The Painful Birth of a New South Africa
REFLECTIONS OF AN ANTI-APARTHEID CHURCH ACTIVIST
My parents thought it was madness for a black American to move to South Africa. “They’ll never let you in,” my mother scoffed, desperately hoping to be proved right. But I received a visa and set off to witness what I had no reason to expect at the time — arguably, the most important period in the country’s history.
I arrived in 1987, the summer I graduated from law school, five days after my 24th birthday. My plan was to devote a year to The Great Moral Cause of my generation. Through contacts established before arriving, I was able to work in a church-funded “alternative” education project for black high-school students. I found Johannesburg easy to settle into. South African whites pride themselves on theirs being a Western country; I was quite at home with the way department stores, taxis, fast-food stands, and the like worked, unlike the way I struggled to understand them when I had visited India. Yet there was a foreign flavor to it all.
Johannesburg has been, officially, where the whites live. Africans, coloreds, and Indians were assigned their own respective townships, as per the Group Areas Act of 1951. The blacks I saw everywhere in the city were there to work and shop; because there is practically no industry or commerce in their own areas, they have been compelled to spend their money and expend their labor where they have been unable to live. This is just one aspect of apartheid, Afrikaans for separateness.
African nationalist movements throughout the continent began sweeping out colonial powers and establishing self-rule in the 1940s. South Africa was among the countries so liberated, but in its case the liberators as well as oppressors were white. The Afrikaner National Party’s surprise victory in 1948 against the predominately English-speaking United Party indicated the high level of discontent of the Afrikaner people. The Nationalists had captured the hopes of a community still stinging from the memory of Boer War concentration camps, angry about its economic exclusion, and hurt by the social discrimination and haughtiness displayed by the English-speaking minority. The new government intended to uplift the long-oppressed Afrikaners, and did so. Its most radical strategy was apartheid. Group Areas was just one aspect of a plan which also came to include mandatory race registration and declaration of the most undesirable land in the country as the true “homelands” of those who registered African. They automatically lost South African citizenship — the franchise was long gone — and became citizens of those outlying areas. These key policies were supported by a battery of what became known as “petty apartheid” laws. Miscegenation was criminalized, separate schools and hospitals established, buses and trains segregated. Hence, there was practically no social interaction between blacks and whites.
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