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Pass Laws

By:  Jessica Smith

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Pass Laws, the most hated regulations in South Africa, were created by the South African government to control the movements of blacks and people of mixed decent (Coloreds) under the system of apartheid. Pass Laws and many other laws regulating black freedom were created in the 1960’s, (Pass Laws 1). These hated edicts fueled protests, riots, and peaceful marches to demonstrate people’s opposition to them. Many leaders such as Steve Biko fought against these laws. These laws had many consequences in South Africa during the Apartheid reign, and those consequences are still visible today even though apartheid is long gone. Many places such as Sharpeville still have the lingering scars caused by Apartheid.   This paper will examine the grueling history of pass laws and Apartheid and why they both began. It will also look into the causes and consequences pass laws had, as well as the leaders who fought against them and the overthrow of Apartheid and pass laws forever.

    The pass laws that were enforced during apartheid were different from those that existed during the 18th century. Other forms of pass laws had been present in South Africa ever since the history of Apartheid was recorded. Apartheid began when the English and Dutch colonized South Africa in the seventeenth century. Because the English dominated the Dutch (known as Boers or Afrikaners), the Dutch established the colonies of Orange Free State and Transvaal. The Boer War resulted from an English invasion of the Dutch colonies, which followed the discovery of diamonds in the land. After independence from England, the Afrikaner National Party gained a strong majority. Because of this, the National Party "invented apartheid as means to cement to control over the economic and social system. Initially, the aim of apartheid was to maintain white domination while extending racial separation," (Apartheid 1). Pass laws were created shortly after apartheid began. (Apartheid 1)

    Pass laws were a form of segregation and racial discrimination against blacks and coloreds, which included Indians, those of mixed decent and immigrants in South Africa. Racial discrimination became a way of life. Marriage between non-whites and whites was prohibited and for some time, and many segregated jobs were authorized throughout the region. Persons not complying with the race laws were dealt with harshly, (Pass Laws 1).   The main reason pass laws were started was that it was simply another form of power that the whites had over non-whites living in the region, (Pass Laws 1).

    The earliest pass controls began in 1760, when slaves were required to carry passes signed by their owners before they could travel from town to town. Pass laws were continued in the 1800’s for the purpose of providing labor in all urban and rural areas of South Africa. As a result, many industries supported pass law controls. From 1814 to 1923 pass regulations were frequently altered and constricted. Major unrest followed the frequently modified pass laws from 1944 to 1946, which led the government to tighten pass law regulations even further. By 1948, black movement was rigidly controlled in more than 265 urban areas. A single reference book replaced the 11 existing passes in 1952. It then became a crime for black men and women of sixteen years and older to be without their passes, which had all their information and their employment records, (Pass Laws 1).

    Many rebellions, demonstrations, and acts of peaceful resistance took place against the pass laws. For example, in 1930 the Communist Party organized a structured mass burning of passes to express their feelings to the government of South Africa about how hated the laws truly were, (Sharpeville 1). After that in 1944 a major antipass movement took place. Starting in the early 1960’s Grand Apartheid was introduced. Grand Apartheid emphasized territorial separation and police repression. This was when the "official" pass laws actually began, (Apartheid 1).   After this, much unrest in the country followed once again. In March 1960, countrywide demonstration took place across the region. Shortly after, on March 21, 1960, the Sharpeville Massacre took place. At Sharpeville, police opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protesters killing 21 and injuring 69 blacks. Millions of blacks were punished and imprisoned for not having their pass books or not having them in order from the year 1952 to the year 1986. By the early 1970’s, about one million blacks were arrested each year for violating pass laws. Finally, in 1991, when the process of dismantling apartheid was underway, the pass laws were abolished. Even though the pass laws were abolished, they produced many consequences for the people of South Africa who had to deal with them. (Pass Laws 2)

    One of the main repercussions that pass laws had was the Sharpeville Massacre. Mark Mathabane, author of Kaffir Boy, wrote a true story about his survival during apartheid in South Africa. One of the responces to Apartheid and the pass laws consequences in which Mathabane wrote about was the Sharpeville Massacre. The Sharpeville Massacre took place on March 21, 1960, when a large group of blacks refused to carry their passbooks and protested in front of a Sharpeville police station. The police thought the crowd was getting hostile, so they opened fire. There were sixty-nine people dead and 187 people wounded. After this incident, many international demonstrations were protesting the unfair laws of apartheid. The UN (United Nations) even condemned South Africa. South Africa suffered isolation in the international community for the next thirty years. (Sharpeville 1) Mark Mathabane wrote this passage about that dreadful day in 1960. "And in the shack I was born, a few months before sixty-nine unarmed black protesters were massacred-many shot in the back as they fled for safety-by South African policemen during a peaceful demonstration against the pass laws in Sharpeville on March 21,1960." (Mathabane preface)

    The consequences of pass laws were also clear in the every day life of a person who had to use one. Constant raids took place in townships where the South African police would strike at any time of the day, knocking down doors or even setting houses on fire to look for blacks without passes. Tear gas was constantly used and the sound of gunshots always lingered in the air when raids occurred. Mark Mathabane explains how the children who lived in these townships would help their parents to escape the constant brutality of the police raids. "By witnessing raid after raid, week in and week out, month after month, I began learning from my parents ways of recognizing and interpreting specific cues about the movement of police once they had invaded the neighborhood, so I could react swiftly and warn my parents, or fabricate ingenious lies to prevent them from searching the house. Other children, three-four or five years old were being taught the same lessons by their parents." (Mathabane 5) As one can see, even children as young as four years old were already experiencing the affects that apartheid brought with it. These affects angered many and because of this, blacks fought for their freedom, in many cases, to death.

    There were many leaders in the mighty fight against pass laws and the overall system of apartheid. Steve Biko was among the many that led this fight. Steve Biko was the leader of a Black Consciousness movement during the anti apartheid struggle, in which he helped blacks realize the importance and find pride in their African Heritage. This is a quote of the late Steve Biko on apartheid. "The black man has become a shell, a shadow of a man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery…an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity." (Steve Biko 1)

    However, Mr. Biko did not live to see the day apartheid would be abolished. He died on September 12, 1977, due to head wounds received in police custody. Some of Biko’s followers believe that the police are still trying to cover up the real truth surrounding his death. They believe that the police intentionally killed Biko. Originally, the police said that Biko died of hunger strike, but later they said that he hit his head on a brick wall during a fight. This incident sparked the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1998, to investigate human rights abuses during apartheid, to reopen the case and explore the facts surrounding his death. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is now investigating the five policeman who were blamed for Biko’s death. Steve Biko, along with many other leaders helped the fight for freedom and in 1948, that day came. (Steve Biko 1)

    In 1991, when the dismantling of the system of apartheid began, pass laws were finally abolished. Fredrick de Klerk came into office in 1989, and helped the ends of apartheid be thrown out forever as well as pass laws. He legalized the ANC and released Nelson Mandela from prison. (Apartheid 2)

    A quote from the book After Apartheid, by Sebastian Mallaby best summarizes what the end of apartheid felt like for all those who tried so hard to end it. "The collapse of apartheid, like the collapse of communism marks a revolutionary and exhilarating triumph of human rights over oppression."( Mallaby preface)

    However, even after apartheid and pass laws were abolished the people of South Africa still had many things to deal with. The people of South Africa, those blacks and coloreds, had to yet again deal with the lingering affects of apartheid and pass law being over. For example, the era of minority rule in South Africa is far from over. Also, other "problems erupted such as Aids, a new constitution, the continuity of tribal tensions, the threat of a violent white back lash and the possible redistribution of white owned land." (Mallaby preface) Justice has been served, but pass laws and the overall system of apartheid will take years of recovering from. The scars of pass laws and apartheid are still in the places such as Sharpeville, and people will always remember those who died trying to fight for freedom, which is something no one should have to fight for. The people of South Africa have come along way, but they will have to come even further because the consequences of apartheid still haunt them. It is impossible to completely wipe out what has once been. Though apartheid and pass laws are gone, yet its repercussions are still rippling through.


    Mallaby, Sebastian.  After Apartheid The Future of South Africa. New York: Times Books, 1992.

    "South Africa."  Facts on World News. CD-ROM. University of Cape Town: South African Communication Service,1997. "< Africa>"

    " Pass Laws." Pass Laws. Internet, 18 October, 2000. "<>"

    "Apartheid." The History of Apartheid in South Africa. Internet, 18 October, 2000 "<>"

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