Continued backing: Protesters demonstrate against apartheid in Trafalgar Square, London, in the 1980s. UK and US leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were intransigent when urged to impose sanctions against SA. France would not cease arms sales to the regime. File picture: SUPPLIED
Continued backing: Protesters demonstrate against apartheid in Trafalgar Square, London, in the 1980s. UK and US leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were intransigent when urged to impose sanctions against SA. France would not cease arms sales to the regime. File picture: SUPPLIED

It went largely unnoticed last week that 70 years ago, on May 26 1948, Jan Smuts’s United Party was voted out of power to make way for the Herenigde Nasionale (reconstituted national) Party of DF Malan, which instituted the system of apartheid.

Perhaps South Africans have become too weary of their history to want to reflect on it, but the persistence of structures forged in the past 300 years demand that apartheid be an object of contemplation, because it is still very much with us and the world.

Historians have noted that similar systems existed in SA before and elsewhere: apartheid was preceded by segregation and colonisation, and in the US Jim Crow segregation followed slavery before the civil rights movement began to chip away at racism, which has yet to be eradicated there and seems to be on the offensive.

Apartheid was the systemisation and modernisation of segregation: racial domination that was adapted to rapid urbanisation and industrialisation after 1920. The poor whites who flocked to the cities had to be "protected" from race mixing and they in turn demanded job reservation and protection from the principle of equal work for equal pay.

Apartheid was developed in a more or less ad hoc manner and was not, as it sometimes appeared, a grand plan awaiting implementation. When the regime began to register the abhorrence that its ideology inspired, its plans were slowly transformed into a less offensive-sounding "separate development". The loathed Bantustan labour reserves were reconfigured into so-called independent states for "ethnic groups" expelled from the South African body politic.


Apartheid was not simply a macrostructural enactment of racism. At a microstructural level, every individual was classified and assigned to a race group, to appropriate partners, schools, to post office entrances and, for blacks, to nonexistent park benches. Black people — Africans, coloureds and Indians — were sent off to live in their "own areas". They were scrutinised, recorded, classified and monitored according to the level of danger they posed, prefiguring the surveillance of the postmodern state.

The language of the regime evinced a penchant for euphemism reminiscent of the oxymorons of Big Brother’s apparatchiks in Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s meditation on totalitarianism and dystopia published in 1949.

Besides separate development, there were laws that realised the opposite of their stated intentions: the Extension of University Education Act limited black tertiary education; the Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act refined the laws limiting black people’s movement; and the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act decreed that blacks were no longer citizens of SA.

Language was at the heart of the Afrikaner nationalist project and the demand for the equality of Afrikaans with English in the 1870s was the precondition for Afrikaner mobilisation. A clash with English-speaking and black South Africans, apartheid was the Afrikaner’s revenge against imperialism — and a form of imperialism over black citizens. Long before US President Donald Trump rose to power, National Party founder JBM Hertzog proclaimed: "South Africa First", using the noun to refer to Afrikaners.

Key points in the unfolding of apartheid were two massacres: Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976. Sharpeville triggered the beginning of the most draconian period of apartheid, giving the regime the excuse to declare a state of emergency that enabled it to suppress resistance for almost a decade — and usher in an unprecedented period of capitalist growth.

Only six weeks before Sharpeville, then UK prime minister Harold Macmillan warned of the "wind of change" of impending decolonisation. A mere eight years later his Conservative Party counterpart Enoch Powell predicted that England would be drowned by a sea of black immigrants. The UK is now mired in the Windrush debacle, an attack on legal black migrants. In 1966, the UN declared apartheid a crime against humanity, and a discourse of equality began to take root. Despite this change, in the US the segregationist Republican George Wallace secured a sizeable voting bloc and in France the racist Front National emerged, as did a string of anti-immigrant parties in other developed countries.

In SA the Black Consciousness Movement emerged at the end of the 1960s, with Steve Biko leading students in a renewed struggle against apartheid. Portugal’s fascists fell from power, and Angola and Mozambique ceased to be SA’s cordon sanitaire. But the regime staggered on. Reviled in the rhetoric of the West, the apartheid government was nevertheless an ally for countries ranged against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. SA’s regime played its part, destabilising African states experimenting with socialism.

Soweto exploded when the regime was at the height of its power in 1976. The student unrest ensured that the prevailing rate of economic exploitation would never again be tolerated and pushed the regime onto the road leading to its demise. Thousands of students left the country to replenish the ANC in exile.

UK and US leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were intransigent when urged to impose sanctions against SA. France would not cease arms sales to the regime. Western leaders ignored the everyday violence perpetrated on entire populations and branded the ANC and its allied organisations "terrorists", even as millions of people in the West called for the release of Nelson Mandela.

After Soweto more massacres followed — including at Bisho, Boipatong and in the Vaal Triangle — and waves of unrest that started in September 1984 finally brought home to the regime that it would not survive.

From 1985 states of emergency were declared, desperate measures to retain control.

Western leaders could no longer turn a blind eye as their citizens continued history’s largest sustained campaign of popular rejection of a foreign regime. The West eventually yielded to the call for sanctions and the dominoes fell — a combination of external pressure, economic decline and internal resistance forced the regime to negotiate. History played its part too: the end of the Cold War averted the envisaged slide into socialism and communism. Liberal democracy triumphed in SA just five years after "the end of history" arrived.

Debates about apartheid were — and remain — fierce, especially after the Marxist school emerged in the late 1960s arguing that, contrary to the liberal interpretation, apartheid was not a fetter on capitalism but its superenabler.

The famous race and class debate polarised historians and sociologists, especially as the diagnosis would determine the manner in which apartheid could be dismantled. Liberals believed market forces would erode apartheid’s structures, but 250 years of liberal capitalism had failed to deliver SA from the inertia of apartheid.

Since the end of political apartheid SA has experienced a series of leaders and regimes, and the question of economic apartheid now looms large as racial disparities widen. The emergence of the EFF points to this, although it was also a response to the corrupt and dysfunctional ANC of Jacob Zuma.

Some scholars talk about the internationalisation of apartheid, in which the West dominates developing states to secure its privileges. At the end of the Cold War, political scientist Thomas Schelling described the new "global apartheid" as a "world that is one-fifth rich, four-fifths poor; the rich are segregated into rich countries, and the poor into poor countries.

"The rich are predominantly lighter skinned, the poor darker skinned. Most of the poor live in homelands that are physically remote, often separated by oceans and great distances from the rich.

"Migration on any scale is impermissible. There is no systematic redistribution of income. While there is ethnic strife throughout the world, the strife is more vicious and destructive among the poor."

The US and Israel have branded a billion people as terrorists. After 9/11, the US declared a permanent world state of emergency, with its department of homeland security taking as its mission "anti-terrorism, border security, immigration and customs, cybersecurity and disaster prevention and management".

Since the Syrian crisis began in 2013, Schelling’s view has been confirmed. Throughout the West right-wing forces are calling on governments to keep migrants out of their countries, resulting in political earthquakes such as Brexit and the election of a racist as president of the world’s faltering hegemon.

Apartheid is not dead — it has now spread across the globe.