Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Where the real apartheid was

Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles was one of the best books I read last year. Dowden has worked in Africa as a journalist for decades, and that experience shows in the book. I’ve already posted on the Somalia chapter, and also meant to post on other countries but got caught up with distractions. Now, however, the book is on my desk again, and looking at the marked sections, it’s clear that there are at least three of four interesting bits I’d like to convey – each bit in a separate post.

Let me begin with South Africa and the apartheid system that existed there. This is what Richard Dowden (who, by the way, is a British), experienced while traveling in that country in 1979:
At the coach station in the center of Johannesburg I got off and went to find a lavatory. It was round at the back and stank as if it had not been cleaned for months. As I came out a black man walked in. He looked startled – or was it fear? He said something angrily but I didn’t understand. Then I looked back and saw a pale patch on the wall where a notice had been taken down. This was a lavatory for blacks only. It was not the first occasion that I encountered black resentment at a white crossing the apartheid frontier.
The South African government at the time was taking some cosmetic steps that would make the country look less of an apartheid state. What kind of impact did they have? Dowden writes:
Whites and blacks had completely different experiences of what apartheid actually was. In white areas, where only a handful of the black population ever went, apartheid meant the signs saying Whites Only or Non-Whites Only. In black areas like Soweto, however, there were no Non-Whites or Whites Only signs. So while for whites for those signs were the most visible manifestation of apartheid, most blacks never even saw them. The removal of the signs – welcomed by the liberals – did not affect blacks at all.
This is a key insight, something that may not have occurred to the casual observer. The real apartheid and its debilitating effects were to be seen in black townships, places whites never visited:
Whites never went to see Soweto or Winterfeld or New Brighton. They had no conception of what life was like in these officially created slums. These places were what blacks experienced as apartheid. Systematically dispossessed of land, homes and the opportunity to work, to have a family and a future, they were a slave class whose sole purpose was to provide cheap labor for whites. Above all, apartheid stripped them of their rights as citizens and their dignity as human beings.

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