The Story of Africa


- Zulu rise & Mfecane


- Oppression of Khoikhoi and Xhosa


- Afrikaners versus English


- Mining


- Imperial racism


- Apartheid


- The Cold War


- South African aggression


- Clinging on


- Collapse of Apartheid



Apartheid origins

Toilet sign in South Africa, copyright BBC/Adler
The roots of apartheid go back long before the National Party came to power in 1948 with the idea of apartheid, a system for systematically separating the races.

In 1685, a law in the Cape Colony forbade marriage between Europeans and Africans, although it did permit Europeans and mixed race people to marry. Back in the 1850's, the missionary and traveler
David Livingstone , noticed the Afrikaner obsession with race. He wrote:

"The great objection many of the Boers had and still have to English law is that it makes no distinction between black men and white. They felt aggrieved by their supposed losses in the emancipation for their Hottentot slaves, and determined to erect themselves into a republic, in which they might pursue without molestation, the 'proper treatment of the blacks.'

It is almost needless to add that the 'proper treatment' has always contained in it the essential element of slavery, namely, compulsory unpaid labour. "
- Extract from David Livingstone's Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

The law

By the mid-19th century, equality for all before the law was, in theory, a principle established by the British, regardless of the race or religion of the litigant.

In 1853, a franchise was established in the Cape, determined by a person's wealth, but not restricted in any way by race; as long as you were rich enough, you could vote whether black, white or mixed race.

Restricted franchise

In the 1870s, Rhodes changed the franchise to exclude 'unwesternised' peasant farmers. Natal also briefly had a nonracial franchise, although this ended in 1896.

In the run up to the creation of the Union of South Africa, the Cape Colony was alone in sending delegates who weren't European to the constitutional conference. But the Afrikaners were determined to deprive Africans and people of African ancestry of political power.

Land stolen

A turning point in African European relations was reached in 1913 when hundreds of thousands of Africans were forced off land which they either owned or were squatting on. It became compulsory to live in African 'reserves' (Natives Land Act).

Around the same time, segregation began to be introduced into the mines so that Africans were barred from taking jobs involving any skilled labour.


The ANC (African National Congress) was formed largely in response to these early segregation laws. But the momentum proved impossible to stop. In 1936 the African and mixed race people of the Cape lost the right to vote. From here on the majority of people in South Africa lost any control over the running of their country.

Apartheid Law

After the Second World War, the National Party came to power in 1948 on a ticket of racial segregation and support for poor Afrikaners.

A large number of laws were passed to establish the apartheid structure of government. The three most important blocks of legislation were:

  • The Race Classification Act. Every citizen suspected of not being European was classified according to race.

  • The Mixed Marriages Act. It prohibited marriage between people of different races.

  • The Group Areas Act. It forced people of certain races into living in designated areas.

  • The strange world of racial classification

    The apartheid regime had a number of pseudo scientific tests for classifying people as belonging to one of four main groups: White, Black, Indian, Coloured (mixed race). One of these tests involved putting a comb through hair - if it got stuck, that meant the person being tested was identified as African.

    Every year, people were reclassified racially. In 1984, for example:

  • 518 Coloured people were defined as White

  • 2 whites were called Chinese

  • 1 white was reclassified Indian

  • 1 white became Coloured

  • 89 Coloured people became African

  • Vic Wilkinson's case is significant. He was originally classified mixed race. Later he was defined as White. But the process of classification did not end there. He was also classified as Coloured, went back to being registered White, and conclusively became Coloured in 1984.

    Interestingly the word 'African' was never used by the authorities. The problem was it translated back in the Boer language into the word Afrikaner, which was the very name the white Dutch descendants called themselves. Africans were referred to by white officialdom as black or Bantu.

    The role of the church

    The Afrikaner sense of identity is tied up closely with Christian worship. This religiosity sat curiously alongside a strong conviction in white racial superiority.

    In 1957, the Native Laws Amendment Act contained a 'Church Clause' which allowed Africans to be barred from a service if they were considered to be 'causing a nuisance'.

    In the 1950s, Drum magazine began investigating the day to day realities of apartheid. Can Themba, one of their top writers, took on the churches setting himself the task of visiting a number of different ones, with white congregations, to see what kind of reception he would get.

    Turned away from the house of God

    "The Presbyterian Church in Noord Street allowed me in, yet the one in Orange Grove refused me admittance. They explained that the hall was rented from some boys' club whose policy did not allow Non-whites into the hall. They also said something about the laws of the country.

    At the Kensington DRC (Dutch Reform Church), an aged church official was just about to close the doors when he saw me. He bellowed in Afrikaans: 'Wat soek jy?' (What do you want?) 'I've come to church,' I said. He shoved me violently, shouting for me to get away. I walked off dejected.

    A few doors away was the Baptist Church, and as I walked towards it I began to think that people didn't want me to share their church. As I walked through the Baptist door I was tense, waiting for that tap on the shoulder... but instead I was given a hymn book and welcomed into the church. I sat through the service. This up and down treatment wasn't doing my nerves much good."
    - From anthology of works of Can Themba, entitled The Will to Die.

    Apartheid also affected the world of beauty pageants. Whites were chosen as representatives of the South African peoples:


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