This year marks the 70th anniversary of the implementation of the racist legislation known as apartheid in South Africa. In 1948, laws were signed into effect that forever changed the lives of South Africans, leaving a devastating legacy, which many of us across the world still live with and struggle against.
I am a white former South African living in Australia, grateful every day for my citizenship. But I am here because, partly, of an unearned privilege. I’m a refugee with a gold-class ticket: I have white skin and I speak fluent received pronunciation English.
Apartheid, literally meaning “apartness”, divided South African citizens based on skin colour. We lived under an appalling caste system from 1948 until 1992, which drew for inspiration on Queensland’s 1897 Aboriginals Protection and the Sale of Opium Act, and privileged white colonists while dispossessing an entire indigenous population.
Since colonisation, and certainly from the late 1800s onward, white colonials in South Africa of Dutch and English descent sought to address the “native question” (the “problem” that South Africa was already inhabited by large numbers of black people). On 19 June 1913, the Natives Land Act was passed: millions of black Africans could not own, or rent land in 93% of the country. They were offered areas totalling only 7% of the country, though they made up most of the population. In 1948, more laws, and apartheid, came into being, relieving most black South Africans of most of their human rights.
I grew up during that apartheid era. The Group Areas Act was legislation that forced blacks to live in one area, coloureds and Indians in others, and whites in others. Influx Control kept blacks out of white areas. Black people were forcibly removed from their homes if the white government decided that this would benefit whites. The Native Resettlement Act of 1954 signed into effect by the rightwing Nationalist government meant that black families living too close to white city centres could be forcibly removed from their homes. Sophiatown was once a thriving black area in Johannesburg. Guns and bulldozers destroyed it, hounding its black population out between 1955 and 1960. District 6, a multi-racial area in the Cape was destroyed in the 1970s because people of different skin colours living together was illegal.
While I was growing up in the 1970s, white South Africans had the highest standard of living in the world. Black people had to carry a “pass” in white areas where they worked as servants. Failure to produce one meant instant arrest. Torture and deaths in detention were standard. My child eyes saw on a daily basis police vans stuffed full of black people who had broken Influx Control laws heading off to jail. I lived through a time of appalling injustice and it has marked me forever. Black South Africans have lived through dispossession in spades.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the new South African president is attempting to redress the imbalances of the past, but his proposed land grab looks less like an attempt at redress, and perhaps more like former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe’s “resettlement” of white Zimbabwean farmland.
For years now, white South African farmers have been targeted and killed in race-acts against them. Ramaphosa’s silence could be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as seeming to condone this. If he is condoning this, it is atrocious. But is it more atrocious than apartheid? And is Peter Dutton’s offer of a helping hand to the white farmers racist? Of course it is.
A black child in a township is far more likely to be killed than a white farmer on a farm. I feel for those farmers, just as I felt for the millions of black people I watched suffer under apartheid. But this land-grab has a long history. It’s a reaction and needs to be seen in the context of a larger history of racism and exploitation of black people.
I ran from a dangerous place because I wanted to live a normal life. I have been illegal and poor in several countries. But ultimately, my white skin has given me a privilege over my black friends and family. In Australia, I do not encounter racism because I am white. My Aboriginal friends encounter it every day. I have been able to make my way in society and no one has ever looked at me as a second-class citizen.
So, if I were a white farmer would I be overjoyed at Dutton’s offer to give me a ticket out of danger? Absolutely. But is Dutton, as a white rightwing politician from a country that once had a “whites only” immigration policy, extending a helping hand to white South African farmers, while at exactly the same time sending dark-skinned refugees, families and children back to places like Sri Lankaand Afghanistan where their lives are in absolute danger entrenching racist, white privilege? To my mind, it certainly seems that way.
After 70 years of apartheid in South Africa and a legacy in Australia of the White Australia policy, of entrenching privilege based on skin colour, we once again bear witness to the raising of status of white people’s lives over brown or black people’s. And apartheid continues its insidious journey into the future of both continents.