What was apartheid?
Many visitors to South Africa ask ‘What exactly was apartheid?’. You might be puzzled at such a question because, surely, it was simply: legalised segregation of races. There was Grand Apartheid which was a massive grab of all resources for the benefit of whites; and there was Petty Apartheid which affected all individuals’ personal lives.
However, what people usually want to know more about, is: ‘How did it work?’. And that is a complicated answer! Briefly, it worked by means of a series of laws (known as ‘Acts’) which controlled every aspect of the lives of black people – where they could live, what they could do, their education, whom they could marry, where they could shop, all their movements around the country, and even which public benches they could sit on.
One such law was the ‘dompas’ which literally means ‘dumb pass’. All black people outside the confines of their government designated areas were legally required to carry passbooks, sometimes known as ‘reference’ books. Police officers could apprehend any black person and ask to see it. Failure to produce the dompas resulted in being arrested and imprisoned if one could not pay the required fine.
In Cape Town’s suburb of Langa a Pass Museum has been established in what was then a post office and holding cells. South Africa has a long history of pass laws going back to the 18th century but the dompas was the most notorious of all. It was eventually abolished in the 1980s.
The Sharpeville Massacre
Tomorrow, 21 March, SA commemorates Human Rights Day (International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as declared by the UN) . On this day in 1960 a group of residents from the township of Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, marched to the police station to protest the dompas. The goal was for all males to leave their passbook at home and march to Orlando police station asking to be arrested en masse. The police took fright when they saw the marchers approaching and began shooting at them. On that day – which came to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre – 69 people were killed, hundreds were injured, and it was the start of emergency action throughout the country which resulted in many more deaths and arrests.
This call for the march had been put out by the PAC (Pan African Congress), a relatively new movement led by Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe who was also imprisoned at Robben Island. His party is less remembered than Nelson Mandela’s ANC (African National Congress) for its political struggle but nonetheless played an important role in the liberation of black South Africans. Sobukwe was so feared by the apartheid government that he was considered more dangerous than Nelson Mandela. Even during his time on Robben Island, he was kept away from all other inmates in a small house next to the dogs’ kennels. He was arrested on the day of the march and spent the rest of his life in prison or solitary confinement in his home. He died in 1978 having been denied cancer treatment by the government.
Tomorrow’s Human Rights Day is one of the most important of all public holidays in South Africa – we may not be a perfect country but we celebrate the fact that we have come a long way from the days where freedom of movement was based on the colour of one’s skin.