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The way we lived. 31. (Part 1) The Pass Laws.

Updated: May 31, 2023

The fairest Cape in the world?

This 2016 photo of mine from one of the fine Viaduct dockside restaurants is part of the reason Sir Francis Drake regarded Cape Town as the fairest Cape in the world on his 1580 circumnavigation of the globe. I always felt it was obscene how such beauty had to overlook such social depravity and despair as we lived with on the Cape Flats where the pain lingers on with violence, gangsterism and crime still the order of the day, now 27 years post-democracy. The Flats was apartheid’s social dumping ground.


When the National Party came to power in 1948, it introduced unprecedented restrictive laws which effectively imprisoned a nation that already had significant segregationist laws from nearly 300 years of colonisation by the Dutch and the British. The new system of apartheid (“apartness”) took discriminatory laws to unparalleled extremes in their vision of the Brave New World, one of fascist extremism based on race/colour. Some of their worst Acts to entrench their vilified ideology included:

  1. Pass laws and influx control.

  2. Population registration and segregation.

  3. Group Areas and Land tenure.

  4. Job reservation and economic apartheid.

  5. Segregation in education

  6. Political representation.

  7. Separate development and Bantustans

  8. and, and …

The Pass Laws Act of 1952 was among the most painful of all. It inflicted the indignity of having to carry a passbook at all times on indigenous Blacks over the age of 16. People called it the dompas, the stupid pass. In a nation of 20-30 million people in the 1960s and ’70s, the police arrested over a quarter of a million Blacks per year for not being able to produce the reference book when demanded of them. People were arrested in their outdoor bucket-style toilets for not having the reference book on their person. The dompas was at the top of the hate list of the country’s majority population for more than two centuries.

For not having a dompas, up to a quarter of a million transgressors per year flooded the courts and prisons; judges took three minutes per case – a sausage machine for justice. Initially, people were imprisoned; later many were deported to so-called Homelands they did not know at all; many were forced to work on farms for up to 6 months – a form of neo-slavery under harsh conditions for those caught up in a dragnet, including early morning raids on people’s homes looking for offenders.

The expense involved in the system eventually led to the law being repealed in 1986 to the relief of all Blacks in South Africa. Giving up a core tenet of their Verwoerdian utopia was truly the beginning of the end for apartheid South Africa. .

The Dutch introduced the first pass law to control their slaves in the Cape Colony in 1760. There is a long tradition of Black resistance to the pass laws and other discriminatory practices even after the British abolished more formal slavery in 1833 shortly after they took control of the colony in 1806; informal slavery exists to this day. In 1906 the first passive resistance campaign led by the young lawyer Mohandas Gandhi protested against the Asiatic Registration Bill aimed at confining Indians to segregated areas and limiting their trading activities. In 1913 the first mass action by Blacks against passes started in the Orange Free State. A 1918 workers’ strike was over the same issue, and pass-burning campaigns were organised in the 1930s by various trade unions and the Communist Party of South Africa.

Since 1958 under National party rule, Black men had to carry passbooks on their person at all times, with Black women subjected to the law in 1963 despite the protest movements like the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) in 1950, and the women’s march to the Union Buildings in August 1956, now commemorated each year as Women’s Day.

In a country riddled with crime, police were more interested in arresting pass offenders than criminals.

I grew up seeing long queues of people with police vans lined up outside train stations and bus terminuses while police officers checked the indigenous people’s reference books. Here, in their own country, those without the necessary authorisation were packed into police vans to be shipped off to so-called “Homelands” which were foreign to them. Sadly, these scenes were so everyday that they hardly registered with many people – the Afrikaans expression “sienende blind, en hoorende doof” comes to mind [the sighted blind, and the hearing deaf) – a bit like: there are none so blind as those who do not want to see, or hear, and there were enough of those in South Africa.

In 1960 the former Chief Luthuli, president of the African National Congress, encouraged Blacks to burn their passbooks “in an orderly manner.” The 1959 breakaway group from the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress led by Robert Subukwe, put out a similar call that led to people presenting themselves at police stations where they burned their passes. In Sharpeville, this action was met with a hail of police gunfire in which over 70 protesters lost their lives.

I counted nearly 30 bodies in this photo taken after the shooting; many people were shot in the back while attempting to flee from the withering onslaught.

Within a week, the PAC organised one of the country’s largest protest marches when tens of thousands of Blacks walked from Langa to Cape Town – the 20-kilometre-long trip included the still-under-construction Settler’s Way highway and the scenic De Waal Drive route along which the crowd snaked its way around the base of Devil’s Peak into the Mother City to present themselves for arrest at police HQ in Caledon Square.

Part of the gathering crowd awaiting arrest in front of police HQ, Caledon Square.

Seeing these brave people march along De Wall Drive must have been a stirring sight. Leading the way was the University of Cape Town student Phillip Kgosana (at a time when indigenous people were still allowed to attend the country’s premier educational institution). Kgosana, loath to lead “corpses to a new Africa”, called off the march outside police HQ when police promised him a meeting with Minister of Police JM Erasmus. Instead of meeting Erasmus, the police arrested Kgosana once the crowd dispersed.



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