South Africa is a captivating country, rich in culture and natural beauty. The people are lovely; the weather is near perfect. But when people hear I’m from South Africa, they usually bring up one thing — Apartheid. It’s true; it is the biggest factor still defining us, both historically and politically.

Naturally, I find myself wondering what our country would be like if it weren’t for said heinous laws that served to divide us. What would people associate with us instead? How would we serve as global players today if Apartheid hadn’t happened? Would South Africa be devoid of racial tension & crime? Of the intense white privilege it still circulates? Let’s take a look.

A brief history of Apartheid (1960-1994)

For those who don’t know, Apartheid literally means Apartness in Afrikaans. The Apartheid system robbed basic human rights from Black, Colored and Indian peoples, including their rights to vote, and gave them only small, impoverished areas in which to live and work. POC didn’t have access to proper education, and had to carry around passes at all times. They were not allowed at white-only beaches, or to sit on white-only benches. This went on for 44 years but was the culmination of religious colonial agenda for 50 years prior.

How South Africa dismantled apartheid | Africa | DW | 18.06.2015
[A sign to designate a white-only beach in Apartheid-South Africa] Via Getty Images
This year marks 26 years of the new South Africa, and while things have improved, there are still exorbitant levels of social inequality, violent crime, racial tension, racially assigned menial labor, miseducation and mistreatment. Some argue that Apartheid is still on-going, in fact. Of course, a century of generational poverty and miseducation will spill out for years to come, showing just how perpetual the stunting of a people can be. 

How would South Africa had developed without Colonization?

It’s difficult to say how Southern Africa would have fared if it had been left fully alone and uncolonized. But there is much proof that South Africa wouldn’t have needed any help from Europeans. The medieval ruins of Zimbabwe, for example, mirror those of the Fertile Crescent in the middle east, known as the birthplace of a number of inventions like the wheel, writing, and agriculture. The Swahili Coast Traders which traded with Persia, India and Arabia would have also allowed many ideas to cross borders without having to squander and convert a native people. But because the Scramble for Africa was so aggressive, I’ll shy away from the possibility that colonization might not have happened. Because Europeans were always going to want to claim the goldmine that South Africa quite literally is. There was almost no stopping them. 

But what if Apartheid laws never got passed? What if South Africa had instead been on the forefront of civil rights from the very beginning?

Post-colonial South Africa actually began as a democracy

This may come as surprising, but one of the earliest constitutions of what would later become South Africa, practiced an inclusive system of democracy. The Cape Qualified Franchise (1853~) allowed all men to vote and own land, regardless of race. So it’s very possible that post-colonial South Africa could have continued in this trajectory. 

However, British Colonel Cecil John Rhodes had a different agenda. As prime minister of the Cape Colony in the late 1800s, he was responsible for igniting the stripping of rights from POC. It was he who passed The Glen Grey Act (1894) that forced Natives off tribal lands and later the General Pass Regulations Bill (1905) that denied black people the right to vote. These propelled the Native Land Act (1917) which began residential segregation, and later the destructible Apartheid system (1960s). 

[A sign in Apartheid South Africa that reads “Caution Beware of Natives”] via Getty Images
We can’t blame Rhodes for everything, though. Whilst slavery had technically ended, there were still many racist and religious beliefs that the British and Dutch colonizers were the chosen people, destined to convert “native heathens” to Christianity. But if their collective consciousness was somehow not sparked into perilous politics, where would South Africa stand today?

A frank hypothesis:

Without Apartheid, South Africa wouldn’t be fully devoid of racism; just like how America, Australia and England still aren’t. But it would be rid of racially entrenched systems that maliciously claw at every fabric of our life. There would be no such thing as a ‘township’. Equally such, there would be no such thing as an Estate; a gated community for privileged folk to keep burglars out. Crime rates wouldn’t be one of the worst in the world, at least. 

Without Apartheid, South Africa could quite literally have been a global superpower. We had the natural resources for it for starters. But also, the sanctions wouldn’t have happened, so trade wouldn’t have been stunted. We would’ve got hold of technologies way earlier than we did, meaning we could’ve utilized and developed them further ourselves. Schools would’ve been much more diverse and POC would’ve gained access to proper education and opportunities. BEE would not have to be implemented since there would be more an equally as skilled workforce. As such, systems would work better. People would work better together. Our economy would run smoother and overseas investors would be holidaying on our pristine coasts and sending money our way.

Without Apartheid, Native cultures and languages would be more cherished and respected. Menial labor wouldn’t be racially assigned and exploited. Domestic workers wouldn’t be forced to become “part of the family” as they’d earn enough to not have to work every day, and able to go home to their own families. Without Apartheid, we could’ve stood united, and soared.

Again, a lot of this is hypothetical and not 100% economically accurate, but it is nice — and I think itchingly important — to think about what could’ve been. Because, well, is this not motivation enough to aspire for it?

We can’t afford to be complacent

While many privileged people like myself often bemoan Apartheid, we do still ride comfortably on its aftermath. “Oh, this restaurant is so cheap!” we say, not realizing it’s a marginalized, exploited demographic in the kitchen preparing the food. “Oh, there’s hardly any traffic in this area!”, we exclaim, while our domestic workers sit jam-packed in a taxi back to the township. 

We can sit here and wish all we want that Apartheid hadn’t have happened, but if we don’t work to dismantle it properly, we will continue to live in it.

We will continue to only imagine the possibilities, instead of ever getting to see them be made.

  • Candice Buckle

    Candice Buckle is an international journalist looking to use her words for global change. A proud South African who is currently based in Tokyo, she travels to expand her knowledge of other cultures and make connections all over the world. In her free time she enjoys exploring and taking photos, going to the movies, and sharing good food with good friends.