During WWII, South Africa’s United Party failed to enforce segregation laws with the vigor that most Afrikaners thought was necessary. As a result, war time was accompanied by growing fears of racial mixing and prophecies of racial doom for white South Africans. Afrikaners placed much of the blame for the problems on non-white South Africans. The racial and ethnic discontent was complicated by Afrikaners’ Christian convictions, fears of communism, and, strangely, a desire for modernization. These four principles resulted in their Apartheid project and South Africa’s devolution into a racist pariah state For this month’s series on race, we are tackling one of history’s most notorious systems of racial segregation, South Africa’s Apartheid.

Marissa: It’s May  26 in 1948, late autumn in Johannesburg, South Africa. Twenty-nine year old law student Nelson Mandela is squirreled away in meetings all day with his best friend Oliver Tambo and several other young activists. Nelson and his wife Evelyn are quietly grieving the death of their infant daughter, Makaziwe. In spite of, or perhaps as a result of this tragedy, Nelson is throwing himself into his political work. He has recently been elected to the executive committee of a regional branch of the African National Congress (ANC). Nelson and Oliver are filling their day with strategy meetings while, in the rest of the country, white South Africans are flocking to the polls to vote in the general election. But Nelson and Oliver, despite their political savvy and legal educations, are not eligible to vote; they’re not white.

Elizabeth: Nelson, Oliver, and their allies are not particularly worried about this election’s outcome. They feel confident in the United Party, the party of General Jan Smuts, who had helped the British defeat the Nazis two years prior. Surely, the crackpot National Party would be defeated by Smuts. The National Party, led by former minister Dr. Daniel Malan, is made up of white Afrikaners who sympathized with the Nazis. Their resentment for the English was matched only by their disgust for native Africans. The Nationalists ran under the slogan, “Apartheid,” which literally means “aparthood” in Afrikaans. The United Party were hardly allies to the ANC. Their parliaments had passed many segregationist statutes in the past. But even Smuts called the Nationalists’ Apartheid “a crazy concept born of prejudice and fear.” To Nelson, Smuts is the lesser of two evils, not that his opinion counted officially anyway.

The Nationalists and their right-wing platform are far from Nelson and Oliver’s minds as they assemble with their ANC colleagues that day. Their meetings stretch into the evening, and continue for most of the night. It isn’t until dawn on the morning of May 27 that Nelson and Oliver leave their friends and step out into the dull sunlight and mild, autumn Johannesburg air. As the young men walk the Johannesburg streets, they happen across a newsvendor where they stop to read the morning’s headlines. They read that Malan delivers his victory speech to a mass of cheering, white Afrikaners, “South Africa belongs to us once more!”

Marissa: Nelson is shocked that Malan and his National Party have won the election. He is fretting about this monumental event, the first time an exclusively Afrikaner party has controlled South Africa’s government. And he worries over what this will mean for black South Africans. Oliver’s response, however, is unexpected, “I like this,” he says, “I like this.” Nelson looks at him, puzzled. Oliver elaborates, “Now we will know exactly who our enemies are and where we stand.”

For this month’s series on race, we are tackling one of history’s most notorious systems of racial segregation, South Africa’s Apartheid.

I’m Marissa.

And I’m Elizabeth,

Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Elizabeth: Thank you for joining us today! Before we dive in, we want to thank you, our listeners, and especially our Patreon supporters, who help keep this history excavation team digging. A big shout-out and thanks to our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Lauren, Edward, Iris, Denise, Susan, Agnes, Peggy, Colin, Maddie, Maria, Jessy and Hannah! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Marissa: Since I am no South Africanist and, I’m assuming, most of our listeners aren’t either. I’m going to give you a very simplified summary of South African history before Apartheid. I think it brings some insight into Apartheid’s origins, especially during a time when the rest of the world was liberalizing, integrating, and granting civil rights to historically excluded groups.

The region currently referred to as South Africa has been inhabited by hominids for 3 million years. In more recent human history (5th century CE), Bantu-speaking people from current day Zimbabwe and Botswana migrated south, displacing and conquering the Khoisan-speaking people (the Khoikhoi and the San) who inhabited the area at the time. The Portuguese were the first to master the Atlantic currents which allowed them to navigate to South Africa by way of the Atlantic. At the time of European contact, the Bantu dominated the region but the Khoisan were also still living there.

Elizabeth: The Dutch established a trading post on the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. This trading post drew Dutchmen to settle in the area. They brought with them slaves from Indonesia, Madagascar, and east Africa. The Dutchmen who settled as farmers on the South African frontier were called Boers. Over time the Boer militias allied themselves with the Khoisan to repel raiders from other ethnic groups in the area.

In 1795, the French invaded the Netherlands so Britain occupied the South African settlement to prevent It from falling to the French. From 1803 to 1806, the area was under the control of the Batavian Republic (Dutch) but it was ceded back to Great Britain after the Napoleonic Wars. In 1820, a wave of British settlers made the Cape their home. While Dutch settlers were often resentful of the British newcomers, the Brits did help them to fend off powerful African empires like the Xhosa (KO-sa) and Zulu.

Marissa: Soon, though, British presence in the settlement caused the Dutch Boers to spread further North as they sought to avoid British rule. They set up various small Boer republics. These migrant Boers were called Voortrekkers (pioneers) and their journey came to be known as the Great Trek.  The Great Trek represented Dutch Boer resistance to British colonialism, gave South Africa its current shape, and escalated disputes with the African tribes in the area. The Zulu maintained a sovereign nation (Zululand) for some time until it was dissolved at the end of the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879.

Elizabeth: Large deposits of diamonds were discovered in 1867 and of gold in 1884. Miners and migrant laborers flooded the area. This, as you can imagine, escalated tensions between the British, the Boers, and the indigenous tribes in the area. As a result of these growing tensions, the British fought two wars with the Afrikaans-speaking Boer Republics. The First Boer War (1880-81) was won by the Boers using guerilla warfare against the poorly prepared British. Tensions continued to escalate. In 1899, war broke out once again but the British came prepared this time. They waged total war and imprisoned Boer refugees in concentration camps. Nearly 27,000 Boers died in the camps. Boer farmers whose homesteads were destroyed in the war moved to the cities where they formed a class of poor urban whites. The rural Boers who remained were, understandably, virulently anti-British.

Marissa: In 1910, the British granted South Africa nominal independence with the South Africa Act. But it wasn’t until 1931 that the country achieved true sovereignty from Britain. The United Party sought to bring Afrikaans-speakers and English-speakers together but they split over the issue of WWII. This bring us to the 1940s, where the story of Apartheid really begins.

The engine behind the Nationalist Party’s 1948 victory were disaffected Afrikaner nationalists. In 1948, about 60% of white South Africans spoke Afrikaans. Primarily members of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), Afrikaner nationalists believed they were the people chosen by God to rule South Africa and preserve Afrikaner culture. There is often a religious element to nationalist movements and this one is no different. It’s up for debate whether these overtures to Christianity were sincere on the part of all Afrikaner nationalists.

Elizabeth: Indeed, the nationalist party’s political genealogy suggests political and social issues determined more than religious belief. The National Party formed in 1914 but merged with the United Party (of Jan Smuts) in 1935. Angry nationalists split in defiance of the merger and formed the Purified Nationalist Party that same year. The United/National party merger only lasted until 1939 when they split over foreign policy during WWII. The National party rejoined the Purified National party to form the radicalized Reunified National Party.

These parties spent the late 1930s and early 1940s wooing Afrikaner maize farmers and the Afrikaner working class. Maize farmers’ main priority was to secure cheap black labor for their farms which had become increasingly difficult to do as their labor was cannibalized by the diamond and gold mining industries. White working class Afrikaners were similarly dismayed by the cheap, black labor in the mines which was driving down their wages. After a white mine workers’ strike, the nationalists secured the endorsement of the Mine Workers Union in 1947.

Marissa: At the same time, the United Party political machine was ailing. Many folks within the party disliked the candidate who was earmarked as Smuts’s successor. During WWII, the United Party failed to enforce segregation laws with the vigor that most Afrikaners thought was necessary. As a result, war time was accompanied by growing fears of racial mixing and prophecies of racial doom for white South Africans. Afrikaners placed much of the blame for the problems in their lives at the feet of the British. So this all came with a healthy dose of anti-British sentiment.

Elizabeth: The racial and ethnic discontent was complicated by the Soviet Union’s rapid expansion after the end of the war. The entire world, including South Africans, were coming to see communism as a global threat. Jan Smuts and his United Party did not seem to be taking the threat of Communism seriously. The National party capitalized on this, maintaining a hard, anti-Communist line committed to routing out communism at home. The suppression of communism was one of the first things on their agenda when they took control of parliament in 1948.

Marissa: Obviously the nationalists’ platform was overtly racist, segragationist, and white supremacist. And as we mentioned earlier, heavily reliant on the Christianity of the Dutch Reformed Church. But there was also a political ideology undergirding the Nationalist Party’s platform that might surprise you: modernism. Large, centralized, and interventionist states had come into fashion during the Great Depression. Think FDR’s New Deal, or the democratic socialism that came to define the Scandinavian countries and much of continental Europe, even today. More than ever, the nation state was understood to be the engine of social and economic change. Modern states were large bureaucracies but not the byzantine bureaucracies of centuries past, no. Modern states were peopled by technocrats whose expertise transformed bureaucracies into vast, interventionist political machines that mediated most aspects of its citizens’ lives.

Elizabeth: These four principles: Christianity (DRC-specific), white supremacy, anti-Communism, and political modernism were the bedrock of the Nationalist Party’s Apartheid Project. Apartheid, literally “apartness,” comprises a suite of population policies and segregationist codes aimed at preventing miscegenation, ordering South African spaces, and ensuring the economic, social, and cultural success of white Afrikaners over all non-white South Africans. The architects of the Apartheid program hoped to achieve their goals through a comprehensive set of policies enforced by a massive and powerful state. They hoped to control the lives of non-white South Africans in both fundamental and intimate ways. Apartheid came to be understood on two levels: petty apartheid and grand apartheid. Grand apartheid refers to the zoomed-out goals of Apartheid- namely controlling the size of non-white populations and the spaces where they were allowed to live. Petty apartheid, zooming in, refers to all of the smaller rules that restricted and shaped the every-day lives of non-white South Africans. We’ll cover many examples soon.

Marissa: Segregation and state-sponsored discrimination were nothing new to South Africans living in 1948. The 1913 Land Act (which came three years after union) is a good example of this. The act distinguished between white-owned land (87%) and black-owned land (13% which came to be known as the Reserves). The act also outlawed the recategorization of land, barring non-whites from owning any white-designated land. Lastly, the Land Act outlawed the practice of sharecropping which allowed blacks to use white-owned land in exchange for cash. Afrikaners believed that sharecropping allowed blacks to think of white land-owners as equals or partners rather than as masters. This subversion of the racial hierarchy did not sit well with them. We should note, however, that some South Africans continued sharecropping anyway and this Act was rejected by the Cape Province courts because it violated the province’s voting rights laws. Each province had its own regulations regarding black residency, enfranchisement, and labor and some areas were segregated organically, not by statute. Most scholars, and most South Africans themselves, agree that Apartheid codified, regularized, and universalized the de facto racist policies that had been in place for some time.

Daniel François Malan, the first apartheid-era prime minister (1948–1954). Black and white photo of a man.
Daniel François Malan, the first apartheid-era prime minister (1948–1954)

Elizabeth: Scholars have partitioned Apartheid South Africa into three historical phases. I’m going to borrow this periodization because it’s convenient, especially for newbs like me. The first phase began immediately after the 1948 election and lasted through the 1950s. Another thing you should know is that the architects of Apartheid, those Afrikaner nationalists I mentioned earlier, faced an inherent contradiction in their plan that was never fully resolved. During the first few years following their rise to power, the new nationalist government debated the best way to design and implement the Apartheid project.

Marissa: Some Afrikaner nationalists were so deeply committed to their segregationist, white supremacist principles that they frowned upon Afrikaners’ use of non-white labor. They reasoned that a racially integrated economy would encourage racial mixing and ultimately divide white Afrikaner loyalties and limit their financial success. Many Afrikaners could not envision white economic success without cheap, black labor but some argued that modernization and mechanization of industry would eventually make cheap black labor obsolete. These purists sat in opposition to the pragmatic camp within the Afrikaner Nationalist party. The pragmatists believed that non-white laborers (who were cheaper than white laborers) would be necessary to white economic viability. Some nationalists, like those maize farmers I mentioned earlier, only joined the party in the first place to GUARANTEE cheap black labor for their farms. Apartheid’s first phase was shaped by this tension.

Elizabeth: South Africa’s new Afrikaner nationalist parliament set to work on the Apartheid project immediately after they assumed office. Their first order of business was to (theoretically) halt racial mixing with the Mixed Marriages Act (1949) and the Immorality Act (1950). The Mixed Marriages Act nullified the marriages of mixed-race couples who had been married outside the country. More importantly, it criminalized all interracial marriages, punishable by jail time. Officiating mixed marriages was also illegal, punished by a large fine. The Immorality Act criminalized potentially procreative sex between a man and woman of different races. One of the deeper reasons behind these anti-miscegenation laws can be found in the Nationalist Party’s white supremacist goals. In many ways, they cared more about the fate of the white half of a couple than the non-white half. The aim was to rehabilitate poor whites who, the state believed, were particularly vulnerable to racial mixing due to their historical working and living conditions.

Marissa: Having (theoretically) prevented additional racial mixing, the Nationalist Party categorized all South Africans by race with the Population Registration Act (1950). At the time of the National Party’s victory in 1948, South Africa had a complicated racial landscape shaped by the successive waves of colonialism, slave importation, and migrant laboring we mentioned briefly before. The Population Registration Act sought to categorize each South African for the purposes of controlling their labor, residency, and movement. Using the language they used at the time, there were four main racial groups (groups is the word they used): (1) “natives” or black Africans made up 70% of South Africa’s populations (this group came to be referred to as “Bantus”); (2) whites– both Dutch/Huguenot Afrikaans-speaking and English-speaking made up 20%; (3) “coloureds” or people of mixed race made up 8% of the population; and (4) Indians or south Asians made up 2% (South Africa systematically imported Asian “coolies” from India and China starting in the 1860s to address labor shortages on farms and plantations after the discovery of diamonds and gold.)

Elizabeth: The Apartheid program sought to identify the race of each South African and to make that category rigid and irrevocable. The Act says “a white person is one who in appearance is, or who is generally accepted as, a white person, but does not include a person who, although in appearance obviously a white person, is generally accepted as a coloured person.” As this language might suggest, census-takers categorized people based on a nebulous combination of looks, culture, and living and laboring conditions. If census-takers were unsure of someone’s group, they purportedly used the pencil test; they’d push a pencil into the person’s hair and if it stayed in place, their hair was considered to be the coarse hair of a black or coloured person. If it fell out, they could be designated as white.

Marissa: Pencil tests aside, no one could ever quite articulate what made someone “white” or “non-white” but the Afrikans nationalists were certain that they knew a white when they say one and vice versa. Census takers had no official training. Historian Deborah Posel puts it this way, “the only necessary qualification for the job was the experience of white superiority: it was the white classifiers’ ordinary everyday experience of racial difference that was expected to inform their judgments.” From the Afrikaner point of view, white superiority was supposed to be self-evident so identifying whiteness could not be difficult if this were true. (One of many instances of circular logic in the Apartheid state).

Elizabeth: This impressionistic approach is kind of shocking considering the importance of this determination. The Group Areas Act of 1950 and subsequent legislation gave these racial groupings powerful meanings. The Group Areas Act established racially homogenous residential areas. In other words, it dictated where people of each race were legally allowed to live. Blacks were generally confined to rural areas on the erroneous assumption that Africans were rural people. While white South Africans were zoned to urban areas. Just like that, entire communities of color were destroyed and uprooted. Asian, coloured, or black South Africans in places like Sophiatown in Johannesburg and District Six in Cape Town were reassigned to Asian or African townships, and their former communities razed under the justification of slum clearance. (Although Sophiatown was anything but a slum town).

Marissa: Some families were torn asunder by the racial classification process. Historian Deborah Posel writes, “Husbands or wives redefined as members of different races were forced to separate and live in different areas; families were also forcibly ruptured when children were classified differently from their parents. Literally overnight, such people found themselves disbarred from living in the houses and areas where they have lived up that that point, their children excluded from the schools that they have been attending, their positions of employment suddenly in question, and with instant liability for a new set of racially specific levies and taxes.”

Elizabeth: We should point out that only 3,940 South Africans formally challenged their racial classifications. The majority (2,823) who did appeal, won! But still, of the 16 million people who lived in South Africa at the time, only a few thousand appealed their classification. There can obviously be many reasons for this. But it also suggests that most South Africans agreed with the categories that the census-takers had assigned them. So while these groups or categories may seem contrived to us, to South Africans at the time, even non-white South Africans, the categories made sense.

Marissa: This was only the beginning of the Apartheid state’s social engineering. Subsequent laws such as the Abolition of Passes and Documents Act of 1952 and the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 further restricted the movement of non-white South Africans within the country. The Abolition of Passes and Documents Act’s title is misleading because it abolished the passes of yore (legislated in 1927) but instituted a new kind of pass called a reference book that detailed black South Africans’ employment history and residence rights. While black men’s residence rights were usually tied to their employment, black women could gain residency rights through marriage. And, interestingly, for most of the 1950s, black women were not required to carry reference books. So for most of this decade, black South African women enjoyed much more freedom of movement than black men.

Elizabeth: Almost immediately, Apartheid’s contradictions came back to haunt it. Remember earlier we mentioned that there was tension between purists who believed in economic and labor segregation as well as social segregation? It was immediately a problem because Apartheid was meant to keep blacks in the rural Reserves but urban and suburban business owners required cheap (that is, black) labor to run their businesses and white South African households wanted cheap (that is, black) servants, groundskeepers, etc. So there was this constant tension between the Afrikaners who wanted access to cheap, black labor and those who held tight to the idea that South Africa’s urban spaces were meant to be entirely white.

Marissa: In order to mediate the tension between the purists and the pragmatists, the Minister of Native Affairs, Dr. H. F. Verwoerd created the Urban Labour Preference Policy. Under this policy, no Africans were allowed to migrate to any South African town or city for work until that town or city’s African labor supply was exhausted. To coordinate and enforce this policy, a massive corps of Labor Bureaux were established by the Apartheid state. Employers hated this policy because it made it ever so difficult to tap into those reservoirs of cheap, black labor. Rural white farmers were also not a fan because their situation was changing. During war time, they prioritized cheap, black labor. But farming was becoming increasingly mechanized and the government’s attempts to keep blacks out of the city led to growing black populations in rural areas and not enough rural jobs to employ them. To address the white farmers’ growing resentment, the Apartheid government dismantled sharecropping and labor tenancy, relocating black share croppers and labor tenants to the now-overcrowded black reserves.

Elizabeth: One reason for this was a loophole that some black South Africans were able to make use of during the 1950s. They were able to establish permanent residency in certain towns irrespective of their employment. These were called Section 10 rights and they were granted to blacks only if they were born in the town AND had achieved continuous employment in the town for a decade or more. These people became known as “insiders” and their status was coveted. The Apartheid state was forced to acknowledge them as a separate class of “urbanized Africans” in opposition to the “work-seeking migrant” Africans who were shuttled in and out of the towns by the Labour Bureaux. This would not last long. As the Apartheid state grew and became ever more stringent, settlements of insiders were vacated and razed to the ground under the guise of slum clearance (like the case of Sophiatown in Johannesburg that we mentioned earlier.)

Marissa: Another (not horrible) thing about Apartheid was its impact on black education. In 1949, only 30% of black children between the ages of 7 and 16 attended school. Under apartheid, black education was removed from the purview of the Christian missions and put under the umbrella of the state. This resulted in a marked increase in basic literacy and numeracy in the black population. By the mid-1980s, there were 60 times as many black university students as there had been in the 1940s before Apartheid. But this was a double-edged sword. With the Apartheid state controlling black education, it was able to shape the message that black students received about their world. Those messages were (no shock here) pro-Apartheid.

Elizabeth: While the framework for Apartheid was established during the 1950s, the tension between the purists and pragmatists created legal loopholes and interrupted execution and enforcement. For example, one of its prime directives– to relegate blacks to rural areas and make the cities and towns the centers of white life– did not go as planned. Between 1950 and 1960 the black urban population grew by 50%. In other words, during this first decade, Apartheid did not work very well. It failed to achieve many of the nationalists’ goals. This was about to change.

Marissa: In the 1948 election, the Nationalist Party’s victory was tenuous. They won many seats by very small margins and the ones they lost, they lost badly. After 1948, the nationalist parliament, cleverly, moved to secure their re-election very early on by manipulating the franchise. This was key to the duration of Apartheid because even in the 1950s when Apartheid was not entirely effective, black resistance had developed, especially to the pass laws. To ensure the Nationalist party’s success despite growing resistance to their policies, the Apartheid government outlawed black voting more completely, gerrymandered their districts, and appealed to a broader audience by minimizing their anti-British sentiment and appealing more to whiteness rather than just Afrikaner, DRC-specific whiteness. First election with an impressive majority was in 1958.

Elizabeth: These changes ushered in a second, more repressive phase often called High Apartheid. One of the strategy shifts that is worth mentioning has to do with the theory of detribalization. Colonial South Africa (under the Dutch and the British) had pursued policies of detribalization. Their goal was to loosen the kinship ties that organized African tribal life so that they might Christianize and modernize African society in their own image. After centuries of detribalizing, the growing white nationalist movement, especially the purists, attacked this approach. Remember how they had warned pragmatists against a racially integrated economy? They believed that whites and blacks working together would result in further detribalization of blacks. To Afrikaner white supremacists, detribalization had turned into their worst nightmare. Black South Africans were working similar jobs to whites, even working alongside them, living in the same towns and cities, achieving a similar quality of life, and even procreating with whites. In the white nationalists’ eyes, the color line was becoming blurred by detribalization. 

Marissa: As we mentioned earlier, the 1950s was marked by a constant negotiation between the purists and the pragmatists. The Apartheid government had tried to remedy this contradiction with the Urban Labor Preference policy which failed. They decided to take a new tack. In 1959, the Apartheid government adopted a policy of retribalization. Yes, they wanted to encourage tribalism with its ethnic and cultural divisions and crisscrossing kinship networks among indigenous South Africans because they believed that it would (1) help resolve the inherent contradictions in the party, and (2) dampen the growing fire of domestic black resistance, and (3) improve South Africa’s global image in a time when ethnic self-determination was en vogue. All in one fell swoop.

Yellow and black Apartheid sign
By Order Provincial Secretary, Apartheid Sign

Elizabeth: The 1959 Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act re-envisioned the black Reserves as self-governing bodies, each one tied to a different tribal identity (there were 9 African tribal identities, coloured and Indian, making 11). On paper, this sounds ok (maybe?), but the immediate result was the cancellation of blacks’ urban residency rights. Remember that growing class of urbanized blacks who had achieved urban residency status untied to employment? The “insiders.” Well, that whole arrangement was done (we told you it wouldn’t last long). Black South Africans were now officially part of supposedly sovereign Bantustans. They were foreigners. Therefore, they could be “deported” from areas where their families had lived for decades, or centuries, and dumped in a place where they had never even been, but were called their ethnic “homelands.”

Marissa: After 1959, there were no black residents of South African towns or cities. The only black presence allowed was that which was necessary to use black labor. If you were not white and you weren’t employed at that very moment by white South Africans, you could not be in the towns or cities, period. More systematic removals or deportations of the black population followed, notably self-employed blacks who made up much of the black middle class. By the end of the 1960s, 3.5 million blacks had been removed from areas designated as whites only. It did not end in the 1960s though. This process of removal (AKA slum clearance) was often performed, resisted, and performed again over the entire course of Apartheid. In 1984, photographer David Goldblatt witnessed the demolition of a black family’s home by the Western Cape Development Board:

“The shelter was a framework of brushwood staked into the loose sand of the Cape Flats and covered by plastic sheets–black plastic near the base for privacy, translucent plastic over the roof for light. Neatly, without touching the contents of the home or its occupants, a team of five Black men, supervised by an armed White, lifted the entire structure of frame and plastic skin off the ground and placed it nearby. Then they pulled off the plastic, smashed the framework and threw the pieces onto a waiting truck. Hardly a word was spoken. While they could legally destroy the wooden framework, they were forbidden, by the quirk of a court decision brought against the State seeking to prevent these demolitions, from confiscating or destroying the plastic. So it was left where it fell.

Then the convoy–a police Landrover, the truck with the demolition squad and broken wood, and a Casspir with policemen in camouflage lolling in its armored back–moved towards the next group of shelters. For a while the woman lay with the child. Then she got up and began to cut and strip the branches of Port Jackson bush to make a new framework for her house. The child slept.”[1]

Photo by David Goldblatt, 1984, www.oercommons.org

Elizabeth: Deborah Posel makes the excellent point that under the guise of ethnic self-government, the Apartheid government was no only continuing to engineer the population based on race. They were also relinquishing their responsibility for all black South Africans by removing them from white spaces and relocating them to the Reserves (now coming to be called Bantustans) where the Bantustan’s local government would now be responsible for serving their needs. The government also encouraged the relocation of industry to the peripheries. If industries that required black labor were located at the edge of white spaces and Bantustans, then the black presence in towns and cities could be minimized further.

Lastly, there was the change most universally resented by black South Africans: the application of the pass laws to black South African women. Remember, during the 1950s, black South African women had enjoyed considerable freedom compared to their male counterparts. This would no longer be the case under High Apartheid. To many black South Africans, this was step too far. The African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were filled with activists who had taken on the banner of African nationalism. The ANC and PAC retaliated against the new pass laws immediately. For example, in March 1960, they led marches to local police stations where the marchers would burn their passes in the view of officers. These marches were attended by anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 South Africans.

Marissa: One of these marches turned horrifically violent. On March 21, 1960, 5,000 marchers descended on the Sharpeville police station to burn their passes in protest. The Sharpeville police panicked and fired hundreds of shots into the crowd. Sixty-nine people were killed, including 8 women and ten children and 180 protesters were wounded. The Sharpeville Massacre, as it became known, accelerated the unrest. The Apartheid government was paralyzed by indecision. They suspended the pass laws but then re-imposed them 10 days later. In the face of continued protest, the state cracked down in early April. They placed a military cordon around areas where there was unrest and declared a state of emergency. On April 6, the ANC and PAC were banned, forcing them to publicly disband and reorganize underground.

Elizabeth: Meanwhile, the Apartheid government continued their repressive agenda. While retribalization addressed several of their problems at once, High Apartheid brought with it new problems for the state. The nationalist party’s desire to appeal to English-speaking as well as Afrikaans-speaking whites was troublesome to the Apartheid state. Enforcing High Apartheid, with all of its rules and regulations, required a massive, efficient bureaucratic machine. Each department had elaborate statistical routines to complete in addition to their daily tasks and broader missions. This was difficult to achieve even in the 1950s, when the state’s bureaucratic demands were more moderate and their pool of bureaucrats large. In the 1960s, a robust bureaucracy became nearly impossible. English-speaking bureaucrats were treated with contempt and distrust by the Afrikaners and were swiftly squeezed out of their bureaucratic posts. This exodus of experienced and expert bureaucrats made the state functionally incompetent, a condition that Posel calls its “modernist dementia.” The information-gathering never resulted in policy change yet the measuring and ordering continued. As Posel puts it, “the apartheid obsession with measurements was more significant as a symptom of the deluded limits of its modernising aspirations than as a descriptor of government practice.”

Marissa: This does not mean that the state had no control. Quite the opposite, South Africa became a police state under High Apartheid. This is especially ironic because in 1961 South Africa left the British Commonwealth and declared itself a republic. The fiction of a modern republic was supported by the separation of the Bantustans from the rest of the South African government. But it should be noted that the Bantustans, though they held elections, were administered by Apartheid-friendly administrators. Several of them achieved some level of independence under Apartheid but none of them were ever recognized as sovereign states by anyone else other than South Africa.

Elizabeth: The descent into a police state was accelerated by white South Africans’ anti-Communist sentiments. Anti-communist laws were used to target black neighborhoods, the ANC and PAC, and, eventually, to neutralize Parliament in favor of the executive branch. South African police went from being a semi-independent agency charged with protecting the people to being an arm of the executive government used to enforce racial boundaries and crack down on political dissent and black resistance. The executive branch of the South African state was augmented even further by an assassination attempt on the Prime Minister and head of the Nationalist Party, Hendrik Verwoerd, on April 9, 1960. Verwoerd was shot in the head twice by a white farmer but, remarkably, he survived without any lasting damage. He, and party devotees, believed this was a sign of God’s favor. He presided over the rise of High Apartheid with this confidence.

Marissa: Throughout the 1960s, the Apartheid state monitored and controlled the media to prevent anti-Apartheid criticisms, the spread of liberal and socialist ideas, and the moral decay that accompanied these things. The state controlled the radio and postponed the introduction of television to South African homes. The Publications Control Board was established in 1963 to assess and ban books, films, music, etc. that offended their sensibilities. This agency is best known for its banning of the book Black Beauty for fear that its title would promote miscegenation.

What was life like under High Apartheid? We have some stories from the people who lived through it.

To AP, Michelle Pillay Faul relayed stories about traveling with her family in rural South Africa. After an embarrassing incident when her family was thrown off a whites only railway car during a trip, Faul’s family opted for car rides when they needed to travel. But under Apartheid, this was difficult too. Hotels were whites-only so all road trips needed to be continuous. Faul’s mother chose to pack all food and drink in the car because she refused to use the back alley doors where blacks were expected to carry out their retail affairs since shops were also white-only. At one point, the family stopped for gas and, after taking her money, the shop attendant told the family that they would not be able to use the restrooms since those were whites only. Faul recounts, “So my indomitable mum did the only thing she could do: She ordered me and my two sisters to urinate right there, very publicly, in front of the fuel pumps. We did not disobey, but I started crying — and my sisters bawled, too. We lowered our shorts, but I was so traumatized that I simply could not go.”[2]

“Reserved for the sole use of members of the white race group” sign in English, Afrikaans, isiZulu, at a beach in Durban, 1989. Photo taken and donated by Guinnog.

Elizabeth: One anonymous 46-year-old Indian woman told her story about living in South Africa for the Apartheid Archives project. She tells the story of a seaside trip she took with her family as a child. They set up camp in the blacks-only area of the beach as they always did. At one point, the girl went to collect seashells with her female family members. She wandered off toward the shoreline where she was startled by two white men who were fishing. They called her a “coolie bitch” and reprimanded her for contaminating their fishing water with her black skin. Her mother quickly found her and apologized profusely to the white men. The young girl was hurt that her mother did not defend her to the men but the mother explained to her that she had broken the rules.[3]

Marissa: Something I noticed about the written accounts contained in the Apartheid Archives Project is that most of the folks being interviewed chose to relay memories about when they were little. Horrible things happened to them as adolescents and adults but for some reason it’s the racist things that happened to them as children that affected them most. If you are interested, we’ll include the URL to the archives in our show notes.

Anyhow, back to the history. High Apartheid continued for the rest of the 1960s. But by 1970, the dynamics had changed. Anti-apartheid activism was becoming ever more fervent and militant. The ANC and PAC developed military wings. The ANC’s military apparatus was called MK. MK was founded shortly after the South African Republic was established. So it had been operating behind High Apartheid for years. They attempted to sabotage the Apartheid government by targeting critical state structures. They were recurrently infiltrated by pro-Apartheid elements, their leaders either arrested and imprisoned or initiating self-imposed exile. The fate of dozens of ANC and PAC leaders are illustrated well by what happened to our friends from the top of the episode, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. When the first round of arrests and exiles crippled the congresses, Mandela and Tambo traveled abroad to develop international allies. Tambo remained in exile for 30 years, operating the ANC as president from abroad. Mandela returned to South Africa and was arrested and tried for treason alongside his brother-in-law Walter Sisulu. Both men were sentenced to break rocks in a prison quarry on Robben Island for the rest of their lives.

Rock Quarry
Lime quarry on Robben Island where Mandela and other prisoners were forced to carry out hard labor. Photo taken by Rüdiger Wölk.

Elizabeth: The 1970s brought with it the Black Consciousness Movement which had been influenced by the Black Power Movement in the USA. Many historians credit the Black Consciousness Movement with improving the self-esteem and group esteem of black South Africans after decades of Apartheid had made the racial hierarchy appear to them as facts of life. This brought the militant and underground resistance back to the mainstream. Student and labor unions protested regularly in the early 1970s. One protest in Soweto in June 1976 turned deadly. Hundreds of students turned out for a protest of the state’s imposition of Afrikaans as the only language of instruction. Police opened fire on the peaceful protestors and killed a minimum of 23 people. Scholars disagree about the death toll here but anti-Apartheid activists put the number somewhere closer to 170. Some journalists assert the total is as high as 800 deaths.

Marissa: The late-1970s, 80s, and early 90s saw more widespread protest against the Apartheid state. The country’s economic growth during the 1950s and 1960s had opened up the country to Western influence, as much as the state tried to prevent it. That economic growth, however, came to a screeching halt during the global economic downturn that characterized the mid-1970s. As a result, the state rolled back some of its most hated policies, or at least chose not to enforce them to the same degree. The international nature of Apartheid protest after 1970 signaled the beginning of the end of the Apartheid program.

In 1983, the ANC organized the United Democratic Front (UDF) to oppose the Apartheid government’s proposal for a tricameral parliament. Cast as the racist pariah state in a liberalizing world, the South African state sought to give Indian and Coloured South Africans a voice in Parliament. This proposal would still exclude the majority of South Africans who were black. The UDF organized large scale protests, boycotts, strikes against the Apartheid state. More than half of their budget came from foreign donors. The rest of the world had become invested in ending Apartheid. In 1986, the government outlawed the UDF’s foreign donations and by 1987, most of the UDF’s leadership was imprisoned. Though the UDF continued to work through 1991, with one hand tied behind its back.

Elizabeth: By the mid-1980s, resistance to the Apartheid regime had cropped up in every aspect of South African life: the church, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in parliament led by Helen Suzman, Colin Eaglin, and Harry Schwarz of the Progressive Federal Party, among South Africa’s Communist Party, its human rights organizations, and among its growing bevy of public intellectuals. The most recognizable activist was, of course, Nelson Mandela.

Marissa: If you recall from earlier, Mandela was imprisoned by the Apartheid government for treason. He spent 18 years in the quarry of Robben Island and 8 more years in different prisons, for a total of 26 years. During his imprisonment, Mandela developed relationships with young South African radicals, and built an international network of anti-Apartheid activists. The ANC and the UDF worked to negotiate his release throughout the 1980s but Mandela always rejected the conditions of his release, holding fast to his principles. The South African government feared his Marxist leanings and Mandela insisted that the government disavow their violent and racist past. It wasn’t until 1990 that Mandela’s release was finally negotiated. He was reunited with Tambo who had presided over the ANC all these years. He spoke to an audience of 100,000 in Johannesburg and vowed to end Apartheid once and for all.

Elizabeth: The newly released Mandela conducted African, European, Asian, and American tours where he convinced the world’s leaders to execute sanctions against Apartheid South Africa. It took years of negotiation, intermittent violence and retaliation, and insurmountable international pressure before Apartheid was dismantled in 1992 and free elections were held in 1994. Violence broke out regularly during the early 90s including a car bomb explosion that killed 9 people two days before the election. The election went well for the ANC (though they failed to get the supermajority they needed to rewrite the constitution then and there). South Africa adopted the multi-colored flag we are familiar with today.

Marissa: Since then, the term “apartheid” has been universalized and adapted to a number of contexts. It has come to signify any race-based regime in the contemporary or historical world. To me it initially seemed ironic that the Afrikaners/ a people whose language was a mix of Dutch and Cape slave patois and whose histories were rife with cultural, racial, and ethnic mixing- would come to disavow those aspects of their heritage. Breyten Breytenbach, a dissident Afrikaner writer explains it this way: “We are a bastard people with a bastard language… and like all bastards— uncertain of their identity— we begin to adhere to the concept of racial purity. That is apartheid. Apartheid is the law of the bastard.” So it is precisely BECAUSE of their mixed heritage, and not IN SPITE of it, that Afrikaners came to conceive of something as racist and xenophobic as apartheid.

Thanks for listening.


Breytenbach, Breyten, and A. J. Coetzee. And death white as words: an anthology of the poetry of Breyten Breytenbach : (a bilingual text with English translations [from the Afrikaans]). London: Collings, 1978.

Lapping, Brian. Apartheid: A History. New York: G. Braziller, 1990.

Mager, Anne Kelk, and Bill Nasson. The Cambridge History of South Africa. Cambridge University Press, 2011

Mager, Anne Kelk, Maanda Mulaudzi, Robert Ross, Anne Kelk Mager, and Bill Nasson. 2011. “Popular Responses to Apartheid: 1948–c. 1975”. 369-408.

Maylam, Paul. South Africa’s Racial Past: The History and Historiography of Racism, Segregation, and Apartheid. 2020.

Posel, Deborah, Robert Ross, Anne Kelk Mager, and Bill Nasson. 2011. “The Apartheid Project, 1948–1970”. 319-368.

Trapido, Stanley. 2008. “Imperialism, Settler Identities and Colonial Capitalism: The Hundred Year Origins of the 1899 South African War”. Historia : Amptelike Orgaan. 53, no. 1: 46-75.


[1] https://www.oercommons.org/authoring/25542-apartheid-primary-sources/view

[2] https://www.oercommons.org/authoring/25542-apartheid-primary-sources/view

[3] http://www.historicalpapers.wits.ac.za/?inventory_enhanced/U/Collections&c=258830/R/AG3275-B-1-21-30


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.