Joe Frank
February 16, 1998
Mini-Research Paper, Non-Western Traditions HON 103 2:30 TR
Instructor Dr. Kathryn Walterscheid

The South African System of Apartheid


Apartheid was a legal and cultural system structured by the government of South Africa to ensure the supremacy of the minority 'white' population. The institution of apartheid was precipitated by a history of European colonization which required the displacement of native peoples. The apartheid system consisted of strict segregatory laws, which helped support the needs of a select few. Because it was oppressive and restrictive, the apartheid system was inherently wrong; thus it finally fell as a result of international and internal pressures. Although cultural effects certainly remain, the legal foundations of apartheid were ultimately struck down, and in 1994 the majority native African population gained control of South African government. The enormous challenge now is to reconcile differences and establish a non-racial, integrated society. Joe Frank


The population of South Africa is approximately 42 million (World Almanac 1994, p. 809). Black Africans, also called Bantus, make up 70% of the population today, and their percentage is growing. Whites are about 16% of the population; of that 16%, about 40% are of British descent, and about 60% are Afrikaners, descended from the early Dutch settlers. White population growth has been leveling off, such that within forty years whites may be approximately 5% of the South African population. 'Coloureds,' people whose ancestry is a mix of African native and Afrikaner, make up 8% of the population. Asians, also called Indians since most are descended from indentured servants brought from India by the whites to serve as a 'buffer' between white society and the black population, are about 3% of the population. These population groups, black, white, coloured and Asian, have defined South African policy throughout its history, and particularly in the twentieth century. Joe Frank

Early European Exploration and Colonization (c. 1400-1806)

Although there were certainly inter-tribal and inter-cultural conflicts within South Africa even before the arrival of the first Europeans, most notably the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural and pastoral societies, there were also positive interactions. As a result, "the Bantu languages of southern Africa are . . . very closely related to each other" (Denoon and Nyeko 1984, p. 12). After the first European settlements in 1652, the dynamics of the situation changed irreversibly. Joe Frank

However, for approximately 150 years before 1652, Portuguese traders had been traveling around the Cape of Good Hope--also called then the Cape of Storms--and occasionally laying over there while en route to the spice-rich Indies. Yet the small population of native residents found in the Cape area "seemed to have no great kings, and nothing very valuable to trade" (p. 14). Thus the Portuguese had little interest in trade or settlement in southern Africa, and were unceasingly troubled by the tumultuous sea and weather conditions just off the Cape. Joe Frank

In the mid 17th century, the Dutch, French, and British took over much of the East Indian spice trade. One entity formed as a result was the Dutch East India Company, which decided to establish a supply stop at the Cape, to provide fresh foodstuffs and medical care for sailors, "both of which would reduce the costs of the journey" (p. 15). In 1652, the station was created. The settlement, as its population grew through the century and a half of Dutch East India Company control, expanded such that its needs for cattle and land conflicted with the lives of the nomadic herding native Khoi tribe. The Khoi were sometimes called the Hottentots, a moniker which is now recognized as derogatory. The combination of land loss, cattle loss, Dutch usage of firearms in skirmishes, and diseases like smallpox to which the Khoi had no immunity, meant the local Khoi population was effectively obliterated by the time the British took over Cape Town in 1806. Joe Frank

Thus an capitalist farming and trading community came to flourish and rapidly expand from Cape Town, whereas other European settlements in Africa had established feudal societies, which limited productive capacities (p. 20). Also, the colonial society at Cape Town was distinctive because it was dominated by the Calvinists, who left from the Netherlands because of religious persecution. The Calvinist settlers eventually called themselves the Afrikaners. They are sometimes also called the Boers, meaning 'farmers' in Afrikaans, the language of the Afrikaners which mixes old world Dutch with the sounds and inflections of the indigenous African tribal languages. As it grew, this community of Dutch farmers also came into conflict with other Khoi groups and with the Xhosa tribe (p. 24). Their early skirmishes set the stage for later animosities; as Julie Frederikse states, "South Africa has been a country at war with itself since the seventeenth century, when white settlers landed at the Cape and began robbing the indigenous people of their land" (1986, p. 7). Joe Frank

British Control (1806-1910)

In 1806, the British took control of the Cape Town settlement, as part of the consolidation of their power on the trade routes to India. For the Afrikaner settlers, this meant "No longer were they the deciders of their own destiny as the British . . . enforced a vigorous policy of anglicization" (Leach 1987, p. 23). In 1820, "large-scale migration" of British citizens into Cape Town was funded by the government (p. 23). In protest and in anger, many of the Boers, along with their African servants and a few 'coloured' offspring, left the Western Cape colony area in the Great Trek. During this 1830s journey, the Boers fought a Zulu tribal group in the battle of Blood River. When the Boers triumphed in this battle, suffering minimal casualties despite the much greater number of Zulu warriors they faced, the Boers decided that they were "God's chosen people" (Gros 12/1/1997). Thus they triumphantly settled in the Eastern Cape region, establishing their own distinct political structure and identity. The British took little heed of these efforts, because they were primarily concerned with the strategic position of Cape Town on the Indian trade route; the interior of South Africa had little value to them. Joe Frank

The situation changed when diamonds were discovered in Afrikaner territory in 1867. The British asserted control over the Eastern Cape; thus the Afrikaners trekked again, settling in the Orange Free State and Transvaal (Gros 12/1/1997). However, in 1886, gold was found in the Orange Free State, and in 1890 gold was discovered in Transvaal (Gros 12/3/1997). All the while, Afrikaner settlers and British industrialists were overtaking African lands, sometimes ignoring the 'primitive' peoples there, sometimes clashing with them, and often forcing them into labor for the profit-making operations of the whites. By 1898, Dutch resentment of the "encroachments by the British and others" resulted in the Anglo-Boer War, which continued until 1902 (World Almanac 1994, p. 809). The ultimate result of four years of bloodshed was a stalemate, in which the British asserted de jure control, but the de facto socio-political systems of the Afrikaners remained, and allowed the Afrikaners to dictate policy in dealing with the native peoples (Gros 12/3/1997). Joe Frank

Afrikaner Autonomy--The Era of Segregation (1910-1948)

In 1910, the South Africa Union Agreement incorporated the British colonies of Cape, Natal, Transvaal, and Orange Free State. By this agreement, South Africa was semi-independent, and had the status of dominion within the British empire. The British retained ultimate power, including the right to grant charters for mining operations; South Africa's strategic trade-route position had substantially decreased since the opening of the Suez Canal through Egypt, so the Cape Town ports were important mainly for their exports of gold and diamonds. Thus the British continued to profit from South Africa, while leaving the governance of the state to the Afrikaners. Joe Frank

The new Afrikaner government was led by Louis Botha and Jan Smuts, who soon began the process of instituting new segregatory laws "to cement their newly acquired power" (Gros 12/3/1997). The Mines and Works Act of 1911 stipulated that blacks could not be placed in positions of authority over whites. Blacks could not be foremen or managers in the mines or factories, just as South Africa was entering its period of rapid industrialization. This ensured a huge competitive edge in wages and position for the white workers, and kept average wages paid out low for white industrialists. Joe Frank

The Native Lands Act of 1913 controlled land distribution. Africans were given 7% of the land in South Africa, although they represented 70% of the population. Whites received 80% of the land, despite being only about 14% of the population. The reserves created for Africans were located far apart, isolated, and surrounded by white-owned lands (Gros 12/5/1997). This land redistribution benefited the white farmers, who not only received more land but also access to cheap farm labor, a rural proletariat, at the expense of black farmers (Gros 12/5/1997). Joe Frank

The Industrial Consolidation Act of 1924 provided for peaceful resolution of labor-management conficts, but excluded Africans from the category of employee. White workers gained the right to strike and bargain collectively, while the black labor force remained non-unionized. This ensured white workers high wages, but kept the majority of wages paid by capitalists, the wages of the blacks, extremely low. Joe Frank

All these acts restrictive and proscriptive of African activities did spark some reaction, as the predecessor to the African National Congress was formed in 1912. However, this organization was unable to get help from the British government in overturning any of these laws, so the system grew and was strengthened despite the opposition of most black leaders. Joe Frank

The Era of Apartheid (1948-1994)

Apartheid, which means "separateness" in Afrikaans, was instituted in 1948 as the official policy of the Union of South Africa. The National Party, led by Daniel Malan, had taken power and advanced rapidly into further segregation, the ultimate goal being separate development for blacks, whites, coloureds and Asians. New laws were created towards that ultimate objective. Joe Frank

The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 banned interracial marriages. The Immorality Act of 1950 prohibited interracial sexual relations. The Population Registration Act of 1950 provided a census structure under which people would be counted and categorized under specific racial groupings. These acts laid the foundation for separating the different racial groups from another permanently (Gros 12/3/1997). Joe Frank

In early 1959, Britain granted South Africa total independence, and South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth. Soon afterwards, the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959 established a plan to transform the existing native reserves into 'independent homelands,' which were to cease to be part of South Africa. During the 1960s, the homelands of Transkei, Ciskei, Bophuthatswana, and Venda were created as the new homes for the Africans. These people would no longer be citizens of South Africa, but only of the homelands. South Africa and the leaders of these newly incorporated homelands declared their independence from one another; however, none were recognized by the international community of states. Blacks would be able to vote in these homelands too; thus they would be unable, theoretically, to claim disenfranchisement. Meanwhile, no blacks were to be citizens of South Africa, and thus were not entitled to social services from the South African government (Gros 12/1/1997). Joe Frank

However, since South Africa had already industrialized extensively, and still had natural resources yet to be extracted, black workers were still needed. Black labor was essential to the function of the South African economy. Thus the Group Area Act was created, which stated that blacks could be allowed in urban areas, even though they were not citizens of South Africa. They had to live in specified areas of the cities, and could only live there if they were employed. In many cases, this meant the creation of all-male dormitory facilities near the factories, while the women and children were sent to the homelands. In conjunction with the Group Area Act were the Pass Laws, which stipulated that since blacks were only allowed in designated areas, they had to carry passes to show they had a reason to be wherever they were. The pass had to be signed by the local police commissioner and by the employer (Gros 12/1/1997). Joe Frank

The Suppression of Communism Act, enacted in the early 1950s just as the Cold War was escalating, stated that the government could decide what organizations were communist, and thus ban them (Gros 12/8/1997). The African National Congress was one of the groups banned under this statute. The Detention Laws stated that anyone, although usually Africans, could be detained without charges for an undetermined period of time; then a charge might be levied and a sentence given such as a fine, a prison sentence, or being sent to one's homeland. This ensured the separation of all racial groups from one another. These statutes were supported by various local and district ordinances, and numerous other laws enacted at the national level. This system required a large corps of public employees, which also provided jobs for thousands of Afrikaners, supported by taxes on the wages of all workers. The few blacks who benefited from this system were those who became part of the official police force, and those who profited financially as corrupt leaders of the independent homelands. Joe Frank

The Fall of Apartheid

The anti-apartheid efforts of the African National Congress (ANC) and other organizations such as the Pan-African Congress (PAC) and the Azanian Peoples' Organization (AZAPO), and particularly the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) grew during the 1970s and 80s (Gros 12/8/1997). These efforts were met with violent resistance from the government, which some outsiders saw as a civil war. This helped to galvanize internal and international efforts to fight apartheid, because the world was finally realizing how blatantly wrong the apartheid system is. In 1974, the voting rights of the South African delegation to the United Nations were suspended. The white leadership realized the demographic changes were not favorable to the continuation of apartheid. As Southeast Asia and China became manufacturing centers, their cheap labor supply meant their production costs were lower than those of South Africa. As black labor became more militant, their work stoppages exacerbated the problem of non-competitive industries. The strength of the Rand, the South African currency, also made exporting hard because South African products became much more expensive than those of many other nations (Gros 12/8/1997). South Africa was excluded from the Olympics, and from major international soccer competitions. All this took its toll on the morale of the Afrikaner population, such that active support for apartheid enforcement waned. Joe Frank

During the 1980s, international interests pulled out of South Africa. First universities, then local and state governments in the United States, and finally large multi-national corporations, pulled their investments out of South Africa in a process called divestment. The United States national government banned most forms of trade with South Africa, as did several other United Nations members. Finally, the Berlin Wall fell, which eliminated any substantive fears which some countries had about the possibility of a majority-led South Africa allying itself with the Soviet Union. Thus in 1994, blacks were admitted to the South African ballot booths, the ANC overwhelmingly won the majority of seats in the parliament, and Nelson Mandela was elected president. A new constitution was written, modeled in large part upon the Freedom Charter promulgated by the ANC since 1955. Joe Frank

Challenges of the Post-Apartheid Era

South Africa now has legal majority rule. However, that certainly does not mean racial reconciliation has occurred, because for the most part it has not. Income disparities between white and black, grossly unfair land distribution, the fragmentation of the police forces and military, and the problem of the undereducated black youth who dropped out of school to fight apartheid, are among the many challenges facing South Africa today. Joe Frank

Yet, the situation is not without hope. South Africa is rich in mineral resources, has a strong existing basis for industrial growth and development, and has average levels of education and per capita gross domestic product on a level equal to that of many European nations. With aid from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and private investors, South Africa will be able to create a society of equal opportunity for all. Much progress has been made; even more work lies ahead. Joe Frank


Apartheid was a unjust system based on incorrect assumptions about the supremacy of one racial group over all others. The entrenched economic stratification and social segregation which resulted was horrible, and must not be repeated. The lesson of apartheid is that cultural supremacy is a fallacy; no one group is better than any other. All humanity must work together; this is especially important within nations, but also true on the global scale. Oppression and suppression of specific peoples is counterproductive, and ultimately unsustainable. South Africa is far from the utopian state, but the disassembly of the legal structures of apartheid has made life there better. Joe Frank.


Denoon, Donald and Balam Nyeko. Southern Africa Since 1800. New Edition. Longman House: London, 1984.
Frederikse, Julie. South Africa: A Different Kind of War. Beacon Press: Boston, 1986.
Gros, Jean-Germain. Lectures on South Africa. Given at University of Missouri-St. Louis: St. Louis, December 1st, 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 10th, 1997.
Leach, Graham. South Africa: No easy path to peace. Revised Edition. Methuen London: London, 1987.
The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1994. Funk & Wagnalls: Mahwah, NJ, 1994.

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Last modified August 3, 1999 ~~ Please direct all comments and questions to:
Joe Frank.