Apartheid, which in the Afrikaans language means “apart-ness” or “separateness,” was the system of racial discrimination and white political domination adopted by the South African National Party when it came to power in 1948. Historically, apartheid had emerged from policies of racial segregation which had been practiced since the first Europeans—the Dutch, followed by the British—settled in South Africa in the seventeenth century. The official justification underlying apartheid was that each race—rigidly divided into “Whites” (all Europeans), Bantus or “Blacks,” “Coloureds” (people of mixed race), and “Asians” (Indians and Pakistanis who had been brought to South Africa as laborers)—would prosper and live in harmony with one another if allowed to develop separately, while tension would result from the races living together and competing for the same resources. What the apartheid system did, of course, was ensure the political and economic supremacy of the white minority, which comprised less than twenty percent of South Africa's total population in 1948 and less than thirteen percent of the population in 1994, the year that Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa and apartheid was finally abolished.
The apartheid system deployed a series of laws to keep nonwhite people disenfranchised, poor, uneducated, and separate. The 1950 Population Registration Act compelled nonwhites to carry a pass to identify their racial group and to authorize their presence in restricted white areas. The Group Areas Act of 1950 assigned racial designations to residential and business sections in urban areas, while the Land Acts of 1954 and 1955 restricted nonwhite residence to specific areas. In 1951 the Bantu Authorities Act designated areas called Bantustans, where Blacks were to required live so that they would not intrude on white neighborhoods. The 1952 Native Law Amendment Act established the close control of the movement of urban Blacks in particular. The Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 made every nonwhite South African a citizen of one of the homelands, thereby excluding Blacks from South African politics. These laws, which effectively reserved over eighty percent of South African land for a mere twenty percent of the population, along with the laws that prevented nonwhites from voting or holding office, were called “grand” apartheid, as opposed to “petty” apartheid, which referred to the racist laws affecting daily routine, including which hospitals, schools, colleges, and theaters people of different races could attend. The 1953 Bantu Education Act gave the state total control over education for Blacks. This petty apartheid law prohibited most social contact between the races, enforced the segregation of public facilities and the separation of educational standards, created race-specific job categories, restricted the powers of nonwhite unions, and curbed nonwhite participation in government.
Although the apartheid government was quick to suppress any opposition, resistance to apartheid within South Africa was ongoing. A number of political groups, such as the African National Congress (ANC) and Steve Biko's South African Students' Organization (SASO), opposed apartheid using a variety of tactics—both nonviolent and violent—that resulted in activists being severely punished by the government. In 1955 over 150 activists, Nelson Mandela among them, were imprisoned on charges of treason for signing the Freedom Charter, a document that called for civil rights and government “based on the will of the people.” In 1960, in the Sharpeville township, fifty miles south of Johannesburg, police killed 69 people and wounded 180 when 5,000 demonstrators staged a nonviolent protest against the pass laws by flooding the police stations without passes. In 1976 police in the Soweto township opened fire on 15,000 secondary school students who were marching to protest a ruling that they be taught in Afrikaans, a language that neither they nor their teachers knew. Steve Biko, the leader of the protest, was beaten to death in prison, and a period of massive violent protest and increasingly repressive government response ensued. Confronted with economic sanctions and international pressure, in the late 1980s and early 1990s South Africans began to take steps to end apartheid, culminating in the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela as president.
Although South African writers raised their voices in protest against apartheid, censorship precluded most of them from being read in South Africa. Anti-apartheid writers such as Nadine Gordimer, André Brink, Mary Benson, Richard Rive, Bessie Head, Peter Abrahams, Dan Jacobson, C. J. Driver, and J. M. Coetzee had their works banned in South Africa. Many writers, such as Rive, Alex La Guma, Dennis Brutus, Breyten Breytenbach, and D. M. Zwelonke were imprisoned on Robben Island for their writing and political activities. Many other writers of anti-apartheid literature, particularly Black and mixed-race writers such as Rive, Abrahams, La Guma, Head, Arthur Nortje, Lewis Nkosi, and Ezekiel Es'kia Mphahlale were exiled or went into self-exile to escape political oppression, as did some white South Africans, such as Breytenbach, Brink, and Athol Fugard. Prior to the official establishment of the apartheid regime, South African writers such as Olive Schreiner and Sol Plaatje decried the injustice of racial segregation and unfair economic policies that were in effect before the South African National Party institutionalized such practices. Although anti-apartheid literature is multi-faceted and addresses many aspects of human experience, generally speaking there have been two major traditions—the white, liberal tradition begun by Schreiner and continued, in varying degrees, by Alan Paton, Gordimer, and Coetzee, and a more radicalized, protest tradition that originated in the Black townships, out of which came the fiction of Abrahams, Rive, and LaGuma, and the poetry of Mphahlele, Mongane Wally Serote, and Oswald Mtshali.