AS RECENTLY as last year, TV audiences were shocked to hear FW de Klerk offer an apologia for apartheid on CNN’s Amanpour Hour. He even suggested that it was an honest attempt to offer self-determination to the African people that went horribly wrong.

In 1959, MC de Wet Nel, Hendrik Verwoerd’s minister for Bantu affairs, had explained it thus: "The Zulu is proud to be a Zulu and the Xhosa proud to be a Xhosa and the Venda is proud to be a Venda, just as proud as they were 100 years ago. The lesson we have learnt from history during the past 300 years is that these ethnic groups, the whites as well as the Bantu, sought their greatest fulfilment, their greatest happiness and the best mutual relations on the basis of separate and individual development."

WP Schreiner, former prime minister of the Cape Colony, speaking to the media in London as part of a mixed deputation opposing the South Africa Act in 1909, described the proposed Union of South Africa as "an act of separation between the minority and the majority of the people of South Africa".

As Schreiner had predicted, in 1913 the Louis Botha government passed the Natives Land Act, excluding the African majority from 93% of South Africa’s land area. While some white legislators regarded the law as the first step in the spatial segregation of Africans from whites, the majority understood its real purpose: the destruction of a stratum of African small property owners. As scholarship in the 1970s shows: "Even in the white-settled arable highveld of South Africa, the primary producers feeding the growing urban centres in the early years of industrialisation were in large part black sharecropping tenants operating with different degrees of independence from white landlord control."

Organising opposition to the Natives Land Act was among the first challenges the African National Congress (ANC) faced. The events that unfolded around that campaign were prophetic about South Africa’s political history. The Natives Land Bill was piloted through Parliament by JW Sauer, an erstwhile "friend of the natives" in the Cape liberal tradition, representing a reverse for the political strategy all African leaders pursued at the time. Deputations to the government protesting the injustice of the bill yielded no results. It became law in June 1913. In 1914, the ANC went to London, hoping for help from the UK government, which still had the power to overturn South Africa’s laws. While the deputation was in London, the First World War broke out.

In a naive display of loyalty to the imperial cause, the ANC leadership forswore all agitation against the act for the duration of the war. They enthusiastically mobilised Africans to sign up for the Native Labour Contingent. Implementation of the law consequently encountered no opposition for four years. It was impossible to pick up the threads of opposition in November 1918.

The act was the ANC’s first strategic defeat. A liberal ally of the African political elite had initiated the most radical measures against their property rights. Herbert Asquith’s Liberal Party government kept the ANC deputation waiting. Then the ANC’s option to demonstrate loyalty in the hope of recognition in the hour of victory proved a fatal misreading of political trends in South Africa and the British Empire.

While the African nationalists rallied to the imperial colours, Afrikaner nationalist officers in the Union Defence Force attempted a coup to re-establish the Boer Republics. Though Botha and Jan Smuts suppressed it, Barry Hertzog returned from Versailles with firm promises of greater autonomy within the empire, despite the skeleton of Christiaan de Wet’s rebellion rattling in his political cupboard.

Many fundamentalist Afrikaner nationalists could only imagine interaction between Africans and whites across a frontier. The act created such an artificial framework, even offering threadbare moral justification for the social and political exclusion of the citizens of the "foreign states" to which the 85% African population in fact belonged.

Ten years later, the Urban Areas Act of 1923 stripped Africans of all their rights in South Africa outside the 7% set aside as "reserves". These two laws, enacted before 1948, were the legislative foundation of apartheid. DF Malan’s apartheid and Verwoerd’s "separate development" are but a few paces down that road. We, of indigenous African descent, were no longer South Africans — we became Bantus, plurals or blacks. Africans were treated like the people of an occupied country. The dompas announced that its bearer should be treated with suspicion.

Holocaust denial is regarded as a vile affront to our humanity and an act of violence against its victims. The perpetrators were compelled to recognise their crimes and some measure of restitution was made to the victims. Shouldn’t being an apologist for apartheid be treated as equally obscene and as an affront to the people of Africa?

• Jordan is a former arts and culture minister.