South Africa’s legal system is one of only a handful around the world that treats legal subjects differently based on their perceived race or skin-colour.

This has been the case for centuries, but most of the world assumes it came to an end in the 1990s. This is not the case. Race law has continued, utilising the same racial categories that were formally defined during the twentieth century.

Race Law is a public-interest initiative by the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) to index all the statutes, regulations, policies, and superior court judgments that perpetuate racialism as a matter of law. It does so through the Index of Race Law.


313

… racial Acts of Parliament have been adopted since 1910.

116

… of those racial Acts of Parliament have been adopted since 1994.

141

… racial Acts of Parliament are operative today.

Latest Index Update: 24 October 2023


Arguably since the seventeenth century, the region that today encompasses the Republic of South Africa has had various forms of written and unwritten law that touched upon race relations. This was accelerated from 1910 when race law was unified throughout the country and again in 1948 when the government elevated racial segregation to a primary principle of the statutory legal system. The 1950 Population Registration Act was the basis of this new approach and divided South Africans into the categories of black, white, coloured, and Indian/Asian.

In 1936 the IRR published the first Survey of Race Relations. The Survey, from 1949 onward, among other things, tracked these laws. In 1978, the IRR published Laws Affecting Race Relations in South Africa 1948-1976, reflecting on the previous decades of legislated racialism.

The late 1980s through early 1990s saw the South African government completely reassess the sustainability and morality of race law and begin the process of dismantling that aspect of the legal system. The Population Registration Act was repealed, and along with it the very basis upon which racial classification rested. The peak of this process was the enactment first of the interim Constitution of 1993 and later the current Constitution of 1996, both elevating non-racialism to a foundational principle of South African law, as South Africa’s common law had always recognised it to be.

Almost immediately, however, the government began (re)enacting race law and pursuing racial policy. The two most notable instances of this are the 1998 Employment Equity Act and the 2003 Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act. Various other pieces of legislation exist among dozens of charters, plans, regulations, directives, notices, and policies that attempt to regulate aspects of society along racial lines and racialise commerce.

Notably, however, no Population Registration Act exists today to classify South Africans according to their race, meaning this system is largely dependent upon self-classification.