Saturday, April 6, 2013

Apartheid: Laws and Lessons

It has become a common conceit in the U.S. and Europe that colonialism in Africa and other parts of the world was a comparatively benign phenomenon, which “granted” to non-western peoples many of the rights and economic benefits that we enjoy today.  Colonial governments are often portrayed as benevolent entities, and accounts of repression as being greatly exaggerated.  While this bizarre narrative is largely due to a cottage industry of pro-imperialist history writing (by the likes of Niall Fergusson) a willful suspension of belief on the part of audiences is also necessary.


A cursory examination of South Africa’s apartheid regime is as good a way as any of debunking the narrative.  Historians debate the extent to which apartheid is representative of colonialism.  My view is that it was a kind of colonialism on steroids.  Its motivations were partially different to colonialism in other parts of Africa (but in some places and times also strikingly similar), and its efforts at social engineering much more far-reaching.  But you could find examples of multiple apartheid-style laws in each and every colonial context, and it was inspired by the same worldview at work in Ghana, Kenya, Algeria, the Congo, etc.  And its effects were very similar.

Below, a smattering of laws enacted by the South African government during a roughly fifty year period:

Segregation era

-The 1911 Mines and Works Act, which banned black workers from many skilled labour positions.

-The 1911 Native Labour Regulation Act, which ruled that black workers were technically not “employees”, and could therefore not unionise.

-The 1913 and 1936 Native Land Acts, which reserved first 7% and later 13.5% of South Africa’s land to its black citizens who comprised upwards of 70% of the population, who in the same move were stripped of their citizenship, because the expansion of available land came at the cost of the franchise.  The loss of the franchise pertained primarily to Africans at the Cape, for in other parts of the Union, the franchise was already exclusionary.

-The 1924 and 1937 Industrial Conciliation Acts, which stripped further recognition from African unions.

-The 1942 War Measure 145, which said that African labourers were not permitted to strike.

-The 1945 Urban Areas Constitution Act, which only allowed black South Africans to live in certain parts of the country.

Apartheid era

-The 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, which forbade marriages between races.

-The 1950 Immorality Act, which criminalised sexual liaisons between races.

-The 1950 Population Registration Act, which insisted that all South Africans must be classified according to their race.  The races were originally Black, White, and Coloured.  An Asian category was later added to contain South Africans of Indian ancestry.

-The 1950 Group Areas Act, which set aside different areas of the country (including the infamous townships) for different races.

-The 1950 Suppression of Communism Act, which aimed to stamp out leftist opposition to apartheid.

-The 1952 Bantu Laws Amendment Act, which created a labour bureau and unemployment registration for black South Africans, who could then be sent to work on white farms.

-The 1952 Native Laws Amendment Act, which stipulated that black South Africans could only be in urban areas for 72 hours unless they were born there, had worked for the same employer for 10 consecutive years, or for more than one employer over a period of 15 years.

-The 1952 Abolition of Passes Act, which streamlined the hated pass system into a more comprehensive reference book process.  The reference book contained the individual’s employment history, residence, and entire social record.  It needed to be stamped by South African authorities for its holder to be able to move around the country.

-The 1953 Public Safety Act, which allowed the government to declare a state of emergency.

A prisoner's identity card
-The 1953 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which stipulated that those arrested for protesting the regime were de facto guilty until proven innocent.

-The 1953 Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, which segregated public and other facilities.

-The 1953 Bantu Education Act, which enshrined a curriculum for black children that trained them for subservient economic positions, spent sixteen times as much on each white child as on each black child, and shut down the mission schools with had formerly been responsible for the education of most black children.  The Act also stipulated that Afrikaans (for most victims of apartheid, the language of their oppressors) be the language of instruction, an indignity which was not enforced until the 1970s, when it led to the Soweto riots.

-The 1954 Native Resettlement Act, which eliminated the last vestiges of African freehold property in Johannesburg.

-The 1954 Customs and Excise Act, which permitted an increased degree of censorship.

-The 1955 Native Labour Settlement Disputes Act, which confirmed the non-employee status of black South Africans and set up a separate process for labour grievances.

-The 1956 Industrial Conciliation Act, which outlawed mixed race unions.

-The 1956 Official Secrets Act, which created a Board of Censors.

-The 1956 Separate Representation of Voters Act, which removed coloured South Africans (the name given to South Africans of mixed race, a particularly problematic category for the apartheid regime) from the voter rolls at the Cape (traditionally the bastion of white liberalism).

-The 1956 Native Administrations Act, which exiled Africans to rural areas.

-The 1959 Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act, which helped to create black “Homelands” or “Bantustans”, which were territorially diminutive and dispersed areas for black settlement.  The apartheid government promoted the fiction that these were autonomous regions in which Africans could exercise self-government, when in point-of-fact they served as depressed labour reservoirs for the government.  Africans only carried political rights in their “homelands”.

-The 1960 Unlawful Organizations Act, which was used to outlaw those organisations which protested apartheid.

Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island
-The 1963 General Laws Amendment Act, which permitted people to be detained for 90 days without charge or representation.  They could be re-arrested indefinitely, and the period was later extended to 180 days, and the minister in question was given unilateral power to expand prison sentences.

-The 1967 Terrorism Act, which dramatically expanded the definition of “terrorism” to include most opposition political activity.

-The 1971 Bantu Homelands Constitution Act, which marked the de-citizenisation of black South Africans.  The government achieved this by granting the “homelands” referred to above “independence” (an independence which was only recognised by South Africa)

-The 1974 Enforcement of Bantu Education Act, which stipulated the enforcement of the abovementioned provision which made Afrikaans the language of instruction in school.

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I think that these apartheid laws are also worth thinking about because they represent to take a fictional vision of society—in which blacks and whites were fit to do different work and lived incompatible lives (“coincidentally”, one group was fit to master the other)—and make it a reality through extraordinarily violent social engineering.  In some disturbing respects, these efforts resemble current attempts by plutocrats in our own society to naturalise an economic division of the spoils.

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