No apartheid, just a bit different

By Sarah Bracking

Posted on March 21, 2014 14:59

Every institution and every individual has sediments, traces of its past, especially its most traumatic moments, the high water marks of struggle. And South Africa has as many, or more, than any country, overlaid in the present and visible in the strange mosaic of separateness still observable in its three main race groups. Three cultures walking around nearly as one, but just not quite.

I am in the Durban office of the Department of Home Affairs with 70 odd other people in a room the size of a small living room, 5th in the queue, but the last person went in an hour ago and I’ve been here five hours already.

The frontiers of the South African state are as inhospitable as the razor wire and armed response signs of its erstwhile white suburbs and gated communities. No play area, no water, no signage or assistance, and no effective queuing system.

…inequality is much more than just a comparison of what car each ‘owns’ on a monthly standing order

It is very heated in here, and that’s not just because of the lack of air conditioning, but to the stress of people keeping queue spaces for other people, people trying to jump in, immigration agents sauntering in at will and causing 2 hour hold ups to those already waiting. Queue jumpers risk being torn limb from limb.

There are refugees from the forgotten Great Lakes war, refugees from ‘Uncle Bob’s’ post –election terror in Zimbabwe, refugees from drought, hunger and global warming unmitigated sit patiently, nervously twisting their biros, reshuffling their papers and smoothing the creases in their one old suit taken out just for the occasion.

Babies occasionally cry, but remarkably the African children from aged, 2, 3 and 4 sit motionless for hours with the patience inherited from generations. This would not happen in my home country England.

A smiling Jacob Zuma claims ‘We want to bring back Ubuntu into the workplace” on a flapping poster near to prohibitions of ‘No eating, no drinking, no smoking’ and surprisingly for me at least a ‘no guns’ sign, a picture of a handgun with a red circle and diagonal line through it.

I absentmindedly check to see if any of the dusty suits and dragging nappies look like they are hiding a handgun shaped object. No, only old nokias and baby bottles. A derivative income stream is being missed by the government for not charging pro rata rent for the time people inhabit in here.

Once through to the inner chamber, paper files sit dusty from floor to ceiling, the paint is from apartheid stores and a poster of the Amajuba and unzinyathi battlefields sits uncomfortably on the wall in the hall. It’s probably been there the full 20 years of South Africa’s post-apartheid journey, becoming invisible to the inhabitants.

Waiting again in the hall I wonder at the little red cannons in the landscape, recalibrated back to English and Afrikaans places names, Blood River, Rorke’s drift, Elandslaagte, Biggarsberg, Majuba, Laingaks Neck, Ladysmith, Newcastle and Utrecht. So much blood.

When I finally speak to the civil servant Man again, inside his temporary portacabin styled permanent office from the 1970s, I end up feeling guilty at my English impatience. He is a Man firefighting, a big heart, with too few resources or staff and with the futures of families fleeing horrors in his hands.

In fact, all my encounters with civil servants in South Africa have been with people of honour and courage who follow the (too many) rules to the letter. As he stamps my passport people keep popping in with intractable stories of broken connection, intercontinental egress, and issues of procedure. He has so many stacks of paper he could singlehandedly run Guy Fawkes night in England. I shake his hand.

South Africa currently houses over 300,000 [formally registered and known] refugees and asylum seekers, despite having “challenges with unemployment, service delivery, poverty and economic inequality” (UNHCR, 2014 country operations profile)

This is to be applauded, particularly when you consider that Europe houses only 15 per cent of the world’s refugees, and poorer countries 80 per cent. The Cameron Conservative government in Britain has vowed to take not one Syrian from the current crisis, but has contributed to camps in the cold border zones.

According to the UK based Refugee Council “Over 490,000 refugees have fled the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo, including about 15,000 in 2011, Only 188 of these people applied for asylum in the UK in 2011”.

The relative openness of South Africa is due to a better adherence to the promises of the 1951 Refugee Convention that both countries have signed, whereas the UK position is shocking. But perhaps in South Africa there are also more recent memories of the violence that states can do that make people, mostly, more tolerant.


But recent doesn’t mean past, since the level of violence of uniformed personnel is still high and ongoing, but the systemic trauma of the pre 1994 period still appears ghostly all around.

In fact, the older I become the more history appears everywhere, and the more I appreciate that historical memory plays such a large part in how people approach their lives. It reminds me of my most favourite passage from Marx, from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Men [people] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”.

Every institution and every individual has sediments, traces of its past, especially its most traumatic moments, the high water marks of struggle. And South Africa has as many, or more, than any country, overlaid in the present and visible in the strange mosaic of separateness still observable in its three main race groups.

A sort of mosaic of apartheid, where the system was fractured but little islands of racial monoculture remain. The history of its Whites, its Blacks, its Indians and increasingly its ‘foreigners and others’ all still a bit separate. Three cultures walking around nearly as one, but just not quite. Like at the parents evening of the college in Durban where my children are enrolled. Happily representative of all three groups, and running some pretty observable stereotypes, with Indian boys winning all the top of class, chess and maths prizes, and white girls debating and volunteering and white boys doing lots, and lots, and more again, of competitive sport.

But every now and again, between the somewhat post-colonial prize days, the silverware, snacks of samosas and homemade cake, tea in urns and sherry at Christmas, gaping holes emerge in the collective past. “The Zulu language is so hard. When can the children drop it? I mean, I don’t even have a Zulu maid to help me”. “More homework, at least two hours, and do they do the genius maths tests. They need more homework”. “If they give up Zulu in grade 7 can they do more maths?”, “But no, how can my son get up at 4.30 am to do water polo, then do cricket until 5 in the afternoon, and then do so much homework?. Half an hour, max.”

Afrikaans, Black, Indian, White, those quotes are attributable. A new English parent, “Take sugar out of the tuck shop, have wholesome school dinners, invent lockers and take the big cars out of the school yard and create a pedestrian area”. Everyone looks at me aghast. At least unity can still be derived from a collective recognition of the idiocy representative of the Old Country.

Leave the Mercedes, the Land Cruiser, in the bottom field, and take exercise? Eish. Total idiot. Nope, open the door of the car in the road, and eject the kid out sideways. South African style. Silverware, snacks and sherry anyone?

Sediments are found in individuals too. Like when we are in the back of a taxi and my son wants to know whether all killing people is murder, and I try and explain that sometimes people might die in a bona fide accident. But the taxi driver pipes up, somewhat unhelpfully, ‘I killed people once, but they were terrorists’. ‘Mummy, what are terrorists?’ ‘Mummy, is that ok then? ‘The Americans are chasing terrorists in Somalia aren’t they, or is it Sudan?’

More questions. But I wonder how the white men who killed are coping with the memory, the sediment.

Race and Povety

The war against apartheid may have ended, but as my colleague Patrick Bond noted in 2010, the Government’s ‘War on Poverty’ of the mid to late 2000s lost momentum and began to look like a war on the poor.

That poverty still persists to the degree and scope it does in South Africa requires some explanation, which includes, for me at least, the observation that the separateness organised by culture and race, helps hide real differences in income and wealth, which are still largely racially organised.

The debate rages about just how much poverty, just how much inequality and just how far this is organised by race. For example, according to Campbell in September 2013: “In 2005, whites earned on average of five times as much as blacks. By 2011, that ratio had fallen to four times as much”. But despite this, whites still hold 73 percent of “top management jobs” and 62 percent of “senior management” jobs. Whites make up about 9 percent of South Africa’s population, blacks about 80 percent”.

The difference in employment rates is central here, and leads compellingly to the differences in income and poverty levels. The outcomes are still cruelly unequal, with “Around 56% of black people are estimated to be poor compared to around 36% of Coloured people, 15% percent of Indian people and 7% of white people” (ETU).

But if we had figures for net worth, and not just current income, the gap would be even bigger. As Campbell points out again, the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) figures (used in the first quote above), “are measuring income, not net wealth, which includes other assets besides income.

In the United States, where discrepancies between white and black incomes is less than in South Africa, the average net worth of whites is twenty times greater than that of blacks…..The net wealth discrepancy between the races is likely even greater in South Africa.”

This net wealth discrepancy is what derives from history, and it is often about whether one has security and insurance, inheritance and property, a whole intergenerational transfer of wealth and privilege that a privileged individual enjoys and a poor person doesn’t, even if they are lucky enough to currently have a job. In other words, inequality is much more than just a comparison of what car each ‘owns’ on a monthly standing order. Inequality is deeply embedded and historically transmitted.

In the passage above, Marx goes on to say that revolutionaries borrow names, images, slogans and so forth from the past, and that “In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.”

If the new language were freedom, and the old were oppression, then surely South Africans have translated it back, have learned to move freely in the new language, and yet they still recall the old in their behaviour and relative separateness. For this reason, I suggest that all African cleaners (NOT ‘maids’ – the terminology is important) register as vernacular language teachers to earn extra income, and when ‘Madam’ asks you to ‘just help with the Zulu homework’, hand over your business card and ask for quadruple your normal pay.





4••• Declining Poverty Rates in South Africa, by John Campbell,



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