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 of non whites in every aspect of life.
White South Africans thought of themselves as superior and, therefore, black South Africans were seen as a threat. Blacks had to carry ID at all times, and obey strict curfews. They 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 Apartheid encompassed. A white person could ask anything from a black person and they had to do it, no matter what.
Society was divided, and people were classified into four racial categories: white, coloured (mixed race), Indian & black. They were, and still are, divided into different residential areas. Blacks had the least rights and freedom of all, and still do today. Coloured people were seen as inferior to whites but they looked down on blacks. An interesting fact about coloured people is that, as I learned from interacting with a few of them, they all seemed to have a black mother and white father, with the implications that that might have had at the time, as it was even illegal for people of different races to have sex with each other.
The regime at the time also used the black population as cheap labour, especially 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 Stellenbosch, the majority of people working in the vineyards are black, while the whites own and run the farms and businesses.
Blacks were not considered citizens, therefore they couldn’t vote and didn’t have political rights. Education was also segregated. The state set up a separate education system with a low budget for black students and mandatory education ended at age thirteen. It was structured to funnel blacks into menial migrant labour. It was basically exploitation by design!
Resistance against these insane laws came 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 in the fight 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.” Along with other strategies and responses the ANC used, as a last resort, sabotage, guerrilla warfare and open revolution. In 1962, during one of those acts of sabotage, Mandela was arrested 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.
From the very first day I could see signs that Apartheid was still a reality 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 were no white people walking in the streets, they only seemed to move in cars. Apart from myself, the only people on foot were blacks. As a white man, I wasn’t supposed to be out in the street, and even less so 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 for myself. I went for a walk around the city and never felt that I was in danger no matter where I went.
The same thing happened when I finally arrived at 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 idea that black people were dangerous. I wasn’t supposed to leave my house or the projects at any time in case I was attacked. I didn’t want to believe it and I set out to prove to myself that it couldn’t be so bad. I decided to go for short walks, at the beginning of my stay there, to explore 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 attracting 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 became much more familiar with the area and could move around without any problems.
I still found some people who, surprised to see me there, very kindly warned me that the place was 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 that Apartheid is still present in the culture and society of South Africa, even though it ended 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 so about a place and society I don’t know or belong to. But, after two months walking around the township every single day in the morning, evening and even at night, I can say that Kayamandi is a safe place and its people are kind and helpful. Sure there’s crime, but this is true of everywhere in the world. There are bad people everywhere, but these people have a very tough life and not too many hopes to improving their situation. The problem is not black people, it’s aftermath of Apartheid. 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.