Life and times narrative: Apartheid

South Africa’s capitalist development in the first half of the 20th century required the segregation and control of black communities.

In 1948 an Afrikaner nationalist class alliance assumed power with a broad racial ideology offering the protection of the "Afrikaner people" and also the maintenance of white supremacy. The term "apartheid" was used by the National Party as an election slogan in 1948, and although over the years substitute terms were employed by both party and the state, "apartheid" stuck as the term of choice worldwide for a system of governance and a legitimising ideology that endured in essence until 1994.

Apartheid has been most usefully described as a form of racial capitalism in which racial differences were formalised and in which society was characterised by a powerful racially defined divide. Among the world’s racial orders, South Africa’s was unique in its rigidity and in its pervasiveness.

From the late 1970s the apartheid system began to unravel as black resistance intensified, international pressure grew, and forces within capitalism demanded reform. By the late 1980s it was in profound crisis and the primary instruments of power had become the suspension of law and the unleashing of state terror on oppositional groupings.