 of whom died in captivity. The resulting alienation proved to be fertile ground for the rise of Afrikaner nationalism and the subsequent establishment of apartheid as a guarantee of Afrikaner advancement.

There were two points of view within the Afrikaner community regarding the unification of South Africa following the Anglo-Boer War. One camp, led by General Jan Smuts, called on the Afrikaners to put the trauma of the war behind them and develop common cause with the English as fellow Europeans and whites. Another faction, headed by the prominent Afrikaner nationalist J. B. M. Hertzog, called for the assertion of Afrikaner rights within the new Union of South Africa. Hertzog formed the National Party (NP) in 1914 he when was dropped from Smuts's cabinet in 1912. Initially, the Smuts faction was ascendant but the National Party increasingly drew support away from Smuts's United Party. Afrikaner nationalists had also formed a secret society, the Broederbond, in 1918 to promote Afrikaner cultural, political, and economic supremacy. By 1948, the NP was able to garner enough support from the Afrikaner electorate to win the national election.

The National Party Takes Power

On coming into power, the NP set out to rigidly enforce its policy of racial segregation. Its first actions were to remove people of mixed-race ancestry (coloreds) from a common voter's roll in the Cape Province and pass the Population Registration (1950), a major foundation of apartheid policy. The Population Registration Act required the categorization of every South African into one of four racial groups: white, African, Indian, or colored (mixed race). Although it is scientifically impossible to distinguish between the so-called “racial” groups, the apartheid government went to extraordinary lengths to establish and enforce spatial separation based on perceived phenotypic differences among the races, as stipulated by the Population Registration Act. For example, in 1981, a woman was charged with living in a white area illegally when a magistrate ruled that her “flat nose, wavy hair, a pale skin, and high cheekbones” rendered her colored. Hair strands of abandoned babies were subjected to close examination in police laboratories when gross visual assessment proved indeterminate. Apartheid bureaucrats reasoned that in such cases, the curliness or straightness of the hair would determine if the babies were colored or white, respectively.

This racialist obsession lay at the heart of the regime's repression and inflicted dire consequences upon nonwhite populations at the group and individual levels during apartheid's insidious career. It touched all walks of life, at all spatial scales. Recreational spaces such as playgrounds, parks, and beaches were for whites only in most cases, unless demarcated otherwise for nonwhite groups. Next, interpersonal and intercultural relations were prohibited by the Immorality Act, Mixed Marriages Act, and Separate Amenities Acts, which sought to prevent sexual relations and marriage between whites and nonwhites.

As white ambition in South Africa escalated, the urban landscape of South Africa was carved up into distinct racial zones after the passage of the Group Areas Act (GAA) of 1950. A major pillar of grand apartheid nationally, the GAA was directed primarily at the Indian and colored South Africans, who were predominantly urban populations. As with the evolution of apartheid in general, the GAA has its roots in the colonial era. In 1943, five years before the NP came into power nationally, the white English municipality of Durban produced a racial zoning plan for the city that eventually became a prototype for its nationwide adoption by the NP under the GAA. In addition to keeping the races apart in cities, the GAA sought to limit nonwhite competition in urban land markets. As a result, tens of thousands of Indians and coloreds were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to their designated “group areas.” In Durban alone, 60 percent of the nonwhite population was displaced as a consequence of this act.

The success of the GAA spurred the white regime to implement the policy in the rural areas as well. “Bantustans” were created throughout the country in order to spatially remove the African population from white South Africa. Africans were allowed to enjoy political autonomy in these “homelands,” as long as they forfeited their claim to political rights in white South Africa. The architects of the apartheid order envisioned that the homelands would become self-governing, black-ruled states. A few homelands did become “independent” under the aegis of the homeland policy, but they were recognized as sovereign states only by white South Africa and each other. The rest of the world correctly saw these as entities that legitimated apartheid and therefore refused to recognize them. The Bantustans were not contiguous geographic spaces, but fragmented pockets of land. As with all apartheid legislation, Africans were not consulted when the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act (1959) made its way through South Africa's white-only parliament. The structural inequality of apartheid was starkly evident in the fact that Africans, who constituted about 75 percent of South Africa's population in the 1950s, were allocated only 13 percent of the land while whites, 10 percent of the population, retained 87 percent of South Africa's land.

Repression Follows Repression

A crowning irony of the homeland policy was the forced removal of almost 4 million Africans from “white” South Africa and relocation into the homelands designated for their ethnolinguistic groups. The intention of the homeland system was to separate Africans and whites by removing Africans to their “own” spaces. However, the system contained an inherent contradiction in that the apartheid economy needed African labor in white spaces in spite of the elaborate measures taken to remove Africans. In order to manage this contradiction, a series of “pass laws” were introduced to control the number and movement of Africans within white South Africa. “Influx control” required Africans to apply for permits to work in white South Africa as needed in the mines, in industries, or on white farms. Africans who failed to produce “passes” on demand faced arrest and relocation to a homeland.

These policies had a particularly devastating effect on African women, who faced even more severe restrictions than African men with respect to obtaining employment in urban areas. African women needed to demonstrate that their “guardians” (husbands) had legal permission and stable employment before they were given permission to work and/or live with their husbands outside their designated homelands. Family members were thus separated from one another as African men left the homelands and resided indefinitely in single-sex hostels at the “townships” near mines and other industries. African women were left behind in the impoverished rural homelands and struggled to sustain themselves and their children. Faced with mounting economic hardships in the homelands, African women were forced to migrate to cities in search of employment, often as domestic labor, but without the requisite permits from the apartheid government.

The National Party (NP) tried to portray apartheid as an ideology of “good neighborliness” among the different racial groups of South Africa and referred to it in euphemistic terms as a policy of “separate development,” “parallel development,” and “co-operative coexistence.” However, for the majority of nonwhite South Africans, it was institutionalized racism, experienced as inequality and repression. Apartheid's elaborate and comprehensive system of racial social engineering drew widespread organized resistance, including a short-lived guerrilla campaign by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) in the 1960s to unsettle the apartheid regime. In spite of these attempts to destabilize it, the apartheid order appeared to be relatively unaffected until the 1970s. Protests, boycotts, strikes, and defiance of apartheid laws of the 1950s and 1960s were quelled through repression. Mandela and other key leaders of the liberation movements were either jailed or driven into exile by 1964. The economy was strong and grew at a rate around 6-8 percent annually during the 1960s, allowing whites to enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. However, the calm was short-lived.

Massive political protest broke out in the 1970s, particularly under the leadership of Steven Biko, who was influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement in the United States. Education became a key terrain of struggle. In order to promote Afrikaans, the language of the Afrikaners, the Department of Bantu Administration and Development declared in 1975 that Afrikaans ought to be the primary medium of instruction in African schools. In June 1976, 20,000 students in Soweto, an African township in Johannesburg, marched in protest against the apartheid's government's decree. Police opened fire on the demonstrators, and Soweto erupted in open riots. The Soweto Uprising, as it became known, triggered a series of rebellions across the country.

At first the apartheid state resorted to heavy-handed strategies to quash the political unrest that seized the country from 1976 to the mid-1980s. However, the white government eventually realized that repression alone could not quell the growing resistance. In an attempt to “reform” apartheid and deal with the multiple crises facing it, the NP attempted to co-opt Indians and coloreds as junior partners in apartheid. The white government proposed a new constitution in 1983 to give these groups their own parliaments as well as limited say in central government. Africans, of course, were totally excluded from this dispensation. The adoption of this new constitution was overshadowed by sustained violent unrest in the townships of the Vaal Triangle, South Africa's industrial heartland. The majority of coloreds and Indians rejected the white offer to become minions of apartheid, with no real power to change the system from within. Instead, they chose to stand by the disfranchised African population. The mass agitation over the proposed constitution was critical in facilitating the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the subsequent demise of the apartheid order.

See Also:

African National Congress , Anti-Apartheid Movement , Mandela, Nelson

Further Readings
  • Giliomee, Hermann. The Afrikaners, Biography of a People. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
  • Lemon, Anthony. Apartheid in Transition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987.
  • Welsh, David. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
  • Ramsamy, Edward
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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