Difference between Apartheid and Segregation

Updated on March 2, 2018

Apartheid and segregation were racially oppressive laws that enforced the denial of the most fundamental human rights. This article dives into the significant differences between apartheid in South Africa and racial segregation in the US.


A striking image of a nanny and her charge

Apartheid was a system of discrimination and racial segregation laws that were legally enforced in South Africa from 1948 to 1991. In general, apartheid can be divided into two types: petty apartheid (segregation in public places) and grand apartheid (where housing and employment were determined by race). Earlier forms of racial discrimination were already present even before the South African National Party adopted apartheid as a matter of national policy. Under apartheid, the population was divided into four groups: black, white, Indian, and coloured. Coloureds were people of mixed Bantu, European, Malay, and Khoisan descent.

The National Party enacted and enforced a series of petty apartheid laws. The first of these regulations prohibited the marriage of whites to people other than their own race. Another anti-interracial law forbade a white and any black, Indian, or coloured individuals from committing “racial intercourse and immoral and indecent acts.” Skin color determined where a person could go or where he could live. Between 1960 and 1983, an estimated 3.5 million non-whites were uprooted from their homes and forced to live in segregated communities. The majority of these mass removals (the largest in modern history) were designed to contain the black population to ten “bantusans” or tribal homelands.

Apartheid was denounced both domestically and internationally. It caused some of the most well-known global movements of the time. The United Nations frequently condemned the South African government and was slapped with various trade and arms embargo. Thousands were left dead or imprisoned as the National Party cracked down on domestic resistance to apartheid. From 1987 to 1993, the African National Congress and the National Party held negotiations that eventually ended apartheid and introduced the rule of the majority. This also saw the release of well-known ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela. Apartheid was abolished by the middle of 1991 and multi-racial elections were started in April 1994.

A beverage dispenser meant only for whites

Segregation, or racial segregation, is the separation of people into ethnic or racial groups. It often applied to everyday activities such as using a public toilet or water fountain, going to school or to the movies, riding on a bus, eating in a restaurant, renting a hotel, or purchasing a home. Segregation was practiced all throughout human history and across many cultures.

In the US, racial segregation is a general term used to refer to segregation implemented in basic services, facilities, and even in housing opportunities. This is socially and legally enforced separation of African Americans from white Americans. Racial segregation is practiced by white communities against people of other races in addition to blacks.

The first instances of racial segregation in the US occurred in the South as Republicans rose to power in the region in 1867. Nearly all public schools were segregated. In 1896, the Jim Crow laws came into effect and mandated racial segregation mostly in the South. Public schools for blacks offered lower quality education compared to schools for whites which received better funding. Although the Northern states were not mandated to enforce racial segregation, blacks attended schools with a higher black student population. Moreover, forced segregation prohibited interracial marriage and denied voting rights to blacks. Segregation was also enforced among the Japanese (citizen or not) during World War II. An estimated 110,000 Japanese were labeled enemies and rounded up in internment camps while Italian and German Americans remained untouched.

The US government, reacting to increased pressure from African Americans and progressive groups, ended segregation on July 26, 1948.

Apartheid vs Segregation

So what’s the difference between apartheid and segregation? Apartheid was a system of racial segregation laws that were legally enforced in South Africa from 1948 to 1991. Segregation, particularly in the US, was similar racial segregation laws in place to separate whites from those of different races. Segregation was observed in schools, public transport, parks, hotels, work, and in almost all aspects of public interaction. It came in the form of the so-called Jim Crow laws and was ended after World War II under President Harry Truman’s administration.

Comparison Chart

Racial segregation laws enforced in South Africa from 1948 to 1991Racial segregation laws enforced in the US from 1896 to 1948
Divided the population into black, white, coloured, and IndianDivided the population into whites and non-whites, particularly blacks
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