News and photographic agency

Prologue: Blame Me on Apartheid

By Adv. Vuyani Ngalwana SC

O’ ska kolota batho. Plan for funeral expenses. PIC: Thamsanqa Malinga

An insightful book such as this one could only have been written by one who has lived and grown up under apartheid in South Africa’s racially segregated townships. It is not desktop research stuff but is of a quality that gives it the authenticity of thoughtful delivery.

This book is a welcome development since the telling of too many of our stories —as black South Africans — is often done by people who have not experienced the life we have lived. Neither have they endured the unavoidable difficulties which we have been subject to. Consider, for example, that the stories of Nelson Mandela (South Africa’s first President under the first universal franchise), Winnie Madikizela Mandela (his wife and a fiery socio-political activist in her own right dubbed ‘Mother of the Nation’), as well as Steven Bantu Biko (leader of the Students’ movement in the 1960s and 1970s and a Black Consciousness Movement advocate and leader), have been told by people who have not walked one mile in their shoes. And so, in all three accounts mentioned above the lack of authenticity is palpable, but not in Malinga’s account.

One of the chapters in the book that rankles is the one about Townships. The mind boggles how some black South Africans have come to romanticise life in those townships. Talk of ‘the township economy’, as if we chose to move there and develop a vibrant economy separate from and independent of the rest of the country, is one of black South Africa’s most confounding ironies.

Some even tend to shame others for not visiting township, as if to suggest that they have somehow become turncoats. The memory of such depravity as the Group Areas Act, 1950, the Group Areas Act, 1966 and other depraved government policy interventions intended to segregate people according to race has somehow vanished into thin air.

These townships are glorified concentration camps. Nothing less. One thinks of them in the same vein as one thinks of Nazi Germany.

In talking of Nazi Germany, Lest We Forget, is another memorable chapter of the book, both for its text and for the thoughts and emotion it triggers.

There is no question that the Holocaust was a reprehensible and brutal crime. No adjective in the English language can even begin to do justice in describing the horror of the holocaust. So, one does not seek to play down the magnitude of that barbarism and the suffering of Jewish people when one draws parallels between the Holocaust, on the one hand, and the psychological scars etched by centuries of systematic and structural sculpting of inferiority complex in the minds and brains of black people and the corresponding sculpting of superiority complex in the minds and brains of white people in South Africa, on the other.

One has often argued that the evilest thing that successive apartheid governments could have done to destroy an entire nation is to deprive the black child of quality education as a matter of government policy. One can forgive (but not excuse) murderous rampages of whole populations. People die, and children are born. But the psychological damage that comes with systematic deprivation of the ability to think critically, to reason logically, and to make critical choices is inter-generational and therefore long-lasting. Of all apartheid’s enduring achievements, the psychological damage that it has caused to generations of the black nation in South Africa is the highest achievement.

Sadly, since 1994 that most evil and enduring apartheid achievement seem to be perpetrated by successive governments of what used to be a liberation movement, sacrificing the cerebral development of the black child at the altar of political expediency. It is a fact that ruling over an ignorant population is less complicated than having to account to a population that thinks, and therefore can reason and make informed choices, especially when the ruling elite has nothing to offer except promises of ‘a better life for all’ which often translates to food parcels and poverty trap social grants.

A qualified graduate begging for employment on the streets of Johannesburg. PIC: Thamsanqa Malinga

Yet, the Jewish people have fought for and obtained reparations for their suffering at the hands of Nazi Germany. More than that, we still read and hear in the news in 2020 about people who collaborated with the Nazis being tracked down around the world and brought to justice more than half a century after the crimes of which they are accused. One understands that politicians opted for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process that is now widely considered as having been flawed. 

But why should black people in South Africa not receive similar treatment as the Jewish people by way of reparations for the unimaginable cruelty that has been visited on them, the scars of which are still etched in their psyche? The funding of a specialist Leadership Academy, a Technology Centre, a Research and Development Institute would cost a fraction of what the Jewish people have received in reparations.

In his seminal and much-acclaimed essay, The Case for Reparations, American author and critical thinker, Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in May 2014, says the following which one thinks may be a good reference point for South Africa:

‘West Germany ultimately agreed to pay Israel 3.45 billion Deutsche marks, or more than $7 billion in today’s [May 2014] dollars. Individual reparations claims followed—for psychological trauma, for the offence to Jewish honour, for halting law careers, for life insurance, for time spent in concentration camps. Seventeen percent of funds went toward purchasing ships. “By the end of 1961, these reparations vessels constituted two-thirds of the Israeli merchant fleet,” writes the Israeli historian Tom Segev in his book The Seventh Million. “From 1953 to 1963, the reparations money funded about a third of the total investment in Israel’s electrical system, which tripled its capacity, and nearly half the total investment in the railways.” Israel’s GNP tripled during the 12 years of the agreement. The Bank of Israel attributed 15percent of this growth, along with 45,000 jobs, to investments made with reparations money. But Segev argues that the impact went far beyond that. Reparations “had indisputable psychological and political importance,” he writes. Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name. Assessing the reparations agreement, David Ben-Gurion said:

‘For the first time in the history of relations between people, a precedent has been created by which a great State, as a result of moral pressure alone, takes it upon itself to pay compensation to the victims of the government that preceded it. For the first time in the history of a people that has been persecuted, oppressed, plundered and despoiled for hundreds of years in the countries of Europe, a persecutor and despoiler has been obliged to return part of his spoils and has even undertaken to make collective reparation as partial compensation for material losses.'”

Successive apartheid regimes, and their supporters, owe black South Africans a colossal debt for much the same.

Self-Hate, finally, seems to be the bane on blackness. Mr. Malinga’s treatment of this sensitive subject is brutally frank. It is a function of the divide and rule motif that has been perfected by successive plunderers of South Africa’s resources – from colonisers to the current ruling elite.

The territory that is today South Africa has, since the arrival of colonisers in the 15th Century, been carved out for colonialist spoils. But there was no South Africa until about 1910 when the Dutch and the British carved out the territory between themselves into four colonies that were dominions of the British empire: the Orange River colony (now Fee State), the Cape (now Western Cape, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape), the Transvaal (now North West, Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga) and the Natal colony (now KZN).

South Africa only became a sovereign state in 1961. Even then, it was characterised by the division into the four original British colonies which were inhabited by Dutch/French descendants (FreeState, North West, Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga), on the one hand, and British descendants (KZN and the Cape) on the other.

So, the division has always been a feature of South Africa in recorded history. Successive apartheid ruling elites perfected that division with their Group Areas Acts and other ‘divide and rule’ policies. So, for example, black people classified as ‘Coloured’ under the harmlessly named Population Registration Act, 1950, could secure better jobs and salaries than black people classified as ‘Bantu’ or ‘African’, regardless of educational qualification or skill. Black people classified as ‘Coloured’ could live closer to places of work and have better amenities than black people classified as ‘Bantu’ or ‘African’.

Of course, people classified as ‘White’ had the best of all that was on offer, regardless of aptitude. So, in illustration of the presupposition above one could have a white man, who never even set foot at higher primary school, supervising a coloured man with Grade 10 education at the South African Railways and Harbours (now Prasa and Transnet),  and a coloured man with a Grade 8 supervising an African man with Matric at the South African Post Office – by law.

One should pause here to point out a curious irony. Even in 2019, we learnt about the appointment of a white man with a Matric as Chief Executive of an airline, owned by the government. The appointment is not done by a racist apartheid government known for its job reservation policies for white men in 1968; it is done in 2019 by the predominantly black government of what was once a liberation movement, i.e., Self-Hate as the chapter title in question endorses.

Returning then to the darker days of apartheid – with survival being a basic human instinct in desperate times, it should come as little surprise that many coloured people who fancied themselves as white because of the lighter hue and straighter hair than their fellow travellers were desperate to escape their ‘status’ in life as preordained by the Population Registration Act, and the limited opportunities that came with that status, and therefore passed themselves off as white. And many black African compatriots with lighter skin tones tended to straighten their hair, perfect their Afrikaans accents, and pass themselves off as coloured for a better life.

In those desperate situations, self-hate was born among black people. So, when the apartheid regime introduced the so-called “tri-cameral parliament” in 1983 – giving the right to coloured people and Indian people to vote for their own representatives in their separate parliaments, but not to black people who had been relegated to homelands as self-governing states – the illusion of superiority by coloured to African and by Indian to both was further entrenched.

So, the hierarchy of races – even among the black peoples of South Africa – is not a recent phenomenon. It has been carefully calibrated and systematically carved into the South African psyche over, at least, 70 years. What an irony it is, then, for a predominantly black government of a ‘broad church’ political party to entrench that self-hate – wittingly or not – by maintaining a standard of what is to one a sorry excuse for state-funded school education, and trapping black African people in poverty with carefully timed food parcels and social grants.

This is an insightful book that only one who has lived and grown up under apartheid in South Africa’s racially segregated townships could have written. It is not desktop research stuff but is of a quality that gives it the authenticity of thought and delivery.

History repeating itself.

Artwork: Riaan Wilmans

Will this book strike a nerve with the ruling class? One doubts. But should it strike a chord with fellow South Africans to the extent that they are moved to change the course of our history for the better and away from the cliff to which it is surely headed? One is hopeful.

The prologue was first published on Adv. Ngalwana’s blog:

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: