South Africa in the Apartheid Era

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  • 0:01 Unique Road to Independence
  • 1:19 The Apartheid System
  • 3:09 Ending Apartheid
  • 4:19 Truth and…
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Alongside the American period of segregation and Jim Crow, South Africa remains one of only a handful of countries to legalize and institutionalize racial discrimination. This lesson explains that practice, as well as how it was dismantled.

Unique Road to Independence

Unlike many African countries, independence for South Africa came not at the end of a long, nonviolent struggle, nor at the end of a drawn-out war, as was the case in Algeria. Instead, South Africa had gained some measure of recognition by 1910 and was largely independent by 1931. A major part of this was due to the unique makeup of South African society. Whereas British colonials made up the majority of the European population in practically every other British colony, that was not the case in South Africa. Instead, Dutch settlers, themselves very much still attached to their former colonial masters, made up the majority of the white people in South Africa.

These settlers, known as Boers, had already fought one costly war against the British, and if white society was going to survive, Boers and British settlers would have to have a common purpose. Soon, it became clear that a common purpose for both Boer and British settlers could be maintaining control. After all, they were very much the minority in South Africa. As a result, regulations started to be passed to limit the rights of non-white South Africans.

The Apartheid System

By 1948, these rules were crystallized into law, and the apartheid system was born. Apartheid literally means 'apartness' in Afrikaans, the language of the Boers, and was a system by which society in South Africa was split into four main castes: White, Black, Mixed, and Asian. Caste determined everything, from what university you could attend and what tax rate you'd pay, to even what bench you could sit on while waiting for the bus or at which beach you could spend a Saturday afternoon. If you're familiar with American history, you'll understand how this idea of 'separate but equal' soon fell apart. However, the system managed to survive for nearly 50 years due to the fact that it forced white South Africans to agree on it to maintain any level of political power.

One of the most sinister aspects of the apartheid was the idea of Bantustans. These were established as homelands for black Africans, much like American Indian reservations. Similar to the reservations, they were often located in lands that would have otherwise had little use. Unlike the reservations, South Africa had every intent of forcing these regions, full of black Africans, to become independent states. Upon moving to a Bantustan, one lost South African citizenship and was forbidden to move around the rest of the country. Of course, the rest of the world saw this stunt for what it really was, and despite the fact that the South Africans practically begged other countries to do so, no other state recognized any of the numerous Bantustans as an independent country.

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