MACLEAN'S REPORTS

OVERSEAS REPORT

Why a dirty Nigerian slum is better than a clean South African “location”

BLAIR FRASER September 7 1963
MACLEAN'S REPORTS

OVERSEAS REPORT

Why a dirty Nigerian slum is better than a clean South African “location”

BLAIR FRASER September 7 1963

OVERSEAS REPORT

Why a dirty Nigerian slum is better than a clean South African “location”

BLAIR FRASER

LAGOS, NIGERIA

WHERE TO DRAW THE LINE between courtesy and hypocrisy? That is the question that plagues any visitor to South Africa when dinner-table conversation turns to apartheid or, to use the euphemism currently preferred, “the policy of separate development.”

Two standard gambits are employed to persuade the newcomer. One is that no outsider and certainly no transient can possibly understand the race problem that confronts South Africans. They do not of course apply this argument to themselves — they can be quite dogmatic about race relations in the United States, India, the Soviet Union or even Canada — but they maintain that South Africa is uniquely incomprehensible to anyone who does not live there. To the outsider who has lived there for years and still doesn’t agree they say you have to be born there to understand. They do not appear to feel that this chronic and total failure of communication is any reflection on the validity of their case.

The other standard argument, backed by a torrent of facts and figures, is that black South Africans are better off than blacks in any other African country and that apartheid is

really working for the greatest good of all. It was at this point 1 decided we had reached the outer limits of courtesy and the steep edge of hypocrisy. I said the argument reminded me of Mark Twain’s remark when a British squire told him foxes enjoyed fox-hunting — Twain said he would like to hear that from a fox.

The temperature in the dining room dropped about fifteen degrees but, having thus frozen the ice. I thought 1 might as well skate on it. Would it be possible during my short stay in South Africa to hear it from a fox — to have a private talk with some black South Africans? The answer, it turned out. was theoretically Yes, but practically No.

MULTIRACIAL PARTIES AREN’T ILLEGAL BUT . ..

It is not actually against the law to have multiracial parties — British and American diplomats hold them regularly, to the scandal and indignation of South African authorities — but it is certainly not encouraged. The day 1 arrived in Pretoria, newspapers carried the story of a police raid on a Johannesburg house the night before. They had been “tipped off,” the story said, that a multiracial party was in progress and though they didn’t arrest anybody they visited the house twice during the evening and took down the licence numbers of all the automobiles parked outside. Since it is not necessary to commit a crime in order to be jailed for ninety days under South Africa’s new detention law, these tactics have a deterrent effect on multiracial social gatherings.

For a transient there is an added difficulty — where could he meet a black man? Not. of course, at his own hotel; that is explicitly forbidden by law. Not at any restaurant or bar. He could call at the black man’s home, but if the black man lives in a native “location” his white visitor would have to get permission to call, explaining of course the purpose of his visit. Finally, and easiest of all, he could arrange to meet the black man at the home of a white friend, which is the normal means of contact. But the current atmosphere is such that white friends advise against it — no black South African would talk frankly to a stranger, they say, and he might feel himself endangered even by having met one, especially a foreign reporter.

It is therefore difficult to meet black South Africans but it is not at all difficult to see them. White South African officials are will-

mg, nay eager, to take the visiting journalist on conducted tours of welfare and housing projects for the Bantu, and some of these are indeed impressive.

We toured some of the housing projects that have replaced the so-called “black spots” like Sophiatown, the horrible shantytown that used to disfigure the outskirts of Johannesburg and now is almost entirely cleared away. The new dwellings, row on row of identical little brick boxes, stretch for miles in the suburban “locations” around the outer edges of the city.

My guide was full of information about the problems of running these strange towns. One was to prevent the residents from putting up little shacks in their back or front yards and renting these to unauthorized tenants. “If we let that go on we’d soon have another Sophiatown here.” He told me of one tenant who had asked permission to bring his widowed mother from her village to live with him, a request the official had granted in a burst of unthinking compassion. “Within three months there were seventeen people living in that three-room house, all perfectly legally under native law and custom, and there was nothing 1 could do about it. Caused a hell of a scramble for more housing and so on — I was reprimanded for having granted his request in the first place.”

HE’S PROUD OF THEM, THE CLEVER BEASTS

The net effect on the visitor’s mind is that of listening to a lecture on animal husbandry from a man who is really fond of animals. He speaks with pride of the clever things they can do, and with still greater pride of the things being done for them but he doesn’t confuse them with humans. Needless to say, white South Africans would not accept this metaphor. They prefer to speak of their black labor force as children for whom the whites provide a firm but kindly parental supervision. But any decent parent wants his child to have a better chance in life than he himself has had, and to that rejoinder the white South African has no answer. I am writing this in a hotel room in Lagos, Nigeria, and my window looks out upon a horrid patch of slum — rusty iron shacks leaning against each other, roofs leaking in streams under the tropical downpour, naked children splashing about in an enormous mud puddle. Near the sidewalk is a sagging discolored wall with DON’T URINATE HERE painted on it in two languages, an injunction that is blithely disregarded by the passersby. Not, in short, a very desirable residential area. But if I had to choose I would far rather live in this cheerful squalor, free to come and go as I pleased, than be penned in the dreary hygienic monotony of a Johannesburg native “location.”