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Skin: Learning Resource by Film Education

Keeping People Apart

If black and coloured people are allowed to live alongside white people then clearly this threatens Apartheid and its central notion of ‘separateness’ between races.  What are you going to do to reduce the chances of such ‘proximity’?  Again your job is to dream up some rules that would aim to sort out this problem.  Remember – the big complication in all this is that without black labour the mines and other essential industries would cease to operate.  Also black domestic workers are essential for the smooth running of most white households.  There is also the problem of non-white people who have legitimately own homes and businesses in areas you would like to see reserved for whites only.

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Several pieces of legislation came together restricting non-white people’s freedoms to live, work and travel where they liked within South Africa.  Some of the legislative work was already in place.  The 1936 Native Land and Trust Act had assigned certain parts of the country as ‘native reserves’ within which various African populations were expected to get on with their own separate lives and development.  What undercut the project entirely was the fact that these reserves only amounted to 13.5% of the total land-mass of South Africa and they were located in the least favourable parts of the country without mineral resources, infrastructure or productive soil.  In order for families to survive then it was necessary for the most able-bodied men and women to leave children and elderly relatives behind in order to seek jobs in mines, factories or through domestic work.

In order to stop these migrants gaining the right to stay in whichever (typically) urban area in which they found work, the Native Laws Amendment Act was passed in 1952.  This limited permanent residence in towns to those ‘native’ people who had been born in the town and/or had lived or worked there consistently for 15 years or more. 

Just because a black person was able to live in one town they did not have the right to move to another one.  Black people had for many years  - dating back even to British colonial times – been subject to having to carry passes describing where they were entitled to go, but it was under the new Afrikaner government that the system was refined and more rigorously enforced.  The piece of law that covered this was the ironically named Abolition of Passes and Consolidation of Documents Act.  This insisted that all Africans had to carry a single ‘book of life’ featuring a photograph and a record of everything from place of birth, place of allowed residence, employment and tax status and also details of any ‘encounters with the police’.  It was illegal for an African person not to carry their pass and to be caught without one meant immediate arrest.  The pass was also extended to women for the first time.

So far so good, from the Afrikaner point-of-view, but what about those black communities that already existed near white populations – typically older townships that had sprung up during the 1930s and 40s to accommodate the black workers that flocked to the towns and cities for work.  Well, the National Party government had a plan which culminated in the Native Resettlement Act of 1956.  This put a line through the property rights of black people and lead to the destruction of their homes and their forcible resettlement in townships further from the cities and white suburbs.  One of the most famous of these was Soweto – the abbreviation of ‘South Western Townships’.  Black people still relied on work in the cities but now had to travel great distances to get to them. 

Of course, something also had to be done to ensure that black people could be shifted from where they were settled if, at any time in the future, it became convenient to do so – perhaps because an area was found to have good agricultural land or mineral wealth after all.  For this contingency the National Party Government passed the Group Areas Act of 1950.  This gave the authorities the right to designate that an area was restricted to a particular race and anyone suddenly not entitled to be there would have to sell up and get out.  The law proved effective at removing lots of Indian businesses/homes from central city locations.  One of the saddest outcomes of this policy was the bulldozing of a number of places where the communities were significantly racially mixed and where life – though tough – was characterized by inter-racial tolerance and vibrant cultural cross-over.  One of these was District Six near Cape Town.  It was re-zoned ‘white-only’ and bulldozed. 

This same process of brutal ‘re-zoning’ would carry on throughout the Apartheid era – picking up again in the 1970s as the Government became more and more committed to a policy called ‘separate development’.  This was a weasel phrase describing the old Apartheid policy of forcing African people away into the least hospitable and viable parts of the country.  These areas were now called ‘homelands’ and the hope was that they would acquire sufficient autonomy to become separate countries within South Africa thus effectively depriving their residents of their South African nationality.  It was the equivalent of forcing a section of the UK population to live on the Isle of Wight, calling it a separate country and saying ‘now get on with it, you can develop separately there’.  Of course, the reality would be that people resettled on the Isle of Wight would be forced to come to mainland Britain for work, but they would now come as foreign visitors without any of the rights extended to the rest of the UK population.  In South Africa, Africans became strangers in their own land.

In Skin one of the most dramatic scenes sees Sandra and her partner Petrus driven from their home in Kromkrans.  Not only is their house destroyed and their business, but they are offered no compensation and are turned into refugees in their own country – forced to settle in a bleak, infertile area, far from anywhere.  It is no wonder that the strains in their relationship become even more pronounced.

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