Struggle During South African Apartheid

South African: The Rise, Fall, And Struggle During South African Apartheid

The political map of the African continent can be considered to be the result of the centuries of imperial colonialism expressed especially through the continuous pressures of the British, the French, or the 16th century Portuguese. Despite this background, most of the African societies developed in time a distinct national identity and a precise trademark for the country image they would be ultimately identified with. Rwanda is seen through the perspective of the early 1990s genocide; Somalia is associated with its dramatic experience with famine and poverty; from this point-of-view, so too is South Africa perceived as a state resulted from decades of struggle inside a political system marked by the policy of apartheid.

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The present paper is focused on the evolution of this phenomenon, from a historical perspective, with special focus on the impact the measures taken at the political level had on the society in general and on the people in particular. Such an analysis is important because it can offer an insight on the bigger picture on the colonialist period on the African continent. It presents a historical background on the way in which each society, but the South African in particular, dealt with the pressures of the colonial powers on the one hand, and of the nationalistic and oligarchic desires of the local population on the other. In addition, it may provide a general explanation for the continuous tensions that still exist in the South African society to this day.

The South African society, some scholars argue, is “in the process of a fundamental reorganization, as its constituent groups have formed new alliances that transcend the monolithic conception of Black/White antagonism.” It may be that nowadays the political situation is on the verge of improvement; still, the historical manifestation of the apartheid policy implies the exact distinction between the majority white population engaged in the oppression and exclusion of the black and other racial minorities.

In order to properly understand the concept, it is important to bear in mind a series of definitions of the term “apartheid.” A theoretical definition of the notion is given by the Britannica Encyclopedia, identifying the apartheid policy as being the “policy governing the relations between South Africa’s white minority and nonwhite majority; it sanctions racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against nonwhites.” The United Nations’ identified the notion as “consiste (ing) of numerous laws that allowed the ruling white minority in South Africa to segregate, exploit and terrorize the vast majority: Africans, mostly, but also Asians and Colored – people of mixed race.” A less official definition points to the various dimensions of the phenomenon and the actual levels of the society it touches upon. Therefore, in the book edited by Lyle Tatum, apartheid is defined as “South Africa’s economic, political, and social system, which is based on race. It is buttressed by a complex legal structure, security system, and theology that consolidate South Africa’s wealth, power, and privilege in the hands of a white minority.” Moreover, Wolpe argues “It is frequently implied that apartheid is just a new term for “a set of structures and relations which, in all fundamental aspects, were established some 300 years ago; the history of South Africa is co-terminus with the history of apartheid- the latter being merely the modern expression of relations implanted in the past.” Finally, Ian Goldin, in his introductory notes to “Making race: the politics and economics of colored identity in South Africa,” identifies a series of elements that had been addressed and used in the apartheid policy. These were “the notions of class, race, and the state.” Despite the fact that he fails to consider class and the state as being independent notions that contributed to the apartheid regime, arguing just the contrary, he does mention them as elements characterizing the segregation policy.

All the definitions of the term apartheid, as seen previously, have identified, more or less, the basic idea of segregated identities, be it based on race, color, or social position. Therefore, it is important to consider the structure of the South African society. In terms of the settlement pattern, the population is concentrated in three main ways depending on the classification criteria. Thus, more than 95% of the population lives in the eastern half of the country, and in the southern coastal regions. In terms of the rural/urban profile, more than half of the population lives in urban areas or around major cities. Finally, and most importantly, a large part of the black population is concentrated in the reserve or the “homeland” area, as “far from urban facilities, these areas exhibit urban rather than rural population density.” – in terms of ethnic distribution, due to the apartheid laws, the official classification of races “has been arbitrary.” The African population is composed of four linguistic groups: Nguni, the Sotho-Tswana, the Tsonga, the Venda. About half of the population lives in reserves, or self-governing states, and about one-sixth lives in farmlands owned by whites. White Africans are made up of European descendants, such as the Dutch, the French, the Germans, as well as British and Portuguese. The Colored are composed of mixed race descendants of Africans, Asians, and Europeans. Therefore, it can be said that there is a clear segregation between different parts of the country, between the rural and the urban population and between the living conditions the black and the whites benefit from. This result is in fact the outcome of the historical background of the state, from the early Dutch settlers, to the National Party that imposed the discrimination in the society and transformed it into a national policy.

The colonization period that was flourishing during the 16th and 17th century brought the Dutch on the South African lands and by 1652, the pressures from the Europeans became permanent and visible in their attempts to conquer the land, back then an area populated by nomadic peoples. Following the ascendance to imperial power of the British, they too came on the land and set in quest to retain the South African territory. In search for supremacy during and after the Napoleonic Wars, the English set their eye on the South African lands. The British influence was the one that encouraged the modern cities in the late 19th century. Despite fierce opposition from the local communities that had the experience of fighting the Dutch, the British set their control on the land by 1900s and included it in the wider colonial system that defined the British Empire. The descendants of the Dutch settlers rebelled against the British with success in the Boer War. They would ultimately come to be engaged in a continuous struggle for political power, until the end of the Second World War. During this entire period, South African cities were plagued by racial segregation since their inception, as “the early years of the 20th century saw the creation of segregated public housing areas. Various measures introduced from the 1920s on gave authorities powers to segregate Africans and others that ultimately resulted in the legislative actions taken after the war.

The first ideas about a segregated, or at least separated political system was the Union of South Africa, created in 1910 as a loose federation of two predominantly British provinces and two Afrikaner ones. The political supremacy still belonged to the British, however, they did benefit from a relatively autonomous status. This in turn may have proven decisive for the following events. It enabled the nationalistic forces to become more powerful and to instigate the population towards the creation of a national identity that would rebel against the centuries of foreign rule. Therefore, by the end of the war, “the most intensely nationalistic sector of the Afrikaner population set as its goal the recovery of their traditional Volk unity and power through cultural and political efforts (…) they formed a growing political strength.”

The unity that had transformed the society and led it to the coagulation of nationalistic forces gave the local population a certain edge over the British presence, and soon they registered as the majority.

This new structure of the society benefited from the vote of the population in 1948 when the Nationalistic Party came to power. It represented the legitimization of the white dominated system of law that is because in most cases “the institutions of white economic and political domination were already in place.”According to their creed, “they sought to free South Africa from the ‘yoke’ of British imperial control.” Therefore, it can be said that the rise to power of the nationalistic forces, the ones that would end up implementing the apartheid policy, was the result of the indirect actions of the colonial system of government.

This period can be characterized as a time in which the resistance was somewhat limited in terms of violent actions against the growing oppressive and discriminatory measures that were being taken as part of the official policy. Although the distinction between the Colored population and the South African nation became more and more obvious in terms of legislative initiatives and the limitations the laws began to impose, the reactions were relatively mild. This was largely because the resistance was split along racial lines. For instance, the Afrikaans National Council wanted freedom from foreign oppression without taking into consideration the needs and demands of the Colored. Similarly, the Non-European Liberation League, another group that opposed the current practices, were the proponents of the issues of immediate concern to Colored but African people. This lack of unity proved decisive, taking into consideration the immediate rise to power of the Nationalistic Party in 1948 and the subsequent inability to immediately react to the measures that would be taken in the following years.

The South African society, following the war was left without a well-defined national identity because of the continuous struggle to face the conquering forces of the Dutch and the British. Consequently, the rise to power of a nationalistic party can be seen as predictable, taking into consideration the general trend existing in the era, which demanded a full independence from the former colonial powers. In this sense, the party consolidated on the idea of uniting for a common cause and emerged as the force that would offer unity to the cultural, economic, and political segments. Hofmayer argues that indeed, the party policy was to stimulate the reaffirmation of the popular culture, the language, and the history, in order to mobilize the Afrikaners politically and economically. By acting on the desire of the people to define their own national identity, the party managed to win the elections and thus, get hold of the political power and set in place a series of policy changes that would lead to the institutionalization of the apartheid policy.

The National Party in 1948 is perceived as an intensification of the white dominated political structure, as “it came to power on a policy aimed at suppressing the emergent black opposition which threatened the reproduction of white domination, that is, threatened the conditions which would enable the regime to meet, inter alia, the demands of white farmers and protect the interests of the white working class.” This can be considered as being the result of the overall policy conducted following their attainment of power. There are numerous debates over the exact desires of the party in relation to the Colored population. Thus, “National Party ideologues talked at length about their ambitions to develop a sense of pride and achievement amongst Coloreds which would herald the birth of a Colored nation.” Still, their measures and reactions proved to have the opposite effect. They rested on the restructuring of the world the Colored lived in such a way as to impose their segregation. Their aim was to insure a separate development of the society, yet it was clear that an unequal evolution was inevitable. Therefore, the Party’s actions were from the start aimed at creating a two standard society, in which the white minority would dominate the rest.

The means through which they achieved this were mostly legal ones. It was up to the executive power to operate on them. Therefore, from the very beginning, legislation was set in place to prevent both Whites and Coloreds to interact, thus becoming part of the Colored society, and at the same time to stop any possible movement of persons in the opposite direction, other than that indicated by law.

These actions were taken based on a series of legislative acts that limited and clearly violated the freedoms and right of the human being. The Group Areas Act of 1950 delimited by law the respective districts for each race, “and members from other races were barred from living, operating businesses, or owning land in them.” From a historical perspective, this final act was the last piece in a wider system of legislative actions that started with the Land Act from 1913 and 1936. They were meant to gradually decrease the possibility of land ownership for the non-white majority in favor of the white minority.

There was also a clear determination in terms of race and color. The 1950 Population Registration Act posed the question of race in front of the law and classified the population according to their skin color as being white, black (African), or colored (of mixed origins). As a result of this labeling, there were special jobs for the white population, less well-paid jobs for the blacks, and sordid ones for the colored. Still, the whites were now more engaged in “white collar” activities, as the need for a proper and more advanced bureaucratic system was needed. Moreover, due to the increase of foreign investments in the economic sector, unskilled labor force was needed in order to satisfy the demand of the industrial sector. For jobs such as those in the mining area, black people were exclusively hired, most of the times based on their appearance and skin color.

In order to secure the implementation of the segregation laws, the authorities imposed certain checkpoint offices where special papers were necessary in order for the nonwhite minority to have access in restricted areas. “Other laws forbade most social contacts between the races, authorized segregated public facilities, established separate educational standards, restricted each race to certain types of jobs, curtailed nonwhite labor unions, and denied nonwhite participation (through white participation) in the national government.”

These measures also affected the social activities in the country. Due to the limitation of movement in different areas, people rarely had contact outside their designated places. Moreover, they were not allowed to marry someone from a different race, and the breach of the order would trigger serious consequences.

The black and colored people were denied any political representation. This was made possible in the 1970s, through legal measures such as the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act, which made “every Black South African, irrespective of actual residence a citizen of one of the homelands.” Although the politicians wanted to make a clear and legal distinction between the whites and the nonwhites, due to the economic dependence on the nonwhite labor force, this could not have practically gone through. This is why, although there were a project of separating the Black states from the white territories, they remained dependent, both politically and economically on the South African government.

The government proved its desire to arbitrary use the power at its disposal through different legal initiatives that allowed it to impose an emergency state whenever it considered, without any due regard for the conditions demanding such a measure. These measures included the Public Safety Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1953. Such a discretionary rule made it possible for the government to have absolute control over any eventual political adversaries and imposed at the same time a certain restrain in the minds of the public opinion over the possibility of rebellion.

There are a number of theories set forth to explain the eventual defiant attitude of the black population in the 60’s and 70s. For once, there are those that consider the rise against the white domination as being the obvious reaction of the oppressed. From 1948 to 1960, the black community began to manifest itself in organizations for liberation “capable of organizing powerful mass struggles,” which in turn determined the conflict at the core of the regime. It triggered a deep sense of opposition for the current legislative and executive branches of the regime. At the same time, the arbitrary nature of the judiciary also determined increased discontent among those underprivileged. They manifested “in the growing involvement of the black masses in the national liberation struggles.” The Sharpeville event where 69 people were killed, and some 200 were wounded sparked strikes and demonstrations throughout the country.” The regime, unable to react in an official manner, declared the state of emergency, which enabled them to arrest arbitrary political activists, and other people opposing the regime. It proved to be the first opportunity for the regime to make use of its emergency powers, and thus began to eliminate the political opposition that began to create outside the traditional political system. This included pan African political parties such as “the African National Congress,” “The Pan Africanist Congress.”

Another possible reason for the development of the black opposition would be the international pressure exercised by most states part of the Commonwealth. Thus, the international community reacted, to a certain degree, to the segregation policy conducted by the South African. As a result, it was forced to withdraw from the Commonwealth in 1961 when a number of its members reacted negatively to the apartheid practices in the country. In a wider context, the U.S. And the UK, as one of the most important actors in international relations threatened and even imposed economic sanctions on the African government in 1985, as a reaction to the continuous breach of human rights that such a policy would imply. Following this line of pressure, certain laws were abolished such as the Population Registration Act, but still, the black community could not enjoy the freedom of association and of movement.

In the economic sector, strikes began to take place. They culminated in the large-scale African workers’ strikes in 1973. There were the results of different factors, which involved both internal and external elements. On the one hand, they reacted to the change in the industrial profile of the country and its transformation from unskilled to semi-skilled work, a shift that clearly favored the white population. On the other hand, the international scene was facing one of the biggest economic crises in its history and seeing that the globalization process was slowly taking its toll on the global economy, it was inevitable for the South African economy not to react to the changes taking place. At the end of these uprisings, the state was forced to recognize the status of “employees” for the black workers, and to offer “a legal recognition and registration of African trade unions with the accompanying right to strike.”

All these manifestations would ultimately result in positive changes. The increase in the number of organizations that would militate for equal rights created strong extra parliamentary mass politics that in turn put extreme pressure on the official policy makers. Organizations such as the Congress of South Africa Students or the Congress of South African Trade Unions formed in 1986 represented the emerging elements that would eventually force the government to recognize the African National Congress in 1990. By 1994, Nelson Mandela was the first black president of the South African state.

His election represented the symbol of change in the African society. It proved the world that evolution was possible and achievable. This was materialized through a new signed Constitution in 1996, an important evolution in the economic area, taking into account the increase of the GDP and other economic indicators.

Despite the fact that today’s society still struggles with the need to change the aged mentality of the population, the hope for a better, more tolerable and opened society is in reach. Indeed, the apartheid policy was a result of the historical background and of the need to rediscover and support an emerging national identity. However, it is important to bear in mind the need for the respect of human rights and of the individual as a social person and to prevent this from ever repeating.


Goldin, Ian. Making race, the politics and economics of colored identity in South Africa. London: Longman. 1987.

Heribert, Adam, and Kogila Moodley. South Africa without apartheid. Dismantling racial domination. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.

Hofmayer, I., Building a nation from words: Afrikaans language, literature and ethnic identity. University of London, MA thesis, 1983.

Nowak, Michael, and Luca Antonio Ricci. Post Apartheid South Africa: the first ten years. Washington: International Monetary Fund. 2005.

Tatum, Lyle. Ed. South Africa: Challenges and hope. Toronto: Hill and Wang, 1987.

The History of Apartheid in South Africa. Accessed 24 April 2007, available at

United Nations. Human rights. Historical images of Apartheid in South Africa. N.d.

Wolpe, Harold. Race, class & the apartheid state. Paris: Unesco Press. 1988.

Adam Heribert, Kogila Moodley, South Africa without apartheid. Dismantling racial domination. (University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1986) 11.

Britannica Encyclopedia. “Apartheid.”

United Nations, Human rights. Historical images of Apartheid in South Africa.

Lyle Tatum, South Africa: Challenges and hope. (Toronto: Hill and Wang, 1987).

Harold Wolpe, Race, class & the apartheid state. (Paris: Unesco Press. 1988), 6.

Ian Goldin, Making race, the politics and economics of colored identity in South Africa,(London, Longman. 1987).

The New Encyclopedia Britannica, South Africa.


Lyle Tatum, South Africa: Challenges and hope. (Toronto: Hill and Wang, 1987). 37


Harold Wolpe, Race, class & the apartheid state. (Paris: Unesco Press. 1988), 62.


I. Hofmayer, Building a nation from words: Afrikaans language, literature and ethnic identity (University of London, MA thesis, 1983)

Harold Wolpe, Race, class & the apartheid state. (Paris: Unesco Press. 1988), 66.

Ian Goldin, Making race, the politics and economics of colored identity in South Africa. (London: Longman. 1987), 79.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Apartheid.


The History of Apartheid in South Africa. 24 April 2007. Accessed 24 April 2007, available at

Harold Wolpe, Race, class & the apartheid state. (Paris: Unesco Press. 1988), 67

The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Apartheid.

Harold Wolpe, Race, class & the apartheid state. (Paris: Unesco Press. 1988), 75.

Michael Nowak, and Luca Antonio Ricci, Post Apartheid South Africa: the first ten years. (Washington: International Monetary Fund. 2005), 11-16.

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