Following my articles about the death of Nelson Mandela, I've had several e-mails claiming that apartheid South Africa really wasn't that bad. Particular emphasis is placed on the fact that the economy was allegedly 'thriving', and the crime rate was allegedly far less than it became after the advent of majority rule. In so many words, it's being said that apartheid was better than the democracy that now exists there.
This is completely false, based on either thinly disguised racism or on a very selective approach to the facts of the matter.
First, the economy was pretty darn lousy for everyone except the White community - and even for them, it was getting worse during the 1980's under the impact of economic sanctions. Apartheid basically condemned all race groups except Whites to a paltry share of the economic pie, including restrictions on education, job reservation, and a host of other aspects of everyday life solely on the basis of one's race. The White community basically kept almost everything worth having, in economic terms, for itself until the 1980's, when things began to improve for the other races; but the change was almost infinitesimally slow, and still has not progressed to true economic equality. Inferior Black education has a lot to do with this.
Secondly, crime was always very bad - it just wasn't recorded. The South African Police were probably the single most racist element of the security forces, far more so than the Defence Force. They perpetrated many crimes themselves (as the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made clear - see, for example, Vlakplaas, the death of Neil Aggett, or the murder of the Pebco Three, to name only three of literally thousands of possible examples). They arranged many more such incidents through groups allied to the apartheid government (e.g. Operation Marion), and failed to record or report many crimes in the Black community, claiming that most 'black-on-black violence' wasn't really crime at all - it was politically motivated. This was, of course, completely false, but that didn't worry a police force that routinely tortured and murdered suspects without bothering to put them through the formality of a trial. Detention without trial was a standard procedure, with few legal rights and/or protections for detainees (even those that existed were often ignored). It's certain that tens of thousands of Black people in particular were detained without trial for days, weeks or months in the 'evil years' from 1976 until the early 1990's - my personal estimate is that the figure was in the hundreds of thousands.
You want an example of that? Here's a scene from the end of the movie Cry Freedom. Just read the names of the detainees (detained without trial) who died or were killed in police custody. Look up their names, and read their stories. If even one in ten died the way their deaths were officially reported, I'll eat my hat! It's blatantly obvious what happened to them - at least, it's obvious to anyone who has two brain cells to rub together. Note that the list ends in 1987, when the apartheid government stopped releasing the names of those who 'died' in detention, and no longer gave 'reasons' or 'explanations' for what happened to them.
Many, many of those who were detained without trial simply 'disappeared'. They were often recorded as having been 'released from custody' - but no-one ever saw them again. When and where were they 'released'? Why did they never contact their families again? The revelations about Vlakplaas are a grim clue, because Vlakplaas wasn't the only establishment of its kind (see, for example, the farm known as Post Chalmers or Fort Chalmers, used for the murder of the Pebco Three and other activists). I personally found unidentifiable whole and partial skeletons in the bush near SA police and military establishments during the 'evil years'. There were bullet holes in some of the bones. Who were they? When and how did they die? Your guess is as good as mine . . . but I can make a pretty good guess, I think.
I've written about some of the things I experienced in those years. Relevant blog articles include:
Fellow blogger Titflasher (who seems to have been in many of the same areas as myself during the bad years) has recently summarized her own experience of security forces oppression in three very good articles, under the overall title of 'Mandela and why people who have never lived under complete and utter oppression just don’t get it'. You'll find them at the following links:
I highly recommend reading all three, and following the links she provides.
Finally, to people who try to make excuses for apartheid and the conduct of the then-South African government, I can only say:
- If you were treated like a slave, a sub-human and a pariah in your own country;
- If you were stripped of your citizenship and civil rights in the country of your birth because of the color of your skin;
- If your education depended upon your skin color for its quality (or lack thereof);
- If your choice of what to do with your life, or where to live, or who to love or marry, was restricted by your race;
- If you were denied free travel inside your own country, forced to carry an internal passport and subject to instant arrest if you forgot it at home or lost it;
- If you were forced to accept menial labor as the only work open to you, paid a starvation wage, and denied the right to bring your family to live with you near your place of work;
- If you were savagely beaten and imprisoned if you dared to protest such restrictions and indignities, or even shot out of hand rather than arrested;
would you calmly accept those things? Or would you take up arms to overthrow the system that placed such restrictions upon you?
I know what my answer would have been, in my younger years. It would have been the same as Nelson Mandela's in the 1960's. It still amazes me that he could have changed so much as to become an ambassador for peace after his release.