Apartheid in South Africa: Origin and Meaning

Apartheid meaning and origin

For virtually all throughout the 20th century, the people of South Africa were forced to endure a system of governance known as Apartheid. What was apartheid? And what sorts of laws and policies did the apartheid government in South Africa enact and enforce? Below is a quick look at the origin and meaning of Apartheid in South Africa:

Meaning of Apartheid

The term “apartheid” is an Afrikaans word that means ‘apartness’. From the early 1950s, the predominantly white National Party (NP) of South Africa made apartheid their core doctrine. The ideology demanded for the segregation of South Africans on the basis of race. By so doing, the Apartheid government could roll out racial segregation laws and policies that made white minorities in South Africa superior to all other non-white races.

All throughout the apartheid era, the South African government insisted that it pursued a policy of equality and freedom. However, what was happening on the ground was a complete nightmare. All the laws passed by the government was aimed at compelling people of different races to live in separate neighborhoods; ride on separate buses; and go to separate schools.

The goal was to perpetually keep the non-whites, particularly the black South Africans, wallowing in a cesspool of underdevelopment, poverty, and high illiteracy. All forms of activities, both social and political, that brought the mixing of different races were quickly and brutally suppressed. For example, inter-marriage during apartheid era was strictly illegal. Contravening any of those discriminatory laws (truth be told, barbaric laws actually) saw the culprit end up behind bars, often without any form of legal counsel.

So, while the white minority rulers of South Africa lived in what could only be described as paradise, the majority of the population, blacks particularly, was confined to bathe in abject poverty.

Origin of Apartheid

A quick look at the history of South Africa and one cannot help but notice that racial segregation was very much present long before the Nationalist Party took power in 1948. Therefore, did apartheid start before 1948?

The official definition of apartheid explains a situation where a government enacts explicit laws and policies aimed at making a particular race master of other races. Prior to 1948, there existed no laws of such. However, it does not mean that the few white South Africans did not dish out a flurry of racist behaviors towards other races. Under apartheid rule, however, racial segregation was staunchly enforced by the state. The citizens had no choice but to comply with those laws, least they would be prosecuted and imprisoned.

Officially, Apartheid policies were introduced by Herenigde Nasionale Party (the HNP) – the Reunited National Party. The HNP were led by D.F. Malan (Prime Minister of South Africa between 1948 and 1954) and a host of other influential Afrikaners from the Afrikaner Party. Three years after the 1948 general elections, the Afrikaner Party and the HNP formed a political alliance that culminated in the birth of the National Party.

Why were Afrikaners the key supporters of Apartheid?

After South Africa became a union in 1910, nationalists from the Afrikaner population were allowed to boss things around in the country. They were given free rein to do as they wanted. This few, but well resourced, sections of the population believed themselves to be superior to other races in South Africa. The Afrikaners were also in constant fear that their minority population could lead to them to being marginalized. Therefore, they decided to act by quickly subjugating the rest of the population.

What were some examples of Apartheid laws?

Apartheid meaning and origin | Apartheid Laws

As stated above, apartheid laws were solely aimed at keeping the various races in South Africa from interacting with each other. In order to do this, the state passed several laws. Starting in 1949, the state passed the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949. As the name implies, this law made it illegal for South Africans of different races to get married.

Then, there was the Population Registration Act of 1950, which required South Africans to have a national identification card based on their racial affiliations. The implementing body was the Department of Home Affairs. Across the country, people would be given totally different treatment or social services depending on whether the person was white, black, colored, Indian or Asian.

The third major apartheid law was the Group Areas Act, which was passed in 1950. This law stated that people of different races should live in different places. What this meant was that, it was illegal for a black South African or an Indian to go live in a white-only neighborhood. And to make matters worse, the gentrification schemes of the Apartheid government were none like ever witnessed in human history. The whites that comprised a small fraction of the population were given the greatest chunks lands in South Africa. They also had the best urban spots in the country.

Similarly, the Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959 resulted in the demolition of all black neighborhoods in predominantly white settlements. The government termed black settlement areas as ‘black spots’. The act forcefully moved the blacks to areas on the outskirts of town. Blacks were also stripped of the rights to own or buy house or any other forms of real estate. All in all, an estimated 3 million non-whites were forced off their lands and properties in the 1960s alone. Now, granted they had had those rights, the government would still have made sure to keep them economically marginalized, thereby dwindling their ability to acquire and own any property in the country.

Which South African organizations stood up against Apartheid?

Apartheid meaning and origin

By the 1960s, Apartheid laws and policies had proved very successful at keeping the various races from relating with each other. The effect of apartheid could be felt in virtually every aspect of the South African society. Resentment, hatred and anger continued to build among blacks. The government had stripped them off all basic rights. Many of the organizations that came to aid of the blacks were shut down or completely banned. Their leaders were locked up and denied legal services.

In spite of all the above, there were some organizations that simply did not back down. Organizations such as the African National Congress (ANC); the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP); the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC); and the United Democratic Front (UDF) worked extremely hard to free the blacks from the social, political and economic bondage of the white supremacist government.

The blacks weren’t the only ones in the struggle to bring down the apartheid government in South Africa; many other marginalized races also had their respective organizations and political parties that took the fight straight to the ruling elites. Examples of such organizations were the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and the Colored People’s Organization.

There were even some white South African organizations that walked arms in arms to fight apartheid in South Africa. Honorable mention can be made of the slightly radical Armed Resistance Movement (ARM). Also, many Christian organizations vehemently campaigned against the inhumane apartheid policies. Likewise, some foreign countries, including a host of African countries, lent their voices to the course of anti-apartheid organizations in South Africa.

How did the Apartheid Government respond to pressures and calls to end its racial segregation policies?


Apartheid in South Africa

Like any authoritarian government, the apartheid government’s response to domestic and external pressures was full of cunning. From the 1970s onwards, some of the apartheid laws were scrapped. However, in the new laws introduced weren’t much different from the old ones. The government continued to lie to the international community that all its laws were designed to promote equality and freedom.

With the situation not getting any better, the blacks were forced to act, sometimes in the most violent of ways. The PAC and other anti-apartheid organizations may have briefly dabbled in violent means to get their grievances heard. It must be noted however, that some ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo unequivocally rejected the use of violence. The ANC primarily deployed civil disobedience tactics. They defied the laws by using social amenities reserved for the white population. Also, they called for industrial strikes in critical areas of the economy. Their goal was to starve the government of vital resources- resources that the ANC believed were used to perpetuate the apartheid rule.

The government in turn meted out the harshest of punishments to all those it considered a threat to the apartheid regime. Several tens of thousands of activists and anti-apartheid leaders where jailed indefinitely, without any legal process. Obviously, the most famous of those political prisoners was none other than Nelson Mandela – Nobel Peace Laureate and South Africa’s first black president.

In the end, South Africa was plunged into about a decade or so of unrest. There were daily demonstrations that usually turned deadly. One of the darkest periods of the apartheid era occurred in 1976, when a group of secondary school students from the Soweto Township staged massive protests. The ensuing violence and deaths from the Soweto Protests cast a negative spotlight on the apartheid government in South Africa. The international community started paying full attention to the deplorable situation in apartheid South Africa. There were calls from around the globe for South African goods and companies to be boycotted.

How and when did apartheid end?

Adopted in April 1994, the South African flag stands for the multicultural and multiracial nature of the country

All throughout the 1980s, the apartheid government’s legitimacy and credibility gradually eroded. Several concerts and protests were held across the globe, calling on the government to immediately release all political prisoners. Many countries imposed political and economic sanctions on the government.

The turning point came in 1990, when President FW de Klerk issued an order for the release of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela – a man who had been jailed for about 27 years. After a series of referendums and reforms, the apartheid government caved in to pressures to hold free and fair elections.

In the 1994 general elections, Nelson Mandela swept his way to victory, bringing an end to white-minority rule in South Africa. As part of the reconciliation efforts instituted by Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki were selected to serve as deputy presidents of South Africa.


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