Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

A Brief History of South Africa, Part III

What exactly is apartheid?  Literally, it’s the Afrikaans word for “aparthood.”  In practice, it was a series of South African government regulations that imposed racial segregation through ways such as forced removal of certain people from certain areas, separate education systems, separate police systems, the illegality of inter-racial marriage… the list just gets longer and crazier.

Like everywhere else in the world, racial segregation existed in South Africa when it was first colonized.  In fact, it was probably already present prior European contact between the different African tribes.  But South Africa is unique because its National Party government actually built its platform on enforcing regulations from 1948 to 1994 to ensure white supremacy and Afrikaner minority rule.

Apartheid became an official policy after the “general election” (although who could vote was very limited) in 1948.  People were classified into four racial groups: white, black, coloured, and Indian.  “Coloured” were people of mixed heritage.

By 1970, non-white political representation had been completely abolished and black people were deprived of their citizenship.  Instead of being South Africans, they were legally citizens of one of ten homelands called bantustans.  These were supposedly self-governing, but they still largely depended on funds from the South African government – and hence were too underfunded to provide adequate social services.

Socioeconomic polarization always creates conflict, so you can imagine the conflict created by apartheid.  The internal resistance of the 1950s to 1990s gave South Africa the bad reputation it still carries today.  Again, I recommend Adam Hochschild’s The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey (1991) to understand the violence and politics during this time.

One major point of contention was “One man, one vote.”  People wanted their political voice to be represented in their government.  To appease some of the inhabitants, the National Party created the Tricameral Parliament in 1983 to extend voting rights to Coloureds and Indians.  The new system had 3 separate houses: the House of Assembly for whites (178 members), the House of Representatives for coloureds (85), and the House of Delegates for Indians (45).  Surprise surprise, the whites still had majority rule.

These, along with other reforms, failed to quell the opposition and violence of the 1980s.  As a result, in 1990 the National Party president Frederik Willem de Klerk finally began negotiations to end in apartheid.  Finally, in 1994, South African had its first multi-racial democratic elections.  The African National Congress (ANC) won (and has continued winning since) and Nelson Mandela because the first president of New South Africa.


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