Racial segregation and the supremacy of whites had been traditionally accepted in South Africa prior to 1948, but in the general election of that year, Daniel F. Malan officially included the policy of apartheid in the Afrikaner Nationalist party platform, bringing his party to power for the first time. Although most whites acquiesced in the policy, there was bitter and sometimes bloody strife over the degree and stringency of its implementation.
The purpose of apartheid was separation of the races: not only of whites from nonwhites, but also of nonwhites from each other, and, among the Africans (called Bantu in South Africa), of one group from another. In addition to the Africans, who constitute about 75% of the total population, those regarded as nonwhite include those people known in the country as Coloured (people of mixed black, Malayan, and white descent) and Asian (mainly of Indian ancestry) populations.
Initial emphasis was on restoring the separation of races within the urban areas. A large segment of the Asian and Coloured populations was forced to relocate out of so-called white areas. African townships that had been overtaken by (white) urban sprawl were demolished and their occupants removed to new townships well beyond city limits. Between the passage of the Group Areas Acts of 1950 and 1986, about 1.5 million Africans were forcibly removed from cities to rural reservations.
Under the prime ministership of Hendrik Verwoerd apartheid developed into a policy known as "separate development," whereby each of the nine African (Bantu) groups was to become a nation with its own homeland, or Bantustan. An area totaling about 14% of the country's land was set aside for these homelands, the remainder, including the major mineral areas and the cities, being reserved for the whites. The basic tenet of the separate development policy was to reserve within the confines of the African's designated homeland rights and freedoms, but that outside it blacks were to be treated as aliens.
Movement to and between other parts of the country was strictly regulated, the location of residence or employment (if permitted to work) was restricted, and blacks were not allowed to vote or own land. Thus African urban workers, including those who were third- or fourth-generation city dwellers, were seen as transients, their real homes in rural reservations from which they or their ancestors migrated. Only those holding the necessary labor permits, granted according to the labor market, were allowed to reside within urban areas. Such permits often did not include the spouse or family of a permit holder, contributing to the breakup of family life among many Africans.
Most African urban dwellers had to live in townships on a city's perimeter. All Africans living outside the Bantustans were subject to strict curfew regulations and passbook requirements, especially in the cities; if unable to produce these when challenged, they were subject to arrest. The police were granted sweeping powers of preventive detention in 1962, initially for 30 days, later for indefinite periods.
In 1962 the South African government established the first of the Bantustans, the Transkei, as the homeland of the Xhosa people, and granted it limited self-government in 1963, later becoming "independent." Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, and Venda were also granted "independence," but no nation other than South Africa recognized them. Lebowa, Kangwane, Gazankulu, Qwaqwa, KwaZulu, and KwaNdebele were declared "self-governing" in the 1970s.
None of the reserves were viable nations; they were made up of broken tracts of poor-quality land, riddled with erosion and incapable of supporting their large designated populations. With no industry, opportunities for employment were few. Urban wage earners attempted to contribute to the support of their families in the reserves, but the level of black wages was so low that this was barely feasible. In 1994 the Bantustans were abolished and the territories were reabsorbed into the nation of South Africa.
Despite public demonstrations, UN resolutions, and opposition from international religious societies, apartheid was applied with increased rigor in the 1960s. In 1961 South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth of Nations rather than yield to pressure over its racial policies, and in the same year the three South African denominations of the Dutch Reformed Church left the World Council of Churches rather than abandon apartheid. Although the policy of apartheid was continued under Prime Minister John Vorster, there was some relaxation of its pettier aspects, and this accelerated under his successor, P. W. Botha.
Probably the most forceful pressures, both internal and external, eroding the barriers of apartheid were economic. International sanctions severely affected the South African economy, raising the cost of necessities, cutting investment, even forcing many American corporations to disinvest, for example, or, under the Sullivan Rules, to employ without discrimination. In addition, the severe shortage of skilled labor led to lifting limits on African wages, and granting Africans the right to strike and organize unions. Unions, churches, and students organized protests throughout the 1970s and 80s. Moreover, political, economic, and military pressures were exerted by the independent countries of sub-Saharan Africa.
As a result of these pressures, many lesser apartheid laws—such as those banning interracial marriage and segregating facilities—were repealed or fell into disuse by 1990. In 1991 President de Klerk obtained the repeal of the remaining apartheid laws and called for the drafting of a new constitution. In 1993 a multiracial, multiparty transitional government was approved, and fully free elections were held in 1994, which gave majority representation to the African National Congress.
See R. Sutter, The Freedom Charter (1984); R. Ormond, The Apartheid Handbook (rev. ed. 1986); M. Uhlig, Apartheid in Crisis (1986); M. Merideth, In the Name of Apartheid (1988); S. Mallaby, After Apartheid (1992).