In Brief— A review of memories of the author’s experiences in South Africa in the early ‘80s when apartheid was in force.
Apartheid is Abhorrent Wherever it Occurs—
It was 1982 and we were on our way to an experience that was South Africa then…but exists today in another part of the world.
We landed in Namibia, a country with its own war for independence and dignity. It was hot and uncomfortable, but they wouldn’t let us off the plane while it refueled on its way to apartheid-era South Africa. We were about to learn about the reality of racial discrimination. We were about to learn what real discomfort was.
Apartheid means separation into at least two worlds. In South Africa it was the white world and the world of non-whites. There, the white rulers consisted primarily of Dutch and English descendants while the ruled majority consisted mainly of blacks, Indians, Asians, those of mixed heritage and other non-whites. To say it was unjust and oppressive is to grossly understate it. In many instances, it was dangerous and deadly for those who rebelled.
Instances of Apartheid—
Our first morning at breakfast we watched as a crowded bus from the black townships outside Johannesburg disgorged black men coming into the city to work for the day. Buses would carry those men back each evening to the townships. Blacks had to have official permission to stay overnight. Apartheid was strictly enforced.
New to South Africa, we took a tourist bus through the city of Johannesburg. The white tourists up front listened to the tour guide’s approved descriptions of the city. Sitting further back, my wife and I sat next to a young white woman who quietly gave us a counter-narrative to the glowing praise of the tour guide up front. Maybe it was those neon signs we wore that identified us as California liberals, but the story we heard was quite different from that of the official tour guide.
Memory of particulars has faded with the passage of years, but I recall that a razed area being described up front as a government-financed urban renewal project was given to us as a forced ouster of non-whites. And so it went as official glowing words were translated into reality by an anti-apartheid South African.
We sat sipping our wine in the hotel’s cocktail lounge high above the sparkling lights of the city. The lounge was full of white faces that evening, but at the next table were two well-dressed black men…the only two black faces in the room. Suddenly, two burly white men appeared. Clearly they were security men. The toughest-looking of the two addressed the black customers questioning why they were there. It quickly became apparent that the two black men were businessmen from another country. After a moment’s pause, they were permitted to stay. Apartheid had once again shown its ugly head.
At the airport for our South African Airways flight home, we walked past water fountains labeled “For Blacks Only” and a few feet away “For Whites Only.” A reminder of apartheid. I could barely understand the South African accent of the cheerful uniformed white gentleman who checked our tickets.
As we started to descend the ramp, a young white man ran up and stopped us, politely asking us to please post his large manila envelope in the United States. Aware that we were suspicious, he asked us to read the enclosures to assure ourselves that it was not a bomb. Seeing that the open envelope didn’t contain a bomb, we agreed. Once aboard the plane, we read the contents as suggested by the young man who hastily departed.
The journal within the addressed envelope detailed the government surveillance endured by the young anti-apartheid activist. His car had been broken into and his reports stolen by the security police on several occasions. Though he had been detained several times, I don’t recall if he had ever been jailed.
Given the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the killings of numerous activists, there is no doubt that opposition to government apartheid was risky, dangerous and deadly.
South African apartheid eventually collapsed despite the support of President Reagan and segments of the American government. Though apartheid is now history in South Africa, it is alive and well in Israel today generously supported by the American government. Israeli politicians and American supporters stoutly deny this, but if it walks like a duck, has feathers like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Apartheid simply changed its address.