“Come on, come on, you blerrie lazy kaffir… Don’t just lay there! Get up on your bloody dirty feet. You’re messing up the street. Where do you want the cars to ride?” The young white teenager lunged forward and violently kicked the black man repeatedly in his groin. The woven black leather horsewhip raised sky-high, came screeching down hard, again and again, across the face of the old man, cowering, moaning, and sobbing in intense agony. Blood gushed from yet another fresh laceration across his swollen cheeks.
The growing crowd stood transfixed, fascinated by the pointless, unprovoked drama so reminiscent of the massacres in the Pantheon of Ancient Greece. On one side of 5th Avenue stood the reveling white spectators, obviously delighted and invigorated by the merciless spectacle of punishment inflicted on the innocent black man, probably no older or younger than most of their fathers.
Almost equal numbers of people with varying shades of brown skin tone were gathering on the far side of the road, which marked the boundary separating Albertskroon (the white suburb of North Johannesburg) from Albertville (home of the Cape-Colored, mixed-race people). The busy traffic rushed by from the northern edge of Johannesburg, the ‘City of Gold’ on the way to Pretoria, the legislative capital of South Africa.
“Oh, shame! What did the poor nigger do?” ventured one of the colored spectators.
“The pig saw me coming…” Another vicious stroke of the whip. “He refused to make way for my lorry. He saw me coming. That bike he was riding was likely stolen…the bloody devil likely does not even have his pass,” came the answer from the sweating gladiator, punctuating more lashes from the whip.
“Please Baas, please, my Basie, don’t hit me again. I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I…I won’t do it again!”
He writhed in pain as he rolled over to get away from his executioner, wiping the blood away from his eyes with dirty bare hands.
“I help you…I can work. I work good. Tell me what I do for you. I come to your house…gardening, painting, garbage…anything! I’m a good work boy. Please don’t beat me anymore…please!”
“It’s a disgrace! Didn’t someone call the cops….?” Came a question from the colored side of the street. Almost everyone knew that calling the police would be useless. In fact the police were known to be among the perpetrators of violence against the non-whites. “Somebody should stop him! He’s going to kill the poor man.”
“Aw shut up! It’s not necessary! Our police are already too busy. They have better things to do than waste their time on minor street incidents like this! And now, especially with all the new riots.” The answer came from the white side. “Besides, someone will probably call them later to pick up the black bastard. He will likely need to be arrested anyway for the Pass Law Violation. Come, let’s go!”
You must be wondering who I am and why I am sharing this heart-wrenching tale with you. Well, I am Ralph David Harris. Sadly, I was one of the spectators in the crowd that had gathered around the poor black guy being beaten to death. That day is etched in my mind. It was a day seared just as vividly as the sun hidden behind the folding, fleeting white clouds which served as a shelter for all those who live under it.
I kid you not, even to this day when I recall that incident, my soul shudders in pain. I was only a young preteen back then. At that time, my heart threatened to beat out of my chest, but my feet were rooted to the ground like the others. I remember being paralyzed by the sight of the untamed primitive behavior of a supposedly educated man, inflicting an atrocious amount of wicked violence upon a defenseless black man. I cannot forget everyone standing back and watching nonchalantly as a man was beaten to his death. I recall not one person, even from the colored side or the white side interfering. That might have assured that the helpers would be a victim of the violence as well. I can still see the corpse left tainting the black asphalt scarlet. It seemed the ordeal of the man had instilled fear and inaction into all those who stood by and watched the atrocity being perpetrated.
As I walked back home, my mind was wracked with a million questions….. Why was that old man beaten so barbarically? Simply because he belonged to a less fortunate race? Simply because the color of the man represented the so-called savagery of black folk? How did this reason suffice to allow the white fellow to unleash his wrath and pent-up frustration onto an innocent man under the pretext of disciplining him for having a darker skin or his supposed refusal to follow the law? What law, I asked? One that required one man to be subservient to another? A law that demanded that a black man carry a document to be present on his person, at all times, in his own country? A law which permitted a white man to take the law in his hands and violate the rights of a black man, just because his skin was a few shades lighter than that of the victim?
Finally, as I turned the last corner, I snapped back to reality as the house my father had built.. 58 Minnaar Street. That was the house I now reached on the long walk back from the “Road Rage” massacre. It was 1949 and I was 12, almost 13 and about to enter a new phase of life……
“It’s about time! Where have you been? Did you get the bread and milk from the Chinaman’s shop in Albertskroon? You know your father will be home for supper soon and I haven’t even started cooking yet”.
Exhausted as I was, I snapped to attention, at my mother’s stern reprimand. I haltingly confessed that I had completely forgotten to complete my errand when I had come upon the frightful “road rage” episode as I prepared to cross 5th Street to reach the grocery store. Gradually I unloaded the sordid heart-rending details of the terrible scene from my befuddled young brain. I apologized for not completing my assignment. I also pointed out that there might have been real dangers if I had crossed the road and ventured into the hostile white territory. I asked Mom to forgive me and volunteered to go back to get the groceries. I was uncertain as I waited for her to punish me.
To my astonishment, my Mom put her strong arms tenderly around me as she wiped my sobbing face. She drew me closer. I felt a sense of relief and love as she drew me to her as we shared our tears. The scolding was forgotten or at least postponed. I responded to her loving empathy and hugged her back as I buried my sobbing face in her warm neck….. Then suddenly I disengaged and pulled away as I became alarmed and realized my obese mother was fighting to get her breath. Her wheezing breathing told me that she was ill and needed rest much more than I did. She collapsed on the bench at the table in the kitchen, with her big brown swollen feet resting on the bare kitchen floor. I could tell that she was tired and weak.
Suddenly it dawned on me. She was exhausted after walking the 15 miles all the way from the train station in Newclare, where the train had come in from Kliptown.
That was the only place she could find a temporary teaching job. A significant amount of her meager earnings was used to pay the black nanny who helped to care for my younger siblings while she was at work. After almost 12 hours of teaching that day, she had set off from the station to get home. The long, tiring walk took her through the dark, dangerous, dusty brickfields, through the black African township of Sophia town, and down the hill. Finally, our little colored village of Albertville had come into view. It had been a long day and it was so good to finally sit down and rest. It did not help that she had gained so much weight over recent years, after three babies, and could now no longer cope as well with those long distances as in the earlier days. After 15 minutes, we both felt better. She gave me another hug and tenderly said:
“Come let us both go together to the shop and get the groceries. Your dad will be here soon”
However, this was a teaching moment. It seems that very act had a lesson for us to learn. I distinctly remember that the incident I narrated above was merely shrugged off as “Road Rage”. But that’s nothing new. Such were the times back then and I was just a little boy within whom terror was instilled by this “superior” white race, who served as the judge and the jury in such cases.
More than anything else, I hoped to find the reason for this hatred for other people I had witnessed breeding in their hearts. It was then 1949, no more than a year since the National Party was swept into power after the landslide victory handed them in the 1948 elections by the white electorate. Die Vaderland, the Afrikaans-language newspaper was filled with the details of the new government’s intended legislative agenda. They proposed was to strictly enforce all the elements of Apartheid. These would include Population Classification and Registration, the Group Areas Act, Job Reservation, Separate Representation of Voters, Tightening of the Pass Laws, Racial Separation of Amenities, Prohibition of Mixed Association, Marriage, Sporting and Entertainment Events. The new Prime Minister was even talking about South Africa becoming a republic and leaving the British Commonwealth. It was difficult to understand the meaning and wisdom of these measures. However, many feared that they were bound to further alienate the races from each other and result in untold hardship. It would also serve to alienate the country from most of the world’s peace-loving nations.
I try to explain this hatred, but I fail miserably to understand how a breathing soul can afflict such pain on another soul without feeling one ounce of remorse.
Tragic, isn’t it? Come to think of it, how can we just label such a horrendous act of monstrosity as a tragedy, as transient “road rage”? How can we turn a blind eye to the plight of another, continuing our walk blissfully, after being spectators to the misfortune of another soul? What sense did the of the sight make to anyone walking on that sidewalk, when it hindered their basic instinct to intervene and stop the madness from continuing? In all honesty, there is no justification for someone being brutally punished just because he has a darker skin. Who are we anyway to deem one life inferior to another? But sadly, in spite of a shared roof of the universe, that concept is the sincere belief of some people and even of large sections of this world’s population.
Back then, it seemed there were some unspoken moral guidelines, to justify senseless road rage to be acceptable behavior. But hateful violence is never an answer, and this I declare having now lived 82 years of healthy, prosperous life. I believe each practice; each such action has a reason and one would think that all behaviors are triggered due to a reason. However, there was none to justify the silence of bystanders. People had grown used to such silence, for this was just one of the many days in Johannesburg, where I was born.
I was born in 1937, in the Era soon after the end of the Holocaust, to a white-skinned father of Dutch ancestry and a dark-skinned mother of uncertain origin. Yes, I was an interracial child. I am certain you must be intrigued, but fret not, all of this will become clear to you in the later chapters of the book, for I have reserved this chapter for another reason. The sole purpose of this chapter is to shed light on what life was truly like in South Africa for an interracial child like me.
Back in that era, Johannesburg was a city where my mother and father valued all human beings equally, yet we too were subjects of the racism named “Apartheid”. My father’s Dutch heritage was unable to shelter us from the thundering discrimination, which kept obstructing our opportunities. My family made endless sacrifices and compromises to withstand the changing tide of time, all in the hopes of providing my siblings and me with a better livelihood.
The incident I have shared with you above is just one of the numerous assault-filled episodes, also known as “accidents” back then. A land that is now a marvel for the world, with its vibrant indigenous heritage was a nightmare for anyone unfortunate enough to be labeled “non-white” back then. It is something that is talked about on larger and wider platforms now than it was before. Even Al J. Venter, has talked about this in his book, first published in 1974: Coloured – A Profile of Two Million South Africans, quoting him:
“This is a book about a heterogeneous section of the South African society usually classed in legal and administrative terms as ‘Coloured.’”
His book was meant for his sons as he hoped for the time to be better for them than it was for him. It was the time when the group labeled “Coloured” was close to reaching three million. They were designated by South African law to be part of the “Non-White” population. They were deprived of any opportunities, let alone equal ones. Justice, too, was segregated and reserved legally for the “White” people. The others, the coloreds, and other Non-whites were meant to be oppressed and suffer in silence. Even if it cost the people of color heftily, they chose to suffer in silence so they could be a part of society, counting on the hope that someday, someone would do something to make things better for them.
People of color were part of society only to be subservient to the white population. The politicians they counted on raised slogans of paternal support, brotherhood and equality for all, sadly often in the name of religion. But they were nothing more than puppets working for their own. People of color were forced to choose to suffer in silence until the violence rendered their way would grow outrageous and/or intolerable enough to bring about change. And yet any suggestion of dissatisfaction or protest was met with severe punishment to the point of accusations of treason. I need only to mention the name of Nelson Mandela as an example of this statement. Their fault, to put it in simple words, was only that they were people of color. We were expected to continue to suffer in silence. This was not just the perception for my people, but was the fate of most, if not all the disadvantaged people of South Africa, despite their having the innate skills and will to surpass all odds. Their fault, to put it in simple words, was that they were people of color.
South Africa has come to be known to be amongst those endowed with some of the richest resources in the world, so one may wonder how such a country could be a victim of racism. The lack of sound political, societal, moral, and ethical values affected everybody but impacted people of color disproportionately. I reckon no one can truly pinpoint the grounds for this, except for an unjustified sense of undeserved entitlement and greed on the part of those endowed with the privilege of white leadership.
How was all this destined to end? The good news is that, having been overlooked and justified for centuries, the basic needs of humanity and the concept of basic compassion were recognized and did begin to meet with general disapproval from most of the rest of the world community. The policies of South African regime were eventually the subject of sanctions which prevented the country from sinking any further into self-destruction. In spite of my homeland having resources in abundance, and, having the potential of becoming self-sufficient in every aspect, it became the poser-child for racism and intolerance. More on this later. For now, all we need is to ask you to allow me to record one view of another regrettable era of man’s history of “man’s inhumanity to man”. Perhaps by so doing you may have some empathy for those who were called upon to endure similar experience.
Al J Venter, a white South African author and journalist, highlighted an Afrikaans language idiom that highlights the ordeal of South Africa of those days in a statement: “It is necessary to eat a large bag of salt with these people to realize the extent of their misery and suffering within touching distance of one of the wealthiest little communities to be found on any continent”.
However, prejudice is a two-way street. You see, while a black man was lashed in a ghastly way in Johannesburg, people of color in Cape Town swore not to let the white people live in peace. My father happened to have a white skin. These people of color formed their own junta, partaking in voluntarily drunken orgies under the dark protection of the night with the promise to create nothing but a ruckus. The colored populace of South Africa would partake in acts of lawlessness, which left me debating whether those caught in the crossfire could value their lives worth more than a penny. Can we blame them for those suicidal tendencies?
“Wherever a system is really complicated, as in the brain or in an organized society, indeterminacy comes in… Because to make a prediction so many things must be known that the stray consequences of studying them will disturb the status quo, which can never, therefore, be discovered. History is not and cannot be determinate. The supposed causes only may produce the consequences we expect.” – Sir George Thomson
Perhaps human life was not worth more than the diamond and gold mined in abundance in South Africa. Was the politics justifiable to smuggle the resources from under the noses of the natives or not granting the colored manpower to progress, South Africa enormously suffered from inequality.
Back then, it was concluded that perhaps it was truly a crime to be born colored. So much so, that a man once writing under the pen name of Philip Stanley said to the Rand Daily Mail, in 1926:
“Can any man commit a greater crime than to be born colored in South Africa?”
Nevertheless, his question was never answered and was forgotten with time, until highlighted by Al J Venter in his book. However, he too was unsure if Philip Stanley was ever replied to, or if he discovered the answer within the fragment of changing times. Who would have answered his question anyway when the classification of the colored was so vague? A proclamation published in 1967 defines the Coloured group in terms of Section 5 of the Population Registration Act, which reads: ‘The Cape Coloured Group shall consist of persons who in fact are, or who, except in the case of persons who, in fact, are members of race or class or tribe referred to in paragraph . . . are generally accepted as members of the race or class known as the Cape Coloured.’
Who could have dealt with the predicament effectively without adding fuel to the fire? No one. I was a colored person too or was perceived that way due to the fact that my skin was a few shades lighter than that of my mother. One result: my family ended up being forced to move from one city to another numerous times. I will talk about it in detail later in the book, but to summarize for now, my life compelled me and my siblings into changing neighborhoods, friends, and schools repeatedly, all the while praying for a safe return home each time. Now, to move voluntarily may not have been that big of a deal, or such a miserable experience for my family. After all, Johannesburg was my father’s town and Cape Town was my mother’s home. And it was the goal of betterment of my siblings and me, it may be reasoned. Nevertheless, the expense involved, the inconvenience and the documented unfavorable psycho-emotional effects on us all would probably have resulted in different decisions in different circumstances. Each time we had to move my parents would be clutched with renewed dread. Was it really necessary for us to move? Yes, it was essential. It was survival. It was not an act of cowardice but an act of valor. Instead of happiness, our hearts ached within with remorse and confusion.
Probably no one better captured the soul of this gruesome emotion than Adam Small, a colored poet, and philosopher:
“Now we know what home means; what this word’s content is. Or what it should mean. And it should not mean it is a place one dreads – dreads! – To return to after having been away. The thought of coming home should not send a shudder down your spine; should not make your heart tremble. Yet in my case, it does. Paradox though it is, it does. Contradiction though the thought of home and dreading to come home is, it is a reality for me. The illogicality of the paradox and the paradox of contradiction is the logic of my life. And it is the logic of the lives of many other South Africans like myself – far too many. I say far too many, even though it should not be the logic of the life of even a single man in regard to his country. Some of these others are flesh and blood family of mine; -people – can you imagine this, can you guess the meaning of it? – Who have left home in South Africa having dreaded home so much that they have chosen to live away from home permanently, for always” – Adam Small
These sentiments resonate with me, as they did with many other reluctant exiles. Times in South Africa have been so harsh that when I was presented with the opportunity to spread my wings and fly away, there was very little hesitation. Think of yourself in my shoes. What if you were presented with the opportunity offered to me that required you to leave your nest – your comfort zone? Some of you would be tingling with eagerness and excitement. Part of you would be reluctant and fearful. Can I be forgiven for the deep sense of guilt I experienced a few years after we arrived in the USA? My family and I had returned to South Africa to say farewell to my dying mother. I visited the Dean of the Medical school of the University of Cape Town, my Alma Mater. He invited me to join the faculty as a professor. A few days later, on Saturday mornin, the Cape Times Newspaper published the interview. Then I was asked by the reporter whether I was ready yet to return to my country to make my contribution to the struggle for freedom. I was reported to have replied: “I am ready, but I do not believe South Africa is ready for me yet” That was 1973 and my 2 children were 9 and 10 years old respectively. Today, he and she are in their 50’s and live in rural Idaho State. He is a Urology specialist; she is a health educator with an MPH (Master of Public Health) Degree. Her husband is a Family Practice Specialist. Of our 4 grandchildren, one is a university student, one is in medical school, one is an attorney and the fourth is a R.N. (Registered Nurse). I have to ask where they would I be if I had remained in South Africa. Did I make the right decision? The huge step I took in my life resulted in immense growth, endless prosperity, and infinite opportunities for learning that made me the person I am today.
Even today, as I pen these thoughts, our news media too often carry similar incidents to remind us of “Man’s inhumanity to Man”.
My experiences, my hardships, my endeavors, and my relentless hope are what got me through those dark times. The main reason behind this is my mother. She had always been a pillar of strength for me, my wonder woman. She was dignified and modest, brimming with humility and pride. Most of all, it was her strength that irked and inspired me never to falter. Her strength was chaste and supreme. I basked in it.
Seeing my parents relentlessly face all odds together became my source of the endowment. Instead of questioning whether my life was worth living, watching my parents strive was enough to give me all the reasons to continue progressing. With this mindset, I continued to excel and go beyond all odds. Even when perils lurked in every nook and cranny where I was vulnerable to racism, I never let any of it stop me from being who I was or what I was meant to be. Where I stand today is in a path I had never fathomed for myself, yet life brought me exactly where it had planned for me. And this I wish to share with you.
I must admit that I am comforted to see that we have progressed and to reflect how racial discrimination is less generally accepted and more frowned upon in today’s world. I am glad that I am a part of a society where my progeny is not suffering quite as much as I did. We all are still victims of racism, which is rather bemusing. With all the media exposure, one thinks twice before acting in an implausible fashion.
Yet today, near the beginning of the 21st Century these acts of brutality are still seen in countries all over the world. Often, regrettably, racism is the basis for most of them. We see people tormenting one another for baseless racist reasons. Ethnic minorities are still targeted in many countries worldwide, despite our growing acknowledgment of the diversity of the human race. Unfortunately, I was to be brought face to face with the reality that we have a long way to go as I arrived in Chicago in 1968. Yes, even in the “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave”, and in spite of our tolerance of statements to the contrary, the delusion persists. In recent years discrimination, especially against non-white minorities is perpetuated by some of our supreme political leaders. No, we, as frail human beings have not entirely eradicated this unfortunate, toxic trait of humanity.
However, I hope I can believe, having lived through this long nightmare, that there will come a day when no man will be tortured just because the color of his skin is lighter or darker than that of others. Perhaps we should look forward to the land where the Lion will lie down with the Lamb. Honestly, I can’t wait to wake up to that day. For now, please continue with me on a journey back in time, so that you can walk with me and relive the miles I have covered. Please help me learn something from the scenes I personally witnessed in the past. Perhaps that may be the priceless legacy we may leave to add to the treasures mined with blood, sweat, and tears in my homeland.