The Group Areas Act (GAA) of 1950 was a series of three acts passed by the Parliament of South Africa as part of the country’s system of Apartheid (a policy of segregation and discrimination based on race). South Africa’s National Apartheid government (NP) created “urban apartheid” with the provisions of the act, restricting the residential and business sections of developed areas that non-whites people could lawfully inhabit. This system of race-based discrimination had many detrimental effects on non-white people, effectively ensuring that white South Africans would continue to have social, political, and economic supremacy in the nation. Non-white South Africans responded to the GAA in many ways, such as attempting to use the courts to challenge the legality of the act, by staging non-violent protests, and by sharing their stories and experiences with the press.
The GAA’s purpose was to oppress non-white people by limiting where people were allowed to live. Not surprisingly, non-white people were relegated to the least developed residential areas (Tongaat, Grassy Park, etc.), where gainful employment was hard to come by, if not impossible to find. Non-white people who did not obey the GAA were forcibly removed from their residences and relocated. By 1983, over 600,000 people had been removed and relocated, and 90% of the African population was living within non-white only areas. For example, the “shacklands” in Cato Manor were torn apart by the Apartheid government, having been declared a white only zone. Likewise, District Six, an originally multi-ethnic neighborhood, was devastated as the government forcibly relocated people to approved “African only” areas.
Another huge impact of the GAA was that when non-Whites were able to find jobs in “whites only” areas, they were forced to commute long distances and carry passbooks—little flipbooks that identified them and explained why, and if, they were allowed to “pass” into a certain white only areas, such as if they had a job there. For non-white people, passbooks were a source of pain and resentment, a constant reminder that they were second-class citizens in their own country. Additionally, non-white only areas were almost always crowded—devoid of electricity and clean running water, as well as largely dilapidated and unsafe. Shacks composed of cardboard, fabric, corrugated metal, and plastic were crudely constructed next to and on top of one another. In comparison, white only areas were full of well-manicured suburbs, with well-maintained homes and bustling urban centers.
Unsurprisingly, there was public outcry against these discriminatory laws. Firstly, people tried to use the South African courts to overturn the GAA; however, their repeated attempts at this were largely unsuccessful. Public protests against the GAA were spearheaded by groups like the African National Congress (ANC), the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), and the Coloured People Organisation (CPO). These organizations used a number of tactics to express opposition such as sit-ins at restaurants or other public places, especially during the 1960’s in camaraderie with America’s Civil Rights Movement. These groups also utilized civil-disobedience—in the style of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.—to stage non-violent protests. One such gathering was the Mass Meeting at Durban on May 28, 1950, were 20,000 people came together under coordination between the ANC, NIC, and CPO to protest the GAA.
Indian South Africans were especially vocal in protesting the GAA as they were included in the law as non-white people. Indians had been historically present in many communities across South Africa as traders, merchants and landlords. They were now being pushed out of these traditionally occupied regions, hurting their businesses and igniting bitterness. The Natal Indian Congress (1955) protested the act vehemently, but the NP ignored their cries. The insisted that there were no instances of Indian South Africans being relocated and disliking their new housing. The next day, Indians came out in the Sunday Express Newspaper in Transvaal to loudly express their dissatisfaction with their new accommodations. The NP was unmoved by these accounts of injustice.
It would not be until 1994, when Nelson Mandela, longtime leader of the ANC, would be released from prison after 27 years and become the first African president in South Africa’s history, that Apartheid would finally be dismantled. However, modern day South Africa is still not over the legacy of the GAA. Even though de jure segregation (segregation by law) is now illegal, de facto segregation (segregation in fact) still exists. Much of the nation is sadly as segregated as it was before 1994.