14 Brutal Facts About Everyday Life In South Africa During Apartheid

Apartheid, or “separateness,” formalized the long tradition of racial division and discrimination in South Africa that dated back to 17th-century Dutch and English colonization of the country. With the implementation of apartheid laws in 1948 under the leadership of the Afrikaner National Party, racial segregation began to affect all aspects of life in South Africa. The first phase of apartheid, the “petty apartheid” phase, initiated a set of laws intended to separate the everyday social and political orders of life in South Africa. After the first decade of apartheid – as resistance grew – South Africa implemented “grand apartheid,” which emphasized territorial division, police action, and the forced removal of Black folks from White areas. Everyday life during apartheid meant that communication, cohabitation, and commiseration across racial lines were strictly prohibited.

As the country became more entrenched in the system, life in South Africa was characterized by tension, violence, and international criticism because of what apartheid was like on a daily basis. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, internal unrest and external sanctions led to a shift in power in South Africa with the election of a more progressive Prime Minister. As Prime Minister, F.W. de Clerk announced South Africa would release political prisoners, allow for a free press, legalize opposition parties, and establish democratic elections. This led to the election of South Africa’s most famous political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, as the first Black president in 1994. 

  • You Had To Register As One Of Three Races With The Government

    Whether or not a person was "White," "Black," or "Coloured" was determined by local Race Classification Boards under the authority of the Department of Home Affairs. In 1950, the Population Registration Act required all South Africans to be classified into one of the three racial categories, and that categorization was based upon appearance, descent, and social acceptance. 

    To be “obviously White,” a person had to not only be the product of two White parents but also had to be generally accepted as White. 

    To be "Black," an individual had to be accepted by his or her tribe or race; members of native African tribes were "Black."

    To be "Coloured," a person was of mixed parentage that often included ancestry from the Indian subcontinent. Registries were computerized in the 1980s, streamlining the process.

  • If You Were Designated 'Black,' You Better Not Forget Your Papers

    If an individual was Black and wanted to enter a non-Black area, they had to carry their passbook. This passbook, or "dompas," contained fingerprints, pictures, and information about their identity. There were no such laws or restrictions put into place for Whites. Coloured and Indian groups had to carry papers as well, but not as often and not as strictly as their Black counterparts.

    In time, these papers came to include employment and criminal background information, as well. Authorities could demand to see a passbook at any time, and if they didn't like what they saw, they would arrest the holder.  

  • Cities Were Segregated Grids
    Photo: Tropenmuseum / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Cities Were Segregated Grids

    In 1950, South Africa formally segregated many urban areas, setting aside places for one ethnic group or another. This led to massive removals and displacements of people, largely because Blacks were forcibly moved out of cities. People lost their homes and long-held lands, and they were forced to relocate to areas far from their jobs. 

    If a Black African refused to leave or squatted in a place they weren’t supposed to be, the landholder and local authorities were given powers of eviction, destruction, and violent removal. 

  • EVERYTHING Was Legislated Along Racial Lines
    Photo: Josef Langerman / Wikimedia Commons / GFDL

    EVERYTHING Was Legislated Along Racial Lines

    Mixed marriages were one of the first prohibitions of apartheid. Any and all sexual relationships between Whites and Blacks were forbidden with the Immorality Act of 1950. This law resulted in police raids on houses where mixed relationships were believed to exist. As recently as 2016, comedian and talk show host Trevor Noah discussed his existence as a "crime" in his memoirs

    In order to keep the races from interacting in daily life, laws established separate public facilities (like post offices, for example), recreational venues and seating, travel compartments on trains, toilets, and cemeteries for each group. Because of the legal restrictions, White and Black children didn't play together; they didn't interact in the park, and, more often than not, a White child never even spoke to a Black child growing up. Blacks and Whites entered buildings through separate doors, stood at different counters, and received disparate punishments for criminal offenses.   

  • Millions Of Africans Were Sent To 'The Homelands'

    In 1951, South Africa passed the Bantu Authorities Act, which identified "homelands," or "reserves," for Black Africans to live upon. The homelands were suboptimal, rural lands chosen by the government so that the better land could be sold to White settlers. Over 80% of South African land was designated as "White" for the minority population. 

    Each African, or Bantustan, was assigned a specific part of these homelands, which were divided into individual governments, based upon their origin as determined by the Department of Home Affairs.

  • A Resident Of A Homeland Was No Longer South African
    Photo: Paul Saad / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    A Resident Of A Homeland Was No Longer South African

    Once an individual was re-homed, he or she essentially lost South African citizenship status and became a resident of that particular state. This prevented Black Africans from voting and participating in South African national politics. Four of the 10 individual Homelands were later granted independence, with tribal, territorial, and regional authority.

    This meant that the residents were now “aliens” of a foreign land from the perspective of the South African government.