South Africa, Apartheid, and White People: There Is No Future Without Repentance

Lisa Sharon Harper
Lisa Sharon Harper

Lungi kept her eyes on the left side of the road as she leaned her head back and explained to Rebekah Gaynore, who sat in the back seat of the Lungi’s sturdy family car, the route she would take to give me a tour of Cape Town.

“She’ll be able to see it,” Lungi explained.

“See what?” I asked.

“You’ll see,” Rebekah Gaynore said.

I did see it.

“That was District 6,” Rebekah Gaynore explained.

This rolling brown field on the side of the highway was once a thriving mixed-race community, a place where families had lived for generations since their ancestors — brought to South Africa as slaves from homelands in India, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia — were set free. By the 1960s, native African Xhosa and Khoi people and white South Africans lived among them. Then in 1966, Cape Town’s apartheid government passed the Group Areas Act, which designated District 6 a white district. Apartheid police went house to house. They pulled families designated “colored,” “black,” and Indian out of their homes and forcibly removed them.

“Where did they take them,” I asked?

“To the townships,” Rebekah Gaynore explained, “where I grew up.”

I told them I wanted to go to the townships. They understood, but insisted: “First, you must see the land that the white people took from us and claimed for themselves.”

Lungi stopped the car on the side of the road. We got out, crossed the road and stood at a lookout point at the base of Table Mountain, an iconic Cape Town landmark.

“This is Camps Bay,” Lungi said. “White people live here.”

Wherever I looked I saw opulence —green trees burst with life, native fauna, opulent homes lined the hillside, which overlooked the bay.

We hopped back in the car and drove through the opulence. I was most struck by the ornately decorated security gates and razor wire strung around the perimeter of each home. These were not gated communities. They were gated homes.

My guides explained: “Cape Town is the most inequitable city in the world. Crime is a real problem here. People are afraid of burglary.”

We drove through the winding hillside homes that apartheid built, through the center of the city, and out past the airport. The terrain changed. The hills were far away now. The ground was brown — even the grass. There were few trees. Then homes appeared.

“See it?” Rebekah Gaynore asked.

I looked out my window and there it was — a colored township. Homes lined the highway — no privacy, no trees, no grass, only cement. This was my first glimpse of poverty in South Africa — and it was by design. There was no “separate and equal” about it. It was just separate — period.

We drove a little further past another long stretch of brown nothingness. Then we were there.

“This is the black township,” Lungi said.

The black township stood feet from the highway. Still no trees, no grass, but also no cement, and no actual homes.

We drove through the dense township strewn together with scraps of sheet metal. Lungi explained that the African National Congress recently made “progress” that people were celebrating in the black townships. Porta Potties were installed. Township residents have no running water or toilets, so Porta Potties are considered a blessing. Now they line the roads and outer edges of the townships.

This is all by design. When the Europeans first claimed Cape Town as their own, they took prosperous black indigenous tribes that had stewarded the land for tens of thousands of years and forcibly removed them to reservations. Under apartheid they revoked the black people’s citizenship and called the reservations “townships.”

Today we call this ethnic cleansing.

We wound our way through the densely packed black township where the smell of feces rises from bare earth and ditches carve their way across roads daring cars to enter.

It occurred to me: South Africa is no longer under legal apartheid, but apartheid still thrives here — through de facto economic segregation. There are no signs that say “whites only” as they did under apartheid, but there has also been no move by the black government to restore the people to the land that was taken from them.

One question haunted me: How does a white Christian South African live in this apartheid from day to day? 1) One must actively fight injustice, or 2) she must embrace a theology that has nothing to do with it.

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SOURCE: Sojourners
Lisa Sharon Harper