There was a hope among black South Africans generally and liberals in particular that whatever party governed, the Second World War and its elevation of the notion of human rights regardless of race, would lead to a loosening of domestic legislated racial discrimination. But the hope was to be bitterly disappointed. The National Party, which returned to power in 1948, went about implementing Apartheid. It took existing racial discrimination in the statute books and systematized it into a comprehensive policy program (Swart 1991, 40-41).
Apartheid was often presented as an ideology. “Apartheid is sometimes described as the ‘philosophical basis’ of the Afrikaner’s racial philosophy meaning the approach to life which has developed around the colour question and, after three centuries, crystallised into a unique formula for the regulation of race relations” (Rhoodie and Venter 1959, 19). In that conception, government was described as “the Afrikaner’s political instrument” to release “the ideal they had set themselves,” that is, “the comparatively permanent and concrete separation of White and Black in South Africa” (ibid., 22–24).
Janet Robertson argues that the decision of Smuts’s United Party government to enter South Africa into the Second World War in 1939 is what led to the breakdown of the “fusion” between white Afrikaners and white English South Africans that had come about when the South African Party and the National Party combined in 1934 to form the United Party. Entering the war enabled Dr DF Malan’s faction, the Reunited National Party, to surge in support and replace the United Party in government in 1948 (Robertson 1971, 12). With their vanquishing in 1948 and the entrenchment of National Party rule until 1994, liberals were henceforth excluded from positions of formal power.
Some time before the 1948 election, the liberal (at the time) Cape Times wrote of the then-proposed Apartheid policy as follows:
“The long-experienced Dr Malan is wiser — or perhaps it would be better to write wilier — than Mr JG Strydom in his statements on Native policy. Dr Malan says ‘apartheid’, and he leaves it at that. Mr Strydom explains apartheid; and that is a mess. He does not agree with ‘well-meaning people’ who promise to segregate the Natives somewhere in Central Africa. Central Africa, he explains, does not belong to us. Nor, Mr Strydom explained, was it practicable to segregate the Natives into one big reserve somewhere in the Union. It was also undesirable, because it would unite them. He also denied that he intended the separation of the Natives from the European-owned farms. There was no harm in their staying there. What he proposed was the gradual removal of Natives, with their wives and families, from the towns. They must be sent back to the reserves, where they could develop their own industries, and staff their own professions, with European encouragement (but not European financial assistance). If the Native men were needed for industry and other employment, they would leave their families cosily at home n the reserves and work according to the system that had been practised by the mines for many years.
All this is part of Mr Strydom’s realist policy to maintain white supremacy in the Union. The trouble about these realists is that they seem to have swallowed whole the doctrine, much publicised by a certain school of popular psychology, that ‘Thoughts are Things’. Mr Strydom thinks there is room in the reserves for the urban Natives and their families as well as for the Natives already there. In his mind, therefore, reserves with plenty of space exist. But they do not exist on the ground. The Native reserves are already grossly over-crowded, and there is no room in them for the hundreds of thousands of Natives now living with their families in the towns. The migratory labour system which Mr Strydom wishes to perpetuate is one of the greatest single causes of the steady deterioration of the Native people, and one of the most potent causes of the increase in Native crime. They wish-dreams which he peddles as a policy would, if carried out, lead not only to further physical and moral degeneration among the natives, but also to a suppuration of discontent among them that would spread its rank poison throughout the Union, so that the fears of Mr Strydom and his following would be visited upon our children to the third and fourth generation, and even further.” (Macdonald 1948, 233-234)
Edgar Brookes and JB MacAulay wrote that 1948 can be described as the year of the “great divide,” when statutes encroaching on liberty became more striking (Brookes and MacAulay 1958, 8). South Africa prior to 1948 was no bastion of freedom, of course, as before that year the country “experienced that trend towards bureaucracy caused by the development of the Welfare State” as well as laws infringing on individual rights along racial lines. But the restrictions on civil liberty during the Apartheid era were systematic, and more brazenly restricted the freedom of black, coloured, and Indian South Africans as well as that of whites (ibid., 5).
The bedrock policy instrument of Apartheid, as a system of political, social, and economic racial discrimination, was the Population Registration Act of 1950. It provided for the classification of the South African population into four racial categories: white, black, Indian, and coloured. Each race would have its own areas, institutions, and amenities. Black, Indian, and coloured persons were thus blocked from many advantageous situations. The manner for classification into these racial categories was dependent upon the discretion of census officials. The discretion placed the totality of persons’ destinies in those officials’ hands. If, say, a white person was ‘reclassified’ to any other race, at once he or she would be politically disenfranchised and no longer enjoy the multitudes of advantages accruing to or set aside for whites. Reclassified people would need to move to an area designated for the new racial category into which they had been placed. Their children would be forced into inferior educational circumstances. Anyone from whatever race who had the misfortune of being classified as black would have their whole world upended, as they would then have to endure the worst possible treatment at the hands of the state and participate in the worst possible education. Many coloureds were reclassified as black, meaning they, being a mostly Afrikaans-speaking community, were put among mostly Xhosa-speaking blacks in the Cape Province (Brookes and MacAulay 1958, 15–17).
Under the various Group Areas Acts (most prominently the Group Areas Act of 1950), all South Africans were restricted from residential or commercial property ownership in areas not assigned to their race. Applied to corporate persons, government would look at the race of those with a controlling interest in the company. The determination of where one lived and worked became highly governmentalized. The government enjoyed a statist presumption; if the minister of the interior or someone working in the deeds office maintained that someone or a company belonged a particular racial group, they would be presumed to be part of that group unless they could prove otherwise. Prime commercial real estate—urban centers—were almost invariably ‘white’ group areas. In the town of Lydenburg, for instance, all the Indian traders were already self-segregated into one part of the shopping district. The whites who had shops in the same area were willing to sell. The bureaucracy, however, moved the Indians out of the district across the river (Brookes and MacAulay 1958, 18–21).
The 1950–1961 Assembly speaker for the National Party, Johannes Hendrik Conradie, usefully summarized the National Party’s apparent intentions with its Apartheid policy:
“If we yield in every sphere, in the political sphere and in the economic sphere, we shall be forced later on to yield in the social sphere. We would like to see the native develop in his own sphere and there attain a high standard of civilisation. We are not opposed to that but he must be separated from us.” (Robertson 1971, 44. Robertson cites the parliamentary Hansard: 64 House of Assembly Debates col. 1602.)
With Hendrik Verwoerd’s tenure as minister of native affairs (1950–1958) before becoming prime minister in 1958, the lives of black people in South Africa became rigidly centrally planned. They were expected to live in rural reserves, or ‘homelands,’ and could come into so-called ‘white’ areas, which constituted about 80 percent of the surface area of the country, only if they had a pass. Yet for those non-whites who lived in ‘white’ areas—and in their own houses—their stay in such areas was by government considered to be temporary. Therefore, within the Apartheid logic, they could never truly call the houses they lived in, sometimes for generations, their homes. Their home, according to government, was always to be in the rural homelands set aside for them (Swart 1991, 39–40).
Blacks were promised eventual sovereign independence from South Africa in the homelands, where they could then fully exercise political rights and have their own political and economic institutions. But by this time South Africa already had a high degree of integration, especially economically—an egg that could not be unscrambled, said Ray Swart. The plan also ignored the fact that many millions of blacks were urbanized with no real ties, as individuals, to the rural areas to which they were assigned (Swart 1991, 47–48). Even by 1956, less than a decade after Apartheid began, Brookes noted that the quickly integrating economy undermined the Apartheid vision (Brookes 1956, 195).
The lack of economic opportunities in the rural areas spurred black people to move into urban ‘white’ areas in defiance of laws, threats, arrests, and demolition of their makeshift houses (Wentzel 1995, 20). The phenomenon was later known as the Defiance Campaign. The laws that reserved specific kinds of jobs for members of specific racial groups had the same consequence. By the 1970s there were not enough white South Africans to fill the jobs that had been reserved for them, leading to employers hiring blacks in contravention of the law. The government was powerless to stop them. Also, private schools and universities, in defiance of law, admitted black pupils (ibid., 18–19).
Brookes and MacAulay wrote that civil liberty amounts to the rule of law “in the sense of basic principles of right, not merely of any and every statute or regulation that has force, but not the right, of the State behind it” (Brookes and MacAulay 1958, 1). The government moved away from its British heritage, gradually destroying the principles of individual freedom and the rule of law (ibid., 5). For example, under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950, the government issued a banning order against Albert Luthuli, a moderate from the African National Congress preaching non-racialism. For five years he could not legally leave the magisterial district in which his black reserve was located. For this ban the government gave no reasons, despite its severity. Luthuli noted to United Party MP Ray Swart that the United Party equivocated on the race issue over the years, and that black South Africans had come to not expect any solution to their lot to come from that party (Swart 1991, 42–43). According to RW Johnson (2011), “Luthuli was a liberal through and through who always lived a modest life.”
The Suppression of Communism Act was a particularly illiberal piece of legislation. The Act said, in essence, that a communist was one who was ‘deemed’ by government to be a communist. The result of being deemed a communist was that the government could prohibit that person from being in certain areas, attending meetings, or being a member of certain organizations (Brookes and MacAulay 1958, 23–24).
Helen Suzman of the Progressive Party was the only representative of the liberal cause in the South African Parliament between 1961 and 1974. Since communist and liberation movements were banned by law in the 1950s and 1960s, the National Party government faced insignificant political opposition (Wentzel 1995, 9). The core of the liberal movement at that time consisted of the Liberal Party, the Progressive Party, the Institute of Race Relations, Black Sash, the National Union of South African Students, and the Civil Rights League (Hughes 1994, 26). Other organizations that could be considered allies, at least partially, were the Torch Commando and the Defenders of the Constitution, as well as the English press and universities.
The English universities, also referred to as ‘open universities’ because they did not discriminate along color lines, were often considered by Nationalists as “provocatively liberalistic” and posing an existential threat to the continued existence of whites in South Africa (Lavin 1965, 436). Despite this apparent liberal threat, Brookes and MacAulay wrote that liberty as an ideal had by 1948 already been defeated “in the schools and universities of the Union before [it was defeated] at the polling-booths and in Parliament” (1958, 6).
By the 1950s, the Cape Province was still the heartland of South African liberalism. There coloured, but perhaps not necessarily black, South Africans could sit on municipal councils and engage with whites in various jobs where they would come into regular contact, even in hierarchically superior positions such as a traffic police officer. The National Party government however started applying Apartheid more strictly in the Cape in the early 1960s, which put an end to much of this (Robertson 1971, 22).
A major test for South African liberals came on 24 July 1964. The Institute of Race Relations’ Michael Morris writes of how Frederick John Harris, a senior Liberal Party member, planted a bomb at the whites-only platform of Johannesburg Park Station, the main railway station in South Africa’s largest city. Immediately after setting the bomb, Harris, who did not want to harm any innocents, contacted both the press and the police, urging them to evacuate the platform before the bomb went off. No action was taken, leading to an explosion that injured 23 and killed one. Harris was the only white anti-Apartheid activist to be hanged by the South African government on murder charges. Today, perhaps ironically, the liberal Harris is regarded as a hero by many, but not necessarily by many liberals (Morris 2019b).
By the 1960s, Apartheid was seen as inexcusable by the international community. The South African government was losing sympathy and was forcing its own international isolation (Swart 1991, 107). When the members of the Progressive Party met with foreign statesmen, they urged them to soften their approach to South Africa so as to not push white South Africans further into the arms of the National Party, which had been capitalizing on international condemnations of Apartheid. The Nationalists spun these condemnations as being from foreigners who did not appreciate the complexities of South African life, and, should foreign powers succeed in bringing about change in South Africa, black majority rule would mean the end of the Afrikaner and Western civilization in this part of the world. The Progressives, as a result, wanted to abate the foreign element in the narrative of the National Party, an element which they felt was making the project of non-racialism more difficult (Swart 1991, 105).
As late as the 1980s, liberals, it now seems, did not realize that the Apartheid system was already collapsing (Wentzel 1995, 17; Kane-Berman 2017, xi). Starting in the 1970s, Apartheid laws were being flouted not only by the black, Indian, and coloured victims of the system, but also by white businessmen and educational administrators. In many cases, government simply acquiesced to the civil disobedience (Wentzel 1995, 18–19). The crumbling of the system had the effect of bringing about a de facto freer market. Although the welfare state was rather minimal, between 1970 and 1991 “the white share of total income dropped by 24% while the [black] share rose by 67%.” Real wages among blacks in the manufacturing industries also rose by 29 percent in the 1980s, with that of the whites only going up by one percent. Ordinary white South Africans adapted to these changing circumstances, with Jill Wentzel noting that by the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, post-Apartheid South Africa was already being created (1995, 20–21). Liberals, however, were largely conditioned by the authoritarian Apartheid from the era of prime minister Verwoerd (1958–1966); they seem to have largely not noticed how the system they so vehemently opposed was crumbling around them. Thus, while the liberals correctly noted that the reforms to the Apartheid system were structurally insignificant and aimed mostly at whitewashing Apartheid or trying to dress it in more politically correct terms, the fact is that these reforms gave people on the ground room to maneuver in ways government never intended (Wentzel 1995, 23).
Michael O’Dowd, a polymath liberal who served as chairman of the Free Market Foundation from 1978 to 2005, head of the Anglo American mining corporation’s Chairman’s Fund between 1974 to 1997, and former president of the liberal National Union of South African Students, famously (Keniston 2010, 28) predicted in 1966 that economic growth and capitalism would lead to the crumbling of Apartheid by 1980 (O’Dowd 1996, 13). O’Dowd’s timeline was off by 14 years, which he later freely admitted (ibid., 33), but the essence of his predictions turned out to be true. Because liberals were largely unconvinced that Apartheid was already collapsing, they reacted adversely to his prediction (Wentzel 1995, 24).