By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Apartheid began in South Africa in 1948 when the National Party—an all-white government—came to power. Despite it being only the third most popular tongue spoken, the West Germanic language of Afrikaans was mandated. Ryanair uses it as a nationality test for passengers.
South Africans flying to the United Kingdom have complained about a policy by the Irish-based Ryanair, saying that the company has demanded they pass an Afrikaans language test to board its flights. The company says the test was implemented due to high levels of fraudulent South African passports.
However, the choice of Afrikaans as a marker of authenticity is a delicate matter. It’s only the third most spoken language in the nation, but it is the language that was mandated by the government that enforced apartheid in the second half of the 20th century.
How did apartheid begin? In his video series The African Experience: From “Lucy” to Mandela, Dr. Kenneth P. Vickery, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Advising in the History Department at North Carolina State University, outlines the system of white supremacy that dominated South Africa in the second half of the 20th century.
Before World War II, South Africa was becoming modernized. However, it was being done in the context of white supremacy over its Black majority, or Bantu. It was known as the “age of segregation.”
“To move slightly forward, in the years following the Second World War, when the Sun began to set on colonial rule in places like the French and British empires in Africa, and when the colonies of the French and the British along with other parts of the world like the United States began to move with some seriousness toward an end to formalized white supremacy, the country of South Africa moved with great seriousness in the opposite direction,” Dr. Vickery said. “We can call this the transition from segregation to ‘apartheid.'”
Apartheid, he said, is an Afrikaans word meaning “apartness.” At the same time, South Africa was anything but separated. Throughout apartheid, the ruling class and elites were very dependent on labor, and, thus, were intricately involved in the way laborers lived. In a segregated society, after the aftermath of the discoveries of gold and diamonds, Dr. Vickery said there were three racial pillars.
“There was a radically unequal division of land, and that is a form of separation, but what flows from that?” he asked. “The second pillar is a resultant low-wage, migrant labor system. The third pillar, of course, is a white monopoly on political power, in the constitution of 1910, although in a couple of exceptional cases—in the old Cape Colony, now part of this unified country—they still had a color-blind franchise.”
If the move to apartheid could be pinpointed, it would be in South Africa’s 1948 election. The Afrikaner Nationalist Party lost the popular vote against the United Party, but won anyway due to unequally distributed electoral powers throughout South Africa’s voting constituencies. Having run on a platform of apartheid, the Afrikaner Nationalist Party could now implement it.
“To these ends, the National Party government passed an avalanche of new legislation in the 1950s, designed to regulate every aspect of race relations,” Dr. Vickery said. “Miscegenation and intermarriage were outlawed. There was to be total separation of every form of public amenity and in urban residential areas.”
The first step? Park benches, directional signs to water fountains and public bathrooms, etc., were literally painted over with “blankes only”—the Afrikaans term for “whites only”—and “nie-blankes”—”non-whites” only. Next, the Bantu Education Act established a separate and inferior schooling system for Black South Africans that only taught them skills for menial jobs, explicitly stating that the system was to teach Black students and citizens to be subservient to whites.
The Nationalist Party designated small land areas, called “reserves” or “Bantustan,” as psuedo-national homelands for the Black African population. There were 10 areas, one for each of the 10 major Bantu ethnic groups. However, there were several ugly catches to this.
“Since all 10 homelands combined constituted only 13% of South Africa’s total land area, designed in theory to accommodate 75% of the population, there was, in fact, no actual possibility that all of the [Bantu] assigned to a given homeland could actually make a living there,” Dr. Vickery said. “They would need to continue to migrate and work in so-called ‘white South Africa.'”
During the time of apartheid, nonviolent protests were met with police opening fire on unarmed protesters; the government banned opposition movements; and the Nationalist Party began using detention without trial, increased interrogations involving torture, and so on.
Apartheid lasted until 1994.