A Canadian poet visits with the conflicts of apartheid and finds guilt on the streets of Johannesburg

AL PURDY April 1 1974


A Canadian poet visits with the conflicts of apartheid and finds guilt on the streets of Johannesburg

AL PURDY April 1 1974


A Canadian poet visits with the conflicts of apartheid and finds guilt on the streets of Johannesburg


Flying over Africa, looking down at the tropical halfdesert succeeded by jungle and grassland, then the white polar immensity of Mount Kilimanjaro, and the monster Zambezi River crawling away eastward - seeing

all this for the first time is like witnessing a new planet instead of this world’s “dark continent” blazing with sunshine.

1 went there because I expected to do some writing, and because I was particularly interested in South Africa, the country and its people. At Johannesburg I went with Nadine Gordimer, a white South African novelist, to a black play at the University of Witwatersrand. A black play about the Bantu predicament in South Africa, whose idea was conceived by the two lead actors. Of course their predicament, simply stated, is the color of their skins and South Africa’s “apartheid” policy, including the reference book system which requires that many blacks who have no jobs must return to their home community.

Sizwe Bansi Is Dead has no written script and is slightly different with each performance, since the two actors really ad lib their own lives as blacks, weaving in the story of finding a dead man with a valid reference book. The jobless Sizwe Bansi has been ordered to report to Bantu authorities (white) at Port Elizabeth, but switches the photograph from the dead man’s book into his own to assume a new working identity. Therefore, Sizwe Bansi is dead.

The university audience was mixed black and white, neutral ground of the university being the only place where this was permitted until the advent of Billy Graham in South Africa last year. We sat on hard wooden chairs, and it was a warm night in Johannesburg. I had just passed through seven different time zones and traveled 10,000 miles getting there. I couldn’t stay awake. John Kani, the lead actor, launching into passionate rhetoric, would say: “You are a boy from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and a man for three hours before you go to sleep. You are half-boy and half-man all your life.” Then he glanced challengingly at the audience, reaching out to shake the nearest white hand as confirmation and pledge of the basic humanity of all people.

And there I was with my face hanging out, asleep. Sitting beside Nadine Gordimer, one of the best-known and most-respected white liberals, in the front row seats, I was an obvious target for those handshakes. Despite frantic efforts, my head would nod and I’d sink into an uneasy doze. And migawd, here’s Kani’s intense sweating black face directly in front of me, grabbing my hand in brotherhood. During that two-anda-half-hour play I swear he must have shaken hand six or seven times. A tigerish looking man

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of 30, Kani seemed to aim some of his lines directly at me; “When I hold out my hand to the white man to come, his wife will nudge him to wake him from the dream — so I have to grab his hand before he withdraws it.” All I could dream about was sleep and additional sleep within the dream; but Kani passed through every dream time zone between Jo-burg and Toronto to shake my hand.

Despite a lot of florid rhetoric and its extreme length, the play did come across as a valid statement of human dignity. But in wakeful intervals my radio dramatist’s mind suggested cuts to manageable length; and I squirmed on the hard seat, glancing guiltily sideways at Miss Gordimer to see if she’d noticed my somnambulistic trance. During the really purple passages I’d wonder if there were plainclothes police in the back row, hidden cameras and that sort of thing. I doubt there were, of course, since this was a public performance. Just the same, I wondered.

In South Africa the summer months are between December and February. Most of the country’s interior consists of high plateaus, up to 6,000 feet, the climate dry with little rainfall. But wandering the streets of Cape Town and Johannesburg in full summer is as close to the steam valve on a pressure cooker as I want to get.

The most immediately noticeable thing to any Canadian is the different treatment of blacks and whites. Separate entrances to stores, EUROPEANS ONLY signs on urinals, separate housing, different buses for blacks who work and live in white areas. The huge Soweto suburb of 700,000 blacks near Johannesburg, built by the municipal govern-

ment, is one example. Slum shacks were cleared to make Soweto possible; but in the event of any black rebellion the advantages of having them in one place are obvious.

There are also “Bantu Homelands,” enclaves within the republic, “aided” in their separate development by the South African government. These black islands, larger in area than England and Wales, are located mostly in poor agricultural regions. They are self-governing to a degree, but not permitted to send out foreign ambassadors, make trade agreements and the other appurtenances of a sovereign nation. Whites control the South African economy in all respects, run the government, make the decisions, and above all possess a modern efficient army and air force.

The rather ambivalent attitude of whites toward blacks seemed to me personified by a white doctor I met in Johannesburg. He was about 40, a gynecologist at the 3,400-bed hospital outside the city. We got along well together conversationally. He took me on a conducted tour of the huge hospital near Soweto, and his thoughts seemed to veer from one moral extreme to the other. “We are the skunks of the world because of apartheid,” he’d say at one moment. In the next breath: “I feel personally guilty about it.”

But a few minutes later: “The blacks are near savages, just a few years away from murdering each other. In fact, look at the killings in Soweto. Every day at the hospital we treat people from there, knifings, clubbings and dozens of assaults. When you see as much of that as I do, you realize blacks are still savages, that they still live on a different cultural

level than the whites.”

“All right, what about the six million Jews murdered during the Hitler war? Whites did that.”

Which gave the doctor pause, but only for a moment. Then he launched into another monologue of justification for apartheid.

European relations with the blacks really began in the 17th century. When Jan van Riebeeck established a victualing station at Table Bay (now Cape Town) in 1652 to supply the Dutch East India Company’s ships, the vast South African hinterland was populated only by wandering tribes of Bushmen and Hottentots. The Bushmen were Stone Age people. In succeeding centuries they were nearly wiped out by the whites; only nomad survivors remain in arid country to the northwest and in the Kalahari Desert. The Hottentots were even more fragile and unwise. They became servants and cattle herders for the whites, “intermarried” with them, and were nearly exterminated by smallpox. Eventually they became part of the more than two million colored, along with Malays and East Indians, living in western Cape Province.

The Bantu were and are a different kettle of barracuda: a warrior race, born and bred to the spear. In the early years of the last century when voortrekkers (equivalent to North American coveredwagon pioneers) were migrating north from sheer lust for land and also to escape from the restrictive rule of the English government in Cape Colony, the Bantu were emigrating south from the Great Lakes region of central Africa. The bloody collision between voortrekkers and Bantu took place east of the

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towering Drakensberg Mountains in the 10 years between 1830 and 1840. At Blood River in 1838 some 3,000 Bantu were killed. The rifle had conquered the spear, as it generally does.

The rights and wrongs of that quarrel are lost in millions of words long silent in the mouths of dead men. Land ownership was probably the crux of the matter, apart from black or red sunburn. The Bantu regarded the soil as of less importance than the beings who lived on its surface, those who made use of the land as an hereditary privilege of the tribe as well as individuals. When their chiefs “ceded” land by treaty to whites, all they could do or meant to do was give whites the same privileges as their own people, which was to use the land but not possess it by contract.

And yet, paradoxically, when whites were ceded land by treaty, the agreement in the eyes of the Bantu chief automatically made the whites his vassals. Along with his own people who also had above-ground rights to the land.

Today in South Africa there are 15 million Bantu, slightly more than two million colored (mixed blood descendants of East Indians, Hottentots, Malays and a relatively few unfortunate Stone Age Bushmen) and nearly four million whites. Unlike Canada the result is not biculturalism but three, four, five and dozens of cultures, different for each racial group. With the white man as kingpin of the lot.

Blacks and coloreds are not even second-class citizens, merely a cheap labor supply. Two thirds of the whites are Afrikaners (Dutch descent) and the remainder mostly English. The latter provide vociferous opposition in their newspapers to the nationalist Afrikaner government. It’s a paradox of this particular police state that it has a free press. Gold and diamond mines, plus a burgeoning agriculture and manufacturing industry, ensure that the economy is prosperous. Most of the world’s gold comes from South Africa. And the government makes sure the blacks stay in their place — which is at the bottom.

As a good white liberal, who will take no chances and make no personal sacrifice on behalf of the blacks, to be suddenly immersed in this racist apartheid culture is unbelievable. However selfrighteous it seems, there is nothing like this in Canada (even if you include reserve Indians). The shock of it, even the expected, caused my own detachment — formed over the years in the interests of personal survival — to begin to fail me.

And yet South Africa has some virtues of the underdog: in the midst of guilt they are in triumph. Being unpopular they try harder at anything they do. Silly as it may sound, their tennis players, golfers, pro boxers, etc., are among the best in the world. Being a leper colony has its advantages, plus a year-round

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gamesmanship climate, of course. Christian Barnard, who performed the world’s first heart transplant, is a national hero. Their writers, too, are among the best. Nadine Gordimer, with whom I squirmed on the hard chairs of Witwatersrand University, is in the first row of seats in world lit. The lesson is obvious: both blacks and whites have something to fight for and against. The country stinks, but part of the stink is gold and the habit of winning.

Drinking brandy in a Johannesburg hotel room with a black Bantu houseboy, his face marked with raised horizontal ridges from a tribal childhood, and a liquid voice as if he holds and touches words in his mouth like colored stones to construct a sound castle .. . very different from my own businesslike gutturals ... talking about his bare subsistence working wage, he intending to leave Jo-burg and work in Kruger National Park, and talking about murders in Soweto over the long Christmas holiday of peace on earth and good will toward men ...

His name was Solomon, unwise to be born black, and yet possessing a youthful faith that “things are gonna get better” that I am too cynical or too old to entirely believe. He has not my strong sadness, but the pain of knowing he is a man and the bewilderment of struggling to overcome the handicap of being black in his own country. Talking with Solomon, I had the fantasy feeling of striking a small flaw in the huge monolithic apartheid maze of laws, making them slightly less efficient, weakening the legal superstructure by civil disobedience. Or doing nothing, say, but feeling virtuous about it.

After a few weeks in South African cities, despite the marvelous climate and picturesque country. I begin to have a very depressed feeling. And a kind of panic, reasonless maybe, that I am trapped in Africa and will never escape.

I’m being too clever talking about it, of course. But the panic is real. My senses taste the deep sickness. I’ve convinced myself that something is about to happen, then penetrate my own mindsubterfuge. For the country scares hell out of me: listening to screams on night streets, crashing glass and hopeless anger, 16 murders in Soweto over the weekend. And yet it isn’t violence that’s so frightening: when daylight comes the calm expressions of both blacks and whites will resume. Each so aware of the other that to lose pain and guilt would be a deprivation too great to bear.

Whatever the definition of evil and cartography of guilt which Fve never been able to classify, or graft words onto adequately, it becomes briefly clear on the streets of Johannesburg. An evil I’ve stretched out my hand to and drawn into myself. And take it with me.