The Strange Death of Segregation

During his visit to South Africa in 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy addressed a student audience at the University of Cape Town.

I come here today, because of my deep interest in and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, a land taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued and relations with whom are a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which was once an importer of slaves and must now struggle to wipe out the last traces of that form of bondage.

He then paused and delivered his punch line: “I refer, of course to the United States of America.” In his catalog of the analogies between American and South African history, Kennedy might well have added one more—the legally mandated segregation that came to be known as Jim Crow in the American South and was called “native segregation” and later “apartheid” in South Africa. When Kennedy spoke, however, the two nations seemed to be on divergent paths: the United States was dismantling Jim Crow, and South Africa was still strengthening its system of apartheid. More than thirty years later the governments of both nations are now committed to legal and political equality for racial and ethnic groups previously considered inferior and unworthy of the full rights of citizenship.

Were there any direct connections between the history of segregation in the two countries? The first Jim Crow laws were passed in the 1880s, before the first efforts at systematic segregation by the Union of South Africa. The abolition of apartheid in 1991 came well after the successes of the civil rights movement in the US. In both cases South Africa lagged roughly twenty to twenty-five years behind the United States. Did American changes in race policy, and the movements that brought them about, have a strong influence on events in southern Africa?

Writing about the campaigns for segregation in both countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the historian John Cell has shown that white South Africans borrowed the term “segregation” itself from American white supremacists; they also borrowed the arguments of white Americans for mandatory racial separation, particularly the claim that legal and political equality during the Reconstruction era in the American South had been disastrous for whites.

Were there common patterns of development in the two nations that would account for the history of segregation and desegregation in both? This is the question that Anthony Marx has addressed in Making Race and Nation. He is the first writer I know of to do so by comparing race policy in the United …

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Letters

Apartheid’s Fall August 12, 1999