Encyclopedia of Business and Professional Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: Deborah C Poff, Alex C. Michalos

Apartheid and Ethics

  • David ColdwellEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-23514-1_118-1


Cultural Apartheid Gender Apartheid South African Mining Industry Robben Island Prison Apartheid State 
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The Merriam Webster dictionary (2016) defines apartheid as “racial segregation; specifically: a former policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-European groups in the Republic of South Africa: separation, segregation (cultural apartheid), (gender apartheid).” Gender/sexual apartheid is defined by Chesler (2011, p. 6) as “practices which condemn girls and women to a separate and subordinate sub-existence and which turn boys and men into the permanent guardians of their female relatives’ chastity.” Cultural apartheid is more amorphous and can take various forms such as sport, school, and university segregation on racial, ethnic, or religious grounds.

The term apartheid is of South African Afrikaans origin and means “separateness”; the “state of being apart” was a socio-politico-legal system of racial segregation in South Africa implemented and enforced by the National Party from 1948 to 1994. However, although of recent origin in South Africa, the practice was, and is, not unique to that country.

Varieties of racial, gender, and cultural/ethnic separateness and segregation have a long human history. For example, an early form of cultural/ethnic apartheid emerged in England in the seventh and eighth centuries between the Anglo-Saxon invaders and Welsh Britons. Thomas et al. (2006, p. 2) indicate that “In Anglo-Saxon England, elements of an apartheid-like society can also be perceived in a Wessex law code of the seventh century which distinguishes clearly between Saxons and ‘Welsh’ (Britons) and gives the former a significantly higher legal status, some two centuries after the initial immigration.” Genealogists have also suggested that the lack of DNA evidence in the current English population of the Danish Viking invaders from the population of what then constituted the Danelaw was because of a lack of intermingling between the two groups on the basis of social exclusion.

More recently there is an example of ethnic apartheid from the uniquely horrific case of systematic genocide on a vast scale, perpetrated by the Nazi German state on the racist premise that Jews constituted an inferior race that Nazi Germany wished to expunge from the face of the earth. Racial apartheid can also be seen to exist in segregated communities to this day, such as on reservations provided for indigenous people (Canadian Indian Act, 1876) and aborigines of Australia (Steadman 2014), respectively, where indigenous groups who were granted aboriginal “status” were given free access to living in segregated communities. It would be wrong, therefore, to suggest that South Africa which provides the most infamous modern-day example was unique in this respect. Today, various forms of apartheid exist throughout the world in the form of gender apartheid where women are regarded as separate and inferior to men in many parts of the world and are denied equality of opportunity solely on the grounds of their gender. Similarly, ethnic separateness exists today in Israel between Palestinians and Israelis which is strongly, and sometimes violently, enforced by the Israeli state and where the Palestinian community is separated off from the main social and legal structures accommodating Israeli Jews. Likewise in Africa, there have been recent examples of ethnic and cultural separateness resulting in gross injustices and violence. For example, the Rwandan genocide in 1990 that resulted in approximately 800,000 Tutsis (and a significant number of Hutus sympathizers) being slaughtered in a carefully orchestrated program of genocide over 3 months and compounded by the rape of quarter to half a million women over the same period. Also in Europe, the Bosnian war between Serbia and Croatia provides a further recent example of cultural/ethnic apartheid and its unethical consequences of brutal violence and insurrection.

The above examples are merely a small number of the evils of apartheid and apartheid-like policies and cultural beliefs in human history but serve to illustrate that apartheid in substance if not name was not a unique sociopolitical institution of South African design and origin. South Africa does, however, provide a very recent example of the unethical outcomes perpetrated by this system of legal, political, and social exclusion. In any event, apartheid in South Africa deserves a brief discussion at this juncture because of its recent occurrence, demise, and moral reprehensibility.

A Brief History of Apartheid in South Africa

South African racial segregation dates back to Dutch colonial times and was then taken up by the British in 1795 when they conquered the Cape of Good Hope. The actual sociopolitical implementation of apartheid occurred after the Afrikaner government came to power in 1948. The apartheid system categorized the various populations of South Africa into four main groups: Black, White Colored, and Indian, with Colored and Indian racial classifications being further subdivided into subgroups such as Cape Malay and Cape Colored and Muslim Colored. Residential segregation was initiated systematically by forcibly removing around 3.5 million nonwhite people between 1960 and 1983 into specially designated areas allotted for this development. The Afrikaner national government also segregated secondary and higher education facilities, medical care, and other public services and amenities. Apart from spatial segregation, the nonwhite population was deprived of political representation in 1970 and stripped of their South African citizenship and became citizens of ten, tribally defined and ostensibly self-governed, Bantustans, four of which were nominally independent. The injustices of the apartheid system led from 1950 onwards to various forms of protest, strike, and violent guerrilla activity. These actions resulted in national government action involving house arrests and full incarcerations of anti-apartheid leaders. There was a progressive escalation of various forms of insurrection and repression over time that reached a climax with the Soweto Riots caused by the requirement to learn Afrikaans in Black schools. However, the main threat to the apartheid state came not from internal revolt or military incursion but from economic and political isolation. Economic sanctions and trade embargos largely instigated by Western governments made it increasingly difficult for the White National Party government to survive. In 1990, President De Klerk and large segments of South African industry, perhaps most notably, the mining industry, on which White South Africa was most economically dependent, became involved in a series of meetings and negotiations with the African National Congress (ANC) under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. Mandela himself and various other political leaders, who had been incarcerated in Robben Island prison for decades, were released by De Klerk in 1989. The official legal-politico abolition of apartheid occurred in 1991 with the repeal of the last of the remaining apartheid laws, and nonwhites were given the vote for the first time in 1993.

The first nonracial democratic elections in South Africa were held in 1994 in which the ANC won an overwhelming majority of the vote and finally brought to a close a violent and unjust period in South African history.

The Ethics of Apartheid

It may seem odd that apartheid could have an ethical justification in any shape or form, but like the SS of Nazi infamy, there were certain propagated beliefs/doctrines or attitudes among the community that tried to give terror and injustice an ethical face and rationale. As is generally known, the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel) were entrusted by Hitler to put in motion his plan for the complete extermination of Jewish people from Europe. The SS were left to implement this, and in practical terms to herd, perfectly innocent Jewish men, women, and children into the gas chambers designed to destroy them in the shortest time possible. Despite this, within the SS, there was a strong code of behavior that strongly sanctioned various forms of commonly regarded ethical behavior such as prohibiting theft from Jewish victims for personal benefit. Kay (2016, p. 79) quotes Heinrich Himmler in a 1944 speech made to a group of SS generals as stating, “We had the moral right; we had the duty to our people to kill these people who wanted to kill us. We do not have the right, however, to enrich ourselves with even one pelt, with one watch, with one Mark, with one cigarette or with anything else.” Furthermore, this “moral code” was enforced and severe punishment meted out to those who transgressed at lower levels in the SS hierarchy, although corruption in the SS was a widespread fact. The SS brotherhood was indoctrinated to believe that they were “blessed” among people to be chosen to do this macabre but necessary duty in service to Nazi Germany. Schroer (2012, p. 38) relates the perspective of SS officer, Karl Kretschmer, who “saw himself as a representative of a cultured people fighting a primitive, barbaric enemy.”

In South Africa, there were similar religious appeals to justify the apartheid state on grounds of certain specific biblical passages that seemed to warrant Black segregation. From these religious premises, and others like it, the idea of ethical racial segregation impacted the manner in which business and industry were designed and structured. It was said, for example, that Verwoerd, sometimes regarded as the architect of apartheid, is reported to have said in a speech (Venter 1999, p. 418), “We shall not act unfairly in any way. We shall not allow our understanding to let us down. For a leader who has to take care of a people (‘volk’), cannot govern, driven by emotions or vengefulness. It is our task in these heavy times, while the heart often wants to speak, to let understanding dominate; understanding and faith.”

Business Ethics and Apartheid

The impact of ethics on South African business during the existence of the apartheid regime was virtually nonexistent. For example, certain, usually, higher paying jobs were not open to nonwhites and the national government to ensure that its voter base was kept intact and used a process of job reservation which benefited less well-educated section of the Afrikaner population. Job reservation was a technique enforced by law (Mines and Works Act, 1912 and the Mines and Works Amendment Act, 1926) which reserved certain jobs to Whites only. In the South African mining industry, one of the largest employers of Black unskilled and semiskilled workers at that time, only the lower paid jobs were open, and promotion was restricted to team leader level that approximated that of a technical supervisor in general industry. Blacks were not allowed “blasting certificates” which effectively debarred Blacks from further promotion beyond the supervisory level. Like the notion of no taxation without representation, it became clear that there could be no ethical business in an unethical society. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, as trade and embargoes became progressively tighter, the already poor state of ethics in business worsened further. South African corporations now found themselves debarred from participating in the world economy and, as a consequence, tried to find other, usually immoral and illegal ways of sanction busting. This led to a climate in which illicit business practices were encouraged by the government and the White-owned business community.

The Use and Ethics of Boycotts to Overthrow the Apartheid State

Various forms of boycotts were initiated by various individuals and institutions which aimed at bringing the South African apartheid state to its knees. The Anti-Apartheid Movement initiated in 1959 started as a consumer boycott in which Chief Albert Luthuli appealed to the international community to boycott South African goods. In 1989, a boycott bandwagon took the message all over the UK and spread to boycotts of South African gold and coal and tourism to the country. The boycott of all things South African spread to international sport where South African sportsmen and women were either banned from competing or made to feel very unwelcome by the international community. An academic boycott was also initiated which made it difficult for White South African academics to research and teach overseas. The boycott in general was eventually lifted in 1993 when the country was on the verge of electing its first democratic government.

Many of these boycotts were successful in isolating South Africa from the international community but actually had very little effect on the White population and created little inconvenience or hardship in their daily lives because substitutes or alternative sources of goods for the South African market could be readily obtained from less scrupulous suppliers. And it was often possible to find alternative markets for South African products, particularly mining products for which South Africa was a primary source of world supply. However, the oil embargo – which, although not strictly a boycott, was nevertheless used as an instrument of economic pressure and punishment of the South African apartheid regime by the anti-apartheid international community in the early 1980s – did noticeably affect and inconvenience the White population by restricting travel and reducing the maximum speed limit to 80 km per hour throughout the country. However, again, this was transitory inconvenience and had little political or ethical influence on Nationalist voters’ attitudes.

From an ethical point of view, boycotts could be regarded as a double-edged sword. For example, reducing markets for South African goods abroad affected Black employment opportunities and caused unemployment among unskilled workers. Boycotts also initiated a determined drive by the Nationalist government to become as self-sufficient as possible in, for example, oil requirements, which was counterproductive to the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s fundamental “raison d’etre.” This and other boycotts even engendered a kind of inverse “Dunkirk spirit” among the Nationalist government’s mainly Afrikaner supporters and the result of the boycott movement as a whole, may have paradoxically, enabled the apartheid government to endure a little longer than it erstwhile might have been able to do, since the movement kindled resolve among Nationalist voters to overcame many of the hardships intended by boycott punishments.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Economic and Business SciencesUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

Section editors and affiliations

  • David Coldwell
    • 1
  1. 1.University of WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa