The Apartheid System of South
excerpted from the book
The Politics of Cruelty
an essay on the literature
of political imprisonment
by Kate Millett
WW Norton, 1994, paper
The Apartheid System of South Africa
There are some places where control is total. South Africa. If
you are black. Here the power of the state and the power of a
dominant race have reached a crisis point, a web of restraint
unmatched in history. Even as it crumbles, the omnipotence of
this system is awesome. One sees it best through the eyes of the
black youth of the townships, its greatest victims and over the
last decade, its most determined enemies. Like that of their parents',
these children's very presence was illegal under apartheid. Nearly
everywhere black existence itself was against the law of the invader
- white South Africans, who comprise only 5 percent of the population,
had appropriated 87 percent of the land mass to themselves, including
all major cities, permitting South African blacks, who comprise
95 percent of the total population, only small parcels of arid
soil for black "homelands," compulsory reservations.
Under the apartheid system, a series of
laws made it technically illegal for blacks to appear anywhere
else at all, since their presence outside the slender reserves
of land allotted to them might be a criminal offense. However,
this land could not support them, and the only opportunities for
survival and employment lay in the white districts where their
labor was needed and counted upon by the white economy. So, while
on the one hand their presence anywhere outside the reserves was
forbidden, on the other hand the very operation of white society
depended upon exploiting them as its work force. Blacks were forced
to lurk in shantytowns outside white population centers in supposedly
clandestine if not invisible settlements in order to serve the
white population. Hence the townships. And the pass system.
Passes were complex and difficult to get-you
needed a job to get one, you couldn't get a job without one, as
a result, few residents of the townships actually had a pass.
A valid passbook involved a strict correctitude of job description
and hours, it had to be current and regularly renewed. The bureaucratic
regulations, details, and updates of passes were very arcane.
To satisfy them required days of waiting in line, days one missed
work. Therefore, very few of the hundreds of thousands of blacks
crouched near white cities in the only hope of subsistence employment
were there legally. The great mass were subject to arrest and
imprisonment at any time.
All township residents, legal or illegal,
were subject to search and seizure at any moment. Life under such
surveillance and the danger of imminent and violent attack was
a nightmare. Especially so after dark. And for children living
in abject poverty and housed in conditions that resemble those
of domestic animals, sleeping in shacks without clothes or beds
or sanitary facilities, it was a nightmare of enormous proportion.
There is something amazing in the way that children have become
the rebellion in black South Africa, its troops, its soul. It
is a new turn in history for youth to take such a leading role.
But the struggle has been a long one. In Amandla, Miriam Tlali's
novel of the student protests in Soweto, outside Johannesburg,
a character outlines the course of events which led to apartheid:
"With the discovery of gold and diamonds, the inevitable
was on the way. For the Africans, the die was cast. It was only
a matter of time and they would be robbed of all their land. These
same raw materials, the mineral resources which have to be tapped
by the use of African cheap labor (the main prop of this Apartheid
system) are now the trump card." White control was consolidated
in one piece of legislation after another: the Land Act of 1936;
the Color Bar Act of 1926; the Native Administration Act of 1927,
maintaining tribalism with chiefs to act as agents of white rule;
the Conciliatory Act of 1924, whereby whites were allowed trade
unions excluding blacks, who were not permitted to strike. Then
came the legislation creating the "homelands" and, finally,
influx control and the pass laws.
The system of apartheid was an extension
of Nazi racial method and, like its predecessor, did not neglect
education; legal categories and legislation were set up: "Colored
Education," "Indian Education," and finally "Bantu
Education," all of which promoted racial myth and ensured
a deliberately inferior education to create a servant class.
It was over the issue of education-specifically
the issue of the language of instruction-that the system broke
into pieces in 1976, when the Department of Bantu Education suddenly
decreed that all black schools had to teach Afrikaans instead
of English, depriving black youth of a world language and imprisoning
them in the language of their oppressors.
The rebellion had begun in Alexandria, outside Johannesburg, but
in a few days it had spread to the other black ghettos of Pretoria,
Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town. There is no school, there is
widespread looting, riot. Then a boycott, enforced by youngsters,
which has devastating effects upon the white economy. Strange
forces are now engaged. A war has been declared upon the young.
It will go on for a long time. Still more curious, the children
will triumph stage by stage, the attempt to impose Afrikaans will
fail, and the example of courage and determination of its young
people will inspire Soweto and finally a whole nation to resist
and in time to resist successfully against the enormous machinery
of their oppression.
But the costs were staggering even from
the first; thousands of children are imprisoned under the laws
permitting detention without trial. There is mass arrest and incarceration
of the young. Detention without charges or trial have proven everywhere
to create the circumstances of torture. South Africa is ~) the
first place this abuse of law has given rise to the widespread
torture of children. As apartheid reasserts its control, the arrests
begin; the army raids classrooms searching for "ringleaders,"
soldiers invading homes to pit child against child by bringing
youngsters they have arrested and terrorized along with them,
knocking on doors and pushing the small hooded figure into the
room. The hood has slits so the child can see but not be seen
and is given orders to identify his or her friends. The child
inside this hood has been interrogated, beaten, put through solitary
confinement and electric shock torture. A prisoner may be returned
to these conditions whatever he does: but what if the hood disguised
and protected him, what if pointing out another student could
Children are hunted down and arrested
merely for attending each other's funerals; expressions of collective
grief are forbidden and taken as resistance (Tlali describes how)two
girls who have been pursued from Doorknob cemetery into a private
house are caught hiding in a bedroom by security police: "They
dragged them both out, hitting them, and pushed them into a van
full of other sobbing kids, and drove them to Protea Police Station....
They locked them-about forty of them- into a small room with black-painted
walls. They kept them there, confined in that small place, for
hours and hours on end. It would become so hot, sweat was just
running all over their bodies . . . like being baked in an oven."