Outline Of South Africa’s Political History From Colonial Times To The Present

The name South Africa became official in 1910 when four British colonies united to form the Union of South Africa. Prior to that, ‘South Africa’ was a geographical reference to a region.

European settlement began with the Dutch in 1652. In 1820 some 4,000 English immigrants settled in the Eastern Cape. Between 1849 and 1852, some 3,500 English settlers made Natal their home. Small numbers of French (1689), Germans (1840s) and Norwegians (Natal 1882) added to the mix of white settlement. Of course, the discovery of diamonds in the Northern Cape and the Transvaal gold fields in the 1870s and 1880s, attracted tens of thousands of white settlers who came from as far afield as California, Australia and Russia.

Another group of non-indigenous settlers were the Indians. They were brought as indentured labourers from 1860 to 1911. The majority of them remained as settlers upon the expiry of their contracts. Their numbers increased when from 1875, individual Indians, like Gandhi, immigrated to Natal.

Colonialism by definition means the extending of foreign rule to an overseas land. It took place initially by invasion and subsequently by encroachment and conquest. It meant subjugating the natives or the indigenous to a foreign system of law and order. Like many periods in history, colonialism had negatives and positives. The Dutch brought slavery to the Cape. In 1834 the British abolished slavery at the Cape. Colonialism brought Christianity, writing, records, construction skills, and medicine. It also intruded on indigenous territory. The first to suffer were the San or Bushmen and later the Xhosa and after 1880 the Zulu.

The cycle of history is one of repetition. The Nguni tribes, which later comprised Zulu, Pondo, Xhosa, Shangaan etc, originally came from Central Africa. But slave raiding and trading, internecine wars, saw them migrate southwards either to escape or to plunder. In the course of their southward migration, they carried out encroachment and conquest.

The Great Trek was a rebellion against British colonialism. It was the first republican movement in southern Africa. It resulted in two Boer republics – Transvaal and Orange Free State. But during the Victorian era, (1837-1901) British colonialism evolved into imperialism – empire-building. The Boer republics were casualties of it. The Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) not only crushed Boer republicanism but killed more than 26,000 Boer women and children who were incarcerated in camps by the British. Its legacy was one of division between English and Afrikaner. From 1914 that division gained further substance with the formation of the National Party under Hertzog who propounded the policy of separate development of English and Afrikaner communities.

Although united in a single state in 1910, the faultlines of disunity were glaring despite the efforts of first Prime Minister Louis Botha to unite whites. The quest to regain Afrikaner independence lost in the Anglo-Boer War was always an underlying aspiration. It made symbolic headway with the unfurling in 1928 of the first South African flag. From 1934 South Africa was regarded as a Dominion within the British Empire. That gave it complete sovereignty over its own affairs and required only loyalty to the Crown – the King or Queen of Britain. But within Afrikanerdom, there were those who still wanted to abolish all ties with the Empire and Commonwealth, as it came to be known. The outcome of the referendum held in October 1960 among white voters, saw South Africa become a Republic on 31 May 1961. As a result of criticism and opposition, by Canada and India in particular, Dr Verwoerd withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth.


The word apartheid first surfaced in Afrikaner circles in the mid -1930s. In the election of 1948, it was official National Party policy and brought about the defeat of Smuts’ United Party government. 1 From the outset, the NP wasted no time in implementing apartheid. The defining aspect of apartheid was that it fine-tuned and institutionalised the standard practice of racial segregation and discrimination by whites.

The segregation of land in South Africa had its origins in Theophilus Shepstone’s native locations policy in colonial Natal and in the SA Native Affairs Commission (1903-1905) established by the British High Commissioner of South Africa, Lord Alfred Milner. The  Commission recommended separate, territorial land ownership for blacks and whites, urban segregation and locations for blacks. The apartheid policy of the National Party, therefore, gave elaborate and extensive application to those policies.

Key aspects:

The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages (1949) and the Immorality Act (1950) – banned sex across the colour line and aimed to promote racial homogeneity.

The Population Registration Act (1950) – the cornerstone of apartheid. It defined all in terms of racial identity: white, black, Asian, and coloured.

The Group Areas Act (1950): designated and identified separate residential areas for each population group. This caused much hurt as often whole non-white communities were compelled to move, like District Six in Cape Town. The process was a slow and evolving one. For example, Chatsworth, a township for Indians outside of Durban, was founded only in 1965. Whites were moved out of Isipingo in 1960 and formed the suburb of Athlone Park, near Amanzimtoti, but that was a rare exception. Removals mostly affected non-whites.

Bantu Authorities Act (1951): this was the first step in recognising tribal trust lands and areas that historically belonged to blacks. It was based on the 1913 Land Act which specified territorial segregation for the different tribal groupings. The Bantu Authorities Act aimed to consolidate those land allocations and with a long term view of establishing black autonomous sovereign states.

Natives Passes and Co-ordination of Documents Act (1952): commonly called the dompas by Africans, this law sought to restrict and control the movement of Africans, in particular, to reduce their presence in white urban areas. For anyone employing a black person, it meant registering that employee with the Bantu Administration Board on an annual basis. Africans had to have their dompases on them at all times or face arrest. From 1956, African women also had to carry a dompas.

Bantu Education Act (1953): Another of Dr Verwoerd’s ideological initiatives. Whereas education for blacks had been in the hands of missionaries and churches, it was transferred to the state. As a result a separate education system was established for blacks. Its syllabus and facilities were grossly inferior to that provided for whites.2

Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953): made racial separation compulsory in all public places. For example: public toilets, park benches, beaches, lifts, buses, trains, hotels, hospitals, schools, cinemas, restaurants, post offices, [oddly, not in aircraft, petrol stations or shops]. Obviously, this was hurtful and embarrassing, particularly if one had a business transaction to conduct with someone of a non-white racial group. It also meant separate sporting facilities and sports teams and resulted in South Africa being banned from international cricket after 1970.

Natives and Natives (Urban Areas) Amendment Acts 1954, 1955: These Acts fulfilled two purposes: [1] to abolish the squatter camps that existed outside major urban areas and to relocate black people in properly constructed townships;3 [2] those townships would constitute labour sources for urban and industrial areas. For example, Soweto (South Western Townships outside of Johannesburg; Umlazi and Kwa Mashu outside of Durban. They became known as labour dormitories: the inhabitants slept there but did not work there.

Promotion of Self-Government Act (1959): a further step towards the establishment of what was envisaged would become independent black states. Eight territorial units (Bantustans) were set up each with a commissioner-general to guide the territory to self-government. Transkei in 1963 became the first to achieve self-government. In 1976 Transkei was declared a sovereign independent state. Bophuthatswana followed in 1977. By 1981, Ciskei and Venda had also acquired that status. But they were not internationally recognised. In 1971, KwaZulu became self-governing with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi as Chief Minister. Buthelezi defied the apartheid architects by refusing to progress any further. KwaZulu comprised 25 scattered pockets of land making it, in any case, unviable as a sovereign state.

Separate Universities Act (1959): prohibited the then ‘open’ universities, Wits and UCT, from accepting any further non-white students. (Only in exceptional circumstances, with ministerial permission, could a non-white student be enrolled). The University of Durban-Westville was established for Indians (1961), Ngoye, Turfloop, Fort Hare were designated for blacks, and the University of Western Cape, at Bellville, for coloureds. The only university medical school in Natal was for blacks only.

The Franchise:

Since 1910 only whites had the vote. A small number of coloureds in the Cape also enjoyed that privilege until they were removed from the voters’ roll in 1956. Verwoerd envisioned that blacks could vote only in their respective homelands or bantustans. The architects of apartheid never developed a plan for Indians and coloureds to vote, until they changed the constitution in 1983.

Dismantling apartheid:

Reformist thinking within the ruling National Party began to assert itself by 1978. As a result black trade unions, previously banned, were recognised in 1979. In an attempt to provide democratic rights for Indians and coloured, a new constitution was drafted and accepted by whites in a referendum in 1983. Whites, Indians and coloureds would each be able to deliberate on their ‘own’ affairs within their own parliament while deciding on ‘general’ affairs together. Hailed as the new dispensation, it was flawed from the outset in three aspects: it excluded the majority of blacks who resided outside the homelands, estimated then to amount to 52% of the total black population; it gave only token political power to Indians and coloured because overall control remained in white hands; it created a dictatorial presidency occupied by PW Botha.

As a result of what was termed verligte (enlightened) thinking, racial integration occurred progressively from 1984. Enforcement of the Group Areas Act and many areas of segregation, such as beaches, was relaxed. State schools for whites were opened to all races in 1991. Following the unbanning of the ANC and its allies in 1990 and the beginning of Codesa negotiations to end apartheid, the South African parliament was effectively sidelined. In 1993 executive power was shared between National Party ministers and the ANC/SACP alliance.

The first all-race election held on April 27 and 28 of 1994 is hailed was the end of apartheid. Politically, that is true. But in practical terms its demise as an ideology preceded 1994.

—————————– May 2020

1 The National Party (NP) held power until 1994. The United Party (UP) was the main white opposition party until its demise in 1977. The Progressive Party formed in 1959 by dissatisfied liberals from the UP, although strongly opposed to apartheid, never posed an electoral threat to the dominant NP. In 1982 a group of 22 NP MPs broke away and formed the Conservative Party (CP) in opposition to the reformist policies of the NP. In 1987 the CP became the Official parliamentary opposition.

2 At an international conference on education held in November 2013,Mamphela Ramphele, companion of the late Steve Biko and former vice chancellor of UCT, condemned education under the ANC as inferior to that blacks received under apartheid. The Citizen reported on 15 August 2013 that a black Wits academic had stated that Bantu education had been more beneficial than that promoted by the ANC government.

3 Although at the time, the construction of housing in Soweto was disparaged as ‘identical matchboxes,’ it has since been recognised that their construction was far superior to that provided by the ANC since 1994.

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