Apartheid’s appalling colour scheme
Under the Skin
THE apartheid regime has been gone for almost 20 years. There were not just gross inequalities sanctioned by a late ideological bloom of the virus of racism, but subtler, shaping effects still evident in South Africa today. So first-person accounts of the years of oppression and struggle can be illuminating, even when written from the margins.
As it happens, Marion van Dyk’s Under the Skin comes soon after the publication of Donald McRae’s Under Our Skin, reviewed in these pages in June, which told of the political awakening of a white English-speaking family to the evils of apartheid. Van Dyk’s book tells of the parallel experience of a Cape Coloured.
The Coloureds in South Africa traditionally occupied a distinct and uncomfortable position. Described as being of mixed blood, they originated as a community in the casual sex between white bosses and the indigenous people of the Cape. They not only spoke Afrikaans but effectively created it.
While some liberal whites called them the brown Afrikaners, more commonly the atti- By Marion van Dyk Finch Publishing, 245pp, $29.99 tude was one of rejection. That they were nonwhite became more important than the genes they shared. Before 1948 the Coloureds were given a limited number of privileges compared with the blacks, but once apartheid came in they were firmly shut out.
Worse, they were removed from suburbs that had long been theirs. Van Dyk, who migrated to Australia in 1989, well remembers the pain of being squeezed out and the utter indifference of whites as they moved in.
Under the Skin begins with van Dyk going to a police station to report the birth of her baby, who she takes with her. The young Afrikaner policeman makes an error: he fills out the forms to classify the baby as white. Just after leaving the station, van Dyk discovers the mistake. Back she goes to have it corrected, and it is done with much ill grace. ‘‘ You people!’’ mutters the officer — a sublimely unconscious act of projection.
This memoir is full of such arbitrary decisions. Reference is made to the extraordinary pencil test, whereby if a pencil was inserted in someone’s hair and moved through easily, they could be classified white. If not, not. Before apartheid became entrenched, an aunt was able to be reclassified white so she could marry a British ex-pilot. This meant effectively removing herself from the family, which still grieved for her and missed her, although they could understand why. Others tried to ‘‘ pass for white’’, as the terminology went, because it would mean a better job, a better suburb and a better life all round.
Even so, there were more principled members of the family who could satisfy the requirements of whiteness but chose to remain with their community. But for a long time Coloured solidarity stopped there. They felt removed from the blacks, who always did the most menial tasks, and were afraid of them.
This book identifies a score of relatives,