The Apartheid System of South Africa

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 free him?

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."

Politics of Cruelty

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