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Apartheid: a History

21 September 2018

Apartheid: A HistoryApartheid: A History by Brian Lapping
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Why should I read a book by a foreign journalist on the history of apartheid?

I lived through apartheid, from beginning to end. I have an honours degree in history. So why read a popular, non-scholarly book about it?

The main reason was that I wanted to refresh my memory on the topic, because of two old lies that have resurfaced and seem to be increasingly circulated on social media nowadays. These two lies were:

  1. That it was “the British”, and not Dr Malan’s National; Party, that had introduced apartheid.
  2. That the Dutch landed at the Cape in 1652 before there were any black people living in what later became South Africa.

These canards have been repeated so often that they seem to be gaining the status of factoids — things that resemble facts, but are not.

The book not a scholarly work. It has no footnotes or citations. It’s short, and tells the bare bones of the story. There is a lot more that could be said, but as a layman’s introduction it really is pretty good.

What were the aims of the apartheid policy and the apartheid laws?

They were basically three:

  1. To ensure white supremacy (baaskap) over nonwhites (blacks, coloureds, Asians)
  2. To ensure white Afrikaner supremacy over other whites
  3. To ensure National Party supremacy over the white Afrikaners.

Those three aims of the National Party remained constant from 1948 to 1990, when they gave up. In that period they sometimes tinkered with the means, but never altered the final goal until in 1990 most of the NP leaders realised that the game was up.

To suggest that “the British” introduced this is absurd, and Brian Lapping pretty clearly explains why.

I found only one significant anachronism in the book. Lapping described one of the effects of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 as a drop in the value of the South African currency, the Rand. But the Rand was only introduced in February 1961, and until 1966 its value was fixed at R2.00 to the British pound. And in 1967 it was the pound, not the Rand, that dropped in value.

Otherwise, the book seemed pretty accurate and informative to me. And it nails both the lies in current circulation.

How did apartheid differ from what had gone before?

Certainly there had been racial discrimination and segregation in South Africa before 1948. Certainly there was racialism, though most whites would think of it mainly in terms of the relations between English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites; they thought of the relations between black and white not in terms of “racialism” but in terms of “the Native Question”.  Racial segregation was mostly a matter of unwritten custom, rather than, as it was after 1948, a matter of law,.

During the 1930s and 1940s the racist and segregationist status quo, which was found not only in South Africa, but in many British colonies and dominions elsewhere in Africa and elsewhere in the world, began to be questioned more and more. The Second World War, in which Nazi Germany’s racist policies came to the fore, led many people throughout the world to become aware of racism, and to question it. Among those who questioned it were many South African soldiers who had fought in the war. But the National Party had opposed South African involvement in the war,  and soldiers who supported them did not fight in the war, but rather sympathised with the Nazis.

National Party Leaders: Hertzog, Malan, Strijdom, Verwoerd

So in the 1940s there was a worldwide reaction against racism, and many saw the need to move away from it. The ruling United Party had appointed the Fagan Commission, which recommended that the presence of black workers in “white” towns needed to be recognised as an irreversible trend, and that provision needed to be made for them to live there with their families. The National Party was determined to resist this trend, and do their best to reverse it, and the word they gave to their resistance was the slogan Apartheid. The trend, however slight, for black and white to come together, must be resisted and reversed.

Apartheid was initially little more than an election slogan, but within a few years it had become a fully-fledged ideology. Just as Ayn Rand gave an ideology to capitalism, so the National Party gave an ideology to racial segregation. Social mixing of black and white, though it may have been rare before, had not generally been illegal. The National Party moved to make it illegal, and passed the Group Areas Act. And to know which people were entitled to live in which area, they passed the Population Registration Act, so that there could be no doubt about which group a person belonged to.

This was not merely quantitatively different from what had gone before, it was qualitatively different. As an ideology, Apartheid became totalitarian. It was not merely one political policy among others, whose merits one could debate. It became a rigid ideological framework within which all political debate must take place. Any thinking outside that box would mean that one would “come under the attention” of Mr Vorster’s Security Police. Between 1961, when he became Minister of Justice, and 1968, he had turned South Africa into a police state.

One form that the lie takes on social media is that “the British” introduced apartheid, and that in 1948 the National Party abolished it, and substituted  the much more humane policy of “Separate Development”. In fact, Apartheid was Malan’s slogan. His successor, J.G. Strijdom, preferred to speak of Baasskap (bossship, ie white supremacy), and H.F. Verwoerd, who succeeded Strijdom in 1958, preferred to speak of Separate Development.

As the world became aware that these different names referred to the same policy, the National Party tried to come up with more euphemisms, and each new instance of political correctness brought forth a new crop of jokes. So the Department of Native Affairs became the Department of Bantu Administration and Development, and eventually the Department of Plural Relations and Development, which led to jokes about black people being “plurals” and white people being “singulars”.

As for the second lie, that when the Dutch settled on the shores of Table Bay in 1652 there were no black people living in South Africa, records show that a century earlier the Portuguese were trading with black people along the coast of what are now the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, mainly buying ivory, There are also accounts of survivors of shipwrecks along the coast, and further inland archaeological records show that people living there before the 15th century had substantially the same material culture as those who were living in those areas when the Dutch encountered their descendants there in the 18th and 19th centuries.



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