1948 was a crucial year in the history of South Africa. In May of that year the National Party (NP), leaded by Dr. Daniel F. Malan, won the general elections for the parliament of the Union of South Africa. It was surely a turning point in the history of race relations in South Africa: the election of the Nationalist took racial discrimination one step further that completely wiped out any remaining chance of social improvement for the Blacks; it meant legalising it in every aspect and giving it a new name: Apartheid.
The victory of the NP came as a big surprise to many… especially to General Smuts, the leader of the United Party (UP), who had been solidly in charge since its formation in 1933. Smuts was sure of maintaining his leadership of the country, but many whites had changed their opinion and voted for Dr. Malan. The NP was formed in 1939 when General Hertzog went against Smut’s pro-Allies policy in the II World War and separated from the UP. Malan took over from Hertzog in 1944 and used his “White South Africa” policies as a platform to win the elections.
Also his anti-English war policy and his alliance with Havenga’s Afrikaner Party attracted many votes from the Afrikaners, who always had and always would dislike the English. Before the 20th century the importance of the state was limited because poor and weak: the English speaking whites were predominant and the Afrikaners were only interested in maintaining their rural supremacy. After the discovery of minerals the main goal for whites became to be an active part in political life. So it is obvious that the NP was formed to represent the Afrikaner’s interests in Parliament.
The role of the Blacks in the state was limited to the kingship of the local tribes. They had no chance of accessing any higher role than that. So, it would seem that 1948 was a fundamental year because the new policy of Apartheid was created. This is not entirely true: although Apartheid was legally created in that year, racial discrimination was born the day imperialism started and the Dutch settled into Cape town in 1652.
The idea of blacks as inferior beings in every sense (politically, socially, physically, mentally… was implicit in the minds of the majority of the white population way before 1948. The 1913 Land Act (later modified in 1936) proves this point: it restricted the African’s leasing and buying rights to a mere 7% of the total country land. No blacks were allowed to freely enter the cities. In fact they could only exit the reserves if they were required to work in the cities for the whites and they were forced to return to the reserves as soon as their job was terminated. For example, Johannesburg had a high population of Blacks because it was a mining camp.
Their mobility was also limited by two main legislations: the Pass Law: African men (women later) had to produce a pass to any white policeman or civil servant who asked for it when outside the reserve area. The Job Colour Bar eliminated the possibility of social mobility for the Blacks: it prevented them from getting into any kind of skilled or semi-skilled labour; these jobs were only for whites. Also the Influx Control Law regulated the access of the Blacks to the cities and their lodges in the cities, which were just huts were they were piled into.
So, why was the victory of the Afrikaners so important if racist policies were already institutionalised in South Africa? Firstly because for the first time an exclusively Afrikaner party led the South African Parliament; this signalled the end of the English domination over the Afrikaners. Since the end of the Boer war in 1902, the English had ruled over the Afrikaners limiting them to the rural areas (unlike the Blacks they still were free and quite rich).
The victory of the Afrikaners turned these relations completely in opposite directions; the Afrikaners started “invading” the cities and became predominant. In 1910 only 6% of Afrikaners were in towns, by 1960 there were more of half of the Afrikaner population in cities. Secondly, and most importantly, the elections of 1948 shattered any possibility of reformation and improvement of the condition of the Black people. In fact, if one examines General Smuts’ policies in the late 40s, he was actually trying to change the situation of the Blacks within the South African society.
This doesn’t mean that Smuts was a liberal, but he was an intelligent man who managed to fuse the needs of the Blacks with those of the Whites. For example, during the II W. W. the Influx Control Law and the Pass Law were suspended; this both favoured the government because it helped sustain the war effort, and the Blacks because it gave them more mobility and freedom. More importantly, “Smuts had appointed a commission under Judge Henry Fagan to examine the laws applying to Blacks in the urban area.
He recognized that the restrictions imposed on Blacks before the war were unlikely to endure now that the war had ended. “1 A big increase in labour demand during the II W. W. and after it required that blacks should be allowed to freely compete with whites in the job market. And this was exactly what Smuts was trying to do. Only that when he lost the elections in 1948 all his efforts were cancelled by the new government, which had promised during the elections campaign that the blacks be emarginated from the white society.
They had used phrases like “Swart gevaard” (the Black danger) and “Die Kaffer op sy plek” (the nigger in its place), that were very Nazi-like expressions. 2 When the NP came to power all of Smuts efforts to change the existing society were demolished and an even more racist one took its place. The Fagan commission was abolished immediately and the main policy remained that of a migratory labour system based on temporary jobs for blacks in cities and their return to the family in the rural areas as soon as their work was over.
Tolerance of different races was basically abolished and racist institutions were created. The suppression of protests, strikes and demonstrations became a daily issue; the Freedom Day Strike (1st may 1950) organised by the Communist Party against the Pass Law and all discriminatory legislations was one of the earliest campaigns against the NP’s policies: about two thirds of the African workers stayed at home that day. It ended with 18 Africans dead and many hundreds injured and beaten.
Later that month the Communist Party was suppressed. Also very important were the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the Soweto riots of 1976; both had started as peaceful demonstrations against the Pass Law and ended in massacres of Blacks by the police. A National system of Labour bureaux was introduced in the 50s to monitor and control African employment: it placed severe constraints on Black’s freedom and work opportunity.
For example it generated the following acts: the Population and Registration Act (1950) labelled all South Africans by race, making race the single most important arbiter of an individual3; the Groups Area Act (1950); the Bantu Educative Act (1953); the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953); and probably the most influential one, the Race Classification Act (1950). It determined the status in life of each person born in SA. Children of different races were forced to attend different schools; certain jobs were reserved for whites only.
There were also the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) and the Immorality Act that followed soon after that made sexual relations between white and non-whites illegal. Therefore, the election of the extremist right wing party in 1948 gave way to a series of transformations in the South African society, economy, politics, culture and even education schemes that formed the base upon which the politics of Apartheid would rest during the 50s, 50s, 70s and 80s.
This obviously created a totally unjust society that saw the Afrikaners at the top, followed by the English speaking Whites, then the Coloured, and at the bottom the Blacks and Indians. This system was enforced with the use of the police during the decades to prevent social revolution and to avoid changes in the social structure. Maybe if the United Party had remained in power thing would have slowly changed; it cannot be said for certain but I’m sure there would have been improvements in the Black’s social conditions.