We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

A Stake In The System

South Africa

new internationalist
issue 159 - May 1986

A stake in the system
There are plush homes in Soweto, right next door to the sea of
matchbox houses like those below - and they contain parents
worrying about whether to send their children to private schools.
But the Government's attempt to defuse protest by creating
a black middle class has backfired. Aggrey Klaaste, himself
one of those middle-class parents, explains why.

There are black South Africans who feel they are living through a dress rehearsal of the blood bath so frequently predicted by political observers.

A mother of two daughters in Soweto brought this home to me in a poignant but forceful manner. She is a member of the new black middle class, which was created by white big business to serve as a buffer between white South Africans and the black masses.

'All that my little daughters wish for is to see themselves in tiny tunics sitting beside a desk. You men should be ashamed of yourselves, letting our children fight our battles for you,' Mrs Belede Mazwai said.

Like me, she lives in one of those ostentatious middle-class districts that have been given pejorative tags by the masses. It is called (by the people) Selection Park - for the select few. I live in a middle-class area called Prestige Park by the people. My township stands in embarrassed overdress cheek by jowl with the extraordinary conglomeration of matchbox houses and tin shacks that is the rest of Soweto.

There is an undercurrent of stress and hostility behind the names Prestige and Selection Parks - a hostility unwittingly created by the white establishment that dreamed up the concept of a black middle class.

To try and stall the unrest sweeping the country after 1976, white business created an organisation whose purpose was 'to improve the quality of life in the townships'. The organisation, headed by a former judge, Jan Steyn, was called the Urban Foundation (UF) and the business world pumped millions of dollars into it.

[image, unknown]


Marcel Golding, spokesperson for the National Union of Mineworkers, which is a prime mover in the new trade union congress, COSATU.

'In the womb of the old society you plant the seeds of the new order, and I think that's what's happening in the democratically run worker committees which are emerging in factories. Workers are starting to understand their power - you can see that in the tactics they are adopting now. And this has also been extended to the townships. The thing is, there's no point in creating an ungovernable situation unless you erect new structures in place of the old. In some areas its certainly happening - you're getting the development of neighbourhood committees where people participate in the decision-making of the area.

[image, unknown] 'There's no doubt this phase of the struggle has instilled an understanding of the kind of order we want, instilled a confidence in people that they have the capacity to run their own society. And it has given the youth the courage to take on the security forces in the townships. It's raised the level of consciousness among South Africa's working people quite dramatically.

'The kind of socialism we establish here could have a great effect throughout Southern Africa and even in the rest of the continent. And probably the most important aspect is that there is a big working class here, something which didn't exist in most of the anti-colonial struggles.'

Although members of the UF, which has blacks and whites on its board, will swear themselves blue in the face that they are neutral, they are perceived by the people as a pro-Government organisation. Very soon the racy language of the townships had it that they were about to 'improve the quality of oppression'. The formation of the black middle class brought the irony of this out most vividly.

After serious but secret lobbying members of the Urban Foundation persuaded the Government to change its policy - and allow black professionals to own homes in urban areas. Until then all black people had been 'temporary sojourners', supposedly just lodging while they worked in the 'white' cities. The Government allowed the loosening of the laws because it hoped that the ownership of palatial homes and heavy mortgages would create a class of blacks that would be less restive. These people, it was hoped, would have too much to lose to help the masses in the struggle for liberation. It has not worked out that way. Not at all.

In my township, Diepkloof Extension, there are people who have two or three bathrooms in their homes, two garages and sparkling swimming pools. Here the contradictions of having a black buffer middle class, almost a stone's throw from the vast city of identical homes, hovels and tin shacks, are starkly evident.

Laws like the Group Areas Act force black people to live in townships designated for people of the same 'racial category'. But these townships contain nowhere near enough houses. So the old Diepkloof has spawned the most amazing myriad of tin and cardboard shacks inside the tiny yards of the matchbox structures.

Most of those who have put up the makeshift hovels have no homes and certainly no hope of ever owning them. Some have no legal permission to be where they are. Hundreds have no jobs. So every time (I think) they cast their bitter eyes on the spread of opulence nearby, on the fatcats across the tracks, they explode into anger. I can understand the reaction. This area is one of the most volatile in Soweto.

The anger is often translated into action. And what the Government never bargained on is that this in turn radicalises the middle class black, almost in self-defence.

Last year, the monstrous and plainly garish two-storey home of a community councillor (an officer of the hated local authorities who ostensibly run the townships) was attacked and burned. It happened twice. Although there was unease among my neighbours in Diepkloof Extension, the consoling thought was this man was after all a direct arm of the hated system. So an attack on his house made sense.

It was hardly surprising then that the Soweto Parents Crisis Committee, which has been addressing the crisis in black education, was started by the middle-class blacks in Diepkboof Extension. The operation seemed at first to reflect the conservatism of their class. But by the time the Parents' Committee held a national conference at the University of Witwatersrand in December conservatism was no longer credible. The demands were radical.

They called on the students to go back to school - but only if a number of aggressive conditions were fulfilled. If by March this year they had been granted free education, the end of the state of emergency and the release of all detained students, then the children would stay in school. If not, they would boycott classes once more.

In desperation other members of the black middle class have sent their children to white private schools. Some have tried schools outside the townships, even outside the country. The trap is slowly beginning to close on them.

This brings us back to Mrs Mazwai. While she and her husband, like me, can probably afford to send their children anywhere for a good education, we are in the buffer state. We are under constant watch from the masses. As soon as it becomes clear that the children in Selection Park and Diepkloof Extension are not attending or boycotting schools in the townships, more swanky houses will be put to the torch.

Already some families have had to send for their children, who had fled to boarding schools outside of Soweto. The cause was a night visit from what are termed the 'comrades' - those children who are prepared for 'liberation before education'.

The black middle class is a buffer in more ways than one. The buffer will take all the pounding. The people living in this cordon sanitaire are well aware of their plight. They will have to show the rest of the residents of the townships that they are in the struggle. Or lose their wealth, or their lives.

Aggrey Klaaste is deputy editor of The Sowetan Newspaper.

[image, unknown]

If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having
the wool pulled over your eyes. Each month the NI invites
one author to justify their style of argument.

Editor: You live in a 'palatial home' while 'the masses' live in 'makeshift hovels'. Does this joumalistic shorthand tell us all we need to know about the differing class interests of the two groups?

Klaaste: All black people, rich or poor, live in specific apartheid areas by law. Wealthy blacks would be professional people - doctors, lawyers, nurses or journalists. They live in middle-class 'buffer' areas and own their homes under a 99-year leasehold.

Poorer blacks are themselves divided into two classes. Tenants rent the usual matchbox houses from the local authority and out of financial necessity put up shacks or hovels in their yards. They rent these illegally to even more desperate people.


Editor: You say the middle class has become 'radical'. But the process you describe seems like a last-ditch attempt to save their skins. What do you really mean by the word 'radical'?

Klaaste: Middle-class blacks are forced to live cheek-by-jowl with the very poor. The contradictions created by such a situation soon become pressing. In this pre-revolutionary state, all those who are in the employ of the State or who get rich become targets.

Wealthy blacks tend to be more intellectually equipped to articulate the wishes of the masses. But because the poorer sectors lump them together as beneficiaries of the oppressive system they radicalise their stances almost in self-defence. It is both a last-ditch and a common-sense stand.


Editor: You've adopted a sympathetic tone towards the violent tactlcs of the 'comrades'. Is this merely self-defence on your part? Can you afford to be objective in reporting township violence?

Klaaste: As a township resident it is almost impossible to report objectively on violence. The 'comrades' could be my sons or my relatives.

Black adults have a schizophrenic view of their children. They may be unhappy about the violence, but the 'comrades' are their children who have the courage, however misjudged, to attack an oppressive system which they themselves are unable to get to grips with. While the comrades may be savage in their violence they are brave enough to face up to the evils of the system. They are jailed. They get killed. They are also particularly dangerous


Editor: Your article is about the realities shaping political choices. But what about ideals? Would you be happy to be in the 'black buffer' if you didn't have fire-bombers breathing down your neck?

Klaaste: I don't believe anybody would enjoy living in a buffer state, whether there are 'firebombers' breathing down your neck or not. In a quasi-capitalist state such as South Africa you would choose to live in an area with others of your class or your choice.

Ideally I would live with other blacks who have the same interests as I have. People need the freedom to choose where and how they live. The South African situation forces people into class structures determined chiefly by the colour of their skin.

[image, unknown]

Ellen Kuzwayo, author of the popular autobiography Call Me Woman, who has spend most of her 71 years campaigning on behalf of black women in South Africa.


Recently, as I sat on my stoep watching a bridal party marching down our street, I was struck by the song women in the group sang to the bride.

A si ku funi e maphathini - we don't want to see you in parties.

A si ku funi ezipotini - we don't want to see you where they sell liquor

Si ku funa ezimbizeni - we want to see you cook.

These songs and sayings are nothing new - there is the old Setswana saying, for instance, which runs 'Should they be led by a female they will surely end up in a precipice'. But when you listen to women and girls singing them at the top of their voices, you wonder whether they are aware of the full meaning of the words. And what do they mean to the immature groom?

In the traditional rural setting disregard for women was subtle - they had their defined roles and duties as mothers and housewives. There was at least a mutual respect between wives and husbands in rural communities. But as rural life disintegrated, affected by foreign laws, industrialisation and urbanisation, the old way was radically disturbed. Women lost her protected status as wife and mother - and gained nothing in return.

And there is little sign that women's situation is taken seriously by the black liberation movement. Black men have never given visible support to any struggle initiated by their women folk. Yet these are the same women who are discriminated against in the open labour market, doing the most menial jobs for appallingly low wages; the same women who work as domestic servants, nursing children who grow into politicians and lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs, with conditions of employment just a few notches above slavery; the same women who struggle on single handed while their husbands work as migrant labourers; who care for the young, the aged and the maimed.

Black women in South Africa have stood side by side with their menfolk to fight for political, economic and social liberation - the battle against apartheid has always come first. Is it because we insist on standing side by side with our men that women in the West see us as condoning the discrimination we suffer from our men?

I have heard this criticism surfacing time and again at the international women's conferences I have attended. Western feminists have a tendency to lump together and generalise about those they describe as 'Third World women'. They seem not to be aware of the startling differences prevailing inside African countries, let alone those between continents.

There are many misunderstandings between Western feminists and 'Third World women'. And we need to make a concerted mutual effort to open the lines of communication, to address the misconceptions prevailing in both camps.

But on some things we can agree. I find it ironic, for instance, that South African black men express so much agony and distress about the oppression they suffer at the hand of the apartheid regime without realising that, to a limited extent, they cause similar anguish and suffering to their womenfolk without flinching at all.

For it is urgent that this community taps the potential of women, men and youth able to contribute to the advancement of black people. The foremost need at this point is to close ranks - to start to know and understand one another and thus reduce suspicion and fear. This is a precondition if black people are to move forward as a united front, liberating themselves from the discrimination they have suffered for more than 300 years in this, the land of their birth.

last page choose another issue go to the contents page [image, unknown] next page

New Internationalist issue 159 magazine cover This article is from the May 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop