In one of the many articles about Nelson Mandela and his legacy, I read today that “No one went to South Africa before 1994 … or no one I knew”. But George (ex-husband) and I did. We lived and worked in Cape Town in the mid 1970, when apartheid seemed so entrenched that I wrote home “There will never be majority rule here”. I worked as an occupational therapist in a hospital specialising in spinal cord injuries; my responsibility was for the “non-white” quadriplegics (tetraplegics).
The second Bradt guide, Backpacker’s Africa, was written after we arrived back in England after 11 months travelling from Cape Town to Cairo. This book was one of the very few — or perhaps the only one — available in the UK at that time. George wrote “The year we spent resting and working in South Africa will always be remembered for Cape Town’s incredible beauty, the friends we made, and the sharp, complex dilemmas we saw etched into everyone’s life. The daily sadness, drama and reality of apartheid is too enormous even to grasp, but occasionally it’s broken into manageable pieces; or a corner lifted and the system reveals itself.”
Here are some pieces and lifted corners:
I went by train to work and crossed the railway line to the hospital. There was a “Whites Only” footbridge and a “Non Whites” bridge; the post office (as a government building) had separate entrances for Whites and Non Whites, while the supermarket, being privately owned, had just one. Phone boxes were segregated. At the hospital I had to be sure to keep the cutlery and crockery separate if I made tea for the patients.
The Non White patients had their own (black) porter to bring them to OT. As did the Whites. Meneer Smit (Mr Smith) who wheeled in the Whites, was very sweet but a bit dim. ‘Job reservation’ which reserved a certain number of menial jobs for whites had benefited him. Archie, who delivered the Non Whites, was very bright and a terrific entrepreneur. One time he had bought a cart-load of apples from a friend, and my patients arrived almost completely buried in apples since a wheelchair, plus occupant, was the easiest way to transport the fruit to potential buyers.
One of my favourite patients was Jim. A former welder in a good job, he was shot in the neck and paralysed by the police when running for a bus. They thought he was fleeing them. He was entitled to compensation, but was ‘persuaded’ to drop the case. My friend Joan took up the cause and, with the help of lawyer friends who worked exclusively with victims of police crimes, got the case reopened and justice was finally done and he received compensation. But paralysis can’t be reversed.
The white South Africans who were committed to the anti-apartheid movement have not had much press these last few days. Joan was only 26 when I knew her, and had already been in detention, mostly solitary confinement, for 90 days. Physical torture, no; psychological torture, yes. She was a very brave young woman.
For travellers on a tight budget, South Africa was expensive since, as Whites, we were obliged to travel first class. The double-decker buses were segregated. Often George and I were the only people on the lower deck, and listened, mortified, as the conductor shouted “Full up!” at the waiting queue of Non Whites at the bus stop since all the seats upstairs were taken.
But we were free to hitchhike. I remember the look on the faces of passers by as we rode in the back of a pick-up truck (“bakkie”) driven by Blacks. It was the wrong way round – but not illegal.
The (brilliant) local theatre company, The Space, produced “Othello Slegs Blankes” (Whites Only Othello) somehow managing without the Moor but making a powerful statement.
Cape Town designated their new concert hall a non-segregated area long before apartheid was dismantled. I brought a Coloured patient, a former trombone player, there for a concert in 1975. He confessed afterwards to feeling uncomfortable as not only the only Non White he could see, but the only one in a wheelchair.
The bond between maid or gardener and ‘Madam’ was often very close. I remember an old lady, Dodie, and her truly devoted Coloured maid Mary. Dodie took her to Canada for a holiday. When they returned, a friend asked Mary what she thought of that country. She’d liked it except for “All them Niggers holding hands with white girls.”
As I recall, that was the first overtly racist comment that I’d heard, which surprised me coming, as I did, from years of living in the USA when real hatred was often expressed. Outspoken dislike, verging on hatred, was confined to the Whites. South Africans of English heritage disliked the Afrikaners and told me about it; no doubt the Afrikaners felt the same. There was very little mixing between these two separate groups. I grew to like and respect the Afrikaners, whatever their political views, because they were honest about their views. Hitchhiking around the country was a great way of meeting all sorts of different people holding all sorts of different opinions. I remember one farmer saying “Those boys would die for me” – jerking his head in the direction of the back of the truck where his labourers were riding. He was probably speaking the truth.
I remember listening to the news in 2008: “Today the Queen will host a state banquet for President Mandela” and imagining the shock had I time-travelled forward from the 1970s. What? President Mandela?? Meeting the Queen? Inconceivable. There are thousands, I suppose millions, like me who not only thought such a headline was impossible, they knew it. Political miracles can happen.