Dompas: The Oppressive Apartheid Law That Restricted the Movement of Black Africans in South Africa

South Africa’s pass laws also called dompas, were a system of regulations that restricted the movement of black Africans within the country. These laws were implemented by the white minority government in South Africa during apartheid, a period of institutionalized racism that lasted from 1948 to 1994.

An unnamed man is photographed with his dompas in 1985. (UN Photo / CC BY-NC-ND)

South Africa’s pass laws were one of the most notorious pieces of apartheid legislation that governed the movement of black people in the country. The pass laws required all black South Africans to carry a passbook that contained their personal information, employment details, and movement restrictions. The ‘Dompas’ laws were enforced through brutal means, and the system created a regime of control and segregation that effectively made black people second-class citizens in their own country.

Origin and Implementation of the Pass Laws

The pass laws can be traced back to 1750 when slaves were required to carry passes authorizing their movement between urban and rural areas. The white population in South Africa utilized these laws to achieve both exclusionary and inclusionary goals. They aimed to control and police the number of Africans in “white” areas for political security, while also ensuring a supply of cheap labor within these areas. By the late 19th century, the pass laws had been expanded to cover all black South Africans working in mines, farms, and factories for white employers.

At the turn of the 20th century, the pass laws were expanded to cover all black South Africans with the introduction of the Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents) Act of 1952. The Act made it mandatory for all black South Africans over the age of 16 to carry a passbook at all times, failure to do so could result in arrest and imprisonment.

The pass laws were implemented in different ways depending on the location and occupation of the individual. In urban areas, black people were only allowed to enter designated areas, and the passbook had to be stamped every time they left or entered. In rural areas, black people were required to obtain permission from the local authorities before they could leave their area.

The document was similar to an internal passport, containing details on the bearer such as their, photograph, home and work address, how long the bearer had been employed, name of employer, as well as other identification information.

An employer was defined under the law and could only be a white person. The pass also documented permission requested and denied or granted to be in a certain region and the reason for seeking such permission. Under the terms of the law, any government employee could strike out such entries, basically cancelling the permission to remain in the area.

The dompas system had a devastating impact on black Africans, who were forced to carry the dompas with them at all times, even when visiting family or friends in other areas. The system created a constant fear of arrest, and black Africans were often subjected to harassment, detention, and torture by the authorities.

Resistance to the Pass Laws

The pass laws were met with resistance from the black population from the start. The African National Congress (ANC), the main anti-apartheid organization, launched a campaign to boycott the pass laws, and many black people refused to carry their passbooks, leading to mass arrests and imprisonment.

Dompas laws

The most significant resistance was the Sharpeville protest of 1960, which turned into a massacre when police opened fire on a crowd of peaceful demonstrators protesting against the pass laws, killing 69 people and injuring over 180 others. The Sharpeville massacre was a turning point in South Africa’s history, and it marked the beginning of the end of the apartheid regime. It sparked international outrage and led to increased pressure on the South African government to end apartheid and repeal the pass laws.

Repeal and Aftermath

The pass laws were eventually repealed in 1986 as part of a series of reforms introduced by the government of President P.W. Botha. However, the repeal of the pass laws did not mean an end to apartheid or racial discrimination in South Africa. It was only in 1994, with the election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president, that apartheid officially came to an end.

Mr Madu
Mr Madu
Mr Madu is a freelance writer, a lover of Africa and a frequent hiker who loves long, vigorous walks, usually on hills or mountains.

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