In 2011 I produced a photographic exhibition for the Apartheid Archive Project http://www.apartheidarchive.org
This project aims to archive accounts of living under apartheid, or recollections of the effects of apartheid by those who lived this experience or where adversely affected by apartheid. The submissions are entirely voluntary and can be made online at the above address, as can the existing ones be read online.
My submission is as follows;
My first encounter with apartheid happened very early, long before I could call it by its name. I was four when uncle Lawrence came to stay with us in our little cottage in Hluhluwe village, one of many men who sojourned with us whilst passing through or working in the area. He had come to build a school, and I was elated, because this evidently meant that, unlike the rest of my siblings, I would have the good fortune to remain at home, and not be sent off to some distant place to school. I was wrong.
The school I was sent to the following year was 250km away, and I boarded with an aunt. I had turned five in December. I remember a few years later being perplexed as to why I was having to learn the absolutely foreign language of Afrikaans, when Zulu would have been more reasonable, it being my second language already.
For a while I believed my parents had malicious intent and simply never heard the explanation that the school was not for my or our use. It seemed too absurd an argument, much as one looks back at the machinations of apartheid as being some weird fantasy today.
I then had the experience of carrying an infant on my lap the hour-long drive to a spinster aunt. This infants grand-parents had approached my parents to adopt the baby, borne to their daughter, ‘that was one of our race, not of theirs’. My parents had seven kids, and found this aunt to take on the kid. Over the years, another two infants were found by my aunt on her stoep. The product of a white married farmer and his domestic worker.
The next big lesson came soon, when now at an even more distant boarding school of Little Flower in Ixopo, approximately 500 km from home and in my teens, I engaged in a conversation with about twenty other brown skinned boys like myself, about the reasons we were at this particular school. I voiced my opinion that it was because we were the products of white and black relationships, and obviously this is where kids like us were sent. I was flabbergasted when every single one of those kids denied they had black ancestry. It really got me thinking.
Then, after I’d been unceremoniously ejected from the school for some minor misdemeanor and found myself working in a sugar mill at the age of sixteen, I experienced the deep end as I well-and-truly entered the pressure cooker of apartheid. I discovered the Byzantine world of the ‘Mauritian’; I lived in the Mauritian quarters, belonged to the Mauritian club, clocked in at the white entrance to the mill as a Mauritian, and strangely enough, in the early seventies had access to the white swimming pool as a Mauritian. All this without having an ounce of Mauritian blood! I took my revenge on the system by inviting the brown skinned rough neck artisans who came annually to maintain the plant to take a dip in the white club pool, something I was quite incongruously entitled to do. The spectacle of all the whites ejecting from the water as the dirty brownies loudly splashed in was priceless.
The mills were not in the habit of employing coloureds into the position I found myself in, and I encountered a huge resentment from some of these so-called Mauritians who jealously guarded their jobs. I came close to murder in trying to keep my sanity whilst being psyched out in an effort to dislodge me from my position. A sane person of Mauritian descent saved me eventually, and that fact restored my faith in humanity.
I then took to worker politics, engaging, as the only brown skinned person, in lunchtime debates with the black workers who were attempting to unionise, joining the union which eventually materialized and eventually going on strike with them.
The experience of fratricide that I was subjected to on a weekly basis where one almost never attended a party without there being bloodshed certainly had a politicizing effect. You quickly got up to speed on just why we where so ready to massacre one another and engaged in the destructive behaviour we were prone to.
My next and first encounter with naked racism happened on my first trip to London on a sort of back packing adventure. Two biddies, quite tipsy, bumped into me, and in the presence of a Bobby, loudly called me a nigger and declared I should go back to where I came from. I was too amazed to be offended and quite literally laughed in their faces.
Not to say one hadn’t encountered racism back home, one didn’t have to look to far, just try finding a job, or buy or rent a house and open a newspaper to do so. The calls I made in my attempts to find another job where invariably met with a query on my ‘race’, and the response to hearing I was ‘coloured’ was invariably “Sorry, the jobs for whites only”, if it hadn’t been made clear enough on the advert. Or try making sense of the political goings on in the provinces away from the civilizing effects of the big cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town. It was an alienating effect. I still think we did our-selves a disservice when we desisted from a truth commission for the media industry. They got off Scott free.
My dad, until he got the benefit of Mandela’s compassionate redemption, spoke of the ‘terrorist Afrikaners’. I despaired for him until the copy of ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’, that I got him for perhaps his 75th birthday and that he read from cover to cover several times saved him. I was happy that he died at 80 free from that hurt and hate.
The thing though that I most objected about apartheid, was the things it made me do, like the activism I dabbled with, mostly through my photography, and what seemed like endless meetings, rallies and funerals one attended. That got up my nose sometimes, that I couldn’t just live a normal suburban life and not have to face a conscience that said, ‘you cannot take this lying down and face future generations with a straight face and clean conscience’.
The continuing effects of apartheid are manifold and manifest; we are still bound by our unequal starting blocks. The legacy of a deliberately poor education continues to haunt the vast majority of black people. A quick inventory of who owns what reveals the vast extent of the dispossession. The social ills bequeathed by the ghettoes we were confined to continue to plague black people.
Black people managed to rise above these constraints, both during our oppression, and more especially now that we have relative freedom to determine our fate. This being a testimony to our human spirit and its true to say that as much as an attempt was made to debase us in body and spirit, we have been bonded and made strong by our afflictions and paradoxically now that we have our freedom we find ourselves facing unfamiliar challenges as we find ourselves facing fully the spectre of the alienation of capital.