In 1948 the National Party, with the assistance of the small Afrikaner Party, which it subsequently absorbed, won a narrow election victory in South Africa and thereafter proceeded to implement the apartheid policy. The party would retain power for the next forty-six years over which time a huge exercise in social engineering was attempted. By the 1980s it was obvious that apartheid had failed, and the National Party looked for various alternatives that would ensure that it retained power. In 1990 President F. W. de Klerk accepted the inevitable and agreed to initiate negotiations for an inclusive, democratic system.
By 1948 South Africa was already a highly segregated society. From the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 successive administrations had committed themselves to segregationist policies, but during the 1940s, under the exigencies of a war economy and the concomitant large-scale urbanization of Africans, there were some signs of a reconsideration of aspects of policy. Jan Smuts, leader of the governing United Party and prime minister, said in 1942 that “segregation has fallen on evil days”; and that the townward migration of Africans was unstoppable: “You might as well try to sweep the ocean back with a broom” (Smuts, 10). The opposition National Party, the political arm of Afrikaner nationalism, seized upon these and other signs of flexibility to argue that they were a prelude to “integration” and the engulfment of whites by Africans. It was classic “black peril” electioneering, which had a long and dismal record in the country’s politics.
The Nationalists fought the 1948 election principally on the issue of Afrikaner solidarity, but its proposals for apartheid, presented as the traditional policy of Afrikanerdom, accompanied a campaign that was in the worst tradition of “black peril” propaganda. To what extent the apartheid policy was a carefully worked out blueprint or merely an election stratagem remains a disputed issue. Various intellectuals, think tanks (including the secret Afrikaner Broederbond), and an internal party commission had produced broad policy goals, but as it unfolded in the 1950s and 1960s, policy making proceeded in an ad hoc way—always, though, based on the premise of white control: baasskap (“mastership”), as J[ohn] G. Strijdom, prime minister from 1954 to 1958, termed it.
From the policy’s inception in 1948 it was made clear that while apartheid envisaged the maximum separation of whites and nonwhites, total separation, advocated by a few intellectuals, was not possible, due to the economic dependence of the economy on African, Coloured, and Indian labor. Instead, apartheid focused on two interlinked aims: reinforcing racial inequality wherever it was perceived to be breaking down (as in the labor market) and limiting the urbanization of Africans by freezing the number of permanently urbanized people and attempting as far as possible to ensure that migrant labor was used, as had long been the case in the mining industry. Policy also sought to ensure that white workers would be given additional protection in the labor market by means of “job reservation.” African labor unions, while not prohibited, were not officially recognized, and strikes by African workers continued to be illegal. Legislation changed this situation, and during the 1980s African labor unions became a critical anti-apartheid force.
Apartheid prescribed total political separation between whites and nonwhites. Provision made in 1946 for limited communal parliamentary representation of Indians by whites (boycotted by the Indian community) was repealed, the rights of qualified Coloured males to vote on the common voters’ roll in Cape Province were abolished in 1956 after a protracted constitutional crisis, and in 1959 the limited rights of Africans to parliamentary representation by whites were terminated. The central premise of apartheid was that blacks could enjoy political rights only in institutions created in the “homelands.”
The homelands, previously called reserves, were the shrunken, fragmented remnants of land that had been historically occupied by black Africans. Under the terms of legislation passed in 1913 and 1936, they amounted to 13.7 percent of the country. Here, in the vision of apartheid’s planners, African “nations,” as the ethnolinguistic clusters were called, could enjoy evolving political rights and “develop along their own lines,” while the homelands continued to serve their historic function as reservoirs of labor. Traditional chiefs were deemed to be the authentic leaders of the Page 89 | Top of Articleblack African peoples, and beginning in the 1950s, energetic steps were taken to establish pyramids of so-called “Bantu Authorities” in the homelands. Policy postulated that Africans in the urban areas must remain linked to these authorities, and accordingly, efforts were made to create urban representatives of homeland chiefs. These, however, proved unsuccessful.
A major focus of apartheid was the effort to gear education of blacks at all levels to the aims of policy. School education had been largely in the hands of missionary bodies under the aegis of provincial authorities. Under the Bantu Education Act of 1953 the central government assumed control, missionary-run schools were taken over, and a new curriculum was instituted. In the words of the legislation’s sponsor, Hendrik F. Verwoerd (minister of native affairs, 1950-1958; prime minister, 1958-1966), who was also apartheid’s principal planner and theoretician, the “Bantu must be guided to serve his community in all respects. There is no place for him in the European community above the level of certain forms of labor. Within his own community, however, all doors are open” (Pelzer, 53).
Education policy was ideologically inspired. Although the numbers of African children entering primary school rose substantially over time, the education they received was of poor quality. “Bantu Education” became a major political grievance: indeed, it was an educational issue, the attempt to force the teaching of certain subjects in higher grades through the medium of Afrikaans, that sparked the Soweto Uprising in mid-1976.
Apartheid was also enforced at the university level. Separate university colleges were established for Africans, as well as for Coloured and Indian students. These were mediocre institutions of low academic quality, whose students were kept under tight political control.
Vigorous efforts were made to reinvigorate the principle, upheld by successive governments since 1910, that urban Africans were “temporary sojourners.” Beginning in the 1950s the pass laws, officially known as influx control, were drastically tightened and permanent rights of urban residence became hard to obtain. In 1960 the system was extended to women. Furthermore, freehold property rights were prohibited, and numerous black African communities that had enjoyed such rights in urban and rural areas (where they were termed black spots) were dispossessed. More than 3.5 million people were affected. Black African-owned businesses in urban areas were placed under severe restrictions that limited their capacity to expand. Deliberate measures were taken to ensure that the availability of family housing was limited, whereas, alternatively, huge hostels were constructed for single, male migrant laborers. The migrant labor system, favored by apartheid’s planners because it supposedly limited permanent urbanization, played havoc with family life, breaking down functioning social and economic units in the rural areas and encouraging male migrants in the towns to start second families with urban women.
Prior to 1948 the Coloured and Indian groups (accounting, respectively, for 9% and 3% of the total population in 1992) were intermediate categories in the racial hierarchy; both, but especially the Indians, were discriminated against, particularly as residential segregation in terms of the Group Areas Act of 1950 was enforced. Between 1960 and 1984 an estimated 860,000 people, mostly Coloured and Indian, were forced to relocate if their houses or businesses were in areas zoned for occupation by other groups.
In 1959 a switch of emphasis in the ideological underpinning of apartheid took place. Whereas the maintenance of racial inequality was as rigidly enforced as previously, the National Party under Verwoerd now embarked upon “positive” apartheid, terming it “separate development.” Legislation was enacted to give black Africans “full rights” to develop in the homelands, eight of which were designated on an ethnolinguistic basis. Verwoerd emphasized that whites would never cede or share power in the remainder of the country. Originally, policy held that political evolution of these embryonic states would stop short of sovereign independence, but this limitation was dropped after 1959.
By 1960 apartheid and the South African government’s continuing control over Namibia had increasingly become the object of international censure. In his “Wind of Change” speech, delivered in Cape Town in 1960, British prime minister Harold Macmillan served notice that apartheid was an unacceptable doctrine. Shortly thereafter, on March 21, 1960, police opened fire on Africans in Page 90 | Top of ArticleSharpeville who were demonstrating against the pass laws, killing sixty-nine. The ensuing disturbances in different parts of the country were quelled, and the major black African political movements, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress, were banned. This was a landmark event in the increasing international isolation of the South African government.
After the banning of the ANC and the PAC, both opted to adopt violent methods of resistance. Nelson Mandela, a rising star in the ANC, joined the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe. He and eight others were arrested for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, and convicted in June 1964. All of the accused, but one, were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Verwoerd recognized that racial domination per se could no longer be justified in an increasingly hostile world in which, moreover, decolonization was proceeding apace. He attempted to appease criticism and to divert domestic black militancy by accelerating homeland political evolution. Ultimately four such homelands, Transkei (1976), Bophuthatswana (1977), Venda (1979), and Ciskei (1981), were granted independence, but in no case was it internationally recognized. Citizens of these states (whether they resided in them or not) were deprived of their South African citizenship. None was economically viable, and none, with the qualified exception of Bophuthatswana, succeeded in maintaining a semblance of democratic government. As the showpiece of apartheid they were a failure.
Most of the homelands were fragmented in discrete blocks of territory. For example, KwaZulu, the homeland of the biggest ethnolinguistic group, the Zulu, who made up 22 percent of the African population, consisted of twenty-nine separate blocks; for Bophuthatswana and Ciskei the corresponding figure was nineteen each. Consolidation plans were drawn up, but implementation was slow and expensive. By the early 1980s the government effectively gave up the unequal struggle.
An important component of apartheid was the vigorous use of security legislation to restrict opposition. Apart from proscribing organizations, individual activists were liable to be banned, detained without trial, and deprived of their passports, without recourse to judicial reviews. More serious breaches of the security laws were tried in the Supreme Court. Although many judges reflected conventional white supremacist attitudes, some did their best to find loopholes in the law that mitigated the consequences of apartheid. In political cases heard in the Supreme Court the accused had the service of defense lawyers, often some of the leading barristers.
During the 1970s and 1980s apartheid unravelled steadily. Predictions made by Verwoerd in the 1960s that by 1978 the townward flow of Africans from the homelands would cease were shown to be hopelessly inaccurate. Apartheid’s planners had seriously underestimated the rate of increase of the African population, which between 1946 and 1991 had nearly quadrupled, from 7.7 million to more than 29 million. Influx control was unable to prevent black African urbanization, as economic conditions in the homelands deteriorated. Job reservation by race steadily fell away as the demand for skilled workers increased. Efforts to force industry to make do with less African labor or to decentralize factories to the borders of homelands proved costly failures.
P[ieter] W[illem] Botha (prime minister, 1978-1983; state president, 1983-1989) tried unsuccessfully to reinvigorate what was obviously a failing policy. He permitted black labor unions to participate in statutory industrial relations mechanisms, allowed urban Africans to acquire property in freehold, repealed legislation prohibiting interracial sex and marriage, and in 1986 abolished the pass laws. He acknowledged that the homelands could never support more than 40 percent of the black African population and accepted that those resident in the white-controlled areas would have to be politically accommodated in those areas. In 1986 he announced that a common South African citizenship would be restored to those homeland citizens who had been deprived of theirs. Effectively, this was a nail in apartheid’s coffin: Its ideological basis, separate nations, had been abandoned.
Botha tried to co-opt the Coloured and Indian categories by means of the Tricameral Constitution of 1983. It was intended to accord political rights, in separate chambers of Parliament, in such a way as not to threaten or significantly dilute white Page 91 | Top of Articlehegemonic control. The exclusion of Africans, who were still deemed to have alternative channels of political expression, provoked a massive backlash. During 1985-1986 South Africa witnessed serious unrest that was curbed (partially) by the application of stringent emergency regulations. The mass mobilization of millions of people and the growing influence of the ANC persuaded President de Klerk that “South Africa had reached a point in its history that offered an opportunity to break out of the current impasse....” (Cape Town: Die Burger, August 21, 1989. Translated from Afrikaans).
Apartheid had palpably failed in all respects, but by 1986 Botha had run out of reformist steam and until mid-1989 he and his party drifted rudderless. De Klerk came to the presidency at that time, and in his historic speech of February 2, 1990, he announced the lifting of the ban against the ANC and other proscribed organizations, the release of Nelson Mandela and other imprisoned leaders, and his intention of negotiating a democratic constitution. In subsequent years he repealed all apartheid legislation, and opened his party membership to all races.
Apartheid has left major scars on South African society in the form of severe inequalities in education, housing, welfare, and income that will not easily be overcome. Nor will it be easy to knit together a society that was forcibly compartmentalized for so long. The legacy of conflict and racial polarization, exacerbated by deepening poverty, make the prospects for democracy questionable.
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