Last weekend, a South African friend and I watched “The Power of One.” The 1992 movie is based on Bryce Courtenay’s 1989 novel about a white boxer growing up during apartheid in the 1930s and 40s.
It’s a beautiful story and well-made movie. Furthermore, it was interesting to watch it with a South African and hear his commentary. Most of the history I knew already – I did my research before moving here! – but his opinions were fascinating.
(White, non-Afrikaner) South Africans generally have a fierce pride of their country, but also shame of their past and anger towards their current government.
My friend told me, “You must be shocked at us. The British invented concentration camps and killed thousands of Afrikaner women and children.* Apartheid continued into the 1990s. You know the Immorality Act was in place during our lifetime? You and I wouldn’t have been allowed to be together.”
The Immorality Act prohibited mixed-race relations. Technically I never would have been conceived (I have Asian and European heritage), but I didn’t dispute his point.
Instead, I told him something along these lines:
“Do you know what the problem with South Africa was? You were too open about your discrimination. You made it easy for the rest of the world to condemn you and you provided a clear enemy for people to fight against. Every other country institutionalizes racism as well: we’re just more subtle about it. We use economic barriers and personal prejudice instead of laws to disempower whole populations.”
I went on to explain that there are areas in the United States where, if you’re black, you’re more likely to go to jail than get a job.
In their paper, “Carceral Chicago: Making the ex-offender employability crisis” (2008, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research), authors Peck and Theodore argue that the United States’ strategy to outsource manufacturing combined with racial stereotypes and their War on Drugs have essentially criminalized poverty:
“The outcome is a socially produced, institutionally regulated, and in some respects officially sanctioned designation of the young black male population as a criminalized class” (26).
Moreover, imagine if Canadian First Nations was a majority population in Canada. British South Africans may have invented concentration camps, but Canadian settlers invented biological warfare. Our fearless leaders would purposefully give smallpox infected blankets to Native chiefs and encourage them to give the blankets to families.
Lucky Canada – we were able to kill off most of our Native population. Even as a minority, however, Canadian Aboriginals frequently live in Third World conditions and are politically disempowered. But our government doesn’t advertise that fact. Instead, school children are taught to celebrate diversity while Native dancers feature prominently in publicized events (i.e. Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics). Meanwhile, Aboriginal women go missing at an astonishing rate in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the police largely ignore the problem.
My friend also told me about his family’s home in Knysna (pronounced “Nize-Na”) on South Africa’s southeast coast: the island’s population is mostly white. There is a coloured section, but they only inhabit one area.
“Sounds like the island I grew up on!” I laughed. “Except we don’t even have a coloured population. Out of 3500 people, I could list everyone who’s not white. There’s about 20 of them.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Vancouver legislated where you could or could not live depending on race. The British Properties (the richest section of West Vancouver) prohibited Chinese residents until well into the 1900s. My mum’s aunt and uncle were the first Chinese people to move there. How did the neighbourhood respond? When people saw my uncle working on his beautiful garden, they tried to hire him as a gardener. That’s the only reason a Chinese person would be hanging out in the area, right?
But the past is the past. There’s no reason to get bogged down with guilt or shame or accusations. On the other hand, it’s impossible to understand present issues without examining history and context as well.
It’s heartbreaking that apartheid didn’t end until 1994. But look at how fast the country is changing! Some would argue not fast enough, but I’m still optimist for South Africa – as well as Canada, the US, and the rest of the world.
*Please note that the concentration camps were conducted by British soldiers who came to South Africa then returned to Britain, not by the British colonizers residing in South Africa.