South Africa – An Overview
There are over 52 individual countries in Africa. Some are rife with civil war, others are plagued by drought, famine and disease, but none has captured the international attention like South Africa.
South Africa is a country blessed with an abundance of natural resources including fertile farmlands and unique mineral resources. South African mines are world leaders in the production of diamonds and gold as well as strategic metals such as platinum.
The English and Dutch colonized South Africa in the seventeenth century. English domination of
the Dutch descendents (known as Boers or Afrikaners) resulted in the Dutch establishing the new colonies of Orange Free State and Transvaal. The discovery of diamonds in these lands around 1900 resulted in an English invasion, which sparked the Boer War. Following independence from England, an uneasy power sharing between the two groups held until the 1940’s, when the Afrikaner National Party was able to gain a strong majority. Strategists in the National Party invented apartheid as a means to cement their control over the economic and social system. The word apartheid originates from the Afrikaans word for “apartness”. Initially, aim of the apartheid was to maintain white domination while extending racial separation. Starting in the 1960’s, a plan of “Grand Apartheid” was executed, emphasizing territorial separation and police repression.
With the enactment of apartheid laws in 1948, racial discrimination was institutionalised. Race laws touched every aspect of social life, including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites, and the sanctioning of “white-only” jobs. In 1950, the Population Registration Act required that all South Africans be racially classified into one of three categories: white, black (African), or coloured (other). The coloured category included major subgroups of Indians and Asians. Classification into these categories was based on appearance, social acceptance, and descent. For example, a white person was defined as “in appearance obviously a white person or generally accepted as a white person.” A person could not be considered white if one of his or her parents were non-white. The determination that a person was “obviously white” would take into account “his habits, education, and speech and deportment and demeanour.” A black person would be a member of an African tribe or race, and a coloured person is one that is not black or white. The Department of Home Affairs (a government bureau) was responsible for the classification of the citizenry. Non-compliance with the race laws was dealt with harshly. All blacks were required to carry “pass books” containing fingerprints, photo and information on access to non-black areas.
The Group Areas Act of 1950 assigned races to different residential and business sections in urban areas, and the Lands Acts of 1954 and 1955 restricted non-white residence to specific areas. These laws further restricted the already limited right of black Africans to own land. Other laws prohibited social contacts between the races, enforced segregation of public facilities and the separation of educational standard. They created race-specific job categories, restricted the powers of non-white union and curved non-white participation government.
In 1951, the Bantu Authorities Act established a basis for ethnic government in African reserves, known as “homelands.” These homelands were independent states to which each African was assigned by the government according to the record of origin (which was frequently inaccurate). All political rights, including voting, held by an African were restricted to the designated homeland. The idea was that they would be citizens of the homeland, losing their citizenship in South Africa and any right of involvement with the South African Parliament. Millions of South Africans were denationalised by this system. Africans living in the homelands needed passports to enter South Africa: aliens in their own country.
The apartheid policy was highly effective at achieving its goal of preferential treatment for whites, as is demonstrated by the statistics in Figure 1 below.
Although the implementation and enforcement of apartheid was accompanied by tremendous suppression of opposition, continual resistance to apartheid existed within South Africa. A number of black political groups (some with sympathetic white supporters) opposed apartheid using a variety of tactics, including violence, strikes, demonstrations, and sabotage. These tactics met with severe reprisals by the government.
In 1953, the Public Safety Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act were passed, which empowered the government to declare stringent states of emergency and increased penalties for protesting against or supporting the repeal of a law. The penalties included fines, imprisonment and whippings. In 1960, a large group of blacks in Sharpeville refused to carry their passes; the government declared a state of emergency. The emergency lasted for 156 days, leaving 69 people dead and 187 people wounded. Wielding the Public Safety Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act, the white regime had no intention of changing the unjust laws of apartheid.
Police had remarkable power over political opposition. The penalties imposed on political protest, even non-violent protest, were severe. During the states of emergency, which continued intermittently until 1989, anyone could be detained without a hearing by any police official for up to six months. Thousands of individuals died in custody. Those who were tried were sentenced to death, banished, or imprisoned for life, like Nelson Mandela.
Computer technology enabled the government to organize and enforce such an atrocious system of segregation and control. More than any other single technological advancement, the computer fostered the concentration of administrative power in the hands of Africa’s white elite.
It is likely that the tool that made the most crucial contribution to the system of apartheid was the computerized population register. The population register was used to channel needed black workers into the labour force to be exploited, and confined others to the desolate homelands.
The passbooks, which every black person was automatically given at the age of sixteen, coupled with the computer database, guaranteed one’s instant identification and one’s history of government opposition. The passbooks had to be properly endorsed to give the black owner the right to work or live in “white areas”. Lack of these endorsements or failure to produce the passbook resulted in arrest and jail.
The system broke down the structure of the African family, as workers were prohibited from living with their families. Rent and taxes were significantly higher for blacks than for whites in other districts, leaving the workers with very little on which to subsist. This system was practically organized slavery.
An interesting ethical consideration in the case of apartheid is not whether the system itself was right or wrong, but rather what the ethical stand of the governments, corporations and people outside South Africa was and what it should have been. Computers were key components in the machinery of apartheid. Since whites were a tiny majority, they employed technology extensively to support control of the majority. So if the computing resources of South Africa had been withdrawn then apartheid may have fallen, or at least been mitigated.
In 1961 South Africa was forced to withdraw from the British Commonwealth by member states who were critical of the apartheid system, and in 1974 was expelled from the United Nations. In 1985 the governments of the United States and Great Britain imposed selective economic sanctions on South Africa in protest of its racial policy.
As antiapartheid pressure mounted within and outside South Africa, the South African government, led by President F. W. de Klerk, began to dismantle the apartheid system in the early 1990s. The year 1990 brought a National Party government dedicated to reform and also saw the legalization of formerly banned black congresses and the release of imprisoned black leaders. In 1994 the country’s constitution was rewritten and free general elections were held for the first time in its history, and with Nelson Mandela’s election as South Africa’s first black president, the last vestiges of the apartheid system were finally outlawed.
If it remains politically stable, South Africa will remain the richest country in Africa and an attractive market. The turmoil of the years of sanctions, unrest and school boycotts by black children have taken their toll. An entire generation of South Africans in their teens and twenties have been raised without education in the impoverished homelands. The main challenge of the coming decades will be for South Africa to educate and incorporate this lost generation into society before it becomes a destabilizing force.
Another Through the Ages article coming soon…