Apartheid was built on the foundation of existing segregation and racism, land dispossession and cheap, migrant labour. Many of the things we think of when we talk about Apartheid were already present before the National Party (NP) came to power in 1948. For example, black people could not vote in most of South Africa. In most industries there was already a ‘colour bar’, meaning that black job-seekers were only allowed to do the least-skilled and lowest-paying jobs. Better jobs were kept for whites. The Native Land Act of 1913 stopped blacks from buying land in most of South Africa (apart from small ‘Native Reserves’), and cities already had separate areas for different races. Passes were already used to control Africans’ movement in towns.
However, these laws were not as strong as they would become during Apartheid, and the social reality was often very different. For example, not all black city-dwellers lived in locations. There had long been areas in towns which were racially mixed, including places where black people could own land (like Sophiatown in Johannesburg and District Six in Cape Town), and places where they could rent a room or backyard shack (like the ‘slumyards’ mentioned in Chapter One). The pre-Apartheid government eventually destroyed the slumyards, but even this, together with the existing pass laws, did not stop Africans from settling in the cities. By the 1930s and 1940s some parts of segregation had begun to break down. During the years of World War Two many more black people moved to the towns and cities to fill the jobs of people who had left to fight – including jobs previously reserved for white people. At the same time industries were growing and new jobs were available. Because of the war effort the government was desperate for factory production to remain high, and so rather than have workers strike, they encouraged businesses to give in to demands for better wages. This was also helped by the increased demand for workers, which gave them more bargaining power on issues like wages. Similarly, the government did not want to stop the supply of black workers to factories by sending them to prison or forcing them to leave the cities if their passes were not in order. So they decided to stop enforcing pass laws as strictly, at least for the time being. It looked as though segregation might be coming to an end. Many people hoped that democracy and human rights, which South Africa had fought for in the Second World War, would become a reality at home.
This was not to be. Many whites felt threatened by blacks taking jobs which up until that point had only been for them. Businesses, government and many ordinary white people thought that black people becoming permanently urbanised (living in the cities, rather than migrating from rural areas) and a part of the working class was a bad thing. This was partly because of racist attitudes – they did not want black and white to mix – but also because industries, like mining, wanted cheap black labour from the rural reserves to remain cheap. They also felt that the advantages black workers had gained during the war – like higher wages and some trade union organisation – needed to be wiped out. Businesses and the government were scared that if there was a black working class in the cities they would demand better pay through unions, and eventually organise united political challenges (across different ethnic and racial groups) to white rule.
So instead of segregation ending after World War Two, it was strengthened. In 1948 the National Party won the election. Their main election promise was a policy called ‘Apartheid’. This took the oppression that already existed to an even greater level, and in some cases developed new ways of controlling and dividing people. Through the 1950s, the government passed many laws which strengthened Apartheid, allowing the government to clamp down on people who opposed it. This started with every single person being registered and classified as White, Black, Coloured or Indian.
Apartheid meant white political control, the separation of different races into different areas of the country (and even different parts of towns, through the Group Areas Act) and eventually black Homelands which were independent on paper, under chiefs who were paid by the government. Black people were forced to carry passes which only allowed them to stay in the cities when they had work. While pass laws already existed, under Apartheid they were made more comprehensive – for example, women were forced to carry passes – and police enforcement of these laws became tougher. Apartheid was also forced into almost every aspect of daily life, which meant things like segregated public facilities (separate entrances to buildings, separate toilets, ‘whites-only’ benches), and making it illegal for people to get married or even have relationships ‘across the colour line’. This was described as ‘Petty’ Apartheid.
An important new part of Apartheid was Bantu Education. Before, there were not many schools for Africans, and many of them were run by churches and missionaries. However, many of these provided a good education. Bantu Education closed all the mission schools, and set up government-run schools for Africans. While there were more schools provided, these were designed to give a limited education – they were designed to produce unskilled and semi-skilled workers, and definitely not thinkers or leaders.
Imagine what it must have been like to live under this set of laws! You could not love or associate with whoever you wanted. There are stories of members of the same family being classified as different races because of differences in skin colour. The family would then be unable to live together. It was very hard to stay in the city: black people were constantly harassed and arrested for not having passes, and would be forced to leave the city if they lost their jobs, even after living there for a long time. The migrant labour system meant leaving family behind in the rural reserves, and only seeing them a few times a year. All these laws combined to push black people to the edges of society, to make them aliens in their own country.
Inhumanity and injustice often give rise to resistance. Apartheid was no exception. Industrialisation and urbanisation of the black population created the conditions for mass resistance in the cities. The ANC grew much bigger after its Defiance Campaign in 1952, using strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience to protest what it saw as unjust laws. In 1959 frustrated ANC members broke away to form another important struggle organisation, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). It was the PAC who would lead the tragic march to Sharpeville police station the following year.