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date: 22 June 2017

The History of South Africa’s Bantustans

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.

With the passing of the Bantu Authorities Act in 1951, the apartheid state set in motion the creation of ten “Bantustans,” one of South Africa’s most infamous projects of racial ordering. These “Homelands”—in official parlance—were set up in an attempt to legitimize the apartheid project and to deprive black South Africans of their citizenship by creating ten parallel so-called countries for each designated ethnic group. The Bantustan project was controversial and developed slowly, first by consolidating native reserve land, and later by giving these territories increasing power for self-governance. By the 1980s, there were four independent Bantustans (Transkei, Ciskei, Venda, and Bophuthatswana) and six self-governing Bantustans (Lebowa, Gazankulu, KwaNdebele, Qwaqwa, KaNgwane, and KwaZulu).

The Bantustans were largely rejected by the liberation movements as political frauds governed by illegitimately installed chiefs. They acted as dumping grounds for surplus cheap African labor and allowed the apartheid government to justify large-scale forced removals from white farmland and cities. Less frequently acknowledged, however, is that the Bantustans were also incubators of a black middle class and bureaucratic elite. Despite the formal dissolution of the Bantustans in 1994, and their incorporation into the democratic administration, the rule of chiefs and the growth of this black middle class have a deep-rooted legacy in the post-1994 era. As several contemporary commentators have noted, South Africa has witnessed the “Bantustan-ification” of the post-apartheid landscape.