South Africa’s Crime against Humanity: What Was Apartheid?

Apartheid was a brutal and dehumanizing system of governance that was built on race laws.

Aug 22, 2022By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

south africa crimes against humanity apartheid mandela


In the second half of the twentieth century, while most of the western world was progressing towards more liberal racial policies and abandoning all forms of legal racism in society, South Africa was moving in the opposite direction at full throttle. An openly racist government was putting into action legal precedents for a crime against humanity known as “apartheid.”


South Africa found itself at odds with all its trading partners and, indeed, the whole world. It was isolated, cut off from the international community, unable to play international sports, and drawn into a long and bloody war to preserve its policies of racial segregation and to combat the forces that sought to tear down the brutal system born of fear and arrogance. The apartheid era was a time of fear, anger, violence, misery, and intense grief – all of which still bear their mark on South African society.


Establishing Apartheid

A segregated public space, via The Guardian


“Apartheid” is an Afrikaans word that, translated directly into English, means “apartness.” It was an idea for separate development along racial lines and was the basis for the National Party campaign that won the South African Election in 1948. Although the party received far fewer votes than its opposition, the United Party, the National Party managed to win more seats in Parliament through a process of gerrymandering.


The new government determined that South Africa was not one nation but rather made up of four distinct racial groups that should be kept separate. These racial groups were black, coloured (mixed race), white, and Indian. “Black” was further divided into ten tribal groups within the borders of South Africa, and “white” was divided into two: Afrikaans and English. The person with the most influence in crafting the apartheid laws was Hendrik Verwoerd, who served as the Minister for Native Affairs and later went on to lead South Africa as Prime Minister. For this, he is known as the “architect of apartheid.”

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The “Architect of Apartheid” Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, via Business Day


A number of laws were passed that entrenched apartheid into the legal framework of South Africa. The first act to be passed was the prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, which prohibited people from different races from marrying. The following year, the Immorality Act made any inter-racial sexual act illegal.


In 1950, the Population Registration Act was passed, in which identity cards were introduced, specifying the holder’s race. Coloured people were especially affected by this law, as members of the same family could easily be issued with different race identities. The results split up families.


One of the most important laws was the Group Areas Act of 1950 which determined who could live where on the basis of race. Around the entire country, all areas were classified by which race group could live, work, or simply be there. This law paved the way for forced removal, where people were removed from their homes, and bulldozers demolished entire towns. A famous example of this was the destruction of District 6 in Cape Town. This cosmopolitan area was designated a whites-only area despite the fact that only 1% of the population of District 6 was white. Tens of thousands of people were forcibly removed from their homes, and hundreds of properties were bulldozed.


Forced removals in District Six by Stan Winer, via the University of Cape Town


The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act followed the Group Areas Act and affected the minutiae within areas. Beaches, benches, parks, buses, schools, hospitals, buildings, and even entrances to buildings were designated for different racial groups. Non-whites were generally supplied with vastly inferior amenities. Because of this act, signposts were visible everywhere across the entire country, detailing which amenity was for which race group.


This law was enacted with such detail that if a building had only one entrance, the entrance and the corridor were split down the middle, with whites having to walk on one side and non-whites having to walk on the other.


A typical apartheid-era sign, via


Knowing that the apartheid system would be met with resistance, the government passed the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950. Although aimed at combating communism, its interpretation was vague. Anyone who opposed the government could be labeled a communist and be prosecuted through various means. This act had a profound effect on the social views of white South Africans. Their worldview was shaped by the “swart gevaar” and the “rooi gevaar” – the “black peril” and the “red peril” respectively, and black people were often simply assumed to be communists. This act would also be integral in leading South Africa into foreign military ventures to combat the spread of communism and its influence on the black people in South Africa.


Central to apartheid working was the apportion of separate homelands for the black tribes. The Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 was the framework through which black governments could be created in these areas. The idea was for them to eventually become totally independent. Gradually, South African citizenship for non-whites was eroded, and pass laws were introduced, where black people were required to be in possession of a passbook which allowed them to reside in South Africa if they worked there as well. The plan was to use black people as a large working class of laborers in South Africa.


A map of the homelands in South Africa and the South African-held territory of South-West Africa (now Namibia), via the Library of Congress


In addition to the laws, the government’s policies were extremely conservative on a social level. Gambling and pornography were banned, while sex education was restricted. Abortion was legal but only in cases of rape or if the pregnancy threatened the mother’s life. Television was seen as a threat to Afrikaans culture, and in hardline religious circles seen as an instrument of the Devil. It was only introduced into South Africa in 1976, and programming was strongly censored.


Resistance to Apartheid

Protestors in Sharpeville trying to flee, via Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images, via the Huffington Post


As expected, resistance to apartheid grew, and movements erupted throughout multiple sectors, fighting apartheid on many fronts and through various methods, from general disobedience to peaceful protests to armed insurrection. The South African police responded with vicious brutality that at many points made international headlines. Two of the most prominent political parties that organized resistance to the apartheid government were the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress, which broke away from the ANC. The ANC represented a move toward racial harmony, citing that “the land belongs to all who live in it, both white and black,” while the PAC believed that South Africa should belong solely to Africans. Both organizations had military wings that operated inside and outside of South Africa.


On March 21, 1960, after the PAC organized a demonstration against passbooks, a crowd of 7,000 people marched to the police station in the Sharpeville township, where police opened fire with live ammunition. Sixty-nine protestors were killed and hundreds more were injured. Many victims were shot in the back as they tried to flee. The incident became known as the Sharpeville Massacre and drew widespread condemnation from within South Africa as well as from the rest of the world. Protests erupted throughout the country, and South African police detained 18,000 people during the uprisings, as a state of emergency was declared.


In South-West Africa, resistance had grown into a severe problem as the South-West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) was born. Guerilla tactics were used, and conflict with the South African military and police led to a full-blown war that was also a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the Soviet Union giving aid to South Africa’s enemies.


Many white South African men were conscripted into the army and fought in South-West Africa and Angola. Photo by John Liebenberg, via via SA People News


The neighboring country of Angola was also embroiled in a civil war between capitalist and communist factions and acted as a base of operations for SWAPO. South Africa was drawn deeper into the conflict when it invaded Angola in 1975. Cuba responded by sending an army to fight the South Africans. The war escalated into a bloody conflict broadly unpopular on the South African Homefront, as conscription was introduced to combat South Africa’s external enemies. It lasted from 1966 to 1989 and resulted in defeat for the South African government’s ambitions in the region as they failed to stop SWAPO’s independence movement in South-West Africa.


The war in Angola ended with the victory of the MPLA, a socialist organization. It also bankrupted South Africa, and by the 1980s, resistance in South Africa had grown to levels of constant violence that led many White South Africans to question the sustainability of the apartheid regime.


During the 1970s, the Black Consciousness Movement was created. It focused on restoring the dignity of black people by celebrating black culture and reversing the feelings of inadequacy that was instilled in black people by the apartheid regime. The leader of the movement, Steve Biko, was taken into custody in 1977 and beaten to death.


In 1976, the country was in the grip of fierce protests over the introduction of laws which required black people to be taught in Afrikaans. Over 20,000 people participated in the protests, and on June 16 in Soweto, police opened fire with live ammunition, killing over one hundred people. The official number of deaths stands at 176, but it is believed that up to 700 may have been killed with over one thousand wounded. The government gave the official death toll as 23.


The image of the death of Hector Pietersen during the Soweto Riots became symbolic of the struggle against apartheid and was displayed in newspapers around the world. Photo by Sam Nzima, via The Guardian


Throughout the eighties, opposition movements became stronger and more organized. Church leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu were given bigger platforms and were able to bring the plight of non-white people to the rest of the world. Protests became more common inside of South Africa’s borders, and violence frequently erupted. Sanctions became harsher, and states of emergency became an almost permanent feature. White people, too, joined in the voice of dissent. The Progressive Federal Party was formed in direct opposition to apartheid, and women’s movements like the Black Sash became widely popular and effective.


During the 1970s and 80s, the apartheid government found a friend in the Israeli government, as the two countries shared similar problems. The two governments helped each other develop weapons, and South Africa, along with Israel, became nuclear powers.


The Fall of Apartheid

Police arrest a rioter in 1986. Photo by SIPA, via South China Morning Post


By the late 1980s, it became clear that apartheid could not be sustained. Police struggled to contain the growing unrest, and opposition movements were getting bolder and more efficient in their operations. The country had become a pariah in the eyes of the world and sanctions had increased the economic burden of a system that had already failed. It was clear that change was needed. Realizing this, the government allowed a series of talks to take place. Nelson Mandela was instrumental in this period, allaying the fears of National Party politicians, and assuring the white people that revenge was not the motive for wanting freedom. In 1989, FW De Klerk was elected president, and he paved the way for a successful transition of power and the dismantling of apartheid.


A year later, in 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and apartheid laws were repealed after the 1992 referendum in which 68.73% of the white population voted to end apartheid. It was another 4 years later, in 1994, when the first democratic elections were held in South Africa. The ANC won the elections with 62.65% of the vote and Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president. South Africa also became the first to voluntarily surrender all nuclear weapons to the United Nations. Almost overnight, the country went from being one of the world’s most hated countries to being a friend in the international community with no enemies. A new flag was introduced, and a constitution was drawn up which focused on freedom from oppression and the eradication of all forms of discrimination based on race or gender.


The Legacy of Apartheid

The release of Nelson Mandela, February 11, 1990, via


Although apartheid ended, its legacy lives on. Many decades of inequality have left their mark on the South African population. It is still a vastly polarized country with a massive wealth disparity between white and black people, and widespread poverty has created many problems, including a high crime rate. The scars of the past are healing, but slowly, as the country tackles many internal issues. Hope, however, lives on. The country is largely dedicated to peace and reconciliation, not just within South Africa’s borders but internationally as a beacon of hope for the world. South Africa managed to avoid an almost certain civil war and transition power without a bloody revolution.


“There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”
– Barack Obama

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.