South Africa

Institutionalization of Ethnic Categories

Key Dates


Key Dates

  • 1899-1902: Anglo-Boer War
  • 1909: Formation of Union of South Africa
  • 1948: Election of National Party to power and introduction of apartheid system
  • 1990: Nelson Mandela release from prison; unbanning of political parties
  • 1993: Post apartheid constitution (1993, interim; 1996 final)
  • 1994: First multi-racial election

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Although this is not the place for a full chronicling of the history of institutionalized white supremacy in South Africa, it is clear that the institutionalization of race categories in South Africa represents the deepest institutionalization of ethnic categories anywhere in the world. In every census conducted in the 20th and 21st centuries (1904, 1911, 1921, 1936, 1946, 1951, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1985, 1996, 2001), the state counted by race groups. For instance, the 1996 census asked, “How would (the person) describe him/herself?”,  and provided four options: “1- African/Black; 2 – Coloured; 3 – Indian/Asian; 4 – White.”

Pass laws requiring race-based documentation pre-date formation of the Union, but the Population Registration Act, Act No 30 of 1950 required individuals to be classified in terms of a race group, and established passes with legal distinctions by race. The pass laws were repealed on July 23, 1986.

The state promulgated a series of race-based work legislation including the Native Labour Regulation Act of 1911; and the Mines and Works Act of 1911, which reserved certain jobs by race. (In the earlier parts of the 20th century, Blacks were referred to as Natives; and Whites as Europeans). The 1924 Industrial Conciliation Act No 11 allowed only whites to join registered trade unions. The 1964 Black Labour Act No 67 consolidated the laws regulating the recruiting, employment, accommodation, feeding and health conditions of black labourers.

The state made distinctions in the provision of education along race categories since the start of union. We found evidence of separate funding, such as in 1922: New laws passed which fixed the funding of African education at 1922 levels, with additional funding to come from the Africans themselves. (SAHO 2006) The 1953 Black Education Act No 47 formalized segregation of black education and laid the foundations for Bantu Education. It was repealed by the Education and Training Act No 90 of 1979 (SAHO 2006). According to the 1959 Extension of University Education Act No 45: Black students were prohibited from attending the University of Cape Town or the University of Witwatersrand without a permit (Dugard 1978: 84).

And in a series of other spheres, the state made key distinctions. For example, from the onset of the union, two of the four original provinces outlawed the black vote (Byrnes 1997: 1). The Natives Land Act (No 27) of 1913 separated South Africa into areas in which either blacks or whites could own freehold land (with vast majority of land going to white minority). The Native Urban Areas Act of 1923, enshrined  racially demarcated public spaces and lands. The 1949 Prohibition of mixed marriages act outlawed inter-racial marriage. The 1950 Group Areas Act No 41 provided for areas to be declared for exclusive use of one particular racial group, and people were required to live in an area designated for their classification group.

Most institutions categorizing race groups were repealed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the apartheid state began to come under fire at home and abroad. For the first time, suffrage was extended to all race groups in 1994. By 1983, the term ’employee’ was redefined to include all persons working for an employer, and racially mixed unions were allowed (Bendix 1989: 305; SAHO 2006). More generally, race categories were de-institutionalized in the work sphere beginning in the early 1980s (see, for example, Price 1991).

That said, a few political parties contested those election in terms of race categories (such as the Freedom Front, the Azanian People’s Organization, and the Pan African Congress), and in making the transition to a post-apartheid government, state leaders consistently used race categories in various speeches and documents.

After 1994, race categories were re-introduced in various institutions as part of a broader program of affirmative action and redistribution. For example, the Labor Relations Act of 1995 identified persons “previously disadvantaged by unfair discrimination,” the Employment Equity Act No 55 of 1998 established the legal foundation of affirmative action, the Black Economic Empowerment Act No 53 of 2003 was the most explicit in identifying race as a basis for economic opportunity.

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The South African state has also routinely made reference to ethnic categories associated with language groups (Xhosa, Zulu, Venda, English, Afrikaans), but not to the same extent as the distinction across race groups; these categories continued to be institutionalized by the state after 1994.

Four example, language has been enumerated on all censuses since 1921 (for Europeans) and since 1936 (for all race groups).  For example, the 1996 census asks, “Which language does (the person) speak MOST OFTEN at home?” Moreover, the original South African constitution (South Africa Act of 1909) enshrined both English and Dutch as official languages, the latter being replaced with Afrikaans in 1961.

Distinctions in the area of education appeared later than for language categories than for race categories. The first evidence we find is with the 1959 Extension of University of Education Act, which empowered the Minister of education to designate separate colleges for distinct African ethnic groups. We found no institutional distinction in terms of work.

The most important source of the institutionalization of language categories has been in the area of autonomy. After 1948, the state sought to create ethno-linguistic “Bantustans” such as “Zululand” for Zulus; Transkei and Ciskei for Xhosa, etc., and these goals were promulgated in the Bantu Authorities Act, Act No 68 of 1951. The 1959 Representation between Republic of South Africa and Self-Governing Territories Act (Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act) No 46 provided for the transformation of reserves into fully fledged independent bantustans, dividing blacks into ethnically discrete groups and resulted in the abolition of parliamentary representation for blacks (SAHO 2006). Moreover, the 1970 Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act, required that all black persons become citizens of a self-governing authority, tied to notion of separate ethno-linguistic “homelands.”

And again, with the collapse of the apartheid state, such institutions were dismantled. For example, the 1993 Restoration and Extension of South African Citizenship Act No 196 restored and extended South African citizenship to citizens of several “homeland” states who would still have been citizens of South Africa but for the South African Citizenship Act No 44 of 1949. The 1994 constitution incorporated (and thus eliminated) the prior homelands.

Thus, as with the case for race categories, the early 1990s observed a brief de-institutionalization, to be followed by some re-institutionalization, particularly in the official recognition of 11 official languages in the 1996 constitution. The creation of nine new provinces is more ambiguously an instance of the institutionalization of ethnic categories. However, it is clear that in at least one case, the name of the province is specifically linked to an ethno-linguistic group, which is our coding rule for institutionalizing spatial boundaries (“Kwazulu-Natal.”)

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While religion has been enumerated on every census since the start of the 20th century, we have found no other evidence of the institutionalization of religious categories by the state.

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None found

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None found

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Other ethnic, including tribe

None found

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