When Apartheid had a Softer Edge (Jan, 1953)

In his autobiography, Let My People GoAlbert Lithuli, then president of the African National Congress, writes about his first “pass law” arrest.  It was January, 1953.  The exchange is not only humorous, it also sheds some light on the progression of Apartheid, as well as local v national political bargaining (the cop is local, the superintendent is a bureaucrat who works for the national government). Lithuli was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960.

I learned the hard way about the regulation requiring us to have permits for a stay of seventy-two hours in any one place… Almost to the minute of the expiry of my seventy-two hours, a policeman called to say that the Location Superintendent wanted to see me…

At the Location Office I was steered in the presence of the superintendent.

Policeman: “Is this the man you want?”

Superintendent: “Yes.  That’s him.  Have you got permission to be in this location?”

Self: “Permission?  I don’t know.  I’m a guest of the local Congress branch.  They made all the arrangements.”

Superintendent: “What!  Aren’t you aware of the regulations?  You can’t be here for over seventy-two hours.”

Policeman (in a discouraging voice): “Well, man, what now?  Are you going to charge him or not?”

Superintendent: “Yes!”

Policeman: “Are you really going to charge him?”

Superintendent (nettled): “Yes, of course I am.  I’m charging him.”

The policeman went off to the telephone.  When he came back he said to the superintendent, “Well, if you’re actually going to charge him, I suppose we ought to take him to the Charge Office.

At the Charge Office I stood around for an hour while the police and superintendent conferred in the near distance.  In the end they seemed to reach some agreement.

“Tell me,” he asked, “what were your plans?”

“I intended to spend an extra day here to suit our branch in Bethlehem.  I was leaving tomorrow,” I replied.

“Can you leave today?”

“If necessary.”

“The superintendent is charging you.  You can’t go back into the location.  Which do you prefer, to wait for your case to come up or to pay an Admission of Guilt?”

“I prefer not to wait around.  It would interfere with my programme,” I said.

“Admission of Guilt, five pounds,” he replied.

The next contentious issue was my luggage.  I said to the superintendent, “I want to go back to get my things.”

“You’re not going back into my location,” he said.

“Well, how do I collect my baggage?”

“Somebody can get them for you.”

“Who can?” I asked.

“Man,” interrupted the police officer testily, speaking to the superintendent, you’ve got to let him go back just to get his things.”

From chapter 14, “Bans,” pp. 143-44.

Twenty-four years later Steve Biko would have a very different experience.



About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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