First impressions of the ‘old’ South Africa
So there I was: in Africa after a two-year hiatus, in the apartheid state no less, and in the arms of my South African girlfriend with a few dollars in my back pocket–what the hell was I thinking. As some wise wag once said—“love is blind” --ain’t it the truth!
Let it be said that I was not planning on retracing some imperial explorer’s route through uncharted waters or following in anyone’s footsteps into Africa—I was making my own footsteps. Africa had been terra incognita when I first travelled overland there the year before in 1982. However, venturing into South Africa would be another story. Apart from those few South Africans I had met on the kibbutz in 1982, I knew of no other South Africans in Canada. As such, there were no points of reference for me to glean information from regarding the upcoming trip. My only connection to the much-vilified racist regime of South Africa was through my South African girlfriend and of course she would only paint a rosy picture of it without all the “western” tarnish. Nevertheless, despite my impending return to Africa for a second time, travelling to South Africa would be venturing into the unknown. For that matter, the minority “white” Republic of South Africa (RSA) was almost totally isolated from the rest of ‘black Africa’ through a heavy barrage of political, sports and economic sanctions against the apartheid regime both from within Africa and the rest of the world.
Naturally, my South African girlfriend Dalene and I had kept in touch by long distance aerogrammes but words did not suffice and we longed for the warm embrace of each other. The question that often cropped in the minds of friends and family when talking about this next trip to South Africa was—why? Why would anyone from the ‘western world’ want to go to visit a country, which had such a bad name—‘the skunk of the free world’? To further aggravate the topic, I had recently read an article in some scholarly quarterly, which lumped South Africa in with such repressive luminaries as Paraguay, North Korea, Iran, and Israel. They were all considered as ‘pariah states’ because they answered to no one, had sanctions (political, economic and sport) imposed and they were an evil unto themselves. As anti-apartheid activist South African exile Peter Hain said—“We were the lepers of the world, the pariahs of the world.” South Africa was lumped in with these ‘pariah states’ because of the minority ‘whites’ apartheid policies towards the majority of the population who were Africans. Be that as it may, some friends and other people might condemn for being in love with 'the enemy' as Dalene was an Afrikaner. Nevertheless, I was going to go back to the continent come hell or high water. No doubt, apartheid was a thorny issue but I sure as hell was not going to be able to change that singlehandedly. I just wanted to find out what it was firsthand.
A few comments on “apartheid”.
|An attempt at a political cartoon I put in my|
travel diary in a later trip through RSA in 1986.
In the 1980s, just mentioning the term ‘apartheid’ was enough to get you into a fight in North America let alone anywhere else in the ‘free world’. ‘Apartheid’ is an Afrikaans term which means “separateness”. In the Republic of South Africa, apartheid was a way of separating the different races in South Africa. In historical terms, the 1948 elections were a watershed for apartheid. In the 1948 elections, “apartheid’ was a policy and platform that the National Party ran with under the guidance of its leader—Daniel Malan. The actual “father of apartheid” was Hendrik Verwoerd who had been the Minister of Native Affairs in Malan’s 1948 government. Verwoerd’s main responsibility was in creating most of the apartheid legislation. Verwoerd was so revered by the Afrikaner populace that even after his death in 1966, it would not be out of place to find his biography on display in any right thinking Afrikaner’s bookshelf. Apartheid was a system of legal separation, which guaranteed and maintained minority rule by the ‘white’ population over the larger ‘non-white’ population. It was also a way to make sure that the white minority stayed in power and to hold back the threat of swart gevaar, or the “black peril” that the richer white society perceived to threaten their cozy way of life. There had been some form of segregation of the races in South Africa going back to colonial times but “separateness” or apartheid became an official policy in 1948. Accordingly, the various racial groups were broken into four categories: “black” (African), “white” (Afrikaner/English or European), “coloured” (Cape Coloured) and “Indian” (from India or Malay). It was interesting to note that a group of Japanese tourists were granted “honorary white” status on their visitor visas to South Africa during my 1984 trip.
The first cornerstone of the apartheid policies was the Group Areas Act of 1950. Up to that time, most urban areas had been racially diversified. With the new Group Areas Act, each race was told where they could or could not live and this act was also a precursor for the eventual policy of ‘forced removals’. As a result, three million people were forcibly removed from their traditional homes or moved to newly created townships and many more were imprisoned for flaunting any of the apartheid rules.
Not only were people told where they had to reside but the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953) ensured the separateness of the races or apartheid of the state. Under this act there would be separate beaches, hospitals, buses, drinking fountains, washrooms, schools, coffee bars, cashiers at supermarkets…etc. Moreover, signs which designated areas for “Net Blankes’ or “Whites Only” were posted everywhere to remind you of your racial standing and where you were allowed to go and where you were prohibited to enter. In 1956 parliament, Prime Minister Hans Strijdom uttered the now famous line—
“Either the white man dominates or the black man takes over.”
In South Africa, the ‘blacks’ easily outnumbered the ‘whites’ in population yet the ‘blacks’ had no voting rights or for that matter— any rights whatsoever. There was a constant drone and fear amongst most South African ‘whites’ that if the Africans got the vote, that they would take over a prosperous economy and ruin the country. A look north of the Limpopo to the once stable 'colonial' economies of Zimbabwe and Zambia would only reinforce any ‘white’ South African’s view of what a one party state might look like under African rule.
|Political postcard from Rhino Bookstore, Zimbabwe, 1986.|
The second cornerstone of apartheid was the policy of ‘separate development’ of the homeland structure under President Verwoerd in 1958. Taking into account that the ‘black’ population was growing faster than the ‘whites’ and knowing that many of the blacks would work in ‘white areas’, Verwoerd came up with the clever, if not, deceitful policy of a ‘homelands system’. With these new ‘homelands’ outside of designated ‘white areas’, ‘blacks’ would now become citizens of these contrived ‘black homelands’ or Bantustans and would therefore have to forfeit their claims as citizens of the then Union of South Africa. As a result, they would be considered as foreign migrant workers who would travel daily from their ‘homelands’ or Bantustans with temporary work permits to work in the ‘white’ areas. They would be required to carry a pass called the dompass with them when they travelled outside their Bantustans. Over time, there were ten Bantustans, which were allocated according to the various African ethnic groups, i.e. KwaZulu for the Zulus and KwaNebele for the Ndebele tribes. Of these ten, four Bantustans, Transkei (1976), Bophuthatswana (1977), Venda (1979) and Ciskei (1981) became independent but they were never formally recognized internationally by anyone except by the South African government. So this became a bone of contention because the South African government would point to the success of these ‘independent’ homelands that really had no diplomatic relations outside of Republic of South Africa or RSA. On a different front, the casino and Las Vegas style resort of Sun City became a cause célèbre as many international artists and entertainers boycotted playing there, but there were others who flouted the boycott and played there despite the acrimony of fellow artists.
During the course of my travels in RSA, one subject that often arose during conversations about apartheid was that Canada and America were no angels on human rights—we also had skeletons in our own closet. South Africans constantly reminded me of Canada’s own shortcomings in the form of our relationship with Quebec’s separatist aspirations and more so with our own indigenous native Canadians. How could any North American pronounce moral judgment on South Africa when we had committed our own form of racism and 'ethnic cleansing' against our aboriginal brothers? This contradiction was pointed out in a 1977 phone interview between Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) show host Barbara Frum and the then South African Foreign Minister “Pik” Relouf Botha:
(Botha) “…all we are asking for is a little place on god’s earth where we can all survive and live. If we cannot do that or survive then should we [South Africa] try to please the whole world?”
(Frum) “13% of the land set aside for 70% of the people. Are those numbers wrong?”
(Botha) “…a lot of black territories already have become independent…of course, naturally what would be left is actually for the whites which then in proportion be larger…we have not stolen land from anyone, we have not taken land from anyone—far less than the Canadians have taken lands from their indigenous people…”
(Frum) “On this point, you are absolutely right! I did not think that any honest Canadian can
argue with you on that point. You try to rationalize it whereas we just feel guilty.”
Regardless of your religious, moral or political position on apartheid, what was obvious was that the ruling minority of ‘white’ South Africans did not want to be told how to run their country or their internal affairs especially by some self-righteous foreigner. To quote Prime Minister P. W. Botha a few years later--"South Africans problems will be solved by South Africans and not by foreigners!"
Despite all the hoopla, negative press and personal ridicule, I thought it was a legitimate plan to fly one way to RSA as I thought I would live with Dalene and possibly stay there. Or, if need be, or should the opportunity arise, go overland north to Kenya and then try to retrace my steps through Sudan to Egypt. However, I needed to first organize a visa for South Africa. Going to RSA would be tricky because of sanctions and restrictions for anyone going to this pariah state. In 1984, this was one of the few instances in which Canadian citizens were allowed to have two passports: one specifically for South Africa and another one for the rest of the world. The potential problem would be trying to convince border guards north of the Limpopo River that I had not stepped foot inside RSA. If border guards or immigration officers caught you with anything that mentioned or was stamped that implicated your being in RSA, then you would be, regardless of your nationality, sent back to RSA border or to the last border where you had exited out of RSA. In truth, I figured that I would be staying in RSA for a long time, if not forever with my girlfriend, so I never gave this much consideration. Little did I know what lay ahead of me?
If for some reason I did leave RSA then I would have to mail my RSA-only passport back to Canada so that it was not on my person going through northern border points. Moreover, not to mention that it was illegal to be caught with two passports as you might be suspected of being a mercenary and that was definitely a no no in Africa. This was especially true in 1981 as South African saboteurs had conspired with white Zimbabweans (former Rhodesians) to bomb Zimbabwe African National Union or ZANU-PF headquarters in Harare and in 1982, and on another occasion had destroyed most of Zimbabwe’s older air force. Having two passports and dressed like some grubby old hippie with an English accent might be just the tonic for some uppity junior sergeant of an African army looking to raise his rank.
Despite all the bad press about South Africa, I went ahead and sought out the Republic of South Africa trade commission that was located on University Avenue in Toronto, Canada. It was not hard to find as there were always some form of petition and anti-apartheid rally being held outside its gates. Once inside their confines, I sat down on the plush leather seats, naturally the staff was all white.
I waited—“I’ll be with you just now” said one of the staff
“Ja, how can I help you” he inquired politely.
“I am going to South Africa,” I said.
“Very good sir. Business or pleasure?” he asked in a thick Afrikaner accent
“I’m going to see my girlfriend, but there’s just one problem” I added.
“Yes, I’m thinking of flying one way from UK.”
“Is it?” he said.
“Is what?” I countered somewhat dumbstruck.
“Ja that is a problem man.” He continued.
“Oh, how so?” he had caught my surprise.
“Why not get a return ticket to UK?” he asked.
It seemed a reasonable request but I had other plans.
“Well, I would like to travel overland from South Africa if need be.” I replied.
Looking at me rather oddly, he continued—
“Then in that case, you will be obliged to leave a deposit upon entering RSA.”
“Oh” I answered not expecting this twist of fate.
“Ja that is the condition for you entering on a one way ticket, I’m afraid.”
“And pray, how much would that be?”
“Ja let me check.”
He went to consult with someone higher up as this was probably an unusual request.
“You will have to leave a deposit of $500 US.”
“Crikey! Why so much?”
“They are afraid you might want to stay in South Africa.”
As if there were great hordes of people wanting to immigrate into RSA at this time: the reverse was quite true—out of Africa as I was to find out later. Well I could live with leaving $500 US cash at the airport customs.
I eventually got to London and stayed at the Kensington Youth Hostel and decided to find a one-way ticket to RSA at one of the many ‘bucket shops’, which was a generic name for travel agents who dealt in cheap tickets for cheap backpackers like myself. The weather in London was decidedly miserable so I was just as happy to find a warm shop to nip into. Inside I was greeted by a mousy, yet attractive young blonde waiting to serve me.
“I’ll be with you just now.” She said with what I perceived as a South African accent.
I was not used to this phrase but would soon become rather acquainted with it on this trip. I was not sure exactly when she would attend to me by the phrase “just now”: is that now or later—I found out it was the latter.
“How may I help you?” she said in a cheerful voice.
I could not help but notice she had a clipped accent—not at all British.
“Are you from South Africa?” I asked.
“No. I’m originally from Rhodesia.”
Not missing a beat, I queried—
“You didn’t move to South Africa after Rhodesia?”
“No. My family had already moved once from a beautiful country.”
“So why didn’t you move to South Africa then.”
She smiled sweetly at my naiveté and said—
“We didn’t want to go through that ordeal again in South Africa so we just moved straight to the UK.”
In a way I felt sad for her and others who experience being uprooted. One thing I have had to come to grips with is—these ‘white’s living in Africa all their life, know no other life except in the warm bosom of “Mother Africa”. Maybe their “white” ancestors were Huguenot, Walloon, Dutch, British or whatever, but after a few hundred years of living in Africa—can they not now be considered “African”. I felt somewhat sympathetic to their plight. It is as if the North American First Nations were to come up to me and tell me and my family to go back to Ireland or England. What the hell would I know about such places when my whole life had been lived in Canada—I’m Canadian after all? I guess this Rhodesian gal had resigned herself that RSA would eventually go the way of ‘black rule’ as had her former country Rhodesia.
“I see. Okay I want a one way ticket from London to South Africa.” I said breaking the monotony.
|Postcard I made up for friends in UK made from|
newspaper clippings from RSA, 1986. The news-
papers wouldn't show Mugabe's pic only a drawing
We chatted a bit about her family, her growing up in Rhodesia, my South African girlfriend and my going back to Africa—again! I looked out the window at a bleak mid-winter sky and dampness that was London.
“My god but how can you stand living here.” I asked her.
“What do you mean?” she looked up from her airline printout.
“It’s dreadfully cold here. Don’t you miss the African sun?” I added.
“Everyday” was her sad reply.
I can’t imagine giving up sunny Africa for this dreary, damp land of my ancestors—she was welcome to it.
On further talk, she too thought that I should get a ‘return ticket’ back to London. However, I told her that I had already travelled overland from Nairobi to Cairo on my previous trip and would like to try Capetown to Cairo if the circumstance presented itself. I felt a tad sorry for her and her family in that she had to leave the beautiful continent and live in dreary old blighty but such is the life of old colonials. We concluded our business and I wished her luck and she gave me what was to become a standard southern African business reply—
The cheapest flight was with the Spanish carrier Iberia who flew through Madrid to Johannesburg or as they call it Joburg. Upon boarding the flight there had been mention by the boarding party that I only had a one-way ticket but I assured the ground staff that I had been given the okay by the South African trade commission in Toronto and that I would leave a deposit at Jan Smuts Airport.
The realities of South Africa
“In South Africa the worst never happens”
|Mandela and his empty seat with ANC.|
Because RSA was considered a racist state by the rest of Africa and a pariah by much of the world, any airline flying to Joburg was not allowed to fly over African airspace so we had to fly around the western part of the continent. This made for a rather hellishly long flight instead of cutting through the heart of the continent albeit the black heart. The flight took more than 12 hours to fly and I think we refueled in the Canary Islands. By the time I arrived at Jan Smuts International Airport it felt like I had flown from Canada. Naturally, I had to go through customs before collecting my bags. As I approached the customs officer I noticed he was a no nonsense old Afrikaner who reminded me of the world famous South African actor—Athol Fugard.
I handed over my travel documents with my Iberia ticket tucked inside the passport.
He scrutinized my passport for a visa, then asked—
“Vat is the purpose of you trip—business or pleasure”
“Pleasure” I answered.
“Where vill you be staying?”
“With my girlfriend in Johannesburg.”
Then a very dour face followed as is in disbelief.
“Ach man where’s your return ticket?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Why not?” He was curious.
“I was told by your trade commission in Toronto, that I could leave a deposit here at the airport instead.” I continued.
“Is it?” He said which caught me off guard.
“Is what?” I replied somewhat scurrilously. Then I realized this was one of those quaint Afrikaans expressions.
“Aha. Yes you can do that.”
“But, you vill have to leave a deposit of 2000 South African rand then.” He said cheerfully.
Now the jet lag had kicked in and I was suddenly feeling quite out of it. Crikey—I thought to myself and tried to calculate this amount because at this time the SA rand was stronger than the US dollar.
“But that’s over $2000 US dollars.” I was speechless if not incredulous.
Bearing in mind, this was a time when the South African rand was worth more in value than the US dollar.
“Jah maneer! That is right.”
“But your trade commission in Toronto specifically told me that I would only need to deposit $500 US dollars not 2000 South African rand.” I implored him.
“Vat the hell do they know?” was his reply.
“Jeezuz. They’re your bloody trade commission.” I stammered.
“Look here my china. Either you pay that amount or you vill be put back on this Iberia flight at your own expense.”
That was not the option I was looking for. It was just a bit of an ominous beginning to what might be a life-changing trip. Moreover, this was taking a lot longer than I had contemplated and I was already the last passenger off the plane and the last one in the custom’s hall. I could imagine what was going through my girlfriend Dalene’s mind: I had missed the flight or not come at all as she was waiting for me on the other side of the frosted glass. As it turned out she knew I was on the flight as she watched my lone black MEC travel bag go round and round on the baggage carousel just pass the customs—it was the only unclaimed piece of luggage left.
I hummed and hawed as I had no cash, only traveller’s cheques in US dollars no less.
“Do you accept American Express traveller’s cheques?” I asked.
“Ja, why not?”
So I was told to head to the forex inside the custom’s area, hand over the traveller’s cheques to the tune of 2000 South African rand. The customs guy would not stamp my passport to enter into his country until I showed him a receipt from the cashier saying I had cashed the said amount. What struck me as odd was the fact that he did not check how much I actually had left to spend in RSA after this transaction. The truth be told, I only had a couple of hundred dollars in traveller’s cheques left to my name—hardly enough to survive on for the duration of my stay. Well this was a fine mess and an ominous way to begin a trip. I suppose the custom’s officer reckoned that since I was a white “westerner” plus staying with an employed Afrikaner girlfriend that I might not need any extra cash. What a relief when I finally got through customs and into the warm embrace of my beloved girlfriend.
“Pops—what took you so long?” She murmured wrapping her arms around me and giving me a German peck.
Unclutching myself from her warm embrace and burning lips—
“They wanted me to leave a deposit.”
“Why do you need to leave a deposit?” she seemed perplexed.
“Because I only bought a one-way ticket here from London.”
“How much?” she asked.
“2000 rand—can you believe it!” I was slightly exasperated.
“For PETE’S sake!” she screamed.
“Luckily I am staying with you as I don’t have much money left now.”
It was not the first time she was heard to mutter—
“So much for Afrikaner hospitality.”
 This was before the great migration of many “whites” from South Africa and Rhodesia that started before South Africa released Mandela in the late 1980s.
 A later quote from Nelson Mandela.
 From a BBC video series called—“Have you heard from Johannesburg?”
 The Union of South Africa only became the Republic of South Africa or RSA in 1961. It
subsequently was expelled from the British Commonwealth because of RSA’s continuing policies
on apartheid. During that time, the English South Africans had to make a choice between British and
South African nationality. There were many who resented the choice and some who still believe they
should be accorded British citizenry.
 In 1985, a group of international artists formed the “Artists United Against Apartheid” and produced
an album called “Sun City” in which they talked about not performing in Sun City.
 I travelled through South Africa again in 1986 en route to Lesotho and Swaziland.