Apartheid: A Sketch

For Hendrik F. Verwoerd, Native Minister and one of the intellectual fathers of the National Party, apartheid is a solution to what he perceived to be a flawed social policy responsible for ensuring a future of strife and internal combustion between the races.  In a 1950 speech elucidating the new apartheid policy[i] the minister first begins by examining the current social climate, asserting that the violence and contention becoming inflamed in “intermingled communities” is the result of a immutable divide between black and white, and that further intermingling, will only intensify the conflict. Verwoerd finally concludes that “Neither for the European ,nor for the Bantu… can this…tension and conflict, be an ideal future”[ii] and so outlines a policy of physical division of the Union, so that the Africans return to their traditional native sectors while the whites remain in their own settlements, while it is instructed that neither grouping will attempt to dominate or exploit the other.

Verwoerd argues that tension and conflict would continue to mount as intermingling continues because the “Bantu” would eventually aspire to an egalitarian status in political, economic and social life. While the author does not say so explicitly, it is implied that this is an absurd demand[iii] which will only result in eventual African insurrection against the white population. Following this classical Afrikaner sentiment, a perception of non-whites as being a detriment, drain and danger to the whites, removal is the only solution, in order to “provide the two population groups with opportunities for the full development of their respective powers and ambitions without coming into conflict.”[iv]

By the mid 1940s much of the physical segregation of Apartheid had already been instituted by precursor laws,[v] dividing the country into a regulated and government monitored system of impoverished African reservations (later to be known as ‘Bantustans’) and wealthy white urban centers. The ancestral Khoikhoi pastures, long since seized by Afrikaner trekboers and converted to sprawling ranches (kraals), were by this time officially designated white-only areas, and as with all other racially exclusive regions, blacks were required to produce passes and work permits upon passing through them or face imprisonment.[vi] The reservations, absent of the affluent Transvaal precious gold/diamond industries and the coastal commerce of the Cape area, bereft of regional goods to exploit, the means to refine what little they could claim, and officially isolated from the greater white South Africa, were plunged into a cycle of inescapable poverty,[vii] dysfunctional social work[viii] and reactionary violence.[ix] The final form of the Apartheid process was the creation of ten autonomous “Bantustans” through the 1951 Bantu Self-Government Act, affording to the natives autonomous sovereignty over traditional tribal lands and transferring their citizenship from the greater country to only that of their particular tribal affiliation, effectively disenfranchising the nonwhite population from South African political life.

In response to apartheid was a great measure of internal resistance. The African National Congress (ANC), a Marxist movement calling for mass mobilization against the white government, although predating the era of legislated separation, by 1949 had rallied the greater support of the African population and began to systematically institute campaigns of civil disobedience, protest and uprising.  In 1952 the African National Congress combined efforts with other emerging resistance movements, namely the South African Indian Congress and Coloured People’s Congress, through the “Programme of Action” staged countrywide mass demonstrations against apartheid legislation, sparking widespread civil unrest. The government responded with police brutality, mass arrest, and new legislation including the Unlawful Organisations Act, the Suppression of Communism Act, the Public Safety Act and the Criminal Procedures Act – laws aimed at making further civil disobedience impossible.

In 1955 the Freedom Charter was proposed by the African National Congress at Kliptown, calling for an egalitarian and free democracy, without considerations of race and ethnicity. While the congress was brutally dissolved by South African police and many of its delegates imprisoned on charges of treason, the authorities were too late in that the historic document had already been publically recited and confirmed by those present, inspiring a fire of stubborn resistance which would continue up until the final disintegration of apartheid during the 1990s.

African civil unrest, united by the spirit and ideals of the Freedom Charter and a new consciousness, rose from the late 1950s through the 1970s, exploding dramatically in the Soweto uprising of 1976. Groups such as the Umkhonto we Sizwe (founded 1961), a paramilitary guerilla organization born out of the African National Congress, began to mobilize and attack provincial police stations, logistical networks and administrative zones, waging a war with attrition against government forces[x]. By the time of the uprising the country appeared to be on the verge of collapse and the possibility of a widespread African rebellion seemed imminent, regardless of the effective suppression campaigns of the white government[xi]. In response to the widespread civil unrest the National Party government of R.F. Botha proposed amendments to the constitution of South Africa in the form of a tricameral parliament comprised of a dominant white chamber and two inferior non-white chambers via the Republic of South Africa Constitution Act of 1983[xii]. This emerging new face of Apartheid was defended in the years leading up to its passing into law by the Botha regime in international councils[xiii] as a compassionate system in which equitable services were offered to all on the basis of need. While apparently a fair system, the 1983 constitution still upheld traditional Afrikaner racial judgments, as the need of the citizens was still determined on “ancestral” pseudoscientific qualifications and erroneous assumptions on the basis of race and history[xiv]. Most notably the new system upheld the pillar legislations of Apartheid, most of which were signed into law during the first half of the twentieth century, and reinforced the dividing of the country into “homelands” (Bantustans), upholding a status quo in which the vast majority of the regional population remain disenfranchised by an urban white elite, with thousands more slated for forceful resettlement[xv]. To make matters even more intolerable for the Afrcian majority, the new tricameral legislature excluded blacks entirely, while including the “Coloured” and “Indian” population groups.

In response to this sham legislation of 1983 was the formation of the United Democratic Front. The United Democratic Front (UDF) began in earnest as staunch opponents of the new tricameral legislature and constitution, comprised of hundreds of church, student, trade union, political and social organizations. In a way the UDF became the widespread rebellion that the government officials had feared, although in a pacifist manner, utilizing the tools of civil disobedience rather than of armed conflict to grossly express discontent and to highlight injustice. While the ANC had gone underground in the face of government counterterrorism and police actions, numerous members imprisoned at Robben Island or having become casualties in the escalating conflict, the UDF represented a public face in opposition to Apartheid, staging boycotts, protests and hunger strikes. The UDF proposed rational arguments against the system of racism using academic sociological data, attacked the character of the Afrikaner political system by criticizing its Christian integrity, and lobbied for a liberal system of government in order to ensure social justice[xvi]. The emerging primacy and widespread appeal of the UDF sounded the death knell for the Apartheid system: the moral norms of the contemporary world, heavily influenced by the civil rights movement, no longer fostered racist colonial governments to flourish, and these anachronistic systems began a process of decay and collapse which could not be reversed, regardless of the violence of its death throes.

In 1989 Apartheid advocate and president of South Africa P.W. Botha, who had overseen the creation of the new legislature and the final implementation of the homeland system, suffered a stroke and was soon replaced by F.W. de Klerk. President de Klerk moved to inflict the deathblow against Apartheid, lifting the ban on anti-Apartheid groups, lifting restrictions on the African press by decriminalizing them, banning the death sentence, urged the legislature to repeal discrimination laws and dismantling the homeland system. Following talks with the newly decriminalized and released ANC and UDF leadership the de Klerk government, in the face of mounting public pressure, legislated a new system of laws to create a liberal society. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act of 1993 declared that the region “shall be one, sovereign state,” that the African native tongues would be respected as national languages, that citizenship and suffrage would be universal and that all citizens would be privilege to equality and human dignity before the law, regardless of ethnicity[xvii]. Of this latter topic all references were removed so that the constitution made no mention of it.  The final nail in the coffin of Apartheid occurred on April 27 1994 (later to be dubbed “Freedom Day,” today a national holiday in South Africa) during the country’s first free national election. The ANC won in seven out of the nine provinces, while the NP won in Western Cape and IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party) in KwaZulu-Natal, the former party gaining majority control in the government and electing Nelson Mandela as president.


[i] Williams 252.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Williams 253.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] General Pass Regulations Bill of 1905, Asiatic Registration Act of 1906, South Africa Act of 1910, Native Land Act of 1913, Natives in Urban Areas Bill of 1918, Urban Areas Act of 1923, Colour Bar Act of 1926 etc

[vi] General Pass Regulations Bill of 1905.

[vii] Sheila Sisulu Reviews Bantu Education; Williams 352-354, Joyce Sikakane Opens a Window on Soweto; Williams 349-351

[viii] Family Life Under Apartheid: An Interivew with Adeline Pholosi; Williams 354-356.

[ix] Paton 56.

[x] Nelson Mandela Explains the ANC Struggle; Williams 297-305.

[xi] See: Deaths in Detention, Frank Chikane Describes his Prison Ordeal, Prison Life on Robben Island; Williams.

[xii] Republic of South Africa Constitution Act; Williams 334-336.

[xiii] R.F. Botha Defends South Africa in the United Nations; Williams 330-334.

[xiv] The Founding of the United Democratic Front; Williams 358-359.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Williams 357-360.

[xvii] Williams 390-396.