Apartheid’s ap­palling colour scheme

Un­der the Skin

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jim David­son

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,

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.