It was based on white supremacy and the repression of the black (African, Coloured and Indian) majority of the population for the benefit of the politically and economically dominant group, Afrikaners, and other Whites.
Broadly speaking, apartheid was delineated into petty apartheid, which entailed the segregation of public facilities and social events, and grand apartheid, which dictated housing and employment opportunities by race.
Most white South Africans, regardless of their own differences, accepted the prevailing pattern.
Nevertheless, by 1948 it remained apparent that there were occasional gaps in the social structure, whether legislated or otherwise, concerning the rights and opportunities of nonwhites.
The commission concluded that integration would bring about a "loss of personality" for all racial groups.
The Union of South Africa had allowed social custom and law to govern the consideration of multiracial affairs and of the allocation, in racial terms, of access to economic, social, and political status.
The first apartheid law was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949, followed closely by the Immorality Act of 1950, which made it illegal for most South African citizens to marry or pursue sexual relationships across racial lines.
The Population Registration Act, 1950 classified all South Africans into one of four racial groups based on appearance, known ancestry, socioeconomic status, and cultural lifestyle: "black", "white", "coloured", and "Indian", the last two of which included several sub-classifications.
A codified system of racial stratification began to take form in South Africa under the Dutch Empire in the late eighteenth century, although informal segregation was present much earlier due to social cleavages between Dutch colonists and a creolised, ethnically diverse slave population.
This was followed by Ordinance 3 in 1848, which introduced an indenture system for Xhosa that was little different from slavery.
The various South African colonies passed legislation throughout the rest of the nineteenth century to limit the freedom of unskilled workers, to increase the restrictions on indentured workers and to regulate the relations between the races.
The Franchise and Ballot Act of 1892 instituted limits based on financial means and education to the black franchise, The Glen Grey Act of 1894, instigated by the government of Prime Minister Cecil John Rhodes limited the amount of land Africans could hold.
In 1905 the General Pass Regulations Act denied blacks the vote, limited them to fixed areas and inaugurated the infamous Pass System.