Truth and Reconciliation: My Impressions of Apartheid South Africa

White-Black Handshake and flag of RSA

I lived in South Africa for almost a year during apartheid. I spent most of my time there feeling like I’d been hurtled back in time and space to the southern USA in the 1950s. There were differences, of course, such as the accented English (British and Afrikaans vs. southern American), table settings (fish forks, linen napkins, and multi-course meals were standard), and driving on the “other” side of the road. But there were too many similarities to conditions I’d read about in the American South not to give me a bizarre sense of time travel. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began in Cape Town in 1996, I paid particular attention. Safely back in Canada, I was curious to see how the truth would come to light, and if reconciliation to this new South Africa was possible.

A Privileged White Foreigner’s Impressions of Apartheid South Africa

My husband (now ex-) and I stayed in the international five-star Carlton Hotel (now closed) in Johannesburg for a couple of months. It did not restrict guests based on the colour of their skin, but outside of the hotel’s cocoon, I was aware that I lived in a segregated society—though sometimes I had to be reminded.

  • In a friendly conversation with an Afrikaaner, I mentioned the size of the population of the Republic of South Africa (RSA) as 23 million, about the size of Canada at the time. He looked puzzled, and corrected me: “No, we are 5 million.” I was confused, because I had done my homework before leaving Canada. Later I realized that he only included the white people in his total; he had discounted 17 million blacks.
  • I wandered into a music store to buy a George Benson album (vinyl was still the norm back then), and was angrily ordered out by the proprietor. He stood behind a U-shaped counter and frantically waved for me to leave and “go around.” I backed out of the door, not sure what to do. By accident, I glanced up and saw “Blacks Only” written above the doorway. Three feet over, there was a “Whites Only” door. When I entered through that door, I noticed that the store was separated in two by a slim divider, and that all the records were on shelves behind the owner, who greeted me with a smile and a welcome.
  • In general conversation, blacks were referred to as kaffirs, an offensive, derogatory word similar to “nigger”. I was regularly informed that kaffirs were “different” from American blacks, the implication being that they were less intelligent. The fact that most South African blacks only had a Grade 3 education didn’t seem to have any bearing on such comments.
  • Wages for whites was comparable to Canadian salaries; blacks earned about a tenth of whites’ wages, which guaranteed poverty.
  • People were classified by the colour of their skin. Whites were the ruling class; blacks were at the lowest rung. Coloureds, with a multiracial background, were in between the two, and Indians (genetically from India) were slightly above the coloureds.

But Whites Were Not Living Happily

  • Most white South Africans lived behind locked gates and had at least one gun in the house. Some had a not-so-small arsenal of weapons. I met a great number of working-class British immigrants who lived in luxury in Jo’burg. They had made good in RSA but there was a level of anger within them that they barely held in check. They were the first ones to tell me that if the blacks rose up, they themselves would fight to the death to defend what was “theirs”.
  • The sight of the amount of food at every meal overwhelmed me. Especially popular were barbeques, called braais, with enormous amounts of meat, a lot of salt, and sweets galore. I will always remember walking into a department store and seeing counters and counters jammed with candy.
  • Durban "No blacks" beach signI spent a week at a hotel in Durban, walking across the street daily to the sandy beach to swim in the Indian Ocean, and dancing the night away in the disco. I was blithely unaware of the colour of bathers’ skin, until I happened to notice a sign indicating “no blacks allowed”; then I realized that everyone was white—or sunburned red. My marital status was no impediment to men, neither young nor old, as I was constantly being propositioned on the dance floor to spend the night with them.
  • As I recall, there was a speed limit on highways, but our car was always the slowest on the road. Every week terrible car crashes and deaths were reported in the news. As an aside, I also remember driving the long, lonely highway between Middelburg and Jo’burg, and seeing (black) women in the distance washing their clothes in the river by beating the cloth against rocks.
  • When we moved into our townhouse in Middelburg, in the middle of the veldt, I was surprised to see locks on every interior door, including every kitchen cupboard door. I quickly learned that it was expected that blacks who worked for whites would steal.

By the time I left the country, it was no surprise to learn that RSA had one of the world’s highest divorce rates and traffic deaths, the most heart attacks, and a mostly unhappy population.


Robben Island from Table MountainThe RSA army was ever-present. In the airports and public places were always men in camouflage, holding machine guns. It gave the appearance of safety, but if you were black and doing something considered out-of-line, there were dire consequences. I remember standing on Table Mountain, high above Cape Town, looking down into the bay at Robben Island, knowing that anti-apartheid revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, was living there.

Late one night, returning from Kruger National Park and Swaziland, my husband and I, along with another Canadian couple, were stopped at a roadblock. It was 1:00 a.m., and pitch black on a long stretch of road on the veldt. There were no other cars on the highway, no visible moon, only two military vehicles and 8 armed men. We had to get out of our car, show our papers, and answer numerous questions. The trunk was emptied onto the pavement, and the car was searched. It was probably routine, but for us, having machine guns pointed at us in the dead of the night was very scary.

Afterward, we learned that they were searching for blacks who were being smuggled out of the country by whites, trying to help change the system. The oppression of apartheid is self-evident, but there was also considerable violence. The uprising at Soweto, the beating death of Steve Biko, and the deaths of more than 40 political prisoners, were still fresh in the minds of everyone in the country. I remember that one of the common and most vile forms of execution was necklacing, “forcing a rubber tire, filled with petrol, around a victim’s chest and arms, and setting it on fire.”

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

In 1990, RSA President F. W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela, and worked with him to end apartheid and create a non-racial democracy. He was replaced as President by the newly-elected Mandela in 1994. Together they shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. The TRC began its hearings in 1996.

The Commission modelled its structure on the idea of restorative justice, where the victims and offenders mediate a form of reparation that satisfies both (as opposed to retributive justice, such as the Nuremburg trials). The stories of human rights violations were hard to hear. The admissions of the perpetrators were astounding, especially considering very few of them were granted amnesty.

Though much of the truth of that era was revealed, it is debatable whether true reconciliation occurred. Though RSA gained a positive regard internationally, and rejoined the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth), the country has faced internal conflict ever since. There was not a violent backlash of blacks-against-whites, as initially feared, but there is high unemployment for both blacks and whites (and other shades of colour), a difficult economy, and a continual struggle to achieve equality.

It is a beautiful country, geographically, and I wish the people success in developing a beautiful country, socially. Reconciliation is an ongoing process.

camera icon

Beach sign photo by Guinnog. Robben Island photo by Stephantom.

[widgets_on_pages id=”wjePostSocialMedia”]

Tagged with: ,