Finding an Apartheid Definition
For years, the vast interior of Africa had excited the exploration teams of Europe. At first, tentative journeys inched down the coast as intrepid travelers sought a route to the riches of the Orient that bypasses the famed Silk Route championed by Marco Polo. With much of the route under the monopoly of Italian city-states, and the remainder closed by the Byzantine Empire, the nations of Western Europe were looking to join the rush for spices and wealth from China and India. First however, they needed to surmount the great continent that stood in their way and Portuguese explorer, Bartolomeu Dias made landing in present day Namibia in 1487.
Within two centuries, numerous European settlements were scattered throughout South Africa with the Dutch founding Cape Town in 1652. From here on out for the next two hundred years, South Africa history was dictated by the interplay between imperial forces from Europe.
Racial History of South Africa
By the turn of the 19th-century, the Dutch, known as the Boors, and the English were the predominate European groups entrenched in South Africa, and arrayed against them were the indigenous blacks who lived there long before the Portuguese ship captain Dias ever began his fateful voyage. During this period, racial segregation was practiced on an informal basis.
What does segregation mean? Segregation refers to the separation of two races living in the same country. For instance, whites in the American south practiced a strict segregation policy that reached its zenith following the 1896 Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the court ruled on the legality of the “separate but equal” doctrine. The Plessy decision held until its overturning in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
In South Africa, early legislation sought to limit the movement and settlement of native peoples. In addition to the Native Location Act of 1879, and a stringent system of pass laws, the Natives’ Land Act of 1913 restricted ownership of land by blacks who only controlled 7% of their native lands leaving all local power firmly in the hands of European colonists.
By the end of the Second World War, colonization and imperialism were on their way out as formally subjugated peoples around the world came to the realization that the heretofore-invincible Europeans were capable of being defeated as shown by the Japanese successes against French, Dutch, Australian, and British forces during the war.
While the postwar years saw a retreat from colonialism throughout the world, in South Africa, the control of white colonial elites only tightened in the post-war years. Moving away from the informal segregation that reigned during the British and Dutch colonial period, the National Party that was elected into office in 1948 moved to codify the separation of the races through legislative enactments known as apartheid.
What is apartheid, and how was apartheid in South Africa practiced? Much like the “separate but equal” doctrine formulated following the Plessy v Ferguson ruling in the United States, blacks in South Africa found themselves systematically shunted off to live in isolation from the white minority population, and routinely excluded from the public life and economic opportunities that mineral rich South Africa could provide. Blacks found themselves subjected to segregated travel, dining, and housing arrangements throughout the nation as the government forced them into shantytowns on tribal homelands.
What is Apartheid?
The best way to define apartheid is to look at the legislation passed in South Africa to support the segregationist policies the white elite always wanted to pursue. Any apartheid definition must take into account the contempt in which the white ruling class held their black neighbors. The legislation that gave apartheid definition and teeth sought to limit the rights of four-fifths of the population to serve at the behest of the remaining fifth.
As such, the question of what does apartheid mean takes on two different answers depending on which group you survey. For the ruling elite, an apartheid definition would include access to the finest living, on par with the first world living conditions of European capitals, while the other group languishes in wretched, crowded shanty towns that lacked even the most basic of services like electricity, heat, and plumbing.
Additionally, 1949 legislation outlawed interracial marriages, while the 1950 Immorality Act forbade “unlawful racial intercourse.” Blacks were forbidden to own or operate businesses in the white portions of South Africa, and were instead directed to operate their businesses in the black townships. Hospitals, schools, buses, and even bus routes were segregated.
From its institutionalization in 1948 to its dismantling in the beginning of the 1990s, apartheid held sway for more than five decades before the rest of the world began applying sanctions against the South African government with calls to divest from all South African holdings until they lifted their onerous apartheid laws.
South African Apartheid
South African apartheid grew and was maintained against the backdrop of the Cold War that quickly replaced the hot war of World War II. Former allies, the United States and the Soviet Union, found themselves locked in an ideological war that pitted the resources of the free world against those of the communist world. Resource rich South Africa quickly gained the attention of each political block.
It would be a mistake to think that the blacks of South Africa responded obsequiously to the legal dictates of apartheid. One group, the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, aligned with the forces of the Soviet Union to help overturn the racist social order in South Africa. By the 1980s however, public revulsion was turning against the apartheid policies of South Africa as more and more western business chose to divest their South African holdings in opposition to apartheid.
International Condemnation and the Ending of Apartheid
Along with the shift in public opinion against the South African regime, the collapse of the Soviet Union witnessed the collapse of South Africa’s importance as an ally in the Cold War. As such, absent a strategic role in the battle against the Soviet Union, and increasingly incurring the ire of western public opinion, Pretoria’s allies stopped answering South Africa’s phone calls.
For their part, South Africa’s ruling elite understood which way the wind was blowing, and were in a search for ways to end apartheid themselves. Demographically speaking, the 20% of the white population had fallen to 16% and those numbers were not showing any kind of reversal. Additionally, while comprising more than 70% of the population, the black sector of the nation lacked the basic purchasing power to help bolster a stagnating economy.
Towards that end, the National Party, under the leadership of Prime Minister Pieter Willem Botha began instituting reforms with the first known as the Tricameral Parliament which sought to open up representations to Indian and colored citizens. Each parliament designed laws for their particular racial constituencies although blacks were still excluded from electoral participation.
In 1989, Botha suffered a heart attack and resigned in February of that year. Botha’s replacement, F.W. de Klerk moved quickly to dismantle the racist apartheid policies of the previous half a century. In his opening address to the nation, Klerk promised to move with alacrity to get rid of the discriminatory policies of apartheid. The Land Act, which barred blacks from owning property, was terminated and Klerk promised to lift media restrictions, and promised to release all political prisoners. The leading prisoner, the man who would serve as South Africa’s first black leader, Nelson Mandela, was set free after 27 years behind bars for his political activities against the apartheid government.
In the years since the ending of apartheid, South Africa’s black have moved into the nation’s middle and upper classes, but high unemployment still plagues much of the country. Currently, the Pretoria government is still working towards redistribution of wealth and increasing economic opportunities that began with the destruction of apartheid two decades ago.