“I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.” ~ Nelson Mandela
One hears about discrimination based on the colour of skin, ethnic origin, religion or caste.
But you have to experience it first-hand to know how humiliating and frustrating it can be. It is particularly outrageous when a country legalises grievous violation of basic human rights and dignity. That is how we felt during a private visit to Johannesburg in South Africa in 1978.
Stationed in Lusaka, Zambia as the World Bank Resident Representative, I had the opportunity to observe the campaign for justice of the coloured people in Rhodesia across the Zambezi River and in South Africa further south. Zambia, under President Kenneth Kaunda was one of the front line states and was sheltering and aiding the coloured people of these countries. I was privileged to briefly meet Mugabe and Nkomo, leaders of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and some leaders of South Africa in Lusaka.
We arrived at the Johannesburg airport where a friendly white taxi driver took us to one of the international hotels in the city. However, at the dining room of the hotel, the white waiters and most of the white guests were quite uncomfortable with our presence in the same room. In fact, we were the only non-white people there. The waiters did serve us but grudgingly and deliberately made many mistakes. We pretended to overlook these gestures and quietly finished our dinner.
The next day, while sightseeing and shopping, we wanted to have lunch. We went to a wayside restaurant, which clearly had empty tables. The receptionist, however, curtly told us that the available spaces were reserved for other customers and turned us down, no doubt because of our race. We had already noticed that public places, rest rooms and water fountains had notices saying these were reserved for whites only. For non-whites, there were separate and segregated facilities. Being non-locals with UN Passports, we felt that we were not covered by the racial ban. We then found a small cozy restaurant serving Italian food. It had whites-only sign. The restaurant owner came to the door, checked our passports and after thinking for a minute and looking at our three young children, gave us a table. He seemed nervous, as the place was full of white people-mostly Afrikaners (progenies of original Dutch settlers- though a minority, they were dominant in South Africa) who were racially most prejudiced. We managed to eat our lunch but the other guests in the restaurant were looking at us with great anger and resentment-as if they were not enjoying their meal in the company of such inferior people. We were also uncomfortable. After finishing lunch, we came out without any untoward incident. A local Indian whom we met later said we were lucky not to be physically assaulted and thrown out of the restaurant. He warned us not to be so daring as to go to 'whites' only restaurants and other places again.
In the evening, we found a large cinema hall with many good English movies running on that day. We casually entered and stood in the queue for tickets. When we reached the ticket counter, the clerk there was surprised at our audacity. He wanted to see proof that we were not from Africa, otherwise he could not issue tickets. I showed him our UN Passports but that was not good enough. We said that we were Bangladeshis but at that moment did not have our national passports with us. A few minutes elapsed and our arguments overheard by others near us. People next in the line included a local white university student and a German couple, possibly tourists like us. The student intervened and told the ticket clerk that he ought to believe us and issue tickets. But the latter referred the matter to the manager upstairs.
The student was very agitated and did not buy ticket for himself. He took us to the manager and demanded that tickets be issued to us. The manager, however, refused. We saw the frustrated student immediately leave the cinema hall, loudly declaring that he no longer wanted to see the movie and that he did not even wish to live in such an unfair country. We were concerned that he would be arrested for publicly speaking against the law and ideology of the state. On our way out of the hall, the German couple who were in the lobby understood what had happened. They came forward and told us not to take the matter personally, as South Africa's laws prohibited mixing of people of African origin with whites. He sympathised but said that was unfortunately the law at that time.
The next day, we telephoned a local Indian cinema hall owner whose name was given to us by a common friend in Lusaka. He came to our hotel and took us round to see a few tourist sights, ending with a place called the Oriental Shopping Mall. Since Zambia at that time was going through economic crisis and few imported goods were available, we bought some items. The stores were all owned by Indians, most of whom were Patels from Gujarat in India, and the shoppers were also all coloured. In the evening, our local contact invited us to dinner at his house in a clean Indian and black middle class ghetto. I found that curtains were drawn in that rather nice house and rooms were dimly lit, as if to prevent others from watching us from outside. Apart from his concern of being seen socialising with foreigners, we found that there was another reason. He had also invited a South African white woman- his girl friend, who owned a florist shop in a white shopping mall. He was meeting her secretly for some time but could not legally marry her. It was a violation of the ban on inter-racial mixing and the consequences could be very serious-loss of business permit, imprisonment of both the host and his white friend, and possibly us. That evening, we discussed the oppressive and suffocating condition with her and a few relations of the host. They were bitter and told us about political, economic and social discrimination and injustice. They stated that the government and the minority whites were making systematic efforts to keep the blacks, Indians and other coloured people segregated, inferior and suppressed forever.
The South African government did not succeed. As a result of violent struggles within South Africa and international pressures and boycotts led by the UN, the apartheid system, which was enacted in 1948 and continued until 1990, started to break down in the early nineteen nineties. Nelson Mandela, the undisputed leader of the South African blacks was released from prison after long twenty-seven years and began a dialogue for a political settlement with de Klerk, the leader of the whites. In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for peace. A general election based on universal suffrage was held in 1994, which Mandela's African National Congress won overwhelmingly. Nelson Mandela was elected the president of South Africa with de Klerk as his deputy. Apartheid was completely abolished and a unique process of national reconciliation was introduced through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission under chairmanship of Reverend Desmond Tutu, who later won the Nobel peace prize.
Azizul Jalil writes from Washington.
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