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The way we lived. 32. (Part 2) The Pass Laws.

Updated: May 31, 2023

The march from Langa township caused high tension in Cape Town with the unprecedented masses marching into the city where police lined the streets armed with their made-in-England Sten guns and Saracen armoured military vehicles. Many people classified Coloured joined the protesters or honked their car horns in support of the protesters. Imagine marching in such a crowd knowing there had been four recent deaths in front of the nearby Langa police station and many more around the country, including Sharpeville. This was the stuff that made revolutions!

In my first year at senior school, I remember when a busload of us, on our way to the annual Cape Peninsula school sports day, saw the throng of people marching towards De Waal Drive. We cheered and gave the Black-Power-fisted salute as we drove past the marchers. We only had an inkling of its significance as the Black Power concept was new to the world in 1960; it was to embrace many of us with its socio-political message of Black consciousness and unity in the years to come. We did not know that we had just seen the 1960 birth of Black activism which would eventually topple apartheid 34 years later. It preceded USA African American Black Power by a few years – generally attributed to a 1966 speech by Stokely Carmichael during a civil rights march in Mississippi.

The popular refrain, “Amandla ngawethu” (Power to the People), had not yet taken off in Cape Town as it was to do in the next period of significant countrywide upheaval following the 1976 Soweto killing of over 60 schoolchildren. The Soweto aftermath resulted in several hundreds killed around the country over the increased use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at Black schools.

When the 1960 Sharpeville protests spread nationwide, they were also about other grievances – low wages; the prohibition of Black trade unions; job reservation for Whites which excluded Blacks from better-paying jobs, e.g. becoming artisans – Blacks were restricted to labourers’ jobs only. For me, the Sharpeville protest and deaths marked a turning point in the struggle for freedom and democracy in our globally condemned country.

The National Party government declared a draconian State of Emergency. Around the country many brave people gathered to burn their dompasses, often right outside police stations, resulting in tens of thousands of arrests. The state banned the ANC and PAC (African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress). A year later, after decades of passive opposition, the ANC formed MK (Umkhonto we sizwe – Spear of the Nation), its militant wing, while the PAC established its wing, the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA).

The state banned many political organisations and people, which, in 1961, included my father Alie Fataar and his Livingstone High School (LHS) colleagues and my teachers and mentors “RO” Dudley and Victor Wessels; another activist Kenny Jordaan fled into exile. In 1964 the school lost another two teachers when Neville Alexander and Leslie van der Heyden were arrested and found guilty of treason; they spent ten and five years respectively on Robben Island. Many schools had teachers with a similar fate, but my alma mater, LHS, was the Black senior school with the highest activist-teacher ratios in the Mother City.[See my earlier blog, number 4. “Our teachers – mentors, heroes and a traitor.”]

From the high numbers of the 1960s and 1970s, arrests for passes started to decline. Around 238,000 is the figure given for 1984, but police and those without a dompas continued to play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Many deported people, forced to go to the unknown “Homelands” of the impoverished Bantustans, often returned to Cape Town on the same bus they had used for their enforced departures.

The system failed with desperate people fleeing these artificial homelands placed in areas where soil erosion was legendary. The orange scars of the water-eroded dongas crisscrossed the red-brown earth of the Bantustans with its precious topsoil washed-away. Driving through or past these areas, one often saw scrawny cattle minded by equally bony youngsters.

My mission hospital period from 1972 to 1975 in Zululand was an eye-opener of rural African impoverishment where malnutrition flourished, and absentee husbands and fathers struggled against the influx controls. The most painful experience of my professional life in Zululand was having to write out death certificates for children dying of gastroenteritis, chest infections, and kwashiorkor – a form of protein-energy malnutrition – and a host of other poverty-related diseases. Of course tuberculosis was rampant. My heart still aches with the cases we had during an outbreak of diphtheria in which 25 of 75 patients succumbed – mainly children. This disaster NEVER hit the news headlines in 1972. Just imagine the difference had the disease affected Whites!

This was a blinkered government hell-bent on creating a White paradise on the back of Black labour which preferably had to be invisible in the cities and towns around the country especially at night when Blacks had to return to their ghettoes.

The Dompas-related Sharpeville killings represented a turning point in South Africa’s history which set in motion the heightened liberation activity accompanied by several strictly enforced draconian States of Emergency over several years. Who would have believed that schoolchildren protesting the increased use of Afrikaans at their schools in 1976 would eventually cause the apartheid monolith to collapse in 1994? Such is the history of which dreams are made to replace the nightmares of parliamentary acts like the Pass Laws, which sought to imprison a nation. Sadly, thousands paid the ultimate price to rid the country’s majority of their Dompas Reference Books and other iniquitous laws.

The system of pass laws was formally repealed in1986, with the Abolition of Influx Control Act. It was an admission of the failure of one of the foundation stones of the racist state we lived in; the writing was on the wall.

The removal of one of the major pillars of apartheid marked the start of the end to confine fascist apartheid to the waste bin of history alongside Nazism. South Africa’s first democratic elections followed in 1994.

Signs like this blighted our daily lives. They were everywhere! They were unavoidable!

The Pass Laws were part of a distorted vision to make South Africa into a paradise for Whites, and ultimately, a hell hole for Blacks of all persuasions. Hopefully, this will never again be repeated in any form anywhere in the world. Apartheid was a crime against humanity!


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