Mar 12

The Horror of Apartheid

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—

Nelson Mandela

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.

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  1. I’ve just finished reading a book about Ku Klux Klan murders along the Mississippi River in the 1960s called Devils Walking by Stanley Nelson. Stanley is a friend of mine who edits The Concordia Sentinel, a small, weekly newspaper in Ferriday, Louisiana, about 10 miles across the Mississippi River from Natchez, MS.

    In 2007, Stanley began investigating cold cases on klan murders amid renewed interest by the FBI. His work was picked up by The New York Times and prompted the first grand jury hearing on these cold cases in fifty years. He was nominated as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

    I was born in 1957, and was a child when much of the things detailed in his book happened. Aside from being aware of a boycott of white businesses in Natchez and being the mayor’s neighbor when his house was bombed, I was blisssfully unaware of almost all of it. I remember people wondering if it had been the blacks or the klan who’d bombed Mayor Nosser’s house, as he was unpopular with both groups. But we never heard much more about it. My parents must’ve gone to great efforts not to talk about things in front of us children. We spent every weekend at our cabin on the river where we read by gas lanterns, rode horses, fished, boated and swam on the big river.

    I had no idea until a few years ago that one of the largest klan rallies in the country had taken place in Natchez. I do remember my mother being upset that Daddy had hired a man named Claude Fuller to paint the back porch. As it turned out, Fuller had murdered 67-year-old Ben Chester White in an attempt to attract the attention of Martin Luther King whom he hoped to draw to Natchez and assassinate. I still remember when I went to college at Ole Miss and someone said, “You’re from Natchez? Don’t they have a lot of klan down there?” I was indignant. Heaven’s no. I’d never seen or even heard of a cross being burned in anyone’s yard. I’d never heard about the murders, beatings and bombings that took place on both sides of the river.

    To say that the things I read in Stanley’s book shocked me to the core is an understatement. I recognized so many people’s names. Even today, I share a a street address with Mayor Nosser’s grandsons, and I realize how little time has elapsed since this shameful chapter in our local history. Fayette, Ms. Mayor Charles Evers, whose brother, civil-rights worker Medgar Evers, was murdered by a segregationist, was in town a few weeks ago sharing stories about those times with Tony Byrne, who was elected Mayor after Mr. Nosser.

    I highly recommend Stanley’s book. He’s also an amazing historian who writes about local history in the area, going as far back as the 1700s. Fascinating, post, Don. Thanks for sharing it.

      • Don Bay on March 12, 2017 at 19:16

      Although I compared the vicious Israeli apartheid with that of South Africa, you remind us that not only did apartheid exist in the American southern states, it exists today albeit in a different form. Further, it’s not just in the southern states, it is in all the states of America. It clearly exists in the south today where, for example, the state of Arkansas is rushing to execute (itself a barbaric throwback) several black men. Skin of a different color is “The Other” that, to some benighted people, must be opposed, must be rooted out.

      We see the Republicans in congress urgently seeking to undo the health legacy of America’s first black president. That may in some cases be subconscious racism, but it is racism nonetheless. This is America’s apartheid in different clothes. The Republican effort is an effort to preserve America as a white society. Not all whites, mind you, but Trump-voting racist whites. Apartheid hasn’t yet died the death it so richly deserves.

      Thanks for reminding us that apartheid is still alive and well in America.

  2. From the South African Side I recommend “My Traitor’s Heart” by Rian Malan, an Afrikaner man, about the realities of Apartheid, and” Rivonia’s Children” by Glenn Frankel about the opponents of Apartheid, including Nelson Mandela. Both books describe aspects of those years and are very good reads as well.

    For us, we have been associated with the Pholela Community Health Centre since arriving here in 2003. Pholela was the beginning of Community Oriented Primary Health Care in the world in the 1940s, created by Sidney and Emily Kark, who were Jewish doctors from Jerusalem. It was revolutionary and has spread throughout the world, but it was ended in South Africa by the National Party after it gained power in 1948 and established Apartheid.

    And never doubt that Apartheid is alive and well in the minds of some white South Africans to this day. A lot has happened to erase Apartheid, but it’s effects here can still be seen in many ways and places.

    Thanks for the post, Don. How can we explain almost 50 years of a horrible system. And how can we explain a version of that same system in the United States for longer than that?

      • Don Bay on March 13, 2017 at 07:16

      Thanks for offering good books on the South African experience with apartheid. Readers would do well to learn the lessons of apartheid as well as how they apply to America.

      Given the world’s reaction to “The Other” and the prevalent fear of change that grips the unthinking people of Earth, it’s easy to understand that apartheid is still alive in the minds of too many white South Africans. In light of the irrational fear that drives today’s march toward closed societies, it’s not hard to explain 50 years of a horrible system. Humans, as herd animals, don’t do change well. They want things to remain the same forever. It’s wise to remember that the one unchanging thing in the universe is…change.

      Thanks for telling us about how it is in South Africa, and thanks for all you are doing to bring positive change to South Africa.

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