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The way we lived. 33. (Part 1) The Group Areas Act.

Updated: May 31, 2023

Having recently written about District 6 followed by a blog on the Pass Laws, I thought about what were the worst laws of several which imprisoned a nation. Without a doubt, the Pass laws topped the list; The Group Areas would have to be next. Of course there were more:

  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. Sexual apartheid.

  7. Political representation.

  8. Separate development and Bantustans

  9. and, and …

From the inception of the National party government in 1948, almost overnight, signs like this sprouted like Namaqualand daisies after the rain. They became the blighted graffiti of our lives for the next 46 years in all public places; the only city sanctuary free of signs which I can think of was upstairs on buses where I always sat. Downstairs had “mixed seating” with Whites only seats up front and Blacks towards the back. With the bus entrances at the back in those days, I often wondered how Whites felt when walking past the Black seats which were often filled and Blacks had to stand, compared with the empty spaces up front. It was a rare sight to have a white face upstairs.

The infamous Group Areas Act of 1950 separated us physically and emotionally. The “Us” and “Them” barriers were mental and physical. Often a separating railway line or highways and other city major by-ways were the lines of demarcation for where people of colour and those of none lived. To many of the former, The Group Areas Act was one of South Africa’s worst laws which afflicted millions in different ways. My experience in Cape Town as I grew up was manifest around the country in cities and towns, big and small.

This large crowd in Durban protested in vain against the pending Group Areas Bill. Similar protests took place around the country.

For indigenous Africans, living in the city as temporary residents was by permit only despite their labour being essential to building the country whether they worked in the country’s gold mines or as labourers, maids, servants and gardeners [see earlier blog on the Pass system]. For many, the city was out of bounds after hours – they had to disappear to the ghettoes and return to visibility only when or where needed the next day.

In Cape Town, group areas relocations affected over a quarter of a million people who were evicted from some of the cities most scenic locations to the townships/locations/ghettoes on the Cape Flats. The sandy wastelands of the Flats’ sobriquet as the Mother City’s refuse tip of apartheid, was apt as people were crowded into row after row of badly built council housing, later aggravated by “infill housing” with small flats in four-storey tenements with mimimal social amenities.

Apparently the housing estates were built in rectangles to provide straight shooting lines during periods of rioting. They also had to be 100 metres away from busy outer roads – the distance would exceed the distance that a stone or rock could be thrown. Major freeways around the city allowed quick access of police and troops to the townships during periods of unrest. These designs came forcefully into play during and after the 1976 post-Soweto riots.

The council houses were often close to “informal” housing where people set up their shanties on available land in the surrounding low dunes where ubiquitous Australian wattle [Port Jackson’s] provided them with some colour from their foliage and their little yellow pompoms in spring, but the pollen was a burden to many asthmatics.

I recall doing a house call at one shanty in the middle of a bitter winter [weren’t they all?]. From my car I had to walk on a row of bricks with their tops just clear of the water to reach the house where the bricks and water led me all the way to the patient’s bed. I had to examine the patient while standing on the bricks. It was no surprise that the man had a lung abscess from a neglected pneumonia. It was one of those moments during my short life as a GP when I was close to tears in a one-roomed shanty where five other people sat high on chairs to keep their feet out of the water while the household senior apologised to me for the water. Cape Town’s “sewe dae se reen” (seven days of rain) brought havoc to many in the city.     

It does not take too long to drive from the country’s most expensive real estate along the Sea Point-Clifton coastline to a decidedly different world  of  Cape Flats’ shanties. This stark contrast is obscene in a country regarded as having the most iniquitous wealth distribution in the world – sadly, this state of affairs still prevails today as another sad legacy of the bad old days.

This post-democracy shot shows new electricity lines supplying shanties, some of which have satellite dishes in place. Before democracy in 1994, these homes were without electricity. Notice the rusted patchwork walls of metal sheets of one in the foreground; the wooden slats of another; and how few windows there are.  

Shanty complexes like this one were home to several thousands within a square kilometre or two. Close to the main airport, they constitute one of the first views of The Mother City, part of the fairest Cape in the world.



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