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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


April 2007

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Race Under Apartheid

Apartheid (an Afrikaans word for “being apart”) was initially a term used by the National Party in South Africa during the 1940s to gain votes for the national election to be held in 1948. Once in power, the National Party government put apartheid into action under the banner of “separate development.” To support this ideal, the government tried to formalize racial distinctions between race groups. In particular, the Population Registration Act of 1950 required people to register their race from birth. The racial groups consisted of White, Colored, Bantu (Black African) and other (later the group “Asian” was added to this list). These racial distinctions were based on bizarre and vague definitions (directly quoted from the Population Registration Act) such as:

A White person is one who is in appearance obviously white—and not generally accepted as Coloured—or who is generally accepted as White—and is not obviously Non-White, provided that a person shall not be classified as a White person if one of his natural parents has been classified as a Coloured person or a Bantu. . . .

A Bantu is a person who is, or is generally accepted as, a member of any aboriginal race or tribe of Africa. . . .

A Coloured is a person who is not a White person or a Bantu
. . . .

“Coloured,” then, would often refer to those of “mixed” race and would include (but not be limited to) people from Cape Malay, San, and Khoikhoi descent, whereas Bantu (or later Black) would refer to people from (for example) Xhosa, Zulu, or Tswana  descent. “Asian” referred to people primarily from Indian or Pakistani descent. These racial labels are historically rooted in the legacy of apartheid, and while the racism that went with them has mostly dissipated, the labels have remained.

The defining factor that makes South Africa’s apartheid era different to other segregation policies in the world is the systematic way in which the apartheid government tried to formalize its policies through laws (no fewer than 27). Legislation that was promulgated included, for example, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, Act of 1949 (this act prohibited marriages between white people and people of other races); the Population Registration Act of 1950 (this act led to the creation of a national register that recorded every person’s race); and the Group Areas Act of 1950 (this act enforced the physical segregation of races through the creation of separate residential areas for different races).

SOURCE: R. Ebr.-Vally, Kala Pani: Caste and Colour in South Africa (Cape Town: Kwela Books and South Africa History Online: Cape Town & Maroelana, 2001); M. Roodt, Land Restitution in South Africa (Forth Hare University: Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Research, 2003); Republic of South Africa (RSA), Population Registration Act, Act 30 of 1950 (Pretoria, 1950).

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