Race in South Africa: Colonialism, Segregation, and Apartheid.

Ah, the issue of race. It’s kind of a loaded topic. Not only is it a big issue in America, but a big issue everywhere, especially in South Africa. The impact of the topic is so significant, it is one I absolutely feel the need to touch upon while I am here.

As we know, race does not have any biological basis, it is a socially constructed classification our society has created. Perhaps that is the reason the issue remains so problematic. However, the method in which we classify race varies from state to state. For example, in America there are 5 common race classifications: White, Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, and Native American. While in South Africa, the racial categories are as follows: Black, White, Coloured, and Indian. Note the race category ‘Coloured.’ In the U.S., not only is this NOT a race classification, but it is a derogatory word notoriously only used as a racial slur. Americans hear the word ‘coloured’ and our minds automatically think, ‘racist.’ However, in South Africa the word is so common it’s used everyday. Why is that?

The answer to that is a bit complex.

A Concise History Lesson

Alright so to answer that question I will have to go on and teach you guys a quick lesson in South Africa’s History.

If you’re anything like me you’ve definitely heard of Apartheid, but how much do you actually know? Before my journey here, all I knew about it was that it was some sort of racial injustice that involved segregation. In my mind, I compared it to Jim Crow laws in the United States. I didn’t really know what it entailed, it was more an unclear subject I knew the general idea of, but nothing specific. This is 100% the reason why I was so excited for this trip. I yearned to know more! I could finally get down to the nitty gritty details. What was Apartheid?

So here you have it, ladies and gentlemen! I give you the South African tea! Ready to be spilled for your reading pleasure. 

kermit tea

Here goes my attempt at a concise history lesson.

It begins with British Imperialism. Doesn’t it always?

South Africa’s Colonial Era reigned from 1652-1910, the first to invade were the Dutch. However, as my teacher put it, “it was the British who were responsible for South Africa’s misery.” Ultimately, it was the British who conquered over the land, took charge over Parliament (government), and they who would go on to write the constitution.

And so South Africa’s constitution was written by the colonizers. The laws within it reflected the White agenda, as they were designed to preserve White identity and maximize their opportunity. Unfortunately, this would be the demise for the Black people of South Africa. In order to ensure a thriving economy, Parliament would implement laws to extract cheap labor from the Black citizens, as well as enforce a migrant labor system.

What’s a migrant labor system and why did the White people need to create this? Money.

Diamonds and Gold were found in South Africa in the late 1800s. White people in South Africa needed cheap labor for the mining industry and got this from Black South Africans. But there was the problem of theft: what’s to prevent workers from sneaking a couple diamonds into their pockets in order to make a profit? Loss prevention, among other reasons, was the reason for the migrant labor system. This system provided very basic housing, comparable to that of prison. Workers were constantly under surveillance and given a pass that granted them permission to work/live there. Can you believe that? Permission to work and live within their own land. This sent a message from the White community to the Black community: you are no longer the ruler of this land, we are. Black South Africans were only here to work; the entire system had been engineered to enforce White supremacy.

This ideology of White supremacy was one that would remain dominant in South Africa for years to come, even after it’s Colonial Era. This would lead to the Segregation Era in South Africa, lasting from 1910-1948. Ultimately keeping separate the Whites from the Blacks by placing the Coloureds in between. Sounds like laundry, but no, we are talking about people. Real people with real injustices done to them; real trauma, real heartache, caused simply by the colour of one’s skin. Black Africans kicked out of their homes, banished to far away lands which would come to be known as Townships.

In order to make sure they wouldn’t return, their homes were bulldozed to the ground, leaving nothing but rubble. Many times families watched as their homes were reduced to nothing. One place in particular is known in Cape Town for this particular atrocity, District 6.

District 6

And so they left with only what they could carry, forced to build homes of their own, distant from the White oppressor. Communities known as Townships were built during the Segregation Era, separated by race as well. There were Black Townships which were the most impoverished and Coloured Townships which were less poverty struck.

White people in South Africa flourished at this time, as they would claim the land that was most sought after. However this era brought much frustration to the Black and Coloured South Africans, rightly so, and they would begin to oppose the system. Black opposition came in forms of organized political movements as well as flight of entire communities from townships to urban areas. This opposition brought anxieties in the White community to an all time high in the 1940s. This fear within them led the National Party to win the Election of 1948, after this time Parliament would implement what we know today as Apartheid.

Apartheid began in 1948, it was a system enforced by the government that allowed racial segregation and discrimination. Now what kind of laws exactly made up Apartheid? Here’s a small list of what I’ve learned so far:

  • The Population Registration Act of 1950 classified South Africans into 1 of 4 groups: White, Black, Coloured, and Indian.
  • Interesting fact: Chinese and Japanese were known as “honorary Whites”
  • Interesting fact #2: Coloureds were made up of those who were of Mixed races or racially ambiguous
  • Interesting fact #3: Within the classification there were sub-classifications, for example: Black: Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, Bapedi, Swazi Khoisan, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, etc.
  • The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act prohibited South Africans from engaging in sexual or romantic relationships across racial lines.
  • Apartheid and Segregation enforced even in prison. Prisoners would receive different meals depending on their race classification.

However, the function of Apartheid was different than that of America’s. While it was definitely cruel and relied on the ideology of White supremacy, the intent was not to kill Black Africans, but to preserve them in order to preserve the labour force. Capitalism. They needed the economy to thrive, so the National Party of South Africa utilized racism as an instrument of capitalism. White prosperity depended on the exploitation of black labor. Thus, a low wage system was emplaced and maintained an effective economy in the beginning. However, this was a trap for the Apartheid system, as cheap labor only works in the beginning of a nation.

While I would love to tell a brilliant tale of Apartheid’s cataclysmic demise, there is no such story. The fact is that there was no explosive undoing to this great injustice, rather it just fell apart. The economic system could no longer hold without all race classifications coming together. This brought the National Party to meet with Mr. Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC). Parliament showed Mandela the state of the economy and the two began to negotiate. The Nationalist Party agreed to step down and give the ANC political power, while they would maintain the capitalist hegemony. While the ANC would be given leadership in the political sphere, the Nationalist Party controlled the money. And we all know that at the end of the day, the only things that matters is who controls the money. Despite the rather unfair deal that took place, a negotiation was finally reached. Thanks to the peaceful efforts of Nelson Mandela, Apartheid officially came to an end in 1994.

So it can be said that the issue of race has been ingrained in South Africa’s history and furthermore, remains within its culture today. I can attest that it still feels pretty intense. I see the effects of colonialism everywhere. I see it in the buildings, I see it in the townships, I even see it in the workforce. Townships still exist, still separated by race. Not because the laws enforce it anymore, but because the effects of segregation and Apartheid are still prevalent and run deep.

I feel something must be done. As long as Townships remain, so does the segregation. As far as I know, there hasn’t been any major type of integration process introduced to the people who were forcibly removed from their homes. Actually, I might have heard something about Parliament possibly buying land from White home owners in order to give Black South Africans property. However, I haven’t done much research on the topic. Perhaps that’s one I’ll cover next time.

Anyway, I hope this history lesson was accurate, enjoyable, and articulate.

I’ve completely fallen head over heels crazy in love with history and I needed to share that with you all.

Until next time…

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Michelle in South Africa, Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s