This Was Apartheid - New Stories 5-2017

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Observations from my youth. Growing up under apartheid as a white boy.

Submitted: April 05, 2017

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Submitted: April 05, 2017




This is a series of observations from my childhood. I am not trying to make a statement, nor am I attempting to create an underlying theme. These are a series of vignettes written by a middle class white boy who grew up during apartheid. From its darkest moments to the miraculous change that brought about democracy. I am penning these recollections partly to tell my story and partly as a self-healing process.  

I am often asked “what it was like” to grow up under apartheid. It’s rather a long and complicated answer that most do not understand because they have no similar experiences to compare it to. I have tried here to cobble together observations that may shed some light on the question “what was it like”.

I am no historian but I do know that Apartheid was essentially colonialism taken to the next horrendous level and given a formal title. Much of the legislation and “ground work” that formed the bastions of what apartheid was both in law and physically on the ground were in place long before the Afrikaners took power from the British in 1948. The Afrikaners were in the majority ex farmers, not educated, very poor, resentful of the British and hateful of the African. They saw a colonial system that could capitalize on and make their own. It was a way to elevate their status and protect them from poverty. Jobs of a certain status had to be filled by a white men or women. An easy way to justify this is to call all others stupid and unworthy of that white collar job. You the Kaffir are only good as a menial laborer. A common phrase was “you can take the Kaffir out of the African bush but you can’t take the bush out of a Kaffir” or “don’t hit a Kaffir in the head, you will break your hand”. In short time all whites regardless of British or Afrikaner origin were voting for the apartheid government in white’s only elections. Racist indoctrination permeated in all facets of life and the fear of the “Swart Gevaar” or the “Black Menace” had been enmeshed in the minds of all whites. If we didn’t hold them at bay they would rise up and it would be civil war. Thus the system perpetuated until its demise in the early nineties.



One of my earliest recollections was sitting on the bumpy grassy field in our neighborhood park. The park had a small soccer field where we would play small pickup soccer games. This would include the African children of the maids who worked in our homes. They were always better than us at soccer so we would always have to split them up into our teams of less competent white boys. They would talk amongst themselves in Zulu knowing that we could not understand them. They were understandably always a little guarded. But we were all young kids and we had yet to be poisoned enough by society into believing we shouldn’t play sport with Kaffirs or that you should not associate with the oppressors. The games were amicable enough and we would play together kicking the ball, tackling each other, scoring goals sweating together in the warm sub-tropical heat dust on our legs and grass stains on our clothes.

On this particular day as we sat resting on the grassy field the peace was interrupted. Two SUV’s screeched to a stop on the street at the park entrance. They were not the regular yellow SUV’s and blue uniformed police of the South African Police. These were what we called the Blackjacks. They had white SUV’s and wore black uniforms. Their sole purpose was enforcing the apartheid laws. They had spotted an adult African male on a swing in the park. They were going to question him to see if he had his “Dompas” or passport. Any African adult male had to have a passport to be in a white area. In other words if you were an adult African and present in a white area you had to have a valid passport that showed you worked for a white family or white owned business in the area. This guy obviously did not. He was probably visiting a wife or girlfriend I suspect. He took off running as fast as he could. The blackjacks were not that dumb and they had posted someone on the other side of the park. They surrounded him and began beating him with their heavy wooden truncheons. We could hear the dull thuds of their batons hitting his flesh and his head from across the park. I recall them dragging his bloodied semi-conscious body past us to the waiting SUV. I remember those SUV’s as a kid, they always had a lot of dried blood in the back of them. That was the end of soccer for the afternoon. We all got up without a word and wandered off to our respective homes. I was probably seven or eight years old.



The vast majority of white households employed a male and female “servant” as they were called. The female of any age was often referred to as your “girl” and would tend to the chores of the house and cook. The male called the “boy” would tend to gardening, washing cars, shining shoes and the like. They were paid a very low wage and would often live in what was called a “kaya” or “home” in the Zulu language.  These were very rudimentary small brick buildings built at the back of the residence. They would often not be outfitted with electricity or hot water. The servants would live in separate small rooms with small beds and a few pieces of furniture. They would use kerosene lamps for lighting at night. The physical condition of these kayas was often poor and rather dilapidated with owners not caring much about the living conditions of the servants. They would have to take cold showers as most owners did not want to pay for the cost of providing hot water. Luckily where I lived the climate was very temperate. For many where the mornings were close to freezing this was, well…apartheid.

Our maid Sibongile had been working for us for a few years. Lately she seemed to be rather despondent and depressed.  She was young and quite reserved. She lived under the hand of my mother who ruled the house and kitchen with an iron fist. Her mental well-being seemed to worsen as the weeks went on. She shared with us that she had been seeking help from a traditional healer, a “Sangoma” or “witchdoctor”.  This was often the case when it came to health issues and even today a lot of health insurance companies in South Africa recognize the work of Sangomas. They will reimburse members for the consultation costs. Sangomas use a combination of herbal remedies as well as spiritual healing to treat patients. I have seen first-hand some of the potions that were prescribed. Most were extremely foul to smell and taste. I can’t attest to their healing powers, but I’m sure they did work. Centuries of knowledge passed down from one generation to the next can’t be that far off the mark. That being said, they did not seem to work too well in this situation.

I got home from school one day to find a police SUV in our driveway. This was not a good sign. The South African Police had their hands full trying to enforce apartheid and hardly ever showed up for a minor issue. There were no congenial social calls. On closer inspection I saw a rather battered and bruised Sibongile in the SUV. She was sitting very quietly in the caged back section. It turned out that her health issues had spiraled out of control. All of this was second hand information as my mother had been out running errands at the time. Our boy Isaac Inkobo, (a great man who we will talk about later) was tending to the garden.  I can imagine him sitting on his haunches weeding the flower beds. Suddenly he heard screaming and looked over his shoulder. Running towards him was Sibongile literally frothing at the mouth and brandishing  a bread knife. So there began a chase around the garden, into the house and back into the garden. Sibongile was trying desperately to stab Isaac in the back with the breadknife. The screaming from both servants caught the ear of our neighbor. She took one look at what was going on and ran back into her house and called the police. They arrived on the scene pretty quickly which was unusual. Luckily by that time Sibongile had dropped the knife and had calmed down somewhat. The cops would have killed her on the spot if she had brandishing the knife at them.  A light beating is all she endured for wasting their time. She was thrown in the back of the police SUV. The neighborhood was shocked at Sibongile’s actions. All of the day’s traumatic events were blamed on the Sangoma. Sibongile had been poisoned in both and mind by this witchdoctor’s evil potions and mutinous mutterings.  He had driven her mad and led her to undertake such outrageous behavior.  

The police probably held her in a cell for a day or two. She would have had her Dompas, “passport” or right to work in a white area revoked. She would have been dumped back in a black township to find her way home. That would have been hundreds of miles away if she didn’t have friends nearby. We never heard from Sibongile again. I was probably 13 years old at the time.




The Zulu nation are a proud and noble people. Zulu means “People of the Sky” as that is where they believe their ancestors live. They had to be forced by the British to work in the cities. They seemed quite happy with their agricultural lifestyle and were not interested in city life. In order to entice them to work in the factories and gold mines the British had to impose monetary taxation. This forced them to have to earn hard currency to pay the tax. They then started to become city dwellers and wage earners. The Zulus lived under the thumb of apartheid like all the other tribes of South Africa. They seemed to possess a large dose of pride that the ravages of apartheid could not extinguish. They would do the task commanded by their white oppressors but they did it with dignity and a head held high.

I am often bemused by many of my fellow white South Africans. No-one seems to remember apartheid. There seems to be amnesia about how we lived back then.  Everyone seems to embellish what they did at university to assist in the struggle against apartheid. There is little of what they did in their youth. It’s shameful to have been a part of such a system no matter how young you were so it’s understandable that people retreat from the past. Those of us that reside abroad are usually well educated and this shame is all too clear to us. It’s our particular heavy helping of White Guilt. What most of us can’t deny is that we were all racist to some extent growing up. Our schools, family, friends and the whole fabric of white society were telling us that anyone who was not white was inferior. From the words of your mother, to the teachings of your school, to the books that you read, to your friends and neighbors“. Absolutely everything. I remember us at school making a noise in class and the teacher walked in and roared “shut-up you sound like a bunch of bloody Kaffirs”. Yes, we often had questions and doubts even at a very young age. It’s not difficult to see that the basics of human dignity shredded before your eyes day in and day out. However, the strength of indoctrination and depth of the socialization on young minds is strong, very strong.

Issac was our gardener and was a proud Zulu. He was a “first generation” that moved to the city from a rural farming community.  He was a man of medium build but very muscular. He would often be gardening while I was playing outside in the yard. Our bond became a strong one. He loved to listen to the soccer games on his small radio. I have fond memories of the rapid fire Zulu chatter of the commentators trying to keep up with the fast paced game. Suddenly a goal! The elongated PHAKAAATHIIII exclamation as the crowd went wild. Isaac had three wives back home on the rural smallholding. Many Zulu males at the time were polygamists as was the tradition in their culture.  We would often talk of his wives and many children and what they were up to. 

On a day I was sitting playing with my plastic soldiers in the dirt while he was working alongside. I was in a belligerent mood and was annoying him with various things like throwing a sand clod at his leg while he worked. He told me off and continued with his tasks. Something in me that afternoon led me to do something I had not done before. Some trigger in me told me to be a white boy with his kaffir black gardener boy. I turned to him and said “Footsack Kaffir” which means “Fuck off Kaffir”.  He told me to stop and that I was not being nice. I said it over and over. I probably repeated the phrase four or five times with him telling me to stop. Just after the sixth time Issac took of his shoe and slapped me as hard as he could across the back.  I must have been seven or so at the time. I cried out in pain and shock and burst into tears. I ran from the yard into the house to tell my mother of the incident. She went over to Isaac and asked what had transpired. I watched them chatting at a distance still blubbering. My mother walked back to me with her verdict. She told me she was disappointed in me and that I had certainly deserved what Isaac had metered out. I had to go to my room until dinner.

Isaac and I patched things up not long after the incident. I think he saw a somewhat sensitive and confused boy who used to like to play alone most of the time. My behavior was never usually like this and I think he recognized that. This incident is still burnt into my memory forty three years later. My example of how no-one escapes the system. Those who say they did escape are only fooling themselves.



Once out of school I began six years of university. I spent a lot of time obtaining two degrees. Partly because I didn’t want to do two years of military "service". As kids we were visited in a high school class by an officer of the military who registered us for the army. Once you left school it was expected you would do your six months basic training followed by eighteen months of service. If you went to university you could defer this obligation on a year by year basis. By the time I was in university the army was being utilized in a growing civil war conflict. I wanted no part of being in an armored car firing on my fellow citizens with an M16 who were protesting against apartheid. I heard the stories of those that were in the army at this time about how they were ordered to do this. Many aimed at the ground or in the air.

University life was very enlightening time for me. For the first time I got to see things on a more personal scale. This stemmed from both the liberal curricula that we never were exposed to at school and from the personal “one on one” interaction with African students. It’s hard to explain but I suspect that the lens through which I now saw my fellow South Africans somehow broke through to me and unlocked a different universe. I got to see how they had had their lives ravaged by apartheid. In some sense it unlocked the indoctrination I had received all my life and I got to see the extent and scale of what apartheid was doing to others. It also showed me the bravery and endurance of those who lived through apartheid as children and how they struggled through the awful education system. They still managed to pick themselves up and show up for lectures every day. Mothers with kids doing home assignments late into the night by candlelight. Even getting to the university every day took some hours and hours in life threatening commute situations.

In the mid 80’s the system of apartheid began to break apart...slowly. The situation morphed into a low grade civil war. Our university was the scene of regular protests. The country was under a state of emergency and this meant that protests were banned. You could not have more than five people standing within fifty yards of each other. If they were, it was considered a "gathering or protest" and the participants could be arrested and jailed. There was no recourse after you were arrested and you may end up disappearing if you were an important enough figure in the anti-apartheid movement.  The protests were frequent and there was hardly a few days that went by without the riot police and helicopters showing up. They used to take photos of the protesters from the helicopters for later identification by BOSS. Yes no lie...the “Bureau of State Security” – the CIA equivalent of Apartheid South Africa. There was many a gathering where you would see some students on top of buildings taking pictures of the protestors. They were students working for BOSS paid to be spies on campus.

On a particular day I was watching a large protest from afar. I forget what it was that the protest was about, but it followed the usual pattern: Protestors gathered chanting slogans. The riot police and regular police showed up in their yellow vans. The helicopter appeared shortly after that. The police megaphone told the protestors that the gathering was illegal and that they had five minutes to disperse. This is followed by more chanting and singing. This was usually followed by teargas being shot into the crowd and the riot police moving in with baton and whip to disperse the protestors.  This protest proved to be a little different however as someone in the crowd foolishly took it upon themselves to throw a brick through the window of a police van. This is what these guys lived for. Instead of beating a few people up as the rest ran away the cops could now escalate things. And boy were they always eager to escalate! On occasion the cops could use a higher level of force – their favorite was shotguns filled with birdshot. In quick succession up came a line of riot police with shotguns and they fired a volley into the crowd. I saw people drop in the front rows. A second volley followed quickly thereafter. Pandemonium then ensued with bloodied people scattering left and right. On came the wave of riot cops with baton and whip, flailing at anyone in their path. Smacking a head here whipping somebody there. I saw a guy running to the back lines full of blood with his eye glasses shattered by the birdshot. Luckily his eyes were ok and the glasses had no doubt saved his eyesight. Soon the bloodied students had scattered far and wide enough through campus that the cops gave up the chase. A few protestors who were the organizers were rounded up and thrown into the back of the police vans. Wounded students quietly got their wounds attended to at the campus clinic. Some had to be hospitalized and were driven quietly off for treatment. This was done on the QT as much as possible and only outlying clinics were used. It was well known that the cops would be waiting to make arrests at the major hospitals in the city.

I was nineteen at the time.





© Copyright 2019 Richard Oliver. All rights reserved.

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