Between 1891 and ‘92, Francis William Reitz, the President of the Orange Free State (in what is today South Africa), exchanged a series of letters with Theophilus Shepstone, the former administrator of the Transvaal, to discuss the so-called “Native Question.” The Boer republics, Reitz wrote, should “adopt the principle and maintain it steadfastly, that there shall be no ‘equality’ between the [Black] aborigines of South Africa and the people of European descent who have made this land their home.”
Reitz’s sentiments, like those of other Afrikaner leaders, informed the basis of what would eventually become Apartheid. Two decades after his letters, the Union of South Africa passed the 1913 Native Lands Act, consolidating earlier colonial measures that barred Black people from acquiring property outside of designated zones. Ten years later, the 1923 Native Urban Areas Act restricted the movement of “undesirable” persons and enabled their removal from towns and districts.
In 1950 — two years after Apartheid was officially declared national policy — the Group Areas Act expedited residential segregation across the country. The 1983 constitution, which was touted as a liberal reform, improved some rights for Coloureds and Indians, but kept the Black majority disenfranchised and the White minority in power. Even after South Africa’s first free elections in 1994, political and corporate elites effectively reshaped many of Apartheid’s institutions to preserve racial and class hierarchies, which remain to this day.
Like other oppressive regimes, Apartheid in South Africa was not a static entity that simply sparked into existence in 1948. It was continuously developed, reconfigured, and repackaged to suit the desires of those in power and to silence those resisting it. It was, to borrow scholar Patrick Wolfe’s words on settler colonialism, “a structure not an event,” an organizing mechanism rather than a moment in time.
This history ought to instruct those who are waiting with bated breath for July 1, the date the Israeli government has pledged to begin annexing large parts of the occupied West Bank. Foreign officials, mainstream analysts, and local activists — many well-intentioned — have spent years warning that Israel could become an “apartheid state” if it officially absorbs these territories. Now they are sounding the alarm that next month could be the tipping point that finally seals this fate.
It is rather obscene, however, that many people are still waiting for a specific piece of legislation, or a certain government order, to validate the accounts of millions of Palestinians experiencing apartheid as we speak. Like South Africa, Israel’s complex regime was not created by a single dramatic “moment”: it was meticulously designed over decades, fueled by an ideology that rejected equality between the natives and the settlers who, in Reitz’s words, had “made this land their home.”