1900-1919 | Backing Apartheid | Racism

South Africa Act 1909 creates the legal foundation of Apartheid

Prime Minister Herbert Asquith – ‘South Africa must be allowed to settle its own native problem,’ (via Wikimedia)
Arthur Balfour – ‘You cannot give them equal rights.’ (via Wikimedia.)

20 September 1909

On 20 September 1909, the British parliament passed the South Africa Act, which laid the legal foundation for apartheid South Africa. Section 35 restricted voting rights in three of the four provinces in the newly created Union of South Africa to white males. Only in Cape Colony were black men to be allowed to vote, and then only if they met the wealth and literacy franchise qualifications. Moreover, under sections 25 and 44 of the Act, membership of the Union parliament was to be restricted to ‘British subjects of European descent.’1

According to the Morning Post, Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, lending his support to the bill, ‘contended that South Africa ( referring to the white settlers only ) must be allowed to settle its own native problem,’ though he added that he hoped the ‘colour bar’ would eventually be abandoned.  Arthur Balfour, leader of the Opposition Conservative Party, was less sympathetic even to such hypothetical idealism, rejecting as ‘absurd’ the idea that ‘the native races’ were in any way equal to the white colonists in either education or the ability to govern, adding that ‘you cannot give them equal rights without threatening the whole fabric of your civilisation.’2

A few progressive newspapers expressed a notional sympathy towards those who aspired for racial equality, but most concurred that black South Africans should not be trusted with the vote or allowed to sit in parliament.  The Manchester Courier reminded readers of ‘the long upward path over which the negro races must be led before they reach any degree of civilisation,’ while the Cornish and Devon Post argued that the ‘white races are compelled to take certain precautions against being overwhelmed by the coloured element…. (and) are unanimous as to the dangers attending an extension of the citizenship in full to the aboriginal races of today.’3

The only significant dissent in parliament was confined to what the Illustrated London News described as ‘a few of the extreme Radicals and Labour members’ including the idealistic crusader James Kier Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party. The idealism was, however, relative. Although Hardie criticized the near total bar on black political participation under the South Africa Act, he refrained from advocating full racial equality, reasoning in the Labour Leader that ‘the native population of South Africa numbers some six millions against one million whites, and I am not here even suggesting that these shall be enfranchised in such a manner as to override white opinion.’4


  1. The Yorkshire Post, 10 February 1909, p. 6.
  2. The Morning Post, 17 August 1909, p. 5.
  3. ‘The Colour Question in South Africa,’ Supplement to the Manchester Courier, 2 April 1909 p. 2 and ‘The South Africa Act,’ The Cornish and Devon Post, 28 August 1909, p. 4.
  4. ‘Parliament,’ The Illustrated London News, 21 August 1909, p8 and Kier Hardie cited in ‘Kier Hardie’s View’, The Leicester Chronicle, 14 August 1909, p. 11.

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