It started with trains: city wanted no part in division
Some key events from this week in history are reflected in the following reports from the archives of the Argus’s 160-year-old titles
TWO-AND-a-half months after scraping home in the May 1948 election – with a slender majority of seats and a minority of votes – the Nationalists’ first stab at introducing apartheid in Cape Town seemed tentative and almost comically unrealisable.
A tone of incredulity colours the report of mid-August that year – “Apartheid will be first- class only; segregation in suburban trains” – as if, in the Cape anyway, the central – or even only – plank of DF Malan’s election manifesto was simply too far-fetched to be imagined in practice.
But there it was, and, indefinite and improbable as it seemed, this was a historic moment, for the measures to “come into force next week”, as readers discovered, “will be the first practical application, however limited in form, of the Nationalist Party’s apartheid policy”.
The report was evidently based on a tip-off rather than an announcement, as it begins: “The Minister of Transport (Mr Paul Sauer), it is learnt, has decided to introduce a measure of racial segregation on Cape suburban trains.”
The report went on: “The provisions which will probably come into force next week will be by no means complete apartheid. They are likely to consist merely of reserving certain first- class accommodation for Europeans only, and the coaches concerned will carry boards to that effect.
“So far as is known at present, there will, for a start, be no apartheid in the secondclass. The scheme is experimental and may be developed later.”
Speculating on the feasibility of the enterprise, the paper’s parliamentary correspondent wrote: “To carry out apartheid fully would mean running double trains, which the railway with their limited rolling stock, track, and staff, are not able to do.
“In the absence of details, it is presumed that the provisions proposed by Mr Sauer will be as far as the railways can at present go.”
The media was clearly still trying to get its head around Interior Minister Eben Donges having recently “defined apartheid as ‘racial separation with equal facilities’ ”.
“Observers find it difficult to reconcile this with the scheme for the Cape suburban lines unless an equivalent number of first-class coaches is reserved for non-Europeans.”
There was also the ticklish problem of determining who was who. “Discrimination between those who are European and those who are not will place an invidious task on railway officials,” the correspondent wrote.
Just as telling is that, for George Golding, president of the Coloured People’s National Union, while apartheid on the trains “was not unexpected” as the Nationalists had “fought the election on this issue”, the reality was disturbing.
Golding was quoted as saying: “The idea of segregation in the face of the Cape’s liberal colour policy comes as a great shock to us as a people.”
He added: “The coloured people might accept segregation in which they were given equal facilities on trains, such as separate coaches of all classes and their own ticket- examiners, but they could not accept any discrimination such as was envisaged by the Minister of Transport’s proposals.”
In mid-August four years later – eight months before the Nationalists’ second general election victory in April 1953 (again, with fewer votes than the United/Labour pact, but a majority of seats) – the government was more emboldened and was upping the ante.
The report of August 14, 1952 – “City council to think again on Group Areas” – reflects the national executive’s impatience with what it must have regarded as Cape Town’s petulance.
From shortly after 1948, the city’s policy on apartheid was one of “non-co-operation”, the council insisting that if the government wanted to introduce fresh measures to separate people by race, then it could implement them itself.
The particular law the city was determined to be non-cooperative over was the 1950 Group Areas Act, which was intended to – and did, with continuing impact in 2017 – carve up every town and city into racial enclaves.
And, two years into the life of this law, Cape Town was “warned (that it would) be compulsorily zoned in racial groups if it does not voluntarily comply with the Group Areas Act”, a warning that, as readers learned in August 1952, impelled the council to “reconsider its present policy of leaving it to the government to implement the act”.
The warning was contained “in a letter from the head of the administrative section of the Land Tenure Advisory Board”.
The report said: “Referring to a recent government notice affecting Cape Town and adjacent areas, it says its object is to give local authorities an opportunity to submit proposals for the demarcation of group areas.
“It adds that after the closing date, August 30, all proposals received will be submitted to a Planning and Reference Committee approved by the Minister of the Interior.
“If the council changes its mind about implementing the act, it will then have to conduct racial surveys and forward its proposals, together with detailed sketch maps.”
The risk for the city in remaining outside the process lay in losing all say over the matter. As the report put it: “It was pointed out to the General Purposes Committee that, though this might be a long and costly undertaking, the council might forfeit its right to have any say in the racial demarcation of the city if it did not at once take this opportunity.”
The rest is history – but it’s a history we live with; no one can doubt that many hundreds of millions of rand have yet to be spent undoing its effects.
Protesters at Cape Town station demonstrating against segregation on the trains.
‘Non-white’ commuters are shown where they ‘belong’.