Monday, July 5, 2010

Pre-liberation Pretoria: Petty apartheid

Apart from Nelson Mandela, Gold, and more recently, the World Cup, South Africa is famous for something far less pleasant: apartheid.

I didn't engineer it, and I was glad when it was over, but I did witness some of it, and thought you might wonder what it was like from the perspective of the opressor. I hate putting it that way. I'm sure I've never opressed anyone in my life, but people are grouped, and there's no denying that I belonged to that group of opressors whether I liked it or not. I was born into it.

I probably began to become aware of apartheid when I was five years old. There was a railway station with two bridges crossing the lines: a 'Whites only' bridge and... the other one. As bridges go, they were probably equally good, but no person of colour was allowed to set foot on the hallowed bridge reserved for those of paler skin tone.

Once, in a fit of mischief, I ran across the 'wrong' bridge and was stopped by an angry black woman who grabbed me fiercely by the shoulder and instructed me to make use of 'my own' bridge. I couldn't understand her anger, but then, I didn't know what it was like to have to have a 'pass' just to be in town, or perhaps to be forcibly moved becuase one's home was in a 'white' area.

She wasn't really angry with me, but at five years old, one doesn't understand that - all one sees is the fury. I remember being very glad that I could walk across the 'White' bridge then - thereby avoiding that fierce woman. I wonder now what her history was - she must have been very embittered to take it out on a small child, even in such a trivial way. Terrible things must have been done to her.

Petty apartheid (the sort applied to bridges, benches and busses) would be funny if it wasn't so downright stupid. Stupidity can be funny, I'll admit, but not in this case. This is just sad. Some white people wanted to pretend they weren't in Africa at all, and the solution was to hide all black Africans (unles they were serving one in some way) from view. If they'd had enough money to build subways underneath the pavements, I suppose they'd have done it in order to contribute to this illusion. Sad. Stupid.

I suppose it can be an allegory for other things: things we'd rather not think about, which we relegate to the mental equivalent of the 'Other' bridge - out of sight, out of mind, something that should be attended to, but isn't. Maybe that's part of the reason I'm writing this

Coming up: schools, pass-laws, uniforms and bomb blasts (that should cover it).

Today's pic: I just like it, that's all.


  1. I dunno - if I was that woman, it would have been like, not only do they make us go by a different bridge, but then they use it when they want to. Also I think there's this assumption that the oppressed aren't racist back. If I was a black guy during the apartheid, I'd bloody hate white people.

  2. Given the way races mix here and that I've seen so-called white people who were darker than so-called black people, they need a more practical approach than just using the labels. Similar to amusement parks that have wooden cartoon characters holding up a hand with a speech balloon that says "You must be this tall to ride", you guys should post a color chart with the inscription "You must be this pale to cross this bridge." Then if you've spent too much time in the sun and/or used too much cold cream, the guard is allowed to pepper spray your eyes.

  3. I like today's pic too.
    Grant is on to something- in a few generations, we may not need to discriminate based on color. We'll have to find another reason to oppress each other- like sexual differences. Oh wait- we already do oppress for that.
    Another well written post.

  4. very interesting.It's true South Africa is associated with consciousness. But I would like to think that the old generation of hate mongers are slowly dying. That's the hope. It seems that the younger generation is more tolerant of ethnic differences. The same can be said of the U.S.

  5. typo "It's true South Africa is associated with apartheid in the American consciousness."
    My computer deleted a section.

  6. Exactly 'Pure tones': the lady was traumatized, brutalized or other things ending in 'ized'. Its perfectly understandable - but not when you're only five years old!

    Grant, PAMO: there will always be discrimination - for one reason or another. At the moment, its much more useful to be female or dark-skinned in SA. A white male has a great deal of difficulty finding work in this country. The inequalities of the past being addressed with the inequalities of the present. Still, understandable I suppose.

    Things are pretty good inter-racially at the moment.

    Israel: that's right, and in SA we think of Americans as those who solved their 'Race Problem' by means of genocide. I suppose history doesn't make anyone look particularly good!

  7. thanks for that peak in to your life...

    I live in a very diverse area & it's really sad to see how people self segregate & how people of every color imaginable discriminate against each other.

  8. Yes, Karl and if it wasn't colour it would be something else - red-headed people perhaps, or fat ones or smokers :)