While apartheid in South Africa shares characteristics with both American slavery and the Jim Crow era, it was more closely related to American slavery. Even though no one “owned” people during apartheid, there were still many aspects and restrictions of the government rule that closely resemble slavery in America.
In both eras, blacks were oppressed and treated as inferior beings. During the time of slavery in America, slaves were watched closely to ensure that they didn’t escape. If they did attempt escape, they were hunted and punished severely if caught. During apartheid, South Africans who weren’t considered white had to carry passbooks that authorized them to work in cities, and if they were caught in a city without one, they were fined or imprisoned. While slavery was in place, whites lived in houses, and put slaves in separate quarters that were like small shacks. Under apartheid, whites lived in cities, while blacks lived in townships, which were more or less shanty towns. In the time of slavery, blacks were not allowed to be educated, and they had to work all day long doing manual labor. Under the apartheid regime, the government mandated that blacks had to be educated in Afrikaans, which was offensive to many black South Africans, and their education was of a lower quality than whites, so most ended up doing manual labor for their whole lives because the government mandates made it very difficult for them to rise any higher. In the time of slavery, slaves counted as 3/4 of a person for population purposes, and they got no vote whatsoever, nor did they have any say in what happened to them. They weren’t treated as citizens, but as property. Under apartheid, the government was a democracy, but only whites could vote, and toward the end of apartheid, Indians were also allowed to vote, but never blacks. Blacks were expected to uphold the laws of the land, but they had no choice about what these laws would be. During slavery, slave marriages were not recognized by whites. Under apartheid, interracial marriages were outlawed, so people couldn’t necessarily marry whomever they wished. In the era of slavery, violence was used to keep the slaves in check, and to strike fear into them so there wouldn’t be any resistance. Under the rule of apartheid, police would beat protesters, or people they considered to be a threat, they even shot children because they wanted to quell the rebellion with fear.
Slavery was based upon the idea that whites were in all ways superior to blacks, and therefore had the right to own them. Apartheid was based upon similar ideology, but it was limited to treating them as inferior rather than actually owning them as property. While apartheid in South Africa was generally less extreme and less harsh than slavery in America, it was based upon many of the same principles, and consequently held many of the same types of indignity and oppression that made slavery so repugnant and wrong.
The passbooks that we had to carry to class were similar to the passbooks that black, Indian, and coloured South Africans had to carry under the apartheid regime in that they had to be stamped by someone of a certain authority and if we forgot them, we could be punished. Our passbooks were for attendance purposes, for the films, so we had to have them every time we saw one of the films, the South Africans had to carry them in urban areas because they weren’t allowed to be there without documentation. If we forgot our passbooks, our attendance would not be counted for that film, but if people in South Africa forgot their passbooks, they could be fined or imprisoned.
Our passbooks were merely a teaching tool, while the ones used during apartheid were a sign of oppression that was a very real indication of the inequality present under that system of government. Everyone had to carry their passbooks to class, no matter who they were. Under apartheid, whites did not have to carry passbooks because they were allowed to go anywhere they wished, but the same was not true of other racial groups. In the case of our class, an extra assignment could be done to make up for the points if you forgot your passbook, or you could come back to the second showing of the film and bring your passbook with you, but under the system of apartheid, the police didn’t care why you didn’t have your documentation, you would be arrested, regardless of the reason, and punished.
In my experience with our class passbooks, they were merely a source of annoyance. Having to remember to bring it every time we watched a film was difficult because we only watched the film one day out of the week, so it was even more difficult than remembering something else because it was not a daily habit. I, personally, never forgot my passbook, but I remember, especially at the beginning of the semester, many people got angry if they forgot their passbooks and had to do an extra assignment because they felt that they were not being trusted or given the benefit of the doubt. I think this is probably similar to the way many South Africans felt when being caught without their passbooks. Even though they were allowed to be there, if they didn’t have documented proof, they were not given the benefit of the doubt, because the people in the police and government did not trust them. While the passbooks for our class were clearly not the same as the passbooks that South Africans carried under the apartheid regime, I feel as if we’ve all been given a very small taste of what it would be like to have to carry something similar to them. It has given me a new perspective as to why the people of South Africa fought so hard for so long to get their freedom. Those who were not white South Africans were not treated with the dignity and respect that they deserved, and the passbooks are just one example of the inequality that was inherent to the system.
Human dignity is a term used to describe the worth of a person, which, as a matter of principle, should be equal in all people. When one is humiliated, their self-worth is harmed, and because of this, their human dignity is being violated. Human dignity is about being treated as a person, regardless of any distinction of race, sex, or religion.
In the eras of American slavery and apartheid in South Africa, there are many examples of human dignity violations, which is the main reason why people fought so long and so hard against these institutions. Under slavery, slave marriages were not recognized by whites, so families were often split up at sales, with no regard as to what that would mean to the enslaved people. Enslaved women were often the victims of sexual exploitation by their owners, and it was tolerated because they were considered as less than human. Brutal punishments, such as whippings or brandings, were used frequently by slave owners to strike fear into their slaves to make them behave the way they wished. Under slavery, a slave counted as 3/4 of a person for population purposes, but could have no vote. Under slavery, blacks were treated, not as people but as property. Under the system of apartheid, black South Africans could not live where they chose. They were moved into townships, which were no better than shanty towns, while the whites lived in the cities. Black South Africans were also not allowed to work in cities without permission and documentation, so they were basically tracked, as if they weren’t trusted to be where they were supposed to be, even though the white South Africans were not subjected to this same treatment. Even though, black South Africans made up the majority of the population of South Africa, they were not allowed to vote. Brutal measures were also used against black South Africans when they voiced their opinions about these injustices. Many times during protests and marches, they were thrown in jail without any known cause, and sometimes they were even shot down. Even children were sometimes killed by police in the midst of a march. Black South Africans were not treated as citizens, but as animals.
The fact that the Emancipation proclamation was formed is a validation of the human dignity of the slaves in America because it showed that people understood that “owning” another person is a clear violation of their human dignity, because it implies that the “owned” person is inferior. All the boycotts, protests, marches, and even the ultimate divestment of international companies in South Africa were all a validation of a universal belief in human dignity. People saw the way non-white South Africans were being treated, and they stood up and fought against it because of the understanding that the people there should all be treated equally.
Dignity of a person depends greatly upon their culture. For example, there are many tribes of native peoples around the world who dress only in loincloths, and that is the way they live their daily lives, but if we were made to dress in that manner, it would be utterly embarrassing because that is not our culture. Human dignity is subjective, and more important in dealing with human rights than one’s physical condition. What may be normal to one person, may be horrifying to another. This is why human dignity must be defined by a person with their own culture and set of values, not by an outsider who believes differently, and consequently has a different perspective than this person.