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IB DP History Study Notes

4.2.1 Apartheid Legislation

Apartheid, a term derived from Afrikaans meaning "separateness", was the legalised system of racial segregation that governed South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s. Through this system, the country's white minority wielded complete power over the non-white majority, entrenching racial hierarchies and disparities in all facets of life.

Petty Apartheid vs. Grand Apartheid

Understanding the nuances between Petty and Grand Apartheid helps to deconstruct the various layers of apartheid's oppressive mechanisms.

Petty Apartheid

  • Definition: This term refers to the overt daily life segregation imposed on the non-white South African population.
  • Laws and Practices:
    • Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949): Prohibited marriage between whites and people of other races.
    • Immorality Act (1950): Banned sexual relations between white people and people of other races.
    • Separate Amenities Act (1953): Mandated segregation in all public amenities, services, and areas such as parks, libraries, and even public transport.
  • Societal Implications:
    • Visible Division: It ensured that racial divisions were evident everywhere, from benches to buses.
    • Economic Impact: Non-white businesses suffered as they weren't allowed to operate in "white" areas, which were usually more economically prosperous.
    • Psychological Effects: It perpetuated feelings of inferiority among non-white populations and superiority among white populations. For a broader understanding, see how resistance to apartheid unfolded in South Africa.

Grand Apartheid

  • Definition: While Petty Apartheid concerned daily life, Grand Apartheid aimed at the political, territorial, and systemic separation of races.
  • Laws and Practices:
    • Population Registration Act (1950): Classified every South African by racial category.
    • Bantu Authorities Act (1951): Established a basis for ethnic government in African reserves, which later became "homelands".
    • Group Areas Act (1950): Legislated where one could live based on race, leading to forced removals.
  • Societal Implications:
    • Geographical Separation: Forced millions of non-white South Africans into designated "homelands", often in economically barren areas.
    • Political Disempowerment: Effectively removed the political voice of the black majority.
    • Economic Disparities: Stifled economic opportunities for non-white individuals, concentrating wealth among the white minority. Similar practices of segregation and control were seen in other regimes, such as Hitler's Germany.

Mechanisms of Population Division and Classification

The process of dividing and classifying the population was both meticulous and intrusive.

  • Population Registration Act (1950): A foundational piece of legislation that compartmentalised South Africans into strictly defined racial groups: White, Coloured, Bantu (Black African), and Asian (Indian and Pakistani).
  • Race Classification Boards: Given the ambiguity and overlap between racial categories, boards were set up to assess and classify individuals, often using humiliating methods like the "pencil test", where the course of a pencil placed in an individual's hair would determine their racial classification.
  • Impact on Families: The imprecise nature of classification caused untold personal traumas. There were numerous instances where siblings were classified differently. Such classifications disrupted family structures, forcing families apart due to the stringent laws governing the movement and residence of each racial group.

For a historical perspective on similar practices, you might refer to the economic impact of European exploration and conquest in the Americas.

International Response to Apartheid Legislation

The world largely looked at apartheid with disdain, leading to various actions against the South African regime.

  • United Nations (UN):
    • Declaration: The General Assembly declared apartheid as "a crime against humanity" in 1973.
    • Embargoes: Initially a voluntary arms embargo in 1963, it became mandatory in 1977, aimed at curbing the militaristic might of the apartheid government.
  • Commonwealth:
    • Due to intensive criticism and condemnation from other member nations, South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961.
  • Economic Sanctions:
    • Western nations, under pressure from anti-apartheid movements, imposed trade restrictions.
    • These sanctions, over time, affected the South African economy, especially when global corporations started divesting. Similar economic pressures were experienced in different contexts, such as the economic impact of the Cold War on various regions.
  • Cultural and Academic Boycotts:
    • Renowned artists, musicians, and academics refrained from performing or lecturing in South Africa.
    • International sports bodies banned South African teams, isolating the country in the sporting arena.
  • Divestment Movement:
    • Activists, particularly in the USA and UK, urged institutions to sell off South African stocks, bonds, or other investments.
    • Universities worldwide were centres of anti-apartheid activism, pushing for divestment from South African-linked corporations.
  • Global Solidarity Movements:
    • Protests, rallies, and campaigns against apartheid were commonplace in Western capitals.
    • These movements not only raised global awareness but also provided tangible support to South African anti-apartheid activists, both in terms of resources and morale.

Despite the international pressure, it is crucial to note that the most potent resistance to apartheid emerged from within South Africa's borders, driven by the relentless spirit and resilience of its oppressed majority. For comparison, you can study how Ethiopian unification and expansion were driven by internal efforts.


Yes, while the majority of the white population either passively accepted or actively supported apartheid, there was a segment that voiced opposition. Organisations like the Black Sash, a non-violent white women's resistance organisation, protested against apartheid laws and injustices. Some members of the liberal Progressive Party, including figures like Helen Suzman, consistently opposed apartheid policies in the white-only Parliament. Furthermore, there were academics, journalists, religious leaders, and ordinary citizens within the white community who condemned apartheid. However, they were often marginalised, faced censorship, or were even persecuted by the dominant National Party and its supporters.

Apartheid laws dramatically reshaped South Africa's urban landscapes. Central to this was the Group Areas Act of 1950, which determined where people could live based on their racial classification. This resulted in racial groups being confined to specific zones, with the most valuable land typically reserved for whites. Non-white communities in "white areas" were often forcibly removed and relocated to peripheral townships, which were often overcrowded and lacked essential services. Cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town had vast townships on their outskirts, serving as a stark reminder of apartheid's spatial divisions and its socio-economic implications.

The 'pencil test' was a racially discriminatory practice used during apartheid to categorise individuals into specific racial groups, primarily to differentiate between 'Coloured' and 'Black' individuals. A pencil would be placed in an individual's hair; if the pencil stayed in place without dropping, the person was classified as 'Coloured', and if it fell out, they were deemed 'Black'. This crude and humiliating method highlighted the arbitrary and unscientific nature of apartheid's racial categorisation. Many lives were significantly altered by such classification, underscoring the absurdity of racial distinctions under apartheid.

Apartheid legislation during this period was dynamic, with numerous laws introduced to strengthen the grip of racial segregation and discrimination. While the foundational laws were implemented in the early 1950s, the apartheid regime continuously refined and expanded these laws to close any perceived loopholes and reinforce white supremacy. Some laws, facing practical challenges or international pressure, underwent amendments. For instance, the pass laws, which restricted black South Africans' movement, were continuously revised to tighten control. Overall, while the legislative framework's core remained consistent, there were periodic adjustments to bolster the apartheid system's efficacy.

Apartheid laws imposed severe restrictions on interracial relationships and marriages. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 outright prohibited marriage between whites and individuals of other races. Further, the Immorality Act of 1950 banned sexual relations between white South Africans and those of other racial groups. These laws not only violated personal freedoms but also led to several heartbreaking instances where existing interracial couples were forced to separate. Interracial children often faced stigmatisation and difficulties in racial classification. The overarching aim was to maintain white racial purity, as the regime perceived mixed relationships as a threat to its ideals.

Practice Questions

To what extent did "Petty Apartheid" laws permeate the everyday lives of non-white South Africans?

Petty Apartheid laws deeply infiltrated the daily lives of non-white South Africans, imposing rigid racial segregation in public spaces, amenities, and services. Legislation such as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act curtailed personal freedoms, dictating whom individuals could marry or have relations with. The Separate Amenities Act mandated racial segregation in mundane spaces like parks, libraries, and buses. This ensured that racial divisions were omnipresent, perpetuating feelings of racial superiority and inferiority, shaping perceptions, interactions, and experiences. In essence, Petty Apartheid laws were pervasive, making racial inequalities palpable in every facet of day-to-day life.

How did the international community's response impact the apartheid regime in South Africa during the 1950s and 60s?

The international community's response significantly influenced the apartheid regime, though the most pronounced effects manifested post-1960. The United Nations' labelling of apartheid as "a crime against humanity" exemplified global condemnation. South Africa's exit from the Commonwealth in 1961 highlighted its increasing international isolation. Economic sanctions, though not yet fully widespread in the 1950s and 60s, began to gain traction. Additionally, the genesis of cultural boycotts during this period signified South Africa's growing pariah status. While these international pressures did not lead to an immediate dismantling of apartheid, they certainly sowed the seeds for increased global actions in subsequent decades, contributing to the regime's eventual downfall.

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Written by: Maddie
Oxford University - BA History

Maddie, an Oxford history graduate, is experienced in creating dynamic educational resources, blending her historical knowledge with her tutoring experience to inspire and educate students.

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