Apartheid had a devastating impact not only on the blacks but anyone classified as “non-white” in South Africa. The tiny white minority usurped the bulk of the country’s resources and exploited the rest for its own selfish ends.
With Nelson Mandela’s death, an era has ended. He struggled against apartheid suffering prolonged imprisonment but upon release chose reconciliation over revenge.
Meaning separate in Afrikaans, apartheid had a devastating impact on the black majority as well as other non-whites: Indians, coloureds, etc. I also experienced it firsthand on my first visit to South Africa in July 1988. It was a journey in learning, both the brutal nature of apartheid as well as the history of Muslim suffering and struggle.
At the time, Canadian citizens were required to obtain a visa for South Africa. The consulate in Toronto looked more like a prison than an office. Multiple metal doors and turnstile bars had to be crossed before arriving at an equally fortified window to submit one’s passport for visa. Pointed questions and interrogation were routine.
Johannesburg Airport and the multilane highways made it look like a developed country. As we approached Laudium — the Indian township outside Pretoria where my hosts lived — the landscape changed. Two things were most noticeable: shantytowns dotting the landscape where the blacks lived and the number of black men and women walking on road shoulders.
Laudium was reserved for what the apartheid system called an “Indian” township. People, whether Muslim or Hindu, whose ancestors had come primarily from India’s Gujarat State, were forced to live there. Apartheid divided the land in such a way that the black majority was shut out in rural Bantustans lacking even basic necessities. Many drifted to the more developed urban centres and set up squatter camps near areas reserved for “Indians.” The whites lived further away in gated communities. The “Indian” townships thus served as a buffer between whites and blacks.
Blacks were required to carry a passbook that they had to produce on demand to the police. Without a passbook, a black person would end up in prison and suffer the customary police brutality. Blacks did menial work or worked as domestic servants — and still do — in the homes of affluent “Indians” and whites. Most Indian homes also provided accommodation to avoid the servants’ long trek home in shantytowns. All houses had — and still do — metal bars on doors and windows. Armed robberies and other violent crimes were common even though the Indians did not mistreat the Africans the way the whites did. True, they could have treated them better but in apartheid South Africa, fear reigned and racial interaction was minimal.
I was invited to attend the International Hajj conference in Port Elizabeth, another predominantly “Indian” town on the Indian Ocean. Other stops included Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria and Pietersburg (now renamed Polokwane, which was the ancestral African name of the settlement). Apart from speaking at a number of events, I also visited the Cross Roads black township in Cape Town. My hosts were apprehensive when I suggested a visit there. They wanted to hire a casper — an armoured personnel carrier used by the police and army — to take me there. I flatly refused and insisted we would go there in the car.
We walked into the township and initially the black residents looked at us with curiosity and some hostility but when we explained we had come as friends, they opened up. I was deeply moved by conditions in the camp. These were literally tin shacks with no amenities and little protection from the environment.
In Durban, my hosts had told the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) that a journalist was visiting from Canada. A reporter and cameraman met me at the airport. Their first shock was to discover that I was not “white.” The female reporter suggested to me, “having seen for yourself you would agree, wouldn’t you that the treatment of blacks is much better than presented by media in the West?” I was appaled at her suggestion and told her I had just visited Cross Roads in Cape Town and had not seen worse conditions anywhere else in the world. There was not a word of my interview on that evening’s newscast. Instead, it showed footage of my exiting the terminal building with a voice over that a journalist from Canada was visiting South Africa to “enjoy” its hospitality and witness firsthand the great progress it had made!
I also visited Soweto and Atteridgeville, two black townships near Johannesburg. A few days later, returning from Pietersburg, we were stopped at a military checkpoint. All vehicles were searched. We discovered that two ANC guerrillas had been intercepted and killed. Their bloodied bodies lay on the side of the road providing a glimpse into the bloody nature of apartheid.
Little did we realize then that Mandela would walk out of prison a free man in 18 months’ time and apartheid would end four years later.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought