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August 12, 2019

The Racist Signs of Apartheid: What South Africans Had to Look at Every Day for Four Decades

For decades, the country’s black majority was controlled by racist laws enshrining white supremacy. From 1948 through the 1990s, a single word dominated life in South Africa. Apartheid—Afrikaans for “apartness”—kept the country’s majority black population under the thumb of a small white minority. It would take decades of struggle to stop the policy, which affected every facet of life in a country locked in centuries-old patterns of discrimination and racism.

A sign common in Johannesburg.

The system was rooted in the country’s history of colonization and slavery. White settlers had historically viewed black South Africans as a natural resource to be used to turn the country from a rural society to an industrialized one. Starting in the 17th century, Dutch settlers relied on slaves to build up South Africa. Around the time that slavery was abolished in the country in 1863, gold and diamonds were discovered in South Africa.

That discovery represented a lucrative opportunity for white-owned mining companies that employed—and exploited—black workers. Those companies all but enslaved black miners while enjoying massive wealth from the diamonds and gold they mined. Like Dutch slave holders, they relied on intimidation and discrimination to rule over their black workers.

The mining companies borrowed a tactic that earlier slaveholders and British settlers had used to control black workers: pass laws. As early as the 18th century, these laws had required members of the black majority, and other people of color, to carry identification papers at all times and restricted their movement in certain areas. They were also used to control black settlement, forcing black people to reside in places where their labor would benefit white settlers.

Those laws persisted through the 20th century as South Africa became a self-governing dominion of the United Kingdom. Between 1899 and 1902, Britain and the Dutch-descended Afrikaners fought one another in the Boer War, a conflict that the Afrikaners eventually lost. Anti-British sentiment continued to foment among white South Africans, and Afrikaner nationalists developed an identity rooted in white supremacy. When they took control in 1948, they made the country’s already discriminatory laws even more draconian.

Racist fears and attitudes about “natives” colored white society. Though apartheid was supposedly designed to allow different races to develop on their own, it forced black South Africans into poverty and hopelessness. “Grand” apartheid laws focused on keeping black people in their own designated “homelands.” And “petty” apartheid laws focused on daily life restricted almost every facet of black life in South Africa.

These South African signs are examples of what was known as Petty Apartheid, which was the range of laws implemented by the National Party that placed detailed restrictions on the behavior of the different races in the country.

A woman sat in the wagon reserved for White people to protest against Apartheid, 1952.

Signs in English and Afrikaans, in Wellington railway station, South Africa, enforcing the policy of apartheid or racial segregation, 1955.

A sign common in Johannesburg, 1956.

White children paddling in a pond marked by a sign reading “For European Children Only,” 1956.

Signs in both English and Afrikaans in Johannesburg, 1957.

A bench in Albert Park, Durban, 1960.

A park for Non-European women, ca. 1960s.

A Taxi rank for white people, 1967.

A sign outside a park restricts its use to ‘European mothers with babies in arms’, 1971.

An apartheid notice on a beach near Cape Town, 1974.

An apartheid notice on a beach near Cape Town, 1976.

A rail wagon with the words ‘Non-Whites’, 1978.

A railway carriage reserved for white people only, 1982.

Toilets restricted to use by “Black, Coloreds & Asians” at a bus station, 1986.

Whites only sign in foreground at restricted beach, with bathers in background, 1988.

A sign reading ‘Bathing area for Whites Only’ on a beach at Victoria Bay, Western Cape, 1988.

(Photos: The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images)


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