Lessons learnt looking back in time
BEN Maclennan’s Apartheid: The Lighter Side came up on Friday’s Stoep, in the course of contemplating when our era will be blessed with Transformation: The Lighter Side.
So, of course, weekend searching took place, and Murphy’s Law put in a showing. Having made my way through 99.9% of thousands of books in every corner of the house, I stumbled upon Ben’s slim volume an arm’s-length from my desk while reaching for a fire lighter. (Very very early on a July morning, winter actually does feel like winter.)
There are people who think Murphy’s Law is a joke, like some think the 50-50-90 law is a joke – any time you have a 50-50 chance of getting something right there is a 90% probability you’ll get it wrong. No, these things are Guidance. The Peter Principle, too, that everyone gets promoted up to their level of incompetence. I don’t know why that one was ever supposed to be a joke.
Mr Peter might have used a politer term than “incompetence”, but his point is exactly how things ought to be. Where better to get promoted to than the point at which you start fraying at the edges? Your next promotion is the one you are going to screw up.
Anyway, The Lighter Side revisited contains quite a shock. It has plenty of “light” – all right. I open it at random to find Professor Andrew Murray, famous warrior of the Publications Directorate, in the Cape Times of February 20, 1987: “People have a silly idea that there must be freedom of the press and no repression. They don’t realise that ideas are also a source of evil.”
Below him, a poster by the Blanke Bevrydings Beweging, calling for the military repatriation of non-whites out of South Africa, is banned. Below it, so is a penis-shaped chocolate. Below that is TV personality Justice Tshungu explaining that the movie Cry Freedom should be allowed for whites over 21 and blacks over 30.
There is the Secretary for Justice proud of progress towards all courts having separate entrances for European and non-European prisoners, separate docks, separate witness boxes and separate seating.
There are sombre arguings over whether Jesus was white or coloured, and there’s a pastor saying only white people can say “Our Father” because God is white. Another explains that heaven’s “many mansions” are for the separate races.
Prime Minister John Vorster announces that discrimination must be eliminated, but not in a way that creates a multiracial society.
There’s plenty that’s funny, but what is more striking is how much is not. Hurts that are evident to everyone in our time were taken as merriment in their own time. Jacob Kumalo, working at a Swellendam hotel, is fined 5 (or 30 days) for crimen injuria; he offered a handshake to greet a white woman guest. An East London court shunts a Native woman witness to five successive points in the room to avoid her sullying the European witness box.
Then there are innumerable comments taking the difference between races as a central truth of how the world works. This doesn’t come just from apartheid ideologues; it’s anyone from Gary Player to Bantu Holomisa to Harry Oppenheimer. Now, it reeks of wrong in a way that it didn’t in its own time. It’s not that those people were that dreadful, but that those times were that backward.
I end learning a lesson, again (apologies, my pathology): that today’s thinking about race/demographics and dividing humans by their birth will be as embarrassing in 2057 as 1977 thinking is now. Cheers!