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The apartheid system in South Africa Essay

The term “apartheid” was one of the most politically charged words in the second half of the 20th century, and still remains notorious today. Apartheid translated from Afrikaans means “separateness” or “apartness”. However when the National Party came to power in South Africa in 1948, it took on a much more sinister meaning and today is associated with racial and ethnic discrimination. The roots of apartheid stem deep into South African history. It started way back during European settlement, and was enforced and maintained right up until the end of the 20th Century. It will forever leave a mark on South Africa and indeed the world; a dark period in human history from which we have and will continue to learn.

Tensions between Europeans and native Africans have existed since the first days of settlement and the earliest signs of what would snowball to become apartheid can be traced to these times. In 1488, the Portuguese first sailed past the Cape of Good Hope, eventually landing there and trading for food with people who called themselves Khoikhoi. It wasn’t until the 1600s though, when the Dutch East India Company set up a base in Southern Africa, that the roots for what is today known as South Africa were put down. Initially contacts between the Khoikhoi and the new Europeans were peaceful, but over time the situation grew hostile. Aided by their guns, as well as the diseases they brought with them, the Europeans took more and more land and disrupted the natives’ lifestyle.

By 1795 15000 Europeans and their slaves were scattered throughout the Cape colony. Violence between the natives and the Europeans was inevitable. There had been fights between the groups in small battles, but it wasn’t until the late 18th Century that there was a large scale frontier war between them. The natives were driven back, but in 1806 Britain took over the Dutch Cape Colony, bringing British settlers to the area. This wasn’t a real problem to the Boers, the earliest European settlers, at first, but conflict soon ensued. In 1833 Britain ended slavery throughout its empire, including the Cape. The Boers strongly disagreed with this and they wanted to keep their independence as they believed they had a God-given right to own African land and slaves.

In the late 1830’s they migrated north and eastwards far from British Rule to establish their own independent republics, in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. However when diamonds and gold were found later in the 19th Century the British interest in these interior areas was re-activated. The Anglo-Boer War was fought as a result during the years 1899-1902. This war was one of the epic conflicts in the building of an Afrikaner ideology and sense of identity. The hate of the British afterwards greatly contributed to the firm Afrikaner belief that they were chosen by God to rule the land, a belief that would be shown and implemented in the apartheid system.

Leading up to the First World War, South Africa remained a deeply divided country. Only 21.5 percent of the population were white, Boers were still resentful over the Anglo-Boer war and the majority black population was divided amongst itself. It was also during this time and after the war that the roots of apartheid began to emerge. Policies, such as the Mine and Works Act of 1911, which forced blacks into the category of cheap labour, and the Natives Land Act of 1913, paved the start of the pathway that would lead to apartheid. Even repression from the police was evident in this time, when in 1920 African mineworkers went on strike and were killed in Port Elizabeth for their efforts. Even before the National Party, that would implement apartheid to its extreme, was elected, apartheid was occurring and existed throughout the country.

In summary the policy of apartheid was a product of the late colonial era and came into existence due to events during early settlement, and events later such as the Anglo-Boer, that sparked and ignited a mentality that couldn’t be suppressed. In1948 a Nationalist Party government under Dr Daniel Malan was elected, promising a white South Africa and a total system of apartheid between blacks and whites. Apartheid came about in South Africa because of an Afrikaner belief of their god-given right to Africa, which was also a racist one. Apartheid was therefore a means to support and institutionalize their view on how the country should be run.

Apartheid was kept in place through various means, mainly the use of legislation and technology. The main way that the government implement apartheid was through legislation. There were countless laws and bills passed, which over time stripped black Africans’ of their rights, all the while favoring the white elite of South Africa. Race laws affected every social aspect of life in apartheid South Africa. The early policies that were made when the National Party first came into power set the base for the later policies to take effect and branch off. These policies embodied what the apartheid regime was all about, notably two of the earliest policies made, being the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act. Both were made in 1950, with the Population Registration Act requiring al South Africans to be racially classified into either white, black or colored, and the Group Areas Act which geographically separated the racial groups.

These laws and policies prevented the black population having the same privileges, standards of living and status as the white South Africans. Under the apartheid system everyday life was greatly affected by such laws. For example, under the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act in 1953, people of different races were prohibited from using the same public facilities such as restaurants, transport services, restrooms etc. Under the Population Registration Act different members of the same family found themselves in different race groups.

Some of these laws essentially made black Africans foreigners; the correct term was “guest laborers” who were only allowed to work in South Africa if they held a temporary work permit. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 meant the government took over control of all schools and institutions. The emphasis in black schools was heavily on agriculture and this was another way of controlling black Africans as well as upholding the apartheid system. The annual expenditure on education from the government per pupil was $45 for blacks and $696 for whites. These are just a few examples of laws and policies that were implemented to maintain the apartheid system.

Another way the government was able to enforce apartheid was through technology, primarily computers. “More than any other single technological advancement; the computer fostered the concentration of administrative power in the hands of Africa’s white elite.”1 Computers were used in almost every government agency, particularly in the police system and the military. The vast majority of these computers came from America and IBM was the largest computer supplier in South Africa during the time when apartheid was active. The first computer transported from the US to South Africa was an “electric tabulator” to IBM South Africa, in 1952.

Through computers and technology the apartheid regime was able to control every aspect of life, particularly for black Africans. It meant that the government and its organizations could track people – their history, their movement, etc – and through this shut down protests and silence protesters. The computerized population register is regarded as the instrument that made the biggest contribution to the apartheid system. It was responsible for the passbook system that affected more than 25 million black Africans.

Through these devices, information on a person’s racial classification, name, sex, date of birth, dates of departure and return to the country, fingerprints and places of work and study could all be recorded onto a database. The passbooks and the computer database meant a person could instantly be identified and checked for a history of government opposition. The population registry wasn’t the only computerized resource the government used to control its citizens – there were other foreign and imported products used as well. X-Ray machines, passbook fingerprinting equipment and communications logging recorders were also available to the police.

Various government departments used computers for “financial” and other “non – repressive” purposes, when in reality they used them to track opponents of apartheid, and once they found them, police brutality and torture were used and the opponents were often held political prisoners without trial. Also, as the largest part of the government, a majority of the computer equipment purchased by the state inevitably must have found its way into the military, which utilised this equipment against its people.

Apartheid was conceived and administered as an ideology for the total organization of the South African society for the exclusive benefit of the white part of the population. This system was implemented and enforced strictly and with brutality for more than forty years. In that time the National Party government achieved a high degree of success in creating apartheid on a personal, urban and state level. Although this system ultimately failed (in 1991 laws enforcing apartheid were abolished) its mark on South Africa and the world will be present for a very long time and the apartheid era will be a massive legacy to be fully overcome for future generations of South Africans and indeed the world.


1 – Automating Apartheid – U.S. Computer exports to South Africa and the Arms Embargo. Omega Press, Philadelphia, 1982Bibliography:Books:Meisel,J. (1994) South Africa At The Crossroads. Cape Town; The Millbrook PressChristopher,A. (1994) The Atlas of Changing South Africa. London; RoutledgeTames,R. (2000) The End of Apartheid: a New South Africa. Oxford: Heinemann LibraryInternet Sites:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apartheid_in_South_Africahttp://www-cs-students.stanford.edu/~cale/cs201/apartheid.hist.htmlhttp://www.africanaencyclopedia.com/apartheid/apartheid.html

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