Of South Africa’s 13 million people in 1950, about 1.5 million whites were “Afrikaners”, mostly descendants of Dutch-speaking colonial inhabitants. Driven by resentment of English-speaking whites who dominated the economy and by fear of the restive Black majority, the Afrikaner National party won the whites-only election of May 1948. As the newly elected Prime Minister, D.F. Malan put it, “either we must follow the course of equality, which must eventually mean national suicide for the white race, or we must take the course of separation.”
With their new-found power, the Afrikaner leadership passed laws hardening the country’s racial segregation and guaranteeing white supremacy over Africans, mixed-race (“Coloured”) people, and Indians. The system they built was called “Apartheid.” The Population Registration Act of 1950 required all South Africans to register as a particular “race.” Racial categorization determined where you could live, what work you could do, who you could marry, what public facilities were open to you, and what political rights you had.
“Either we must follow the course of equality, which must eventually mean national suicide for the white race, or we must take the course of separation.”
–Prime Minister D.F. Malan
Margaret Bourke-White arrived in South Africa in late 1949, shortly before the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument, erected on a hill above the country’s capital, Pretoria. Held on December 16th, this event commemorated the 1838 “Battle of Blood River” in which Dutch “Voortrekkers” pursuing a “Great Trek” out of the British Empire fought off thousands of Zulu warriors. This celebration of the defining moment in Afrikaner nationalist history, photographed in detail by Bourke-White for Life, drew 250,000 people, a large proportion of the country’s Afrikaner population.
Well aware of the new government’s dictatorial racial policy, Bourke-White began her visit by photographing Afrikaners and winning the trust of her white hosts. As her editors at Life remarked, “first she got her coverage of white officialdom out of the way, then began digging into the gold and diamond mines, the lives of the negroes [sic] and Indians.” In addition to photographing the country’s triumphant new rulers, she tried to capture the everyday lives of ordinary rural Afrikaners. Their combination of poverty, dignity, and racial defensiveness reminded her of the poor whites she had encountered in the American South in the 1930s.