1950s >> 1958 >> no-652-december-1958

Is It Funny?

THE writer was once with a group of South Africans listening to the wartime experiences of one of them in Egypt:—

  “There were we at the station crowded into the train, when a wog got on with a tray of fruit. Nobody wanted any, but he kept hanging around. So Charlie put a foot in his belly and gave a good shove. The wog went flying in one direction, and his fruit in another.”

This anecdote was received with roars of laughter, except from the writer, who said he could see nothing funny in it.

The attitude revealed is only too typical of South Africans, most of whom readily believe that they are superior beings compared with the non-white majority who live in the same country.

The Nationalist Government has recently been re-elected for a third term, and now has Dr. Verwoerd at its head—a man who, by his speeches and actions, has indicated that he is thoroughly in agreement with this view. So convinced is he of white superiority that he will not even discuss their future with any delegation of non-whites. What is laid down for them is their future, whether they like it or not.

In general the South African non-whites are an easygoing, cheerful, extrovert lot. They will usually accept life as they find it, without taking too much notice of the fact that the whites seem to be so much better off than they are. Had they shown as much aggressiveness as the North American Indians, for example (who had reached pretty much the same stage of social development), their present position might be much the same. That is, they might have the Indians’ alternative of a tribal life on a reservation, or of becoming integrated, with full citizenship rights, in the white community.

Being in a majority of four to one, the South African natives could run things entirely their own way, if they chose to get together for that purpose. They are kept apart by language—there are about twelve native languages, with many dialects, and by the fact that all native men need a pass to move from one place to another.

This pass system has existed for a long time in South Africa, but it is only within the last two or three years that it has been rigidly applied. In its present form it gives the police the power to move the native population around at will if in their view, and the view of others in authority, there is too great a concentration in any area.

The procedure is to descend on native dwellings, usually at night, and demand the passes of all those kept therein. Those with official permission to be in that particular area are usually left alone, except for such minor indignities as the police see fit to inflict. Those who can produce passes, but not permission to be in that particular area, are summarily removed to the places they came from. Those who can produce no documents at all are flung into gaol.

The most recent development of the pass system is the inclusion of native women for the first time. Perhaps this is the last straw that will break the long-suffering patience of the non-white South African. We quote from the Johannesburg Star of October 29th, 1958:—

  “It may, of course, be true that the demonstrations in the last few days against the issue of reference books to native women in Johannesburg have been instigated by agitators, including Communists. Indeed, it is obvious that a concerted effort of this kind cannot have been spontaneous and that a good deal of organising has gone into it.
“This is, unfortunately, never the complete answer to movements of discontent and protest. Agitators can only work with the material that is there and exploit grievances that really exist. In the present instance, there has never been any doubt about the opposition of the native people to the issue of “passes” to their women. They believe that it will expose the women to constant molestation and harassment by the police, as well as interfering with their freedom of movement.
“Is this opposition reasonable? The question immediately raises another. Should laws be imposed on people without any attempt at consultation and without regard for the fears they may entertain; whether these fears are justified or not?
“No machinery of any value exists for consulting the Natives about measures that affect their lives intimately.
“It is the practice to make such laws as the Government and a White electorate think desirable for the ‘ control’ of Natives without any thought of Native reactions to them. They are treated as aliens who are here on temporary permit only and must subject themselves to any rules that authority may devise.” (Our italics.)

We have two pictures from the Johannesburg Star of the following day—October 30th, 1958. The captions underneath read as follows: —

   “Tear Gas, batons and handcuffs were used by policemen today to disperse Native women outside the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court. The women were ordered twice to disperse. Then the police charged. This photograph shows a policeman using his handcuffs instead of a baton, chasing some women—one has a baby on her back.
“A young police constable wields a thin case as he chases a stout native woman away from the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court this afternoon. During the excitement a baby was found in the gutter—its mother had a gashed leg.”

The Star is the Johannesburg English evening newspaper. Its politics can be described as “United Party ” or opposition, though it has, over the past few years, shown somewhat more sympathy with the Nationalist regime than have the other South African English newspapers.
We, in Britain, and the more advanced countries should not congratulate ourselves too much on the intellectual and other “freedoms” that we enjoy. It is not such a long time since strike meetings and even mere attempts to form trade unions led to the use of police and troops. And it is only twenty years since international capitalism got ready for its last all-out conflict, and assumed arbitrary powers over the lives of the working class.


We have, however, the right to organise consciously for the overthrow of Capitalism, something that would not be possible in South Africa without running foul of the “Suppression of Communism” Act.


In the circumstances at present, however, we can do little more for South Africans, black or white, than to express our sympathy.


Britain, America, France and other “advanced” countries are not without problems arising from antipathy of workers with one colour of skin for those of another colour. Capitalism is competitive, and competition for jobs is part of it


Socialism will be co-operative and moneyless, with no economic reason for racial or other antagonisms. There will only be the common task of using the natural resources of the world for the benefit of those who live on it.


J. O. B.