As the Nationalists came to power, South African politics consisted of the struggle between the Afrikaners and the British. Black Africans had little power, but the 'native problem' was a political football, used to play on white fears and secure votes among the all-white electorate. The Afrikaners, mostly farmers whose families had lived in South Africa for three centuries, saw themselves as an oppressed but divinely chosen nation, crushed between the British Empire and the peoples of Africa. Their flight from the British Empire a century earlier on the Great Trek had led them into conflict with the African tribes, and they had crushed the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. After their defeat in two Boer Wars at the turn of the century, South Africa was ruled by Britain.
Afrikaners, many of them poor and unemployed, were divided in their attitude to the British. Jan Smuts had fought against them in the Boer War, but saw there was no chance for South Africa outside the Empire. His South Africa Party, later the United Party, had ruled in South Africa intermittently since the First World War, but in 1948 lost by a narrow margin to the militant Afrikaners, led by D F Malan. They were both anti- British and determined to hold as much of South Africa as they could at the expense of the Africans.
In many ways the country's Africans had already been deprived of - or never had - civic rights such as the vote, but apartheid institutionalised and made absolute laws which had grown piecemeal and pragmatically. For example, the 1913 Land Act, which made it illegal for Africans to buy or lease land from Europeans outside the reserves, was strengthened, and the government was given powers to move Africans from any land outside the reserves. The Immorality Act of 1927 forbade sex outside marriage between races. Then the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act forbade interracial marriage. The 1923 Natives (Urban Areas) Act, which allowed blacks in towns only if needed by whites, was replaced by the Native Laws Amendment Act, whose Section 10 made it almost impossible for Africans to be in an urban area unless they had lived there all their lives.
Passbooks, which urban Africans reluctantly carried to prove right of residence, were made compulsory and combined with Section 10. An African without a 'pass' was liable to immediate arrest and dispatch to a reserve. The policy of keeping African wages low was institutionalised in laws which forbade strikes by Africans and reserved most skilled jobs for whites. Separation of the races was enshrined in a series of laws which kept schools, libraries, sport, buses and even taxis and ambulances separate. Living areas were completely segregated and blacks near towns were forcibly removed to new townships far away from the all- white urban areas. The Bantu Education Act was designed to keep blacks in menial jobs. Henceforth they were supposed to develop their own countries, puppet states based on the old reserves, with inadequate land and practically no developments.
The culmination of these laws was the dream of the militant Afrikaners - the establishment of a republic in 1961 free at last from British domination. They reduced Africans to servitude or expulsion to the desolate dumping grounds of the homelands.
The African National Congress tried to organise protest marches, signature campaigns and passbook burnings, and other non-violent demonstrations against the new laws. Ironically, one side effect of apartheid was to change the ANC from a purely African organisation to one open to all races. But its protests were in vain, and the ANC and the breakaway Pan- Africanist Congress were banned in 1960, shortly after police shot down 69 fleeing protesters at Sharpeville.
For 30 years the National Party government wrestled with the implementation of apartheid. But under political, economic, military and diplomatic pressure it finally abandoned it in 1990. Today, the National Party explains away apartheid as an experiment that did not work, but the cynicism with which Africans, 'Coloureds' (people of mixed race) and Asians were deprived of civic and human rights, and the callous, vengeful way in which apartheid was implemented, puts it in the same historical category as Nazism and Fascism.
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