South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Unit 2. Colonialism and Segregation: The Origins of Apartheid

In the first two decades of Union (1910-1930), the governments of Louis Botha, Jan Smuts, and J. B. Hertzog promulgated a barrage of discriminatory laws and regulations that tightened state control over blacks. The most important law passed was the Natives’ Land Act of 1913. This law reserved 93 percent (revised to 87 percent in 1936) of the land in South Africa for whites; it prevented Africans—two-thirds of the population at the time—from freely buying land. The small African “reserves” created by the Land Act were a forerunner of the apartheid-era “Bantustans” or “homelands.” Life in the rural reserves was harsh, with illnesses and malnutrition rife. For many Africans, especially young men and women, migration to wage-earning jobs in cities and mines became one of the only ways to pay colonial taxes and survive.

Massive urbanization was the most important social development between World War I and World War II. The number of city-dwelling Africans more than tripled in thirty years from 1904 to 1936. This urban growth occurred in a context of intensifying segregation. Africans in the cities lived in terrible conditions, with inadequate housing, poor health and transport services, and no electricity for many decades. Along with poverty came crime and fear for personal safety. Segregation also caused unprecedented gender imbalance, with more men working in urban areas than women. However, from 1921 to 1936 there was a 142 percent increase in the number of urban African women, many of whom came to the cities to be with their husbands but often lived a precarious life without legal residence rights. As more blacks moved to urban areas, whites came to view the city as “a European area in which there is no place the redundant Native,” in the words of the Native Affairs Commission of 1921. The 1923 Natives (Urban Areas) Act restricted African migration into towns, laying the foundations for urban residential segregation. Whites also sought to tighten control of black workers by passing laws in the 1920s that severely curtailed black economic freedom, including a prohibition on forming unions.

By the 1930s, the government’s segregationist stance hardened further. Amendments to the Masters and Servants’ Act, for instance, legalized whipping. Repressive legislation was also aimed at Indian and Coloured uth Africans. Then, in 1936, the Hertzog Bills removed from the voting rolls the few Africans who were still enfranchised in the Cape. This move signaled the evisceration of black political rights. Despite intensifying racism, respect for British legalism and liberalism and contact with British and American missionaries inclined many early black leaders to use petitions, delegations, and other polite methods of protest against segregation. But Africans often invoked British values in a subversive manner intended to improve their lot by asserting their equality with whites and demanding freedom and social justice. With the hardening of white racism and segregation, more and more blacks began to identify themselves as "Africans." While the segregation period saw ambiguity in the black response, protests against discriminatory policies laid an important foundation for later resistance against apartheid.

There were important continuities between segregation and apartheid: in both eras, black people faced condescending and restrictive policies, discriminatory residence and labor laws, and denied voting rights. The pre-apartheid period saw considerable enforced racial separation in economy and society. In both periods, the ideology of white supremacy prevailed. These similarities have led some scholars to see apartheid simply as an intensification of segregation. Under apartheid, however, racism and segregation became thoroughly rigid and institutionalized; they permeated all aspects of life, and government repression became more ruthless. Moreover, the world historical context was changing. While white supremacy was common in European colonial empires and the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, after 1945 colonialism and racism were in retreat. This period witnessed the independence of ex-colonies in Asia and Africa and the rise of the American civil rights movement. Why South African apartheid went against the trend of history is the focus of the next sections.

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