O’Keeffe: SPARC speech on apartheid excerpt

Heather O’Keeffe is a student speaker at the inaugural SPARC Conference  which aims to spread knowledge and gain different perspectives. The conference is being held October 24 at 11:00am in the Tink ballroom.

Today I aim to join the ongoing, national conversation of racism by deconstructing the current state of affairs in South Africa and the legacy of apartheid. Identifying flaws within ourselves is never comfortable, but it is always easier to find the flaws in others. The scars of apartheid run deep, as do the scars of slavery and Jim Crow. By analyzing post apartheid South Africa we can pivot the conversation back onto ourselves.

But first I would like to begin with a disclaimer. I am very obviously, white. I don’t know all the answers; honestly I probably don’t know any answers. And I definitely don’t know what it’s like to be black or a person of color in America. In no means am I an expert on racism or apartheid, but I am frustrated. I’m fed up of reading ugly, racist comments on the internet or learning of another shooting of an innocent black man, or in some cases child. So for the next ten minutes, I’m going to add to the conversation, and then I’m going to stop talk and attentively listen to people who are more qualified to lead a discussion than myself.

South Africa is a vibrant, beautiful country at the southern tip of Africa. Its 55 million people are incredibly diverse and give the Rainbow Nation its namesake. South Africa is also a fairly new democracy; its first democratic, open elections were held in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president.

Before then, South Africa was under a state of apartheid. Apartheid literally means the state of being apart; it is segregation in its ultimate form. From 1948 to 1994 the government legally imposed segregation.  Apartheid was executed through a system of laws that one by one took away the freedoms of people of color.

In 1948 the National Party gained control of the government and quickly began implementing apartheid, to maintain and elevate the lifestyle and culture of white South Africans and more specifically the Afrikaans people. From 1948 onwards, the white minority had control over the non-white majority.

Two years later the government passed the Population Registration Act, which classified every single South African based on their race. People were pigeon holed into four groups: white, black or Bantu which generally refers to people of African descent, Indian, or coloured, meaning people of mixed ethnicity. The classification system was humiliating and arbitrary: if a pencil was placed in a persons hair and it slipped out of their hair, they were classified as white, if the pencil fell out slowly, a person was deemed coloured, and if the pencil did not fall out that person was classified black. These unfair classifications had huge ramifications on a person’s personal, social, and professional life.

These racial classifications were fundamental to the government’s implementation of the Group Areas Act. Fearful of black urbanization, the National Party decided to take segregation to new heights and create communities specific to each race. Whites were allowed to live in the suburbs nearest city centers, coloureds were forced to move beyond the white suburbs, and blacks were allocated land on the outskirts of town. People were ordered to live in communities based upon their race classification. Communities and families were ripped apart and left to live in under resourced, makeshift towns.

Apartheid was relentless. Whenever the majority began to gain traction or display resistance, the minority white government struck back with force and stricter laws. Political organizations were banned, Nelson Mandela and other resistance leaders were imprisoned, and the rights of everyday people were continually cutback.  

Today, South Africa is a full-fledged democracy with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. In the years since 1994 the country has reinvented itself in an effort to emerge from its dark past, a united country. It’s national anthem combines five of the countries 11 languages into a prideful song, which ends with the line “Let us live and strive for freedom, in South Africa our land.”

Despite democracy, liberation, and wholehearted efforts to unite the country, the legacy of apartheid is very apparent. 25% of adults are unemployed; 57% of the country lives in poverty; 14% of people still live in informal housing; the adult HIV rate is nearly 17% and in some regions 40%; South Africa has one of the highest GINI coefficients in the world, a statistic that represents income inequality.

The GINI coefficient, I think is incredibly telling. It quantifies a very real aspect of modern day South Africa, even though the legal restraints and segregation of apartheid are gone, South Africa is still a country of two worlds. The upper and middle class enjoy a lovely quality of life, separate and apart from the lower class and townships on the outskirts of town.

At this point you might be thinking, wow South Africa has had a rough past, but we don’t have that problem in America. But how many of you have actually been to East Cleveland?  Or gone any further east than Gas USA? Are you aware that the 65% of Cleveland residents are functionally illiterate which means they might not have the skills read a bus schedule or fill out a job application?

Heather O’Keeffe is a senior studying biomedical engineering and minoring in sports medicine. She helped celebrate 20 years of Freedom in South Africa while studying at the University of Cape Town in 2014.