South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid


Unit 3. The Rise of Apartheid

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Economic causes for the rise of apartheid complemented political and ideological ones. The mines, factories, and farms all depended on cheap black labor. As a result, white-owned businesses accumulated huge profits by supporting a government that denied blacks the vote and paid artificially low wages. In addition to capitalist employers, white factory workers and World War II veterans voted for apartheid in 1948 to protect their economic advantages and to oppose black urbanization and social welfare. Furthermore, many white families benefited from the work of black domestic servants who provided childcare, cooking, and house care. In order to enforce a supply of cheap and servile black labor the apartheid regime made passes, common under segregation, more restrictive; it was a criminal offense for Africans to be without a pass and made movement and residence dependent upon a pass. Despite its apparent inflexibility, apartheid was subject to various political and economic interests in the white community, underwent changes, and, when confronted with black resistance, it attempted (unsuccessfully) to reform itself.

The 1950s can be described as the era of "petty apartheid," when the Nationalists passed many new racist laws similar to Jim Crow in the United States in order to enforce a racially separate and unequal social order. The 1953 Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, for instance, imposed segregation on all public facilities, including post offices, beaches, stadiums, parks, toilets, and cemeteries, and buses and trains as well. [Watch Hoorzook interview segment]

Two pillars of apartheid became law in 1950: the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act. The former classified all South Africans as members of the White, African, Coloured, or Indian racial groups. Because racial identities were (and are) historically and socially constructed, the government created Racial Classification Boards to officially determine a person’s "race." The absurdity of this system is exemplified by the story of Vic Wilkinson, who was alternatively classified as Coloured, then White, and finally back to Coloured again.

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The Group Areas Act imposed strict residential racial segregation. Apartheid social engineering irreparably damaged countless families, communities, and livelihoods, as the government forcibly removed blacks to African, Coloured, or Indian "townships" (also known as "locations") on the outskirts of cities and towns. In the process of enforcing this plan, government bulldozers destroyed vibrant, racially mixed neighborhoods, such as Sophiatown in Johannesburg and District Six in Cape Town. Township residents tried to rebuild their lives despite inadequate housing, material poverty, and, for Africans, the constant danger of arrest for not carrying a pass book.
 
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