Responding to apartheid South Africa posed a challenge to British foreign policy for over forty years, involving policy-makers and diplomats in a complex balancing act. On the one hand, there were strong historic links between the two countries – South Africa had been successively a British colony, a Dominion and (until 1961) a member of the Commonwealth – and British companies and investors were heavily involved in the South African economy. On the other hand, the National Party government, elected in 1948 and continuously in power until 1994, marched South Africa in a policy direction directly at odds with the post-war settlement, the United Nations, and international public opinion. Events such as the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and the Soweto youth revolt in 1976 rendered the policy dilemmas for the UK especially acute. The release of the CO, DO, FO and FCO archival material will shine fascinating light into how the relationship was perceived and managed.”

Professor Colin Bundy, former director and principal of SOAS and principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford


The three parts of Apartheid South Africa cover the period between 1948 and 1980 and explore the inception and implementation of apartheid by Daniel Malan, the strengthening of policies by Hendrik Verwoerd and the eventual destabilisation of the system under P. W. Botha.

Documents, dispatches, reports, telegrams and handwritten embassy notes both from South Africa and from Britain, the United States and other powers provide first-hand analyses of South Africa's relationship with the international community, her struggles with internal resistance, civil unrest and anti-apartheid organisations and the implementation of policies to forcibly remove black Africans into independent 'self-governing' Bantustans.

Apartheid South Africa spans the periods:




The material contained within each part is hugely varied, and includes:

  • British diplomatic dispatches between London and Pretoria and between London and British posts across Africa
  • Biographies of prominent political figures, activists, detainees and victims of apartheid
  • Cuttings, transcriptions and translations of press reports, including many from Afrikaans newspapers
  • Reports detailing visits to South Africa from UK and US politicians and vice versa
  • Letters and telegrams from government departments and officials and from private individuals
  • Minutes of ministerial meetings
  • Annual reports detailing events in South Africa and neighbouring countries during the previous year
  • Political, economic and military analyses
  • Statistical tables
  • Police and embassy investigation reports
  • Published booklets, leaflets, propaganda etc.
  • Maps, including regional and tribal authority areas, mineral-production areas (including gold) and Bantustans

There are complete runs of FO 371, FCO 45 and FCO 105 files for South Africa for the relevant years. These are supplemented by specific files on South Africa from CO 1048, DO 35, DO 119, DO 157, DO 161, DO 165, DO 180, DO 193, DO 212, DO 216, FCO 13, FCO 29, FCO 38, FCO 58, FCO 61, FCO 65, FO 924, FO 953, FO 973, FO 1110 and FO 1117.

Please note: Some information in the 1948-1966 run of files has been redacted by The National Archives under the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998. 


Nature and Scope

List of documents

The end of the Second World War presented a significant crossroads in South African politics. No longer at war, the Union’s coalition government dissolved, leaving an ageing General Jan Smuts and his United Party in power. Smuts’s closeness to Britain had been widely unpopular. Many white South Africans, Afrikaners in particular, had wanted South Africa to fight with Germany and not against her and the United Party reaped the rewards of this enmity when they lost the 1948 election – a result which greatly surprised the British government.

Smuts’s successor as prime minister, Daniel Malan of the National Party, was a strong advocate of Afrikaner nationalist policies and, during his six years in office, ushered in the first concerted effort to separate and segregate non-white South Africans from the smaller white population. Laws designed specifically to restrict and remove rights for non-whites were implemented. Notable examples of early legislation which underpinned apartheid included the Population Registration Act, which classified people into three ‘races’; the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (DO 35/3229), which made it illegal for people of different races to marry; and the Group Areas Act, designating areas in which black Africans could and could not live. These policies became known as ‘apartheid’ – literally ‘separateness’ – and began 40 years of National Party dominance over South African politics and society. The documents in part one of Apartheid South Africa include the texts of these laws and discussions over their wording, implementation and effects on South African society.

Over the following decade, punitive restrictions were placed on black South Africans’ travel, education, work and political organisation. In 1950 the Communist Party became the first political organisation to be officially outlawed and in 1951 the Bantu Authorities Act laid the foundation for legal powers to forcibly remove black people into designated ‘homelands’. South African law now refused to recognise black Africans as citizens, removed any previous rights for individuals to vote and made it illegal for a black African to enter the country without a work pass. Malan further strengthened these laws in 1952 to make it a legal requirement for all black Africans above the age of 16 to carry a pass (DO 35/10578): a move designed to limit the number of black workers in urban areas.

By 1953 all amenities and public services had been separated on the basis of race. Whites and non-whites could no longer use the same public toilets, buses, post offices, parks or even benches; the services and amenities provided to the former were generally of a superior quality. Many opposed to, and persecuted by, this new system of government fled South Africa to the surrounding territories of Mozambique, Swaziland, Basutoland and Bechuanaland. Some joined emerging activist groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) or the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and attempted to carry out anti-government activities from the relative safety of South Africa’s neighbours. This put Britain in an awkward situation. The Union of South Africa was still part of the Commonwealth and a major destination of exports; open condemnation was difficult, especially in high-profile arenas such as the United Nations. These tensions are reflected throughout the files, showing the uncomfortable relationship between business interests (particularly as related to the sale of arms and military equipment) and humanitarian concerns.

Johannes Strijdom replaced Malan as prime minister in 1954 but continued his predecessor’s agenda. In line with resettlement plans, the largely black Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown was demolished as police forcibly moved its inhabitants further away from the white city centre into the new township of Soweto. This contributed to the ANC’s unveiling of the ‘Freedom Charter’, a document based on the principals of democracy, human rights and social reform. In 1956 Strijdom tightened the government’s grip on the activities of the ANC and 156 people, including the prominent lawyer and activist Nelson Mandela, were arrested and subjected to the ‘Treason Trials’ (DO 35/10567DO 180/7). The legal basis for these trials eventually unravelled and the detainees were acquitted, but increasing civil unrest, riots and acts of sabotage culminated in the killing of 69 black people by police at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 during a demonstration against carrying passes (DO 119/1465-DO 119/1469).

Preceding National Party prime ministers had laid the foundations for total separation of the population, but Hendrik Verwoerd became the acknowledged architect of ‘grand apartheid’ when he came to power in 1958. Verwoerd set in motion the creation of separate self-governing states (popularly known as ‘Bantustans’) for the black population, banned the ANC and PAC and, in 1960, instigated a referendum in which South Africa’s white electorate voted in favour of becoming a republic (DO 161/109). Free from formal ties to the British crown and, subsequently, the Commonwealth, Verwoerd forged ahead with the total implementation of apartheid, and even a failed assassination attempt in 1960 (DO 35/10569) only seemed to imbue his endeavours with further conviction.

In 1960 the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, visited South Africa and delivered his famous ‘Wind of change’ speech (DO 35/10559, DO 35/10572), in which he formally declared Britain’s intention to withdraw from its African colonial possessions and grant them independence. This signalled to Verwoerd that white-led South Africa was increasingly isolated and that its racial policies were unacceptable to the British public. In 1962 the United Nations declared apartheid to be in direct violation of its charter and discussions began over sanctions, particularly an arms embargo. These developments are explored in detail throughout the run of documents, with United Nations resolutions and debates recorded and dissected by the Foreign Office.

1963 saw the arrest of prominent activists at Rivonia in Johannesburg, resulting in the imprisonment for life the following year of Nelson Mandela (already in detention), Walter Sisulu and others. What followed was a period of diplomatic ballet between Britain and South Africa as South African security forces encroached on the British protectorates of Swaziland, Basutoland and Bechuanaland to arrest political activists who had fled there. Such tensions did not deter the South African electorate from again voting for Verwoerd in the 1966, but his second tenure as prime minister was short-lived, ending abruptly with his assassination on the floor of the House of Assembly in Cape Town on 6 September (FO 371/188070).


List of documents

Verwoerd’s successor as prime minister was B. J. (John) Vorster. A member of the pro-German Ossewabrandwag organisation during the Second World War, Vorster sat to the right of Verwoerd in the National Party and his premiership was to see no let-up in the attempted implementation of grand apartheid.

The homeland system continued to be constructed. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1980s 3.5 million black South Africans were forcibly removed from areas designated for whites. Under the Black Homelands Citizenship Act 1970, all black South Africans were designated citizens of a homeland allocated to their ethnic group, even if they as an individual had never set foot there (FCO 45/1381); the proportion of all blacks living in homelands rose from 39.1% in 1960 to 52.7% in 1980. And as the homelands moved towards the largely spurious independence which began to be granted them from the mid-1970s, their new citizens had whatever nugatory rights they had enjoyed in South Africa taken away. However, the economies of these fragmented areas remained totally dependent on that of ‘white’ South Africa, and functioned largely as labour pools for urban industry (FCO 45/1430). Fully 65% of the ‘population’ of Bophuthatswana, for example, was employed outside its borders. Moreover, the rise in the proportion of all blacks in homelands was accompanied by a rise in the number of blacks living in ‘white’ South Africa’s cities, whatever their citizenship might be, as the total population continued to grow. As an attempt to ‘remove’ black people from South Africa, the homeland system was essentially a piece of sleight-of-hand accounting, albeit one which imposed poverty and frustration on those subjected to it.

The growth of ‘black’ cities naturally saw an increase in black students, the number more than quadrupling during the 1960s. Black education was grossly underfunded in comparison to white but South Africa had a handful of black universities, whose students found themselves in an untenable position as the elite portion of a servant class. In 1969 a group of black students, led by Steve Biko, broke away from the multiracial but tame National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) to form the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO). Biko was a proponent of Black Consciousness, the idea that black people – by which was meant all racial groups oppressed by apartheid – needed to free themselves from the psychological oppression wrought by racism as much as they did from its material oppression, and should reject co-operation with white liberals. In the early 1970s SASO organised strikes on black campuses and demonstrated in favour of the anti-colonial movements in Angola and Mozambique (see below) (FCO 45/1171-1173FCO 45/1585). Biko himself was arrested in 1973 and subjected to a banning order, by which he could not leave the area of his birth in the eastern Cape, speak in public or to more than one person at a time privately, or be quoted by the media. By 1975 SASO itself was outlawed. These measures were facilitated by the growth of the apartheid state’s security apparatus. The 1967 Terrorism Act extended the number of activities banned on the grounds of being dangerous to public safety, and permitted the death penalty to be imposed on those found guilty under it. The Bureau for State Security (BOSS) was established in 1969 to work secretly, in parallel to the security branches of the police and armed forces, and reporting directly to the prime minister (FCO 45/306). This was followed in 1972 by the State Security Council, effectively a war cabinet which oversaw policing, intelligence-gathering and clandestine counter-insurgency operations throughout the country.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were also a time of industrial problems. The economy continued to expand; the value of all companies operating in South Africa increased by 400% during the 1970s (FCO 45/1600FCO 45/1789-1791). But black workers’ wages did not keep pace with this growth, with the real value of black miners’ pay less in 1971 than it had been in 1911. Overall white income per capita was ten times black. Under the strictures of apartheid black workers had no legal channels of representation by which they could challenge the status quo – black (and multiracial) unions were illegal, and under the Native Labour Settlement of Disputes Act black people were specifically excluded from being legally recognised as employees (FCO 45/1407-1408FCO 45/1601-1602). The weakness in this system was that it closed off the possibility of leaders emerging with whom employers and the state could negotiate. From January 1973 a series of wildcat strikes spread from Durban to the eastern Cape and South Africa’s industrial heartland on the Rand, eventually involving 100,000 workers. Since obvious leaders would be arrested, none came forward. In July, new legislation granted black workers the right to send representatives to wage negotiations and to declare strikes legally, although black union organisation on a par with white was still prohibited (FCO 45/1180-1181FCO 45/1603-1607).

Internationally, Vorster’s premiership saw policy towards South Africa in flux. After Sharpeville the United Nations had called for the dismantling of apartheid and an arms embargo against South Africa, but the individual Western powers sailed a course between growing popular opposition to the policies of South Africa’s government and maintenance of the materially valuable trading ties that they had long had with its businesses. On the world stage Britain condemned apartheid, but retained preferential tariffs for South African exports. The Labour government elected in 1964 heeded, after a fashion, the UN call for an end to arms sales; but what constituted ‘arms’ was given the narrowest conceivable interpretation, and wider sanctions on other goods were not contemplated (e.g. FCO 45/283-287). In 1970, Edward Heath’s newly elected Conservatives announced the resumption of sales – only to find that public opposition had grown to the extent that hardly any new deals were actually done (e.g. FCO 45/960-978FCO 45/1186-1190). A similar swing took place in the United States, where the tentative embargo of the Kennedy years was jettisoned under Nixon (FCO 45/241). In South Africa itself, meanwhile, the late 1960s saw the development of a highly successful domestic weapons industry, manufacturing everything from small-arms ammunition to jet aircraft.

But the apartheid regime also had to cope with international threats closer to home. The 1960s saw the rapid dismantling of European empires across most of Africa. But in the south, the presence of large numbers of European settlers and their descendants made this process politically problematic. When Britain refused to give the white-dominated government of Southern Rhodesia independence without a move to majority rule, the prime minister, Ian Smith, declared it unilaterally. In Portugal, the dictatorship of António Salazar set its face against any moves towards independence for Angola or Mozambique. South Africa itself had ruled the former German colony of South-West Africa since the First World War. The apartheid regime therefore found itself nearly surrounded by a belt of friendly, white-ruled states with which it shared essential interests (FCO 45/628). Botswana, the only exception, was itself hemmed in by the white states and economically dependent on Pretoria.

However, into the 1970s this cordon sanitaire began to fray. In 1969 the United Nations revoked South Africa’s trusteeship over South-West Africa, putting its continued rule there in violation of international law. From 1972 nationalist guerrillas in Rhodesia conducted a campaign of violence and destabilisation in rural areas with which the security forces found increasing difficulty in coping. In 1974 a coup in Lisbon led to the rapid setting of independence dates for Angola and Mozambique and the flight of most of their white inhabitants, many to South Africa (FCO 45/1503-1506FCO 45/1543). The Angolans immediately allowed the banned South-West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) to establish bases there for forays across the border; in Mozambique, facilities were afforded to Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. Both states began collapsing into civil war as rival groups that had fought the Portuguese now turned on each other. In response, in 1975 the South African armed forces invaded southern Angola, where they were to remain until 1989.


List of documents

The second half of the 1970s was to see an acceleration both in the scope of the South African government’s efforts to maintain the apartheid project and in popular resistance by black South Africans to their continued political and economic marginalisation.

In June 1976 discontent with a recent policy of forcing black schools to teach half their curriculum in Afrikaans – a language indelibly tainted in many black South Africans’ eyes by association with the apartheid system – erupted into a march by hundreds of pupils in Soweto. Police moved in with tear gas and live rounds; in response the march turned violent. By the end of the following day 176 people had been killed (FCO 45/1914-1915). In the following months new political groups sprang up, with new plans for local black self-government; all were rejected by the National Party, which remained committed to controlling all aspects of black life, and violence and deaths continued. The protests took place in a climate informed by the Black Consciousness Movement, and in August 1977 Steve Biko was re-arrested and detained. A few weeks later he was dead, having been savagely beaten in custody (FCO 45/2095-2096, FCO 45/2374-2375). Over 10,000 people attended his funeral, including many Western ambassadors, and the US Congress proposed that an international commission be formed to examine South African police practices. The government’s reaction to protest at Biko’s death was to ban 18 black organisations and arrest their leaders. In 1978 a judicial inquiry into the circumstances of the death determined that the police had no case to answer.

The education minister whose policies precipitated the Soweto demonstrations, Andries Treurnicht, had reasoned publicly that since Soweto was in ‘white’ South Africa, the government of ‘white’ South Africa should decide on its schools’ language policy. Black South Africans really belonged, after all, in the homelands. In October 1976, Transkei became the first homeland to be declared independent (FCO 45/1913, FCO 45/2087-2088), with Bophuthatswana following suit in 1977 (FCO 45/2365, FCO 105/164) and Venda in 1979 (FCO 105/166). Independence facilitated the process by which black South Africans were legally erased from the country: in 1976, according to official figures, there were 18.5 million black people in South Africa; in 1977, only 15.7 million. But the homelands were not recognised as independent by the United Nations or by any states other than South Africa and each other, and all remained utterly reliant economically on South African industry; a territorial dispute in 1978 which led to Transkei’s leader, Kaiser Matanzima, breaking ties with South Africa was forgotten as soon as this reliance became evident. From the South African perspective, enormous logistical issues resulted from its insistence on forcing black people into ‘their’ homelands whilst still employing them in their thousands in its own mines and factories, with South African taxpayers subsidising the long-distance buses which their black passengers could not afford to pay for to the extent of US$1,000 per passenger per year.

In time, the economic unsustainability of the homeland system and the increasing scale of anti-apartheid protest – over 600 black South Africans died in incidents of political violence between mid-1976 and mid-1977 – did prompt moves towards change at the highest level. In 1977, concerned about the increasing links between political and economic protest, the government appointed a commission of enquiry, led by Professor N. E. Wiehahn, into South Africa’s labour situation. Wiehahn’s findings, published in 1979, recommended that black workers be allowed to join and form trade unions (FCO 105/264-265FCO 105/515-516) and that mandated job reservation based on race be scrapped. By this time John Vorster’s political career had been ended through his implication in the Information Scandal or ‘Muldergate’ (FCO 105/173-175), in which part of the defence budget was diverted to be spent on pro-government propaganda, including the establishment of an English-language newspaper, The Citizen, friendly to the National Party. He was succeeded as prime minister in October 1978 by P. W. Botha.

Botha ushered in further reform in tandem with renewed crackdowns on apartheid’s opponents. In July 1979 he convened a commission on constitutional change (FCO 105/434-435), the beginning of a process which would lead, in 1983, to a new constitution under which South Africa’s Coloured and Indian populations would have representation in a tricameral parliament. But there was no room in the proposals for the black majority, and Botha’s leadership was to see the continuation and expansion of both the State Security Council system, under which a small ‘war cabinet’ of security chiefs directed South Africa’s governance (FCO 105/436), and Vorster’s ‘Total Strategy’ against opponents of the regime, which included assassinations, abductions and bombings both inside and outside South Africa. In South-West Africa, the secretive paramilitary body Koevoet (‘Crowbar’) was established to fight clandestinely against SWAPO, its operatives receiving bounty payments for each guerrilla killed. Many members of Koevoet had had experience fighting in Rhodesia, where, in a further blow to South Africa’s external security following the independence of Angola and Mozambique, in 1978 the Smith regime effectively admitted the defeat of its efforts to preserve white rule and began moves towards democracy and formal independence (FCO 45/1876, FCO 105/193, FCO 105/319, FCO 105/448-450). During the 1970s South Africa even pursued the development of nuclear weapons (FCO 45/2129-2132, FCO 45/2450-2452), and an event in the Indian Ocean detected by a US satellite in September 1979 was speculated at the time, and still, to have been a test explosion, possibly conducted in collaboration with Israel (FCO 105/258-260, FCO 105/511).



Key Topics

International relations:

  • Response and reactions from the UK, US and United Nations to apartheid legislation, including the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) (DO 35/3229); Population Registration Act (1950); Group Areas Act (1950); Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act (1951); Bantu Homelands Act (1951); Pass Laws Act (1952) (DO 35/10578); Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953) (DO 35/10560); and Bantu Education Act (1953)
  • Analyses of segregation and legalised discrimination, including the treatment of Indians in South Africa (DO 35/3232, FO 371/129897) and the subsequent role played by India in United Nations discussions on apartheid (DO 35/3236)
  • Controversy surrounding the inter-racial marriage of Tswana chief Seretse Khama (DO 216/17)
  • Harold Macmillan’s visit to South Africa and his ‘Wind of change’ speech, January-February 1960 (DO 35/10559, DO 35/10572)
  • South Africa’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 1961, an assessment of the impact of this step and the likely damage to the South African economy (DO 180/4)
  • Political refugees in Swaziland, Bechuanaland, Mozambique and Basutoland and the movement of persons between South Africa and its neighbours, including detailed information on Mrs E. Mafeking (CO 1048/136) and Reginald K. September (CO 1048/575) and arrangements between the UK and South Africa for dealing with fugitive offenders (CO 1048/201-202CO 1048/667)


Internal resistance and anti-apartheid organisations:

  • Activities of the South African police and security services domestically and in Basutoland, Swaziland and Bechuanaland (DO 119/1222-1223, FCO 45/1428), including the disappearance of refugee Mrs R. Wentzel (CO 1048/580-581)
  • The ‘Treason Trial’ (1956) and the arrest of 156 people, including Nelson Mandela (DO 35/10567DO 180/7)
  • The Sharpeville Massacre, 21 March 1960: files cover the judicial enquiry and international reactions to the massacre and questions about the supply of armoured cars and weapons by the UK to the South African government, leading to demands for an arms embargo (DO 119/1465-1469)
  • The ‘Rivonia Trial’ of ANC leaders (including Nelson Mandela), 1963-1964 (DO 119/1478, FO 371/161901, FO 371/167541, FO 371/177122-177124, FO 1117/2-3) forming part of a deliberate policy by the South African authorities to suppress all opposition; the trial was denounced by the United Nations and states around the world, leading to sanctions against the South African government
  • Attempted assassination in 1960 (DO 35/10569) and assassination in 1966 (FO 371/188070) of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd


Black 'self-government':

  • The Schlebusch Commission on constitutional change (FCO 105/434-435)