Doing Whatever It Takes: Enforcing Segregationist Policies in South Africa

                Upon entering the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, I was given a laminated business-card sized piece of paper.  On it was written “Non-white”.  I looked around at the cards in my classmates’ hands.  Some held cards that were the same as mine, and others held cards that said “Black”.  When we reached the gate, there were two openings, one for “Blacks Only” and one for “Non-whites Only”.  Our card determined through which door we were allowed to pass, thus giving us our first glimpse of life under the segregationist policies of apartheid South Africa.

                Before being able to grasp the concepts of segregation in apartheid South Africa, one must first understand the intricate system of racial classification that was once used.  This constituted the opening exhibit of the museum.  Surrounded by enlarged replicas of identification cards and documents including individuals’ photographs, names, racial identifications, and other personal information, I learned about South Africa’s system of racial classification, which laid the foundation for racial segregation and the apartheid ideology.  Individuals in South Africa were issued identity documents which specified their race, including but not limited to: white, black, colored (descendents of the first mixed relationships), Asian, or Indian.  The police could demand to see these documents at any time and from any person, but the targets of such interrogation were almost always non-whites.  One’s racial identification determined one’s rights, such as voting (which at this time was reserved for whites), place of residence (individuals were consigned to live in racially segregated areas), job opportunities, and educational opportunities.  Unlike the dualistic nature of segregation in the United States prior to the Civil Rights movement, which created a distinction between “Black” and “White”, racial identification in South Africa was much more complex, with blacks being at the absolute lowest end of the spectrum, while Indians, Asians, and Coloreds all ranked socially higher.  This complexity is evidenced by the Population Registration Act of 1950, which allowed a person to appeal in writing against their racial classification.  Sometimes fathers and mothers or brothers and sisters within the same family could be classified differently, based on slight variations in their skin pigmentation, facial features, or other characteristics, thus effectively breaking apart the family with horrendous consequences.  However, under this act only a very small percentage of people actually were able to change their identification.  By looking at the photographs in the display at the museum, and by thinking about the various South Africans that I have met while I have been here, I think it would be extremely difficult to try to classify people into these rigid racial identities.  Yet, we continue to do so even in America.  Categories such as “Black”, “White”, “Hispanic”, and “Asian” permeate our society, and yet how easily do any of us truly fit in any of these specific categories?  Might someone categorize us incorrectly?  Should it matter to which category (or categories) we belong?

                One of the most visible signs of segregationist policy in South Africa was the enforcement of territorial segregation.  Racial segregation became official policy in 1910, and in 1913 the Land Act reserved 8% of South African territory for Africans (the majority) and 92% for whites (the minority), thus effectively robbing Africans of their claim to their native lands and turning it over to the ruling whites.  This act served as the foundation for policies of territorial segregation.  This concept is, I believe, similar to the land ownership restrictions put in place in America during and after slavery, which prevented most blacks from owning their own land.  The Urban Areas Act of 1923 furthered this segregation by restricting the numbers of Africans residing in towns.

When the Afrikaner nationalists won the election in May 1948, they introduced apartheid to South Africa because they believed these previous policies of segregation had “failed”.  Afrikaners considered the presence of mixed-race slums to be evidence of this failure.  The slums developed because of low wages paid to both white and black workers, and were seen as sites of disease and moral degradation.  The slums posed the threat of racial mixing, and thus the weakening of white supremacy, and therefore must be eradicated.  Territorial segregation was enforced under the apartheid regime through forced removals and the use of passbooks.  Beginning in the 1960s, the apartheid government forcibly uprooted whole communities of people and relocated them to more “appropriate”, and racially segregated, areas.  By 1970 over 1.5 million people had been relocated to resettlement camps.  This included the people of District Six, a diverse, multi-racial community we learned about while in Cape Town.  Mark Mathabane also refers to these forced removals in his memoir, Kaffir Boy, when he describes how his family learns that their township of Alexandra is going to be bulldozed and the residents forced to move to a tribal reserve or another township.

Another way of enforcing territorial segregation under the apartheid regime was with the issuing of passbooks to blacks.  One of the displays at the museum contained a quote stating, “The African must carry his passbook with him religiously twenty-four hours a day.  If he is caught without it the result is almost always a fast trip to jail”.  These passbooks contained information about where blacks were allowed to live, work, and travel, thus restricting their movement around the city, province, and country.  If a black was found to be without his or her pass, or with a pass that was not kept “in order” or up-to-date, then he or she would be breaking the law, and would be punished accordingly.  The importance and necessity of the passbooks is a theme throughout a large portion of Kaffir Boy.  Mathabane relates how both his mother and his father frequently had to flee from the police because their passes were not in order.  One specific example from the book was when Mathabane’s father was laid off and the family was starving for food, yet his mother could not apply for a permit to look for a job because her pass was not in order and she was living “illegally” with her husband and children in the township.  The maintenance of the passbook was a vicious cycle, and it seems as though it was nearly impossible to have a perfect pass at all.  This provided easy motive for the police to raid townships and homes, question and arrest individuals, and to ensure that blacks were unable to move up in life or enter the white world in any meaningful way.

What I have learned about apartheid and its enforcement of segregationist policies has made me realize the lengths that some people will go to in order to keep others oppressed and subservient.  The entire system of apartheid was a tangled web of racism, segregation, and discrimination, designed to ensure that the whites prospered and the blacks suffered.  As I reflect on my experiences in South Africa so far, I can see the remnants of these detrimental policies all around me.  I also think about the lasting legacy of segregation in America, and knowing that the imprint of segregation continues to haunt us even decades after its supposed demise I wonder…how long will it haunt South Africa?

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