Friday September 22, 2023

S Africa’s apartheid racial classification laws explained

December 27, 2021
S Africa’s apartheid racial classification laws explained

South African anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died on Sunday aged 90, was a leading figure in the fight to end racist and oppressive white minority rule.

Here we look back on this complex mesh of laws, whose vestiges were swept away after five decades on June 30, 1991. Apartheid -- an Afrikaans-language word meaning the state of "apartness" -- became official government policy in 1948 when the conservative National Party took power.

It formalised a system of domination that had been in place since European settlers started arriving on the southern tip of Africa more than 300 years before, most coming from the Netherlands and Britain.

Rooted in the doctrine that human beings were separated by race, apartheid was built on laws that classified people as either "native" (black), "coloured" (mixed race), "Asian" or "white," according to skin colour and other features.

The races were separated in every aspect, including at school, work and hospitals, and where they could live and shop. Jobs were reserved for certain races and marriage and sex across the colour bar was forbidden. Even beaches, buses, park benches and public toilets were separated according to racial category.

Whites made up less than 20 percent of the population but owned more than 80 percent of the land. They controlled the economy, including agriculture, the lucrative mining sector, and all political levers. Blacks were relegated to inferior jobs, education and services and denied a vote.

They were made to live in neglected townships on the outskirts of urban areas or in various disadvantaged ethnic-based homelands called "Bantustans," where bogus elections were held. Until 1986 black South Africans were obliged to carry a passport-like document called a dompas which restricted their movements.

To maintain the system, the apartheid government imposed severe censorship and relied heavily on its security forces, with compulsory conscription for white males between 1967 and 1993.

The African National Congress (ANC) led the resistance to apartheid, first adopting non-violent tactics such as strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience campaigns. Among the first major protests was a boycott of government buses in the Alexandra township in 1957.

In 1960 a march in Sharpeville against the hated pass books became a massacre when police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 blacks. That same year, the government banned the ANC and other black opposition and imposed a state of emergency. Underground and in exile, the ANC turned to armed struggle.

In 1964 one of its leaders, Nelson Mandela, was sentenced with others to life in prison for sabotage. He was behind bars for 27 years, becoming the world’s best-known political prisoner of the time and an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle. On June 16, 1976, security forces opened fire on black youngsters protesting in Soweto township against an order that schools only teach in Afrikaans.

At least 170 people were killed, with some estimates putting the death toll at several hundred over the following month following the Soweto Uprising. The Sharpeville massacre brought world attention to the regime’s brutal repression, leading to the start of its international isolation.

South Africa was excluded from the Olympic Games, expelled from the United Nations, put under arms and trade embargoes. Internationally renowned personalities became activists against apartheid, with a major rock concert at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1988 honouring Mandela.

It came as a shock when in 1990 President F. W. de Klerk, in power for just five months, announced the legalisation of the black opposition. Within days Mandela walked free after nearly three decades in jail. Less than a year-and-a-half later, apartheid was officially over, the last of its discriminatory laws struck from the statute books on June 30, 1991.

Its dismantling was celebrated with the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Mandela and de Klerk. The transition to democracy was not without hurdles. White extremists violently resisted the change and rivalry between ANC militants and the Zulu party Inkatha erupted into deadly violence.