The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The South African election that should sound an alarm bell for Americans

If minority rule gains a grip, it can last for a long time.

Activists from Fair Elections for New York, Black Voters Matter and Workers Circle rally outside the United Nations Headquarters for federal voting rights legislation as President Biden opens his global democracy summit on Dec. 9 in New York.

A complacent liberal party wins the popular vote by 14 percent, but because the electoral system overrepresents rural voters, the election victory goes to the White supremacist rival party. Within five years, the victors press their advantage so brilliantly that they win the popular vote in the next election.

This scenario is not a future American dystopia, but an account of the 1948 South African election that established apartheid, which endured for four decades.

Today, Americans often seem complacent about the fragility of our democracy and the growing radicalism of the Republican Party. But a closer look at the South African example provides a cautionary tale for how swiftly a White supremacist party, even one that loses the popular vote, can prevail if liberals underestimate the force of White supremacy or overestimate the momentum driving desegregation.

Like the United States, South Africa is a former settler colony with a 400-year legacy of slavery. After the Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town in 1652, White European settlers imported enslaved people from Indonesia and enslaved Indigenous Africans. Early in the 19th century, the British gained control and outlawed the slave trade, but that had little impact on the oppression of Black Africans. As British commerce, manufacturing and mining flourished, hundreds of White, Dutch-descended Afrikaners headed to the northern frontier and, after defeating Indigenous tribes’ resistance, settled there. The 1902 defeat by their British countrymen in the bitter “Boer War” deepened Afrikaners’ resentments against the better-educated and more-prosperous English. The war also abused and displaced Black communities in the north.

Black South Africans, who represented the majority (over 65 percent) of the population, were largely the descendants of 11 Indigenous ethnic-linguistic groups. Other non-White South Africans included descendants of Asian immigrants as well as mixed-race people. Whites, divided between English- and Afrikaans-speakers, enjoyed many advantages over both groups. This persisted after the country gained self-government from Britain in 1910. Most local governments enacted laws denying voting rights and land to Black people — something Black people immediately organized to resist.

World War II was a watershed event, as Africans were drawn into the war between European imperial powers. Black people increasingly demanded access to resources, the rights of citizenship and economic power from the empires that oppressed them.

The war also provided a chance to weaken segregation in South Africa. The booming wartime economy drew huge numbers of Black African male workers to factory jobs in urban areas. Black veterans of the South African army returned from fighting alongside British troops expecting higher wages and more respect, even as South African prime minister Jan Smuts participated in drafting the U.N. Charter of Human Rights.

Yet limits on Black participation in politics persisted. In 1948, Whites constituted less than 20 percent of the population, but held almost all the country’s resources and political power. No White church or political party (not even the Communists) opposed segregation. However, the English United Party (UP) that had long dominated politics began to favor a gradual loosening of racial taboos, admitting some non-Whites to universities and allowing a few non-Whites to vote. It anticipated victory in the 1948 elections, not least because the major opposition party, the Afrikaner Nationalist Party (NP), had been discredited by many of its leaders’ wartime support for Hitler’s Germany.

As the May election approached, however, the NP closed ranks by whipping up White racist anger at the rising political aspirations of Black South Africans, making hay out of the UP’s failure to impose price controls to support White farmers and to meet White unions’ demands for wage increases. The campaign used racial slurs in official materials. Party loyalists chanted, “We want our country back!” as if it had been stolen, presumably by residents of color and their gradualist allies in the UP.

The UP won the popular vote handily as expected — 53.5 percent vs. the NP’s 39.85 percent. Nevertheless, thanks to constitutional overrepresentation of rural voters, with whom White grievance politics were popular, the NP gained 70 parliamentary seats, giving it an advantage over the UP’s 65. A reactionary, White supremacist party had secured majority power with a minority of votes, promising to deepen existing racial segregation.

Within five years, the NP had established its hegemony. It went on to win the popular vote in every election until Nelson Mandela’s victory in 1994.

It did so by using state power to transform segregation into apartheid. Prime Minister D.F. Malan and his regime used The Citizenship Act to disenfranchise the few non-White voters who had previously been allowed to vote. They also annexed the majority-Afrikaner South West Africa (the colony that would become Namibia), adding more White voters to the South African rolls.

The Group Areas Act confined Black residents, 80 percent of the country’s population, to just 13 percent of the country’s land, establishing 11 tribal homelands to contain them. Strict pass laws controlled Black migration to the cities. The Bantu Education Act segregated schools and downgraded Black education. Modeled on American Jim Crow laws, the Morality Act outlawed mixed-race sexual relations. A new law lowered the bar for amending the South African constitution. Constitutional changes could now be approved by a 50 percent majority in parliament — not a two-thirds majority as before — which gave the NP enormous power to permanently alter the country’s constitution.

NP authorities justified brutal police repression, incarceration without trial and exile as weapons in the war against communism, using the global Cold War to advance White supremacy.

The last pillar of democracy to fall was free speech. By one vote, the South African Supreme Court approved the Anti-Communist Act in 1950, which criminalized any “encouragement of the feelings of hostility between the European and the non-European races.” Within just five years, a British journalist reported, Afrikaners had “established powers for themselves which are as totalitarian as any Communist or Fascist state.”

Afrikaner leaders rewarded their electoral base with government support for Afrikaner-owned businesses and schools, benefits and a higher “civilized” wage for White workers, with preferential hiring in the civil service and police. Claiming credit for the economic boom of the 1950s, the NP eroded White electoral support for the UP by offering popular programs, including unemployment insurance and pensions, which were reserved for Whites only.

The Nationalists further consolidated support by emphasizing traditional views on the family in opposition to their more secular, urban Anglophone rivals, many of whom supported liberal causes, including even the efforts of the Black-led African National Congress against the 1950 Anti-Communist Act.

Afrikaners’ Calvinist faith mapped onto a racial divide between the saved and the damned. Malan believed that racial difference represented “the contrast between two irreconcilable ways of life, between barbarism and civilization, between heathenism and Christianity.” Beneath the rhetoric of Christianity, a British journalist detected Afrikaners’ “almost pathological hatred for all ideas of racial equality.”

Malan and his successors counted on U.S. support, which held firm through the Cold War. Even as Robert F. Kennedy spoke about racial equity to cheering South Africans in 1962, his brother supported what he viewed as Africa’s only bulwark against communism. When the United Nations General Assembly declared apartheid a “crime against humanity” in 1966, the United States voted against the measure. A few years later, the United States cast one of four votes against the U.N. Apartheid Convention.

Black South Africans had always fought for liberation. They were joined by anti-apartheid activists, and in the 1960s and 1970s they galvanized international protests against police repression, notably demonstrations at Sharpeville in 1960, which were met with a bloody massacre that killed dozens including children, and at Soweto in 1976, when at least 176 but possibly up to 700 people were shot and killed by police. Foreign pressure spawned international educational, trade, cultural and investment boycotts and in 1977 the U.N. Security Council imposed a mandatory arms embargo on South Africa.

White rule persevered, but eventually, persistent struggle and politics made apartheid untenable. Between 1948 and 1988, the Black population quadrupled from 8 million to 31 million, while the White population doubled from 2 million to 4.5 million. Police and protester violence destabilized urban life, and 30 years of gradually increasing international sanctions strangled the country’s economy. Under relentless pressure, in February 1990, Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk finally released political prisoners from prison. Six years later, Nelson Mandela became president in South Africa’s first election held with universal suffrage.

In the United States, where 40 senators can outvote 60, a dozen states have enacted more than 30 voter suppression laws, and state legislatures are redrawing electoral maps to advantage their own party, majority rule is on the precipice. If the Democratic Party fails to mount a powerful defense, minority rule could triumph in our country.

And that grip on power may endure. In South Africa, once the White supremacist minority party took power, it held on for four decades. Those who care about true representative democracy in the United States would do well to ponder a similar possibility here. We underestimate the threat at our peril.