Apartheid is an Afrikaans word that means separateness, and was a system of racial segregation that governed south Africa for nearly fifty years, until 1994. It was officially made law by the Afrikaaner led National Party in 1948, but it was the continuation of injustices already happening in the country for decades. Its main aim was to protect the white domination over non whites regarding every aspect of life.
The whites thought of themselves as superiors and, therefore, blacks were seen as a threat. Blacks had to carry an ID at all times, obey strict curfews, couldn’t use certain facilities which were only for whites, and interracial marriages were forbidden. These were just a few of the nearly 150 laws that encompassed Apartheid. Any white person could ask anything from any black and they had to do it, no matter what.
Society was divided, and people was classified into four racial categories: whites, coloured (mixed race), Indians & blacks. They were, and still are, divided into different residential areas. Blacks had the least rights and freedom of all, and still do today. Coloured were seen inferiors to white but they looked at blacks over the shoulder. An interesting fact about coloured people is that, as I could learn from interacting with a few of them, they all seem to be of black mother and white father, with the implications that that might have had at the time, as it was even illegal to have sex among people of different races.
The regime at the time also used the black population as cheap labour, specially in the numerous gold mines. They received very low wages, couldn’t strike, were forced to seek work as migrant labour and could only live in overcrowded townships. Even today, blacks can only get unskilled jobs for very low wages. In Stellenboch, the majority of people working in the vineyards are black, while the whites own and run the farms and business.
Blacks were not considered citizens, therefore they couldn’t vote and didn’t have political rights. Education was also divided, as the state set up a separate education system with low budget and mandatory education for black ended at age thirteen and was structured to funnel blacks into menial migrant labour. It was basically exploitation by design!
There was resistant against these insane laws coming from students, young blacks and people like Nelson Mandela. His real name meant “troublemaker” and he lived up to that name becoming one of the main figures fighting against Apartheid in South Africa. He became active in the African National Congress, ANC, a black liberation movement. He organised numerous protests and acts of civil disobedience, using, sometimes, violence against “a government whose only reply is savage attacks” on black population. Therefore, among other strategies and responses, ANC used, as a last resource, sabotage, guerrilla warfare and open revolution. During one of those acts of sabotage, Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to death. In spite of his situation, he remained defiant and gave a three hour speech during his trial ending with a call for a free and democratic society. “It is an ideal for which I hope to live and to see it realised. If needs be, it is an ideal for which I’m prepared to die” were his words to the judge and jury. He spent 27 years in prison but his ideal was finally realised and he even became the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994.
Since the very first day I could see sings of Apartheid still being real for many people in South Africa. In Cape Town, where I stayed the first couple of days before moving to the township, I could see things that didn’t look normal to me. For one, there was no white people walking in the streets, they only seemed to move in cars. The only people walking were blacks and me. As a white man, I wasn’t supposed to be out in the street, and even less at night, or, as they very succinctly told me, I would be robbed, stabbed or killed by some black people. I just couldn’t believe it, so I decided to see it for myself. I went for a walk around the city and never had the feeling of being in danger wherever I went.
Same thing happened when I finally arrived to the township. I was living with a black family and also interacted with black people from the local organisations, but all seemed to have this stigma about black people as being dangerous. I wasn’t supposed to leave my house or the projects at any time in case I was attached by black people… I didn’t want to believe it and I set up to prove it to myself that it couldn’t be so bad. Therefore, I decided to go for short walks, at the beginning of my stay there, to scout the area and get to know my surroundings for the next couple of months. The first week I just walked in the few paved streets but, soon after, I started wandering through the small and narrow alleys between the myriad of shacks. At first, I went for early walks, even before sunrise, to avoid getting too much attention, as there were no white people living in the township when I first arrived. As the days and weeks went by, I was much more familiar with the area and could move around without any problems.
I still found some people who, very kindly and surprised I might add, warned me about the place being very dangerous. Some of them even told me that I shouldn’t be going around on my own. I have this theory about it that I guess proves my point of how Apartheid is still in the culture and society of South Africa, even though it was officially withdrawn years ago. I believe that people are, to say the least, suspicious of “the other,” whoever that may be, in many countries and cultures. It’s an unfortunate thing that we can see everywhere around the world. I don’t like generalising and even less in a place and society I don’t know or belong to. But, after two months walking around every single day in the morning, evening and even night around the township, I can say that Kayamandi is a safe place and its people are kind and helpful. Sure there’s crime, but like everywhere els in the world. There are bad people everywhere, but these people have a very tough life and not too many hopes to improve their situation. There’s nothing wrong with black people, it’s just a taint in the culture and people that comes from nearly fifty years of repression and campaign to subdue black people in South Africa. Things have changed, of course, but there’s still a long way to go to make South Africa a more equal and just place for all.