On this day in 1989, the South African president, F. W. de Klerk, soon after assuming the presidency, ordered the desegregation of the country’s beaches. He promised that the repeal of the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953, which segregated beaches and many other public facilities, would soon follow.
The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act was actually not the law that first introduced beach segregation. South Africa, including its beaches, was segregated long before this Act took effect. (Durrheim & Dixon, p. 436.) For instance, in 1923, the country’s government enacted the Natives (Urban Areas) Act, a law that relegated Africans to reside in certain locations and restricted their presence in urban areas. In 1949, the government amended the Railways and Harbours Regulation, Control and Management Act of 1916 to authorize the Rail Authority to segregate trains. (Railways and Harbours Acts Amendment Act, 1949, § 4.)
What the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act did was formalize and expand the existing practice. It did so by according public and private entities the right to set apart or reserve “any public premises” (including bathrooms, benches, parks, church halls, town halls, cinemas, theaters, cafes, restaurants, hotels, schools, and universities) or “any public vehicle” (taxis, buses, trams, trains, and ambulances) “for the exclusive use of persons belonging to a particular race or class.” (Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, §§ 1 & 2.)
Beaches were not initially included as segregated places in the Act; they were added by the Reservation of Separate Amenities Amendment Act of 1960, which expanded the definition of public premises to include “the sea and the sea-shore.” In 1972, through an amendment of the Sea-shore Act of 1935, the Minister of Agriculture was authorized to “confer control of the beaches to local and provincial authorities.” (Durrheim & Dixon, p. 436.) Following this, the central government continued to put political pressure on local authorities to strictly enforce beach segregation. (Id.)
The 1953 Act also reversed the legal fiction of “separate but equal” instituted by courts. Going back at least to 1934, the courts, among others, had applied the separate but equal doctrine to determine the legality of segregation. (Sachs, pp. 139-142.) For instance, in 1950, in Rex v. Abdurahman, the Appellate Division voided a regulation issued by the General Railway Administration, which reserved the use of portions of trains for the exclusive use of white South Africans and penalized black citizens for using those reserved portions, but permitted white South Africans to use the non-reserved portions. In doing so, the Court held that the regulation had “resulted in a partial and unequal treatment to a substantial degree as between Europeans and non-Europeans…”
This separate but equal doctrine was not the result of an interpretation of a higher law mandating equal treatment of all citizens. It was simply based on the courts’ reading of the legislature’s intention: discrimination without substantial inequality. (See Sachs, pp. 139-142; Rex p. 149) This was reflected in a further decision of the Appellate Division in 1953 in the case of R. v. Lusu. The Court held that
[t]he Railway Administration may not, when reserving railway premises or any portion thereof as waiting-rooms for the exclusive use of male or female of particular races or different classes of persons . . . exercise unfettered discretionary rights and powers where the exercise of such rights and powers may result in partial and unequal treatment to a substantial degree as between such persons, races and classes.
The Court further noted that “when a statute confers a power, the statute must not be construed to permit partial and unequal treatment of members of different races, unless such power is specifically given either in express terms or by necessary implication.” Following this decision, the legislature sought to clarify its intention with regard to the issue of whether it meant to mandate equal facilities for non-whites. (Sachs, p. 142; Thompson, p. 190.) It ended the separate but equal doctrine by including a provision in the 1953 Act expressly stating that the reservation of public premises or vehicles for the exclusive use of a particular race or class “shall not be invalid on the ground merely that” no similar premise or service is provided for any other race or class, or that a premise or service provided for another race or class “is not substantially similar or of the same character, standard, extent or quality” as those provided for a particular race or class of people. (Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, § 3.)
This resulted in a great deal of disparity in the allocation of beaches, with non-white South Africans being relegated to smaller, lower quality, and less accessible beaches. For instance, in 1965, beaches that non-whites were allowed to use in the Cape were “found to be considerable distances from their homes, lacking in amenities and sometimes dangerous.” (Omond, p. 64.) In Natal, by 1988, 90% of the coastline was set aside exclusively for whites. Similarly, in 1977 the Durban council accorded whites, who made up 22% of the population, 2,100 meters of beach area, whereas blacks, who constituted 46% of the population, were provided with only 650 meters of beach.
President de Klerk was by no means a pioneer of beach desegregation. His decision in 1989 to desegregate beaches was “more symbolic than activating because the intended result was already in motion.” By the time the desegregation announcement was issued, many beaches had already been desegregated. This was largely due to the fact that non-white South Africans made beaches a key part of their struggle against apartheid. Non-white crowds, supported by politicians and activists, continued to ignore segregation laws and went to whites-only beaches. This, in part, caused local authorities to start relaxing segregation laws. For instance, the Cape Town City Council refused to put up apartheid notices on its beaches. (Horrell, p. 65.) Similarly, in 1978, the Administrator of the Cape decided to spend funds allocated by the provincial government for the development of beaches exclusively on beaches that were open to all. (Id.) By 1985, Cape Town had started desegregating its beaches.
Desegregation of beaches was also not a singular event: it occurred in a larger context in which the apartheid system was coming to an end. The order of President de Klerk to desegregate beaches was followed by the legislature’s repeal of the Separate Amenities Act of 1953 in June of 1990. This was preceded and followed by similar actions of the legislature including:
- In 1985, repeal of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, a law that prohibited inter-race marriage.
- In 1991, repeal of the Population Registration Act of 1950, a law that required classification of South Africans according to their race.
- Also in 1991, repeal of the Group Areas Act of 1966, legislation that prevented non-white South Africans from residing in certain, prosperous areas.
The developments around that time also included the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 and lifting of the ban on the African National Congress (ANC). Also happening at around the same time were negotiations for a transition to a democratic system and the adoption of various laws that led to the dismantling of apartheid and the establishment of non-racial democracy in South Africa.