The Road to Apartheid: the entrenchment of racism in early twentieth century South Africa

When people think of South African history, their thoughts tend to jump to the notorious apartheid regime which lasted from 1948 to 1994. However, there is a lengthy backstory to apartheid, which offers a logical explanation of why the regime came to be. In the first half of the twentieth century, South Africa experienced numerous state and socially implemented segregationist actions, all of which culminated in the election of D. F. Malan’s Herenigde Nasionale Party in 1948.

Firstly, the South African War, or Second Boer War (1899-1902) reached its conclusion in May 1902 and left Boer society – the white Dutch settler population – in ruin. During the war, the British had armed some 10,000 black Africans, and this deeply concerned the Boers as the balance of racial class power was suddenly thrown into disequilibrium. Boer General, Jan Smuts, voiced his concern over the threat to the South African racial order in early 1902, shortly before the war’s end: “coloured races…threaten this small white community and with it civilization itself in South Africa”.

The mixing of races was clearly a concern for the white population in South Africa long before 1948, due to the potential threat to white rule. Because of these Boer concerns, the South African War has commonly been pointed to as the catalyst for further segregation and racial discrimination in South Africa. Much of apartheid’s foundations can be found in the period of reconstruction after the war, as black Africans were now at a far greater disadvantage than before the conflict.

A black African being employed as a dispatch runner for the British Army during the South African War. The involvement of Africans, but particularly their arming, in the British forces sparked major worry within the Boer population.

Just over a decade after the South African War, the Native Land Act of 1913 was introduced. This marked the first legislative action to create a racial and political geography in South Africa based on territorial segregation, whereby Africans – who made up over two-thirds of the population – were forced to live on 7% of the country’s land. The area of these ‘native reserves’ grew to 13% of South Africa’s land territory in 1936, but this still shows how forcefully territorial segregation was implemented upon Africans.

Additionally, the Act forced many Africans to become wage labourers for white farmers. The 7% of land on the ‘native reserves’ was of very poor quality, meaning that Africans could often not solely survive off their own land. In turn, this forced Africans onto white owned farms to work in a distinct attempt to establish white class superiority. The 1913 Act provided the territorial basis for the apartheid era, but also forced Africans into the financial dependence of white Boers.

A sign warning of the presence of black Africans on the ‘native reserves’. The fact that the government felt the need to warn people of the presence of Africans epitomises the racial sentiments which existed in South Africa long before the establishment of the apartheid state. Source: YouTube

After Africans had been forced onto the ‘native reserves’ and into a subservient role financially, the 1936 Representation of Natives Act marked the final stage in the disenfranchisement of the African population. This brought further legislative reality to racial discrimination and complete political segregation, with the 1936 Act serving as South Africa’s landmark segregationist package.

Africans could elect representatives from their separate, racially determined electoral registers, but these representatives had to be of European descent. Effectively, this removed any power that was left in the African vote and marked the complete segregation of the franchise. The government of South Africa’s new segregationist way of thinking was materialized in the 1936 Act and marked the completion of political and governmental domination by the white Boers.

The first segregated electoral register for the Cape Colony in South Africa, c.1936. Source: Antiquarian Auctions

1948 is a year that is synonymous with segregation in South African history, as this is the year in which Malan’s HNP came to power on the apartheid platform. However, there was little difference in terms of racial policy between the outgoing Smuts administration and Malan’s early apartheid regime. The only real difference is that apartheid marked a fresh governmental commitment to white supremacy and complete racial segregation.

Apartheid saw the introduction of a more total, systematic and stringent operation of segregation which codified and legislated for contemporary racial discrimination in South Africa. The significance of the Malan administration lay in the legislative reality which apartheid bequeathed to racial policy in South Africa, which would be extremely hard to reverse. However, the foundation for apartheid had been laid well before 1948.

A pamphlet outlining the native policy of Malan’s HNP prior to the 1948 ‘apartheid election’. The fact that the HNP won the election based on this overtly racist agenda signals how deeply entrenched racist sentiments and segregationist ideas were in South African society and politics. Source: Microform

Ultimately, the reason apartheid was implemented by Malan’s HNP was because the regime was almost entirely foreshadowed by racial segregation before 1948. Apartheid was simply a refinement of the segregationist system and racist sentiments which had existed and been fostered over the previous fifty years. Therefore, if we are looking to find the reason that the apartheid state was born, we must look back to the evolution of South African racial policy in the first half of the twentieth century.

By Miles Clayton

Miles is our resident blogger here at History Indoors. He is an a Final Year student studying Modern History at the University of Essex and researches the positive experiences of British children on the Home Front during the Second World War, with oral histories sitting at the heart of the research. If there are any questions you have on this topic that you would like to see answered, please post them in the comments section below and we will be happy to answer them!