A Look Back at South Africa Under Apartheid, Twenty-Five Years After Its Repeal

Segregated public facilities, including beaches, were commonplace, but even today, the inequality persists

Black boys looking in on a game of soccer at an all-white school in Johannesburg. January 1, 1982 UN Photo
A black cleaning lady sweeps the pavement in front of segregated public bathrooms. A sign reading "Whites" both in English and Afrikaans hangs on the wall behind her. August 25, 1985 Bernard Bisson/Sygma/Corbis
The entrance to the PTT building in Johannesburg, South Africa, reserved for non-whites only Paul Almasy/Corbis
Sign designating a men's room for blacks only in Cape Town, South Africa during Apartheid in 1978. Paul Liebhardt/Corbis
An African man reads on a bench marked "Europeans Only" in a South African park. Many people began to ignore the rules of apartheid before the Separate Amenities Act was repealed. May 2, 1970 Bettmann/Corbis
An African woman leaves a non-white toilet in Soweto, just outside of Johannesburg. Bold letters in English, Afrikaans and Tswana indicate for whose specific use the toilet was constructed. May 2, 1970 Bettmann/Corbis
A beach at Durban reserved for whites. An amendment to the Separate Amenities Act extended the laws to beaches. January 1, 1976 UN Photo
A White-only residential area near Cape Town. January 1, 1970 UN Photo/Kay Muldoon
The racial dividing point at a beach near Cape Town. January 1, 1982 UN Photo
South African Blacks were required to carry identification passbooks. January 1, 1985 UN Photo
Segregated public facilities in Johannesburg. January 1, 1982 UN Photo/DB
Women chopping wood in Transkei, one of the so-called black "homelands" (formerly "bantustans" or "reserves"). January 1, 1982 UN Photo/DB
Young girl with a load of firewood outside Ekuvukene, a resettlement village in KwaZulu homeland, Natal. January 1, 1982 UN Photo/DB
Many South African workers were migrants who were forced to live in hostels, like this one in Soweto, away from their families. January 1, 1982 UN Photo/DB
The segregated stands of a sports arena in Bloemfontein, South Africa. May 1, 1969 UN Photo by H Vassal

The year 1990 signaled a new era for apartheid South Africa: Nelson Mandela was released from prison, President F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on Mandela's political party, the African National Congress, and Parliament repealed the law that legalized apartheid. 

There are few words more closely associated with 20th-century South African history than apartheid, the Afrikaan word for "apartness" that describes the nation's official system of racial segregation. And though the discriminatory divide between whites of European descent and black Africans stretch back to the era of 19th-century British and Dutch imperialism, the concept of apartheid did not become law until 1953, when the white-dominated parliament passed the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, which officially segregated public spaces such as taxis, ambulances, hearses, buses, trains, elevators, benches, bathrooms, parks, church halls, town halls, cinemas, theaters, cafes, restaurants, hotels, schools, universities—and later, with an amendment, beaches and the seashore.

But the repeal was more symbolic than activating because the intended result was already in motion, says Daniel Magaziner, associate professor of history at Yale University and author of The Law and the Prophets: Black Consciousness in South Africa, 1968-1977. By the time of the repeal, South Africans had already begun to ignore some of the legal separation of the races in public spaces. For instance, blacks were supposed to yield the sidewalk to whites, but in large cities like Johannesburg, that social norm had long since passed. And in many places total racial segregation was impossible; these were places like whites-only parks, where blacks were the maintenance crew and black nannies took white children to play.

“The fact that the repeal was passed so overwhelmingly by Parliament, I don’t think speaks to the sudden liberalization of South African politics,” says Magaziner. “I think it speaks to people recognizing the reality that this was a law that was anachronistic and wasn’t in practical effect anymore.”

The impact of apartheid, however, was nowhere near over when the repeal went into effect on October 15, 1990. While white South Africans only made up 10 percent of the country’s population at the end of apartheid, they owned nearly 90 percent of the land. In the quarter-century since the act's repeal, land distribution remains a point of inequality in the country. Despite the post-apartheid government's stated plan to redistribute one-third of the country's land from whites to blacks by 2014, less than 10 percent of this land has been redistributed, and the 2014 deadline has been postponed to 2025.

Magaziner cautions that focusing on the repeal of the Separate Amenities Act as a sign of the end of apartheid obscures the deeper problems caused by racial segregation that continue to impact the country today.

“The Separate Amenities Act made visible what had been longstanding practices,” says Magaziner, “but it also made invisible other aspects of segregation that weren’t covered by the Act but have a much longer lasting impact in South Africa.”

The photos above, selected from the photo archives of the United Nations and Corbis, show the impact of the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act in public spaces in South Africa.

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