Half a world away from America, in the southern tip of the African continent, is the country best known for its wildebeest, Springbok, lion, meerkat, and gold mines. But South Africa is also known for having practiced a brand of racial oppression called apartheid against its native people and immigrants of color. First colonized by Britain and later by the Dutch, South Africa’s history has been one of oppression. People of color were treated inhumanely and denied basic rights. Although theses practices had been widespread since the 1800s, they had not been made into law until 1948.
Apartheid was the government’s way of dominating people of color. Accordingly, all non-white South Africans were identified by race “tags”, such as black, colored (mixed race) or Asian (of Indian or Pakistani descent). Racial discrimination touched every part of your life if you were a person of color; you were denied the right to vote, the right to a decent education, and eventually the right to live where you chose.
In 1950, the government found that it could no longer bear to have whites and people of color live in close proximity. So it passed a law (Group Areas Act) which forced the four race groups to live in separate areas. Non-whites were forcibly removed from their homes with little or no compensation and resettled in underdeveloped areas. In this way, the government reserved all the best neighborhoods for whites.This law was abolished in 1994 when the racist government fell from power and Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president. South Africans now live wherever they can afford to regardless of the color of their skin.
The Color Wheel is based on snippets and stories I had heard from my mother and Docken, my grandmother, about life under apartheid, before and after the Group Areas Act. Docken’s childhood home bordered a predominantly white neighborhood. Hers was one of a few non-white families to live there. After the Group Areas Act was implemented, they were forced to relocate and begin anew. Africans and coloreds weren’t allowed to settle in the city and could only go there to work.
The Color Wheel
I heard something today,
A thing my parents had kept at bay.
With my ear pressed to the door,
I strained to hear some more.
All I needed was a little clue.
Eavesdropping is tiring, phew!
But what were they talking about?
I simply had to find out!
Then I heard Appa speak,
“Our future looks bleak.
The white family is moving in tomorrow.
I wish we could spare the kids the sorrow.”
The kids—that would have to be us three:
My little sister, my brother and me!
Through the keyhole I spied,
Appa had tears in his eyes.
The door swung open and clipped my ear.
“What are you doing, Tara? What did you hear?”
Amma looked tired, not angry at all.
She even smiled a little, as I recall.
“Your father’s upset because they’re taking our land.
You know he built this house with his own two hands.”
A strange gloom fell over us all,
The five of us sat huddled like a ball.
My brother cried at first and then he felt better.
My little sister was only concerned about the weather.
As for me, I felt a chill inside,
That hurt my bones until I burst out and cried.
I should’ve known something wasn’t right!
Even the sun was hiding; it was nowhere in sight.
Dear Appa looks helpless and so lost,
He built our house, but at such a cost!
Plank by plank and brick by brick,
His honest sweat mingled into the mortar mix.
“Your house is too nice for the likes of you,” he was told.
“Apartheid does not allow non-whites to sit on gold,”
Our neighborhood has been mixed race all along
Now our government says that is wrong!
Amma says apartheid’s palette has an odd color wheel.
Here, colors can’t mix per an official seal.
Apartheid means white, black, and brown are not complementary tones;
In other words, they work best when they stand alone.
They say we’re to live in the Asian side of town,
All this fuss and trouble because we’re brown.
For the ten other families it feels like a terrible mistake,
To be told to, “Shut up and voertsek.”
Why can’t the government get it in its head?
White, black, colored or Asian—we all bleed red!
I know what will happen!
They’ll bulldoze our house without compassion.
Then stake a Whites Only sign:
A warning not to cross the color line.
I crossed that line a long time ago,
When I made friends with Janice from next door.
Her father taught me to ride a bike.
Janice and I are a lot alike;
We share a birth date; we’re the same height,
I can’t hate her now just because she’s white.
Appa is distressed, Amma is stoic.
As for me, I don’t get apartheid’s logic.
To call the white man baas, cower and act meek,
I’m no Gandhi; I refuse to turn the other cheek!
What happens next is plain to see,
It’s the Asian ghetto for me.
Janice says it will be like living in a slum,
No roads or electricity—a place quite glum.
There in our color-coded corners we’ll stay,
To live and grow each and every day,
Separate, apart, divided, and quartered,
It’s the government’s plan to finish what it started.
I’ll miss our house on Umgeni Road,
Set against rolling hills and eucalyptus groves,
Sugarcane fields slashed red with amatingula fruit,
And the lone scarecrow made of coarse jute.
Our house, lost in a riot of hibiscus and rose,
Hard to spot even by a giant on tippy toes!
Spreading palms and syringa blooms,
Whose perfume invades all the rooms.
But a giant had spotted our home…
Big, menacing and free to roam,
Unhindered by a color tag,
A hulking monster with a bottomless bag,
That it fills with all that is ours,
It takes and seizes with infinite powers,
Our homes, land, our very soul,
But I guess that’s apartheid’s goal.
Amatingula: Also called the Natal Plum. A large, spiny shrub native to South Africa is used as a hedge. The dark purple fruit is used for tarts, jams etc.
Syringa: Also called Lilac.
Voertsek: Afrikaans for “go away” “get lost”