Generation Exodus

Even half a world away from the scene of the crime, the legacy of apartheid still haunts South Africa's white expatriates

South Africans travel widely, but they do not travel light. Though they come to America to escape the aftermath of apartheid, it is a burden they never truly leave behind.


In the popular imagination of Americans, South Africa is inextricably linked to apartheid (literally "separatehood"), a system that grew out of the area's long history of violent conflicts between its native peoples and European colonists.

The pass laws, which required black South Africans to carry fingerprint and photo identification with them wherever they went, were central to South Africa's apartheid regime
The pass laws, which required black South Africans to carry fingerprint and photo identification with them wherever they went, were central to South Africa's apartheid regime
Named for the inhospitable desert that borders South Africa, Fort Lauderdale's Kalahari Bar is a popular watering hole for new and old expatriates
Named for the inhospitable desert that borders South Africa, Fort Lauderdale's Kalahari Bar is a popular watering hole for new and old expatriates

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The first white Europeans came to South Africa from Holland in 1652, forming the Dutch East India Company on the Cape of Good Hope. In 1806 Great Britain annexed the Cape, eventually seizing control from the Boers, descendants of Dutch settlers, in a bitter war that ended in a 1902 treaty. In 1910 Britain passed control of South Africa to the British and Dutch settlers, who instituted white minority rule.

In 1948 the Afrikaner National Party gained a majority and devised apartheid as a means to maintain economic and political domination over the country's real majority: its diverse population of black Africans. The common practice of racial discrimination hardened to law. The Mixed Marriages and Immorality Amendment acts prohibited marriage and "indecent acts" between white Europeans and nonwhites. In order to enforce such a law, however, race had to be established. This was achieved through the Population Registration Act of 1950. All South Africans were classified as white, black, or "coloured" (of mixed descent).

The Group Areas Act of 1950 established segregation by designating specific areas for racial groups, forcing many people out of their homes. In this way many black South Africans were forced out of work in urban areas and into employment in the mines.

Every black was issued a "passbook" containing his fingerprints, an I.D. photo, and information on access to nonblack areas and required to carry it on his body at all times. According to pass laws, blacks were allowed to live and work in white South Africa only if their passbooks entitled them to do so. Failure to produce a passbook was an offense that almost guaranteed punishment. Pass law offenders were given only cursory court hearings, almost always without legal representation. The odds of being acquitted of a pass law violation were slim.

The Homelands Act of 1951 created four African states to which each black was assigned by the government, supposedly according to his or her ethnic origin. Such assignments were often inaccurate or arbitrary, but the homelands affiliation was nonetheless considered citizenship. Black South Africans were relegated to newly devised, nominally independent states, thereby losing their rights and citizenship in South Africa. Despite such symbolic autonomy, the homelands were still economically dependent upon, and thus controlled by, the white South African government that created them. The Homelands Act continued through 1970, ultimately denationalizing nine million South Africans.

But blacks had resisted white minority rule from the outset. In 1919 the seven-year-old African movement known as the African National Congress (ANC) led a strike campaign against the passes. In the 1950s pass laws were expanded to include women, and the power of the South African government grew with the passage of the Public Safety and the Criminal Law Amendment acts in 1953. This legislation allowed the government to crack down on protests by declaring states of emergency and enforcing severe penalties, including fines, imprisonment and whippings for protesting the government and its laws.

Such harsh laws were met with reinvigorated opposition from the African National Congress, which had emerged with new militance after a period of uncertainty. The ANC's Defiance Campaign marked the start in 1952 of a popular resistance to apartheid acts. Much like the sit-ins then being organized in this country, blacks, "coloureds," and Indians ignored the "Whites Only" and "Europeans Only" signs common in businesses, post offices, and restaurants. In 1960 police opened fire on a crowd of 15,000 blacks protesting the pass laws, killing 56 people and injuring nearly 200. After this watershed event, known as the Sharpeville massacre, the ANC was banned and went underground, galvanizing supporters and setting the stage for decades of armed resistance.

Thousands of black activists were arrested or fled the country, forming an opposition in exile. Those who stayed were forced underground as liberation movements were banned by the government. At the same time, the South African government's military was reinforced and unleashed ever more invidious repression. ANC leaders called on residents of black townships to resist white governance, plunging the already chaotic enclaves into violent anarchy. In an effort to gain control, the South African government twice declared a state of emergency. Meanwhile the South African Defence Force raided ANC strongholds and enlisted the aid of rebel bandits from Mozambique and Angola in an effort to weaken ANC's allies.

Bolstered by popular support for the ANC both inside and outside South Africa, the government was forced to lift the ban on the ANC and its affiliated organizations in 1991. A year later Nelson Mandela became the ANC's president, and the organization lead reform negotiations with the government, which ultimately resulted in the nation's first democratic election in April 1994. The ANC won those elections with 62.6 percent of the more than 22 million votes cast. ANC leader Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president of South Africa on May 10, 1994.

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