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Endpiece: What can you do, Beulah?

South Africa
United States

new internationalist
issue 177 - November 1987


Sue Haycock

'Things have changed, haven't they, since you were last here?' a friend enquired of me anxiously. 'Please God, say they have changed.'

I was in South Africa on a curiosity mission - a voyage of rediscovery in the land I had left 15 years ago. In search of change, I headed for the heart of white Johannesburg. But I started in a place where most whites never go - the offices of the Black Sash. The Black Sash is an organization of women, started in the 1950s to protest against the disenfranchisement of Cape Coloureds in the country. But over the years the women have widened their concerns, standing draped in the black sashes that give them their name in silent protest against a whole spectrum of repressive laws. In the 1970s it became illegal to have gatherings of more than one person. So Black Sash women would stand alone along the highway, each one just out of sight of the next.

Now even this solitary protest is banned. But the Black Sash's other main activity - advice - has more customers than ever. There are seven advice offices in the country. The one in Johannesburg is divided into four or five tiny rooms, each containing three or four advisors: usually white women assisted by African interpreters. When I arrived the tiny rooms, the waiting area, the stairs up to the offices were packed with Africans of all ages waiting patiently for hours, sometimes days, for help negotiating a way through the complex laws that bind up their lives.

I was introduced to Beulah - a formidable woman with years of experience in the intricacies of the system. Squeezing myself into a corner, I watched her handle case after case.

Six people from Soweto had signed on at a place called the Jabulani Job Centre run by two young whites, who claimed they could find jobs for Africans at R20 ($10) a time. There were ten others in yesterday with the same story. The whites and the Jabulani Centre have disappeared. Beulah, what can you do?

Mario, from Mozambique, has been employed here since 1975. His contract has expired and his employers would like to renew it, but the Foreign Affairs Department says Mario does not have a file and therefore doesn't exist. What can you do, Beulah?

John has a query about his pension. Beulah rings up his company. 'Sorry we only deal with white pensions. Black pensions are on another number.' Fobbed off. Try again. Never give up. Go on chipping away until they are so bored they will listen to you just to shut you up.

Endless phonecalls. Endless patience.

Disentangling people from the many laws designed to confuse and terrify those with poor education, poor English, uncertain of their political rights. A Citizens' Advice Bureau somewhere in the North of England might throw up similar cases; except that these laws are made more confusing, more cruel, more discriminatory, are contrived, perpetuated and complicated by a vicious and deep-rooted racism.

What has reform meant for the black townships? Daniel was born in Soweto in 1954. He is unemployed. He lived with his parents until he was married and had a child. Then there was no more room. So he built himself a shack from cardboard and corrugated iron. The police threatened to bulldoze the shack because, they said, he was an illegal squatter. They have seven days to move, but nowhere to go and his wife is pregnant again.

Joseph is older than Daniel. As he tells Beulah his story, he clutches a battered old homburg hat, his face showing the bewilderment and confusion of a life-time battling against The Authorities. He lives in a shanty town with his wife and six children, one of whom is sick. Yesterday when he came back from work his house had been bulldozed to the ground - 'as an example to the others'. There are about 100 houses in the shanty town but, as Superintendant Rothman of the police said: 'You people are not allowed to make shelters here.'

'Where else can we go?' Joseph asked.

'That's not our problem.'

Last night it rained. It deluged in fact. All Joseph's furniture was outside and ruined. He and his six kids slept on the floor of a friend's house. They have nowhere to go. What can you do, Beulah?

The women at the Black Sash are all volunteers, many working just one or two days a week. Every conversation is recorded in a standardized way so that anyone can take over a case from anyone else. It works, with the minimum of fuss, in stiflingly hot and cramped conditions, with phones that don't work, with people on the other end who don't care, in rooms that are undoubtedly bugged so that every conversation is hedged with caution: they must never give their eavesdroppers an excuse to close them down.

I asked the Black Sash whether things had changed in South Africa. 'Apartheid is not being dismantled,' they said. 'None of the reforms have made any difference to the structure of power.'

Sue Haycock is a freelance television director who lived in South Africa during the 1970s.

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