The South African National Party didn’t invent apartheid. It comes from the Afrikaans word for “separateness”, which sounds a lot like the American word for segregation. It also didn’t happen overnight. To understand apartheid, you need to go back a couple of hundred years to the beginning of European colonization in Africa.
In 1806, the British invaded the Cape Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars and took over complete political and economic control of what is now called the Republic of South Africa. The area already had plenty of white Dutch colonists (Boers) who weren’t too happy with the arrival of the British. When the British abolished slavery in 1834, the Boers began to leave the coast and head into the African tribal territories. There they founded two republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. For several years, things between the white folk stayed fairly peaceful as the Boers continued to use slave labour and the British largely ignored them. In 1899, a full-scale war broke out when diamonds and gold were discovered in the Boer occupied territories. The British eventually crushed the Boer resistance and took over the entire country (and the diamonds).
Black South Africans had been subordinated since the Dutch first arrived in the mid 17th Century, and by the mid-20th Century could not enter white cities without proper documentation. They were prohibited from holding skilled jobs and forced to live on the fringes in all-black “townships”. The Second World War forced a relaxation of those rules as blacks were needed to work in the factories that sustained the war effort. As more blacks flocked to the cities to escape a raging drought, the African National Congress began to make demands for full citizenship rights, equal pay, and the abolishment of segregation. To suppress the “African uprising”, the government signed the apartheid system into law in 1948.
What was known as “practical apartheid” was nothing less than the complete suppression of black autonomy. It involved the separation of all races (black, white, mixed and Indian), a ban on intermarriage, and extremely limited contact between blacks, whites and “coloreds”. The new legislation destroyed families, with parents and their children often receiving different color classifications. Over 80% of the country’s landmass was reserved for whites. All others required documents to travel in these restricted areas. In 1959, black South Africans were further divided into 10 Bantu “homelands” to reduce the possibility that they would form a single unified majority. From 1961 to 1994, over 3.5 million people were forced from their homes and dumped into the Bantustans where they were left to live in abject poverty.
While the apartheid system took the American concept of segregation to an unimaginable extreme, both regimes robbed black citizens of their fundamental human rights. Jim Crow laws in the United States extended to separate schools and both private and public facilities under a “separate but equal” doctrine that was anything but egalitarian. While black Americans were not prohibited from owning property, banks were more than welcome to refuse to grant them loans and mortgages. Segregation was officially outlawed in 1964 but its legacy of treating Americans of African descent as “other” endures.
Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black President with the end of apartheid in 1994 and immediately instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was seen to be a first step in the healing process for a country that had been literally torn apart by the racial divide. Several truth commissions have been established in the United States, most notably President Clinton’s “One America” initiative that encouraged community dialogue on issues of race and ethnicity. Others have been mounted to deal with specific incidents of racial violence, such as the 1999 Greensboro TRC that sought truth and testimony twenty years after the members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi parties killed five demonstrators in North Carolina.
While truth commissions cannot redress the crimes of the past, they can certainly provide a forum for discussion, introspection and the taking of collective responsibility for the dehumanization of an entire race of people based solely on the color of their skin.