Honorary White, Apartheid, and Searching for Sugarman

I’ve been wanting to write about apartheid for ages.

When you live in South Africa, it is a topic that goes through your head pretty much all of the time. Or maybe not yours, but mine anyway. Maybe I’m more sensitive towards it as I come from a country with its own ugly past of racial segregation (and more), or maybe it is just because The Power of One happens to be one of my favorite books.

Without getting into too much detail, apartheid (an Afrikaans word for apart-ness or segregation) officially existed from 1948 until 1990. Much like in the American colonies, slaves had initially been imported into the Cape Colony starting in the late 1500s, but even after the abolition of slavery by the British in 1834 the idea of white supremacy lived on. When the new Afrikaner-dominated government of the National Party came to power in 1948, the existing system was simply cemented into law with intricate rules where people of various colors were allowed to live and work, whom they were allowed to marry, and which schools they could attend. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s several versions of the much-reviled Group Areas Act were enacted to set aside the most developed (and desirable) land for Whites, while the non-Whites were forced to live in their own areas in much more crowded conditions. Together with the tough pass laws regulating passage from one area to the other in order to work, this led to increased resistance against the injustices of apartheid. The massacre of Sharpville in 1960, where 69 people were shot and killed by police during a demonstration, brought the plight of South Africa’s disenfranchised population to the world’s attention. The international community took note and more or less condemned the violence, United Nations sanctions against the South African government were instituted, and the struggle against apartheid shifted from passive to armed resistance, eventually leading to Nelson Mandela’s arrest and imprisonment in 1962. (Please see Liliesleaf Farm and the Rivonia Trial and Day of Reconciliation and In the Footsteps of Paul Kruger and the Voortrekkers  for more South African history).

In hindsight, it seems hard to believe that the system of apartheid could have existed as long as it did (President F.W. de Klerk announced its formal end in 1990 and the last laws were repealed in 1991). Not only because it was grossly unfair, which of course it was, but because in many ways it was so ridiculous. How do you, in fact, segregate people by race when someone’s race isn’t always obvious? It’s easy on either end of the spectrum, I suppose, but in South Africa there was always a wide range in between – people of mixed blood, descendants of Malay slaves, Hottentots, Indians. These were all grouped into the Coloured racial group, and a huge bureaucracy was necessary to  make sure everyone was classified correctly. (I  have often suspected, maybe unjustly, that South Africa’s notoriously slow wheels of bureaucracy today – which any regular reader of this blog will know I have found ample opportunity to complain about – are remnants of the apartheid era).

I often think about the absurdities of such a system, and how far South Africa has come in such a relatively short time since it was abolished. Which puts me at odds with some South Africans who think the country should have come a lot farther.

But I also think that most people outside of South Africa probably don’t really have a good understanding of apartheid, which is why I’ve waited for an opportunity to write about it. It is ironic that such an opportunity has presented itself after I have, in fact, left South Africa.

It happened at Panda Express, of all places. You will laugh when I say that of all the things I missed while gone from the United States, it could have been a Panda Express fast food lunch, but there you go. I was waiting in line for my Beijing Beef, and the guy in line behind me said that he wanted some too. So we started talking about our mutual love for Beijing Beef and I commented that I hadn’t had it for three years and was totally craving it.

Where had I been for three years, he wanted to know, and I said South Africa.

“Ahhh… South Africa! I almost went there in the 1980s,” he said whistfully. “But it wasn’t the right time for me.”

I understood what he meant. This gentleman, you see, was black.

ticket to the apartheid museum in johannesburg
A powerful and yet entirely insufficient reminder of how it might have felt living in South Africa in the era of apartheid (this is the entrance ticket for the Apartheid Museum)

His name was Carl Griffin, he went on to tell me, and he worked in the music industry (who doesn’t, here in Nashville, I ask you!).The music industry and apartheid go way back together, actually. You may not know this either, if you didn’t live in South Africa at the time, but most performers, musicians included, helped boycott the apartheid regime for may years. Unlike a host of U.N. sanctions and arms embargoes, there weren’t so much any laws mandating this as there was a consensus among Western artists that performing in South Africa would be seen as condoning apartheid. So most everybody chose not to perform there.

One notable exception was Paul Simon. He recorded the album Graceland (1986) mostly in South Africa, drawing considerable flak from anti-apartheid voices like the ANC but ultimately helping South African artists like Johnny Clegg onto the world stage.

And then of course there was Sixto Rodriguez, whom you will know if you’ve seen Searching for Sugarman. Virtually unknown in the U.S., where his album never really took off, he became an icon in apartheid South Africa, where his music proved wildly popular and inspirational for generations. Except he wasn’t aware of it. I had never heard of him until last December, when a friend of ours played his songs at a party and every South African present started swooning.

Back to Carl Griffin and the point of this story. For once I was grateful for the rather slow service at Panda Express, so that I had ample time to chat with him. What happened was this: He had an opportunity to “do business” in South Africa, and not on an insubstantial scale. It was a music contract worth several million dollars, though he didn’t divulge the details. As he was getting into the planning stage, however, it soon became obvious that his race would pose a stumbling block. Not in terms of gaining entry. That hurdle was taken earlier by those before him. (Arthur Ashe famously gained entry to South Africa, after several failed attempts, in 1973, resulting in the first-ever integration of the public stands in Ellis Park to allow both black and white spectators to watch him play).

The hurdle in Carl’s case was more subtle. It was the words “Honorary White,” to be stamped into his passport, that proved too much for him to swallow.

Do you now understand what I mean by ridiculous? How far was that government willing to twist itself to perpetuate and somehow justify such an absurd system, a system where you could declare someone’s skin to be white even though it wasn’t, just so you could hold up appearances in a world that had already moved on?

“I just couldn’t do that,” Carl told me. “But I sure would have loved to see South Africa.”

I hope he’ll get a chance to go now that the words “Honorary” and “White” are no longer being used in the same sentence.

It’s a pity he couldn’t go in the 1980s.

Who knows, we might have gotten another Graceland.

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