Yes, it is possible to find black people who think life under apartheid was better. They think Bantu education was better. They think policing and the justice system was better. They even say the health system was great. Some even go as far as arguing that “these kids of today have too many rights – you raise your hand to them, you get arrested”.
To some extent, they may be right in arguing that some services were better under apartheid. In the village where I grew up, we did not have water from 1996 until this year. It turns out there used to be water taps running from the early 1980s until 1996, when they broke down and were not fixed until 2016. This for sure is a disappointment for people who have expected far better services since 1994’s democratically elected government came to power.
Part of the reason services were so much better in some of the homeland states back in the day was because the apartheid government was so desperate to prove that its policy of separate development could be successful. But no matter how much it tried, trying to squeeze the vast majority of the population into 13% of the country’s land was always going to be immoral, as it fed into the rather obvious plan of using the homelands as labour-sending areas for mass exploitation in and on “the white man’s” mines, farms, kitchens, gardens and other industries.
Even Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who spent many years fighting against the apartheid regime, once said “this government, our government, is worse than the apartheid government, because at least you were expecting it with the apartheid government”. He was no doubt angry and emotional after the Dalai Lama could not visit Tutu in this country when Pretoria failed to grant him a visa.
Most astonishingly, the leader of the EFF, Julius Malema, once shared similar sentiments. He told workers at the Aurora mine in Grootvlei, Springs, Ekurhuleni, in 2012 that “we are worse [off] than we were during the times of apartheid. We are being killed by our own people. We are being oppressed by our own government.” Once again, he was also emotional after members of the police gunned down striking mineworkers in Marikana, in the North West province.
Both the EFF leader and the archbishop were justly angry at the fact that infamous actions that used to be the preserve of the apartheid government were now being perpetuated by a government expected to value democracy and human rights. Most of us were shocked and called for the implicated to account when 34 miners, most of them breadwinners, were gunned down in broad daylight with the cameras watching. That certainly reminded us of Sharpeville. The Dalai Lama saga reminded me of all those innocent souls whose freedom of movement was denied by the state, such as Nat Nakasa, a South African journalist of note who committed suicide in exile at the age of 28 after being homesick in New York.
But was life under apartheid really that good for black people?
Hai khona, I beg to differ. I must confess, I wasn’t born in the 1950s, I’m a late ’80s baby. But I remember vividly that in my first week at school, still under Bantu education, we were stripped naked, made to stand in a long queue and “inspected” to see if we had bathed properly. We were made to do school subjects such as gardening, sewing, religion (which was only about the Bible), and many other subjects such as bricklaying and even “wire art” which basically taught us how to be servants or just keep us “usefully occupied”.
This is the very education system that did not allow black people to dream of entering certain career paths. Today we may not have a perfectly well-functioning government, but there’s no stated policy that says I cannot study something simply because I’m black; there’s no policy that requires me to have a permit to visit my parents; I’m not breaking the law if I kiss an Indian or white girl; I can criticise my government freely without worrying my house’s front door will be bashed in by the security police in the dead of night … to mention just a few of many policies and repressive attitudes that made life a living hell for black people.
There are endless examples one can offer for why life under apartheid was worse than what we experience today. The one that prompted me to write this column was the exhumation of 83 former political prisoners on Wednesday. They were hanged in 1964 at the Kgosi Mampuru prison’s gallows and buried in unmarked graves.
I wasn’t alive to witness this, but nowhere in South Africa are 83 human beings being hanged in one day now simply because they participated in politics. Now everyone has the right to support the political party they want, without needing to fear for their life.
The current government is not perfect. It is undeniably filled with corruption from top to bottom. Service delivery remains a disheartening problem. But there’s very little one could ever point to that would be enough for me to agree that we are in any way “worse than apartheid”, as some try to suggest.
With the Day of Reconciliation upon us tomorrow, we’re better off remembering how far we’ve come and reminding ourselves of how much further we still need to go, than hankering for an imagined past that was way more horrible than some like to remember it as.