Laws from South Africa's Apartheid Era

South Africa

In May of 1902 the Peace of Vereeniging was signed between Boer forces and the British (putting an end to a set of wars between the two sides).  After a few years, the former Boer republics joined with the British territories and, in May of 1910, they formed the Union of South Africa.  

The African National Congress was then created, just two years later, in 1912 to respond to the white-run government.  Ironically, eight years after this formation, in 1918, Nelson Mandela was also born.

The government began to, immediately, codify its suppression of black South Africans.  
In 1913 the Natives Land Act was passed which set aside about 13% of South Africa's land for the "Native population."  It prohibited blacks from buying, renting, or using land anywhere outside of the areas that were set aside for them.

The government also enacted "pass laws" which held that blacks had no real reason to go into municipal areas unless they were there for employment reasons and, thus, required them to have passes which could help to control their movement.  Other laws were passed to restrict the types of skills blacks could practice as trades. 

In addition, a separate administration system was set up under the Native Administration Act of 1927; which allowed for proclamations to be used to administer black areas, instead of acts of parliament.

In 1948 the National Party (which traditionally represented Boers who were negatively impacted during the earlier Boer Wars) won the national election.  They brought into existence an even more crushing form of government and "apartheid" was born.  

Apartheid literally means "apartness" and it was the basis for how the races were to be further separated, by the government, in South Africa.  Even more laws supported their efforts.

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The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 defined communism as any doctrine or scheme that was aimed to bring about political change through unlawful acts or the threat of unlawful acts.  This gave the government broad powers to arrest or detain anyone who was suspected of being a communist--it essentially gave them the power to harass anyone who was actively working against the Apartheid way of life.

The Population Registration Act, of 1950, required all residents of South Africa to be classified as coloured (European and African mixed or Asian), native (Bantu people), or white.  Identity cards were issued and a registry for the entire country was initiated.

The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, of 1949, made it illegal for blacks and whites to marry and the Immorality Act of 1950 forbade sexual relations between whites and non-whites (a ban on relations between blacks and whites had already been in place since 1927).

The Separate Registration of Voters Act, of 1951, sought to force coloured South Africans (in particular those in the Cape) to be removed from the regular voter rolls and placed on separate rolls where they would only be allowed to vote for white South Africans to represent them in the House of Assembly, the South African Senate and on the Cape Provincial Council.

The Bantu Authorities Act, of 1951, set up government-appointed leaders and authorities in regional, tribal, and territorial areas where blacks were forced to live.  Thus, further striping away their rights.

The Bantu Education Act, of 1953, further formalized the subpar education that Africans were forced to receive.  One of the authors of this act, The Minister of Native Affairs, Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, believed that blacks "should be educated for their opportunities in life…"  This act firmly put the education of blacks into the hands of the racist government.

The Group Areas Act, of 1950, built upon earlier laws and separated specific areas of the country for blacks and whites.  If you were an African living in an area not designated for your race, the government could forcibly move you to an area set aside for your category and it did so, with guns and with force.


In 1950, Sophiatown was a lively area in Johannesburg.  It was one of the few areas where blacks were allowed to own land.  It was home to doctors, lawyers, artists, etc.  Outsiders saw it as a place of poverty, but Sophiatown held a special significance to many black South Africans.  It was a place teeming with culture and music and it even housed the only pool that black children in Johannesburg could play in. 

So in the early 1950s, when residents started getting eviction notices, under the Group Areas Act, there was bound to be a groundswell of resistance.  Sophiatown had been newly designated as a white area and the people who lived there were being notified that they were going to be forcibly removed and relocated to an area in Soweto.  The government sent in authorities to survey the residents, as a way of devising their plan to effectively remove them.  

Nelson Mandela and members of the ANC were very active in Johannesburg and were working to oppose the removal plan.  They found very willing participants in the residents of Sophiatown.  Meetings were held, always with armed troops present, and cries began to ring out, “Over our dead bodies!  We will not move!”  There were some 50,000 people who lived in Sophiatown.  They were, of course, told that they were going to be moved to areas that had better living conditions.

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February 9, 1955 was the date the government set for removals to begin.  Despite their willingness to actively resist, the ANC and its leaders realized that they didn’t have enough fire power, or momentum, to combat the level of force the government was willing to demonstrate and they told the protestors to stand down.

Some 4,000 army troops and police officers showed up and surrounded Sophiatown; they came with government trucks and with equipment to tear down houses.  They went from door-to-door yelling for the occupants to, "Open up!", and they carted off entire families to their new living areas some 13 miles away.


In March of 1960 black South Africans gathered in Sharpeville in front of a municipal building.  The plan was to have black South African men and women leave their passes (which they were required by law to carry) at home and to present themselves for arrests.  They hoped to demonstrate the unfairness of the pass laws, to overcrowd the prisons and to slow down the economy since so many black South Africans did important work throughout the cities.

Some 5,000 men and women showed up to the authorities on that day and assembled to be arrested for not having their passes.  Police used low-level aircrafts to disperse them and finally opened fire on the unarmed men and women.  Some 69 of them were killed and many more were injured.  Following the event many citizens filed civil complaints against the government.

The government responded by passing the Indemnity Act.  The act indemnified officers and anybody acting under the authority of the government from any criminal or civil proceedings in a court of law.  The government also made the law retroactive so that it took effect from the date of the Sharpeville event, thus no one involved in the Sharpeville massacre ever faced charges.

You might think that actions like these are in the very distant past, but remember Nelson Mandela was released from prison just 27 years ago, on February 11, 1990, and apartheid didn't officially end until 1994.

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African National Congress.  “A brief history of the African National Congress.”  Accessed 12-2015.

Editors, Encyclopedia Britannica.  “South African War:  British-South African History.”  Encyclopedia Britannica.  Accessed December 2015.

Library of Congress. “Country Studies, South Africa.”

Library of Congress - THOMAS.  “Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986.”  Accessed December 2015.

Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. New York:  Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2008.

O'Malley, Padraig.  “Racial Legislation:  1927 Native Administration Act No. 38 and Separate Registration of Voters Act of 1951.”  National Mandela Centre of Memory.  Accessed December 2015.

Pretorius, Fransjohan.  “The Boer Wars.”  British History.  BBC.  Accessed 12-2015. 

South African Government. “History.”  Accessed December 2015.

Danita Smith